Travels with islands

The British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, born a century ago, is best known for his books on Central Europe and Greece. But his Caribbean travel narrative The Traveller’s Tree stands apart for its curiosity about ordinary lives. James Ferguson rereads this classic

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

The Caribbean has long had its own version of the Grand Tour, the round-Europe cultural trip that was almost obligatory for young upper-class British men in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Far from Venice or Rome, the convention of the Caribbean tour really began in the 1850s, and lasted for a century or so. It normally involved a journey around the islands by a well-to-do tourist in search of the exotic. It might, of course, be slightly more high-minded, a fact-gathering excursion with political or academic intent, or simply research for a prototype guidebook. Many of these journeys, some by well-known authors, ended up as books of varying interest and quality: Anthony Trollope’s The West Indies and the Spanish Main (1859), Charles Kingsley’s At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies (1871), or Sir Algernon Aspinall’s The Pocket Guide to the West Indies (1907).

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book The Traveller’s Tree, which appeared in 1950, thus followed in a tradition of travel books written for a largely British readership by educated, and often perceptive, outsiders who had come to the Caribbean to observe and describe a world very different from their own. With this, of course, they brought their own cultural baggage, as did Leigh Fermor. But in other ways his travelogue is quite unlike its predecessors — partly through historical circumstances, and partly because of the unusual sensibilities and sympathies of the author himself.

Leigh Fermor was born a century ago, on 11 February, 1915, and his childhood was the mix of privilege and emotional deprivation characteristic of the English upper classes. By no means an academic success, he was a gifted linguist and natural adventurer, walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (a journey that would inspire his later books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water). But it was as a war hero that he first made his name, fighting with Greek partisans in Corfu against Nazi occupation.

When he undertook his Caribbean journey in October 1947, Leigh Fermor was as yet unpublished, a “gifted amateur” who was handsome, suave, well-connected, and cultured. He went with a Greek photographer friend, Costa, and his future wife Joan — both, he said, were “whittled to shadows” in the book. The party went on a former French troop ship, the Colombie, with a good number of written introductions to the administrative and artistic elite of the islands. This, after all, was the world that “Paddy” was part of — the urbane and moneyed milieu of upper-crust England.

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Leigh Fermor clearly liked consorting with the great, the good, and the hospitable: his preface acknowledges the help of various knights of the realm, colonial administrators, and even a French marquis. But it would be unfair to dismiss The Traveller’s Tree as a book purely about the posh, for its author was interested in everyone he met, in the huge variety of social, ethnic, and cultural life to be experienced in the 1940s Caribbean.

This was a period of tumult in the wake of the Second World War and its hardships. Colonialism in the British colonies was on its last legs, undermined by rising nationalism and the influence of the United States. In the French colonies, radical politicians such as Aimé Césaire had recently won full French citizenship for their people, but the great poet still liked to fly a red flag over Fort de France’s town hall. As the Cold War began to gather pace, the Caribbean was a region in transition. It was not the old colonial world familiar to Trollope or even Aspinall.


The Traveller’s Tree reflects this political ferment and its local idiosyncrasies. In Jamaica, Leigh Fermor wonders how the gun-toting Alexander Bustamante can be the figure of moderation, while his Oxford-educated cousin Norman Manley is viewed as a dangerous extremist. He visits Haiti in one of its unusual but ephemeral periods of political calm, observing the dignified President Dumarsais Estimé at an independence celebration — he would be ousted later that same year.

But Leigh Fermor’s real interest was in the extraordinarily rich history of the region, and how it survived in the everyday lives of people. Some of this history was tragedy: everywhere he felt the “deadening effects of slavery in the same place, of generation after generation of it, with no hope of change,” and everywhere he was aware of the inequalities born of a centuries-old system of exploitation. The book expresses horror at the slums of Kingston and Port-au-Prince, and shock at the “ugly carcase of the Trinidadian capital.” But he was equally attuned to the sheer vibrancy and creativity of Caribbean cities, fascinated by Haitian art, by the religious fervour of Kingston’s many sects, by the buzz of Port of Spain. Never afraid to express an opinion, he loved Martinique and Saba, loathed Guadeloupe and St Martin.

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He goes in search of the Jamaican Maroons, visits the vast and forbidding Citadelle of Haiti’s King Christophe, and seeks out Carib relics in Grenada. Naturally enough he attends a Voodoo ceremony in Haiti, and even ventures into the then distinctly unwelcoming Dungle slum in Kingston, where he shares a spliff with some devotees of Rastafari. All of this he does with genuine interest and openness, without condescension and with a gift for capturing language and atmosphere.

What most displeased the young writer was not the weird or the threatening, but the banal. He wrote, perhaps unkindly: “it is hard to stay long in the island without feeling that Barbados reflects most faithfully the social and intellectual values and prejudices of a Golf Club in Outer London . . . which are not England’s most interesting or precious contributions to world civilisation.” Conversely, what inspired him were the curious blends of European, African, and Asian cultures, the mixing of language, music, and visual expression that makes Creole culture so unique.

In 1953, he published a novel (his only one) inspired by Martinique and the cataclysmic volcanic eruption of 1902 which destroyed St Pierre, “the Paris of the Antilles.” Little read these days, The Violins of Saint Jacques, filled with lush imagery and elaborate historical reconstruction, deserves to be more widely known. But The Traveller’s Tree — named, of course, after that most emblematic example of local flora — remains a classic, and deservedly so. If some of its attitudes are of its age (the treatment of Rastafari has come under fire), then this is perhaps not surprising. What is surprising, however, a century after the birth of its author, is how fresh and entertaining the book remains. Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011, may now be better remembered for writing on Greece and the Balkans, but there are few travel books that so memorably capture the variety and wealth of what the Caribbean has to offer.