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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 2468

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

... We look back over the upreaching yellow fan-spread of cane-fields, and winding of tortuous valleys, and the sea expanding beyond an opening in the west. It has already broadened surprisingly, the sea appears to have risen up, not as a horizontal plane, but like an immeasurable azure precipice: what will it look like when we shall have reached the top? Far down we can distinguish a line of field-hands-the whole atelier, as it is called, of a plantation slowly descending a slope, hewing the canes as they go. There is a woman to every two men, a binder (amarreuse): she gathers the canes as they are cut down; binds them with their own tough long leaves into a sort of sheaf, and carries them away on her head;-the men wield their cutlasses so beautifully that it is a delight to watch them. One cannot often enjoy such a spectacle nowadays; for the introduction of the piece-work system has destroyed the picturesqueness of plantation labor throughout the island, with rare exceptions. Formerly the work of cane-cutting resembled the march of an army;-first advanced the cutlassers in line, naked to the waist; then the amareuses, the women who tied and carried; and behind these the ka, the drum,-with a paid crieur or crieus

e to lead the song;-and lastly the black Commandeur, for general. And in the old days, too, it was not unfrequent that the sudden descent of an English corsair on the coast converted this soldiery of labor into veritable military: more than one attack was repelled by the cutlasses of a plantation atelier.

At this height the chatting and chanting can be heard, though not distinctly enough to catch the words. Suddenly a voice, powerful as a bugle, rings out,-the voice of the Commandeur: he walks along the line, looking, with his cutlass under his arm. I ask one of our guides what the cry is:-

-"Y ka coumandé yo pouend gàde pou sèpent," he replies. (He is telling them to keep watch for serpents.) The nearer the cutlassers approach the end of their task, the greater the danger: for the reptiles, retreating before them to the last clump of cane, become massed there, and will fight desperately. Regularly as the ripening-time, Death gathers his toll of human lives from among the workers. But when one falls, another steps into the vacant place,-perhaps the Commandeur himself: these dark swordsmen never retreat; all the blades swing swiftly as before; there is hardly any emotion; the travailleur is a fatalist.... [32]

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