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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 14268

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The first attempt made to colonize Martinique was abandoned almost as soon as begun, because the leaders of the expedition found the country "too rugged and too mountainous," and were "terrified by the prodigious number of serpents which covered its soil." Landing on June 25, 1635, Olive and Duplessis left the island after a few hours' exploration, or, rather, observation, and made sail for Guadeloupe,-according to the quaint and most veracious history of Père Dutertre, of the Order of Friars-Preachers.

A single glance at the topographical map of Martinique would suffice to confirm the father's assertion that the country was found to be trop haché et trop montueux: more than two-thirds of it is peak and mountain;-even to-day only 42,445 of its supposed 98,782 hectares have been cultivated; and on page 426 of the last "Annuaire" (1887) I find the statement that in the interior there are extensive Government lands of which the area is "not exactly known." Yet mountainous as a country must be which-although scarcely forty-nine miles long and twenty miles in average breadth-remains partly unfamiliar to its own inhabitants after nearly three centuries of civilization (there are not half a dozen creoles who have travelled all over it), only two elevations in Martinique bear the name montagne. These are La Montagne Pelée, in the north, and La Montagne du Vauclin, in the south. The term morne, used throughout the French West Indian colonies to designate certain altitudes of volcanic origin, a term rather unsatisfactorily translated in certain dictionaries as "a small mountain," is justly applied to the majority of Martinique hills, and unjustly sometimes even to its mightiest elevation,-called Morne Pelé, or Montagne Pelée, or simply "La Montagne," according, perhaps, to the varying degree of respect it inspires in different minds. But even in the popular nomenclature one finds the orography of Martinique, as well as of other West Indian islands, regularly classified by pitons, mornes, and monts or montagnes. Mornes usually have those beautiful and curious forms which bespeak volcanic origin even to the unscientific observer: they are most often pyramidal or conoid up to a certain height; but have summits either rounded or truncated;-their sides, green with the richest vegetation, rise from valley-levels and coast-lines with remarkable abruptness, and are apt to be curiously ribbed or wrinkled. The pitons, far fewer in number, are much more fantastic in form;-volcanic cones, or volcanic upheavals of splintered strata almost at right angles,-sometimes sharp of line as spires, and mostly too steep for habitation. They are occasionally mammiform, and so symmetrical that one might imagine them artificial creations,-particularly when they occur in pairs. Only a very important mass is dignified by the name montagne... there are, as I have already observed, but two thus called in all Martinique,-Pelée, the head and summit of the island; and La Montagne du Vauclin, in the south-east. Vauclin is inferior in height and bulk to several mornes and pitons of the north and north-west,-and owes its distinction probably to its position as centre of a system of ranges: but in altitude and mass and majesty, Pelée far outranks everything in the island, and well deserves its special appellation, "La Montagne."

No description could give the reader a just idea of what Martinique is, configuratively, so well as the simple statement that, although less than fifty miles in extreme length, and less than twenty in average breadth, there are upwards of four hundred mountains in this little island, or of what at least might be termed mountains elsewhere. These again are divided and interpeaked, and bear hillocks on their slopes;-and the lowest hillock in Martinique is fifty metres high. Some of the peaks are said to be totally inaccessible: many mornes are so on one or two or even three sides. Ninety-one only of the principal mountains have been named; and among these several bear similar appellations: for example, there are two Mornes-Rouges, one in the north and one in the south; and there are four or five Gros-Mornes. All the elevations belong to six great groups, clustering about or radiating from six ancient volcanic centres,-1. La Pelée; 2. Pitons du Carbet; 3. Roches Carrées; [27] 4. Vauclin; 5. Marin; 6. Morne de la Plaine. Forty-two distinct mountain-masses belong to the Carbet system alone,-that of Pelée including but thirteen; and the whole Carbet area has a circumference of 120,000 metres,-much more considerable than that of Pelée. But its centre is not one enormous pyramidal mass like that of "La Montagne": it is marked only by a group of five remarkable porphyritic cones,-the Pitons of Carbet;-while Pelée, dominating everything, and filling the north, presents an aspect and occupies an area scarcely inferior to those of AEtna.

