Fortunate traveller

James Ferguson reads The Traveller’s Tree, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s open-minded account of a visit to the 1940s Caribbean

Travel writers (in the Caribbean and, I suppose, anywhere else for that matter) come in two categories. The first consists of those who know what they’re going to find even before they get there. Nothing, least of all reality or actual events, will stand in the way of their preconceptions. They normally have some sort of axe to grind, be it political, religious, or just personal. Travel writers of this sort thrived in the 19th century. Most were British, a few American. James Anthony Froude was one of these, a hugely learned and erudite professor from Oxford who was as blinkered as he was well-read. He really wanted only to confirm what he thought already: that the British Caribbean colonies were going to the dogs after the abolition of slavery, and that London was neglecting its imperial duty by not ruling the islands with a firmer hand. Not surprisingly, everything he saw during his cursory tour of 1887 strengthened this unshakable conviction.

Or take Hesketh Prichard, a former Hampshire cricketer, army officer, and huntsman. He did not much like the idea of an independent Haiti, and his appropriately titled Where Black Rules White (1910) is a litany of racist clichés, “proving” (as if any other outcome could have been possible) that the Black Republic was a poor show, and better off under French rule. Nothing Prichard saw made the slightest difference to an opinion firmly established before he had even packed his bags.

Then there is another sort of travel writer: open to new landscapes, people, and cultures, receptive to what is different rather than hostile to the unfamiliar. A writer of this ilk may have a few preconceptions about where he or she is going, may travel with a bit of cultural baggage, but the important thing is that he or she may be surprised, disappointed, shocked: in short, that the encounter with the new is a two-way process, involving curiosity and an open mind.

One of the great travel accounts of the Caribbean — and a book that amply demonstrates this quality of curiosity — is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Traveller’s Tree, a book that first appeared in 1950. And how long ago that now seems! It was a time before Fidel Castro had entered the world stage, before the Duvaliers had plundered Haiti, before Jamaica, Trinidad, and the other colonies had even come close to independence. The Caribbean was, in a sense, poised between the deprivations of the 1930s and the Second World War and the modern age, with its mass migration, US cultural invasion, and new tourism industry.

To be a traveller in the region then was to be something of a rarity. The Caribbean that Leigh Fermor explored was very far removed from the all-inclusive, cruise-ship tourist mecca we know today. Sometimes staying at hotels, but just as often the guest of resident expatriates, he mixed in rather refined circles, witnessing the last gasp of the old plantocracy and the colonial system.

Not that this meant Leigh Fermor avoided the world of the majority and the everyday. In fact, he went out of his way to talk to “ordinary” people, trying to get a sense of what their lives were really like. He frequented a particular downtown rumshop in Kingston, Jamaica, for instance, in the hope of gaining the trust of people who had every reason to distrust a white stranger. He fearlessly set off to explore some of the roughest slum districts here and elsewhere, made a point of visiting a leper colony in Trinidad, and sat through long and exhausting voodoo ceremonies in Haiti.

None of this is remotely voyeuristic or sensationalist. Instead, it reveals a genuine curiosity about cultural difference, about the extremes of human experience to be found in the 1950s Caribbean. At the same time, Leigh Fermor makes no attempt to hide his own cultural biases and tastes (his mixed Anglo-Irish background, public school education, distinguished military record, and love of exploration gave him, to say the least, catholic interests). What fascinates him are the ghosts and spectres of the Caribbean’s epic past: the long-lost Carib warriors, the decadence of the once-invincible planter class, the cruel encounter of African, Indian, and European in the plantation system.

History is ever-present in this book, as is the understanding that the Caribbean is a place of strangers and migrants, peopled by the descendants of slaves, adventurers, and refugees, representing every conceivable ethnicity, language, and religion. The Traveller’s Tree (a kind of palm), itself an import to the region, stands as a suitable symbol for the hybrid and displaced cultural phenomena that the book describes.

Leigh Fermor had very distinct likes and dislikes. He hated Guadeloupe, but appreciated Martinique, especially the tragic ruins of Saint Pierre, once “the Paris of the Antilles”. He was both shocked and fascinated by Haiti’s social extremes and cultural wealth. Trinidad, and particularly Port of Spain (like Naipaul after him) he found loud and ugly, but he preferred the “vitality” of social life there to what he saw as the rather stuffy, suburban atmosphere of Barbados. Indeed, it was Leigh Fermor who memorably suggested that Barbados “reflects most faithfully the social and intellectual values and prejudices of a Golf Club in Outer London.”

This tone of slight snobbishness, a patrician aversion to vulgar middle-class prejudice, is typical of the book. Leigh Fermor is happiest among intellectuals and thinkers, least impressed by the mediocrity of a dying colonial order. Yet he is also instinctively attracted to that which reminds him of England, or Europe. His arrival at night in the lovely town of St George’s, Grenada, evokes a charming impression of a tropical Lyme Regis:

The steep streets and the wet stone columns and fanlights of Adam houses, the glimpses along the lanes of a grey and turbulent sea — all this resembled a beautiful 18th-century Devonshire town in mid-winter. The car drove into the yard of a small hotel that might have been a coaching inn. Dashing indoors through the downpour, we expected to plunge into a world of crops, goloshes, toby-jugs, superannuated advertisements for Apollinaris Water, and copies of Pears’ Cyclopaedia; which was, indeed, more or less what we found.

This little vignette is one of many such passages in The Traveller’s Tree: atmospheric, imaginative, and somehow already nostalgic for a Caribbean that by now is a distant memory. To read this cultured and sympathetic book is to re-enter, albeit briefly, that lost world, and to realise how much has changed in little more than half a century.