Memories of Martinique

James Ferguson on Lafcadio Hearn’s Caribbean travel classic

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On board the mail ship that docked at the picturesque harbour of St Pierre, Martinique, one July morning in 1887, was a strange-looking man with what we might nowadays call a mixed CV. A little-known journalist and translator, Lafcadio Hearn had taken the ship from New York with modest ambitions in mind: to send back some articles on Caribbean life to American magazines, to earn a little money, perhaps to build his reputation as a serious writer.

What actually followed was rather different. Hearn stayed two years in Martinique, bewitched, as he put it, by the island’s landscapes and people. More importantly, he produced one of the finest travel books about the Caribbean ever written. Two Years in the French West Indies was published to great acclaim in 1890.

Predictability was not this exotically-named author’s most obvious character trait. Lafcadio Hearn’s early life had been bizarre and largely tragic, almost like the stuff of the grotesque literature which was his abiding interest. Born on the Greek island of Lefkas in 1850, Hearn had an Irish father (a military surgeon) and a Greek mother. They were to divorce when Lafcadio was only six years old, and he was sent to Dublin to be brought up by a great-aunt. His father died young, and then Lafcadio was blinded in his left eye and scarred by an accident. For the rest of his life, he refused to be photographed except from his right side.

Poverty forced him to leave school early, and at 19 he emigrated to Cincinatti, where he eventually found work as a journalist. There, he courted controversy, living with a coloured woman when interracial unions were strictly frowned upon. Later, he moved to New Orleans with its more liberal atmosphere.

Martinique, at the time a neglected French colony with a bankrupt sugar industry, must have appealed to Hearn, for he was already familiar with the French-influenced Creole culture of Louisiana. He had published a dictionary of French Creole proverbs as well as a Creole cookbook. He was fluent in French, having translated some of the Romantic French writer Théophile Gautier’s weird short stories. Above all, Hearn had a pronounced taste for the exotic, and it was in search of new experiences and sensations that he set sail for Martinique.

Hearn was in no way disappointed by the Ile des Revenants (the island of ghosts, or, more poetically, the island of those who come back). Its natural beauty, exemplified by steep mountains, rushing streams and tranquil valleys, beguiled him. The pretty town of St Pierre, the Paris of the Antilles, with its cobbled streets and red-tiled houses, delighted him. The colours, sounds and tastes of this tropical paradise overwhelmed him, and he spent hours recording the changing tones and textures of mountains and vegetation at differing times of day.

Lafcadio Hearn, writes the Martinican novelist Raphaël Confiant, was the first person to have truly understood, or more precisely, to have put into words the reality of a tropical nightfall. Anyone who has witnessed the brief and dramatic passing of a Caribbean dusk will recognise the accuracy of his description: “In these tropic latitudes, night does not seem to fall, to descend over the many-peaked land: it appears to rise up, like an exhalation, from the ground. The coast-lines darken first; then the slopes and the lower hills and valleys become shadowed; then, very swiftly, the gloom mounts to the heights, whose very loftiest peak may remain glowing like a volcano at its tip for several minutes after the rest of the island is veiled in blackness and all the stars are out . . .”

Unlike most of the professional travel writers of the era, Hearn seems to have been genuinely interested in the people he encountered. He went beyond exotic stereotypes; he got to know ordinary Martinican street sellers, washerwomen and neighbours, and listened to their life stories and folk tales.

Fascinated by the sound and structure of French Creole, he noted proverbs, conversations and stories, revelling in the richness of a culture alive with verbal ingenuity and imagination. He listened to and recorded tales of ghosts and zombis, of good-for-nothing idlers and cunning rascals, of love affairs and broken hearts. The authentic folk culture of Martinique comes to life on many pages of this book.

Hearn was not entirely immune from the prejudices and superstitions of his age. Some of his attitudes can appear racist to a modern readership, and he was quite capable of being condescending towards those whom he imagined to be naïve or superstitious.

But even so, Hearn was fundamentally receptive to Martinican life and culture in a way that was unusual both for the time in which he lived and the genre in which he wrote. His real achievement was to understand the truly Creole nature of Martinique, the creative mixing of different influences — African, European, Indian, indigenous — and the resulting uniqueness of cultural expressions. He relished the island’s food, music, language and costume as living evidence of its mixed roots and the sheer inventiveness of its people.

But Martinique also had its darker side, and Hearn’s instinctively morbid nature found ample material to feed upon. Fearful of the notorious fer-de-lance snakes and tropical diseases, he speculated on what he felt was the debilitating impact of heat and humidity on the northern visitor. His anxieties were in some sense vindicated when an epidemic of smallpox broke out in St Pierre, an occurrence that he described with ghoulish relish. But perhaps most poignant was his musing on the vast volcano, the Montagne Pelée, that loomed over the city of St Pierre. Might it one day erupt, he wondered, and what would be the consequences?

On May 8, 1902, such a cataclysm was indeed to take place, destroying St Pierre and all but one of its 30,000 people in a lethal cloud of red-hot ash.

By then, the restless Lafcadio Hearn had moved on to Japan, where he at last won international renown as one of the first western writers to penetrate a hitherto mysterious society and culture. Having changed name and nationality and married a Japanese woman, Hearn died in 1904. To some degree, the Martinique episode was a staging-post towards this later encounter with another world. But the book that emerged from it remains one of the most perceptive and original ever to have been written by an outsider about the Caribbean and its people.


Two Years in the French West Indies is available in a new edition, with a foreword by Raphaël Confiant, published by Signal Books (ISBN 1-902669-17-7). info@signalbooks.co.uk