-Sometimes, while looking at La Pelée, I have wondered if the enterprise of the great Japanese painter who made the Hundred Views of Fusiyama could not be imitated by some creole artist equally proud of his native hills, and fearless of the heat of the plains or the snakes of the slopes. A hundred views of Pelée might certainly be made: for the enormous mass is omnipresent to dwellers in the northern part of the island, and can be seen from the heights of the most southern mornes. It is visible from almost any part of St. Pierre,-which nestles in a fold of its rocky skirts. It overlooks all the island ranges, and overtops the mighty Pitons of Carbet by a thousand feet;-you can only lose sight of it by entering gorges, or journeying into the valleys of the south.... But the peaked character of the whole country, and the hot moist climate, oppose any artistic undertaking of the sort suggested: even photographers never dream of taking views in the further interior; nor on the east coast. Travel, moreover, is no less costly than difficult: there are no inns or places of rest for tourists; there are, almost daily, sudden and violent rains, which are much dreaded (since a thorough wetting, with the pores all distended by heat, may produce pleurisy); and there are serpents! The artist willing to devote a few weeks of travel and study to Pelée, in spite of these annoyances and risks, has not yet made his appearance in Martinique. [28]

Huge as the mountain looks from St. Pierre, the eye under-estimates its bulk; and when you climb the mornes about the town, Labelle, d'Orange, or the much grander Parnasse, you are surprised to find how much vaster Pelée appears from these summits. Volcanic hills often seem higher, by reason of their steepness, than they really are; but Pelée deludes in another manner. From surrounding valleys it appears lower, and from adjacent mornes higher than it really is: the illusion in the former case being due to the singular slope of its contours, and the remarkable breadth of its base, occupying nearly all the northern end of the island; in the latter, to misconception of the comparative height of the eminence you have reached, which deceives by the precipitous pitch of

its sides. Pelée is not very remarkable in point of altitude, however: its height was estimated by Moreau de Jonnes at 1600 metres; and by others at between 4400 and 4500 feet. The sum of the various imperfect estimates made justify the opinion of Dr. Cornilliac that the extreme summit is over 5000 feet above the sea-perhaps 5200. [29] The clouds of the summit afford no indication to eyes accustomed to mountain scenery in northern countries; for in these hot moist latitudes clouds hang very low, even in fair weather. But in bulk Pelée is grandiose: it spurs out across the island from the Caribbean to the Atlantic: the great chains of mornes about it are merely counter-forts; the Piton Pierreux and the Piton Pain-à-Sucre (Sugar-loaf Peak), and other elevations varying from 800 to 2100 feet, are its volcanic children. Nearly thirty rivers have their birth in its flanks,-besides many thermal springs, variously mineralized. As the culminant point of the island, Pelée is also the ruler of its meteorologic life,-cloud-herder, lightning-forger, and rain-maker. During clear weather you can see it drawing to itself all the white vapors of the land,-robbing lesser eminences of their shoulder-wraps and head-coverings;-though the Pitons of Carbet (3700 feet) usually manage to retain about their middle a cloud-clout,-a lantch?. You will also see that the clouds run in a circle about Pelée,-gathering bulk as they turn by continual accessions from other points. If the crater be totally bare in the morning, and shows the broken edges very sharply against the blue, it is a sign of foul rather than of fair weather to come. [30]

Even in bulk, perhaps, Pelée might not impress those who know the stupendous scenery of the American ranges; but none could deny it special attractions appealing to the senses of form and color. There is an imposing fantasticality in its configuraion worth months of artistic study: one does not easily tire of watching its slopes undulating against the north sky,-and the strange jagging of its ridges,-and the succession of its terraces crumbling down to other terraces, which again break into ravines here and there bridged by enormous buttresses of basalt: an extravaganza of lava-shapes overpitching and cascading into sea and plain. All this is verdant wherever surfaces catch the sun: you can divine what the frame is only by examining the dark and ponderous rocks of the torrents. And the hundred tints of this verdure do not form the only colorific charms of the landscape. Lovely as the long upreaching slopes of cane are,-and the loftier bands of forest-growths, so far off that they look like belts of moss,-and the more tender-colored masses above, wrinkling and folding together up to the frost-white clouds of the summit,-you will be still more delighted by the shadow-colors,-opulent, diaphanous. The umbrages lining the wrinkles, collecting in the hollows, slanting from sudden projections, may become before your eyes almost as unreally beautiful as the landscape colors of a Japanese fan;-they shift most generally during the day from indigo-blue through violets and paler blues to final lilacs and purples; and even the shadows of passing clouds have a faint blue tinge when they fall on Pelée.

... Is the great volcano dead?... Nobody knows. Less than forty years ago it rained ashes over all the roofs of St. Pierre;-within twenty years it has uttered mutterings. For the moment, it appears to sleep; and the clouds have dripped into the cup of its highest crater till it has become a lake, several hundred yards in circumference. The crater occupied by this lake-called L'étang, or "The Pool"-has never been active within human memory. There are others,-difficult and dangerous to visit because opening on the side of a tremendous gorge; and it was one of these, no doubt, which has always been called La Souffrière, that rained ashes over the city in 1851.

The explosion was almost concomitant with the last of a series of earthquake shocks, which began in the middle of May and ended in the first week of August,-all much more severe in Guadeloupe than in Martinique. In the village Au Prêcheur, lying at the foot of the western slope of Pelée, the people had been for some time complaining of an oppressive stench of sulphur,-or, as chemists declared it, sulphuretted hydrogen,-when, on the 4th of August, much trepidation was caused by a long and appalling noise from the mountain,-a noise compared by planters on the neighboring slopes to the hollow roaring made by a packet blowing off steam, but infinitely louder. These sounds continued through intervals until the following night, sometimes deepening into a rumble like thunder. The mountain guides declared: "C'est la Souffrière qui bout!" (the Souffrière is boiling); and a panic seized the negroes of the neighboring plantations. At 11 P.M. the noise was terrible enough to fill all St. Pierre with alarm; and on the morning of the 6th the city presented an unwonted aspect, compared by creoles who had lived abroad to the effect of a great hoar-frost. All the roofs, trees, balconies, awnings, pavements, were covered with a white layer of ashes. The same shower blanched the roofs of Morne Rouge, and all the villages about the chief city,-Carbet, Fond-Corré, and Au Prêcheur; also whitening the neighboring country: the mountain was sending up columns of smoke or vapor; and it was noticed that the Rivière Blanche, usually of a glaucous color, ran black into the sea like an outpouring of ink, staining its azure for a mile. A committee appointed to make an investigation, and prepare an official report, found that a number of rents had either been newly formed, or suddenly become active, in the flank of the mountain: these were all situated in the immense gorge sloping westward from that point now known as the Morne de la Croix. Several were visited with much difficulty,-members of the commission being obliged to lower themselves down a succession of precipices with cords of lianas; and it is noteworthy that their researches were prosecuted in spite of the momentary panic created by another outburst. It was satisfactorily ascertained that the main force of the explosion had been exerted within a perimeter of about one thousand yards; that various hot springs had suddenly gushed out,-the temperature of the least warm being about 37° Réaumur (116° F.);-that there was no change in the configuration of the mountain;-and that the terrific sounds had been produced only by the violent outrush of vapor and ashes from some of the rents. In hope of allaying the general alarm, a creole priest climbed the summit of the volcano, and there planted the great cross which gives the height its name and still remains to commemorate the event.

There was an extraordinary emigration of serpents from the high woods, and from the higher to the lower plantations,-where they were killed by thousands. For a long time Pelée continued to send up an immense column of white vapor; but there were no more showers of ashes; and the mountain gradually settled down to its present state of quiescence.

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