Deux années dans les Antilles françaises de Lafcadio Hearn est un compte rendu intime de la vie en Martinique au tournant du XIXème siècle. Hearn, un journaliste pour des quotidiens de Cincinnati puis de La Nouvelle Orléans, avait captivé les lecteurs américains avec ses descriptions de la culture et de la société nouvelle-orléanaises dans ses articles qui ont paru dans Harper’s Weekly, une revue nationale. Harper’s croyait qu’il ferait pareil pour les Antilles françaises et l’ont missionné en Martinique en 1887. Comptant y passer quelques mois, Hearn restera deux ans, étant enchanté par l’île qu’il nomme Le Pays de Revenants. Hearn dépeint d’une manière saisissante la vie quotidienne dans et autour de Saint Pierre, des madras colorés des femmes créoles aux porteuses aux pas légers, des prix au marché aux contes traditionnels d’une société superstitieuse. Ces descriptions sont d’autant plus précieuses que la ville sera complètement détruite des années après par l’éruption de la Montagne Pelée. Deux années est sauvé du simple exotisme caribéen par une certaine perception et une sensibilité qui étaient plutôt étonnants pour son temps. Le charme du peuple et de l’endroit vous fera regretter qu’il ne soit pas resté plus longtemps.
Le livre en anglais appartient au domaine public et peut être téléchargé sur Project Gutenberg.
Two Years in the French West Indies by Lafcadio Hearn (1) is an intimate account of life in Martinique at the turn of the 19th century. Hearn, a journalist for newspapers in Cincinnati and then New Orleans, had captivated American readers with his descriptions of New Orleans culture and society in his articles that appeared in Harper’s Weekly. Harper’s believed he would do the same for the French West Indies and sent him to Martinique in the 1887. Intending to stay a few months, Hearn would stay two years, having fallen under the spell of the island he called Le Pays de Revenants, the Land to which one returns. Hearn vividly describes the everyday life in and around the city of St. Pierre, from the colorful madras of Creole women to the light-footed porteuses, from the prices at market to the folk tales of a superstitious society. These descriptions are all the more precious as the city would be completely destroyed some years later by the eruption of Mt. Pelée. Two Years is saved from being mere Caribbean exoticism by a certain perceptiveness and a sensitivity that is rather surprising for the time period. The charm of the people and place makes you regret that he did not stay longer.
Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Les Porteuses:
Preparing for her journey, the young màchanne (marchande) puts on the poorest and briefest chemise in her possession, and the most worn of her light calico robes. These are all she wears. The robe is drawn upward and forward, so as to reach a little below the knee, and is confined thus by a waist-string, or a long kerchief bound tightly round the loins. Instead of a Madras or painted turban-kerchief, she binds a plain mouchoir neatly and closely about her head; and if her hair be long, it is combed back and gathered into a loop behind. Then, with a second mouchoir of coarser quality she makes a pad, or, as she calls it, tóche, by winding the kerchief round her fingers as you would coil up a piece of string; — and the soft mass, flattened with a patting of the hand, is placed upon her head, over the coiffure. On this the great loaded trait is poised.
She wears no shoes! To wear shoes and do her work swiftly and well in such a land of mountains would be impossible. She must climb thousands and descend thousands of feet every day, — march up and down slopes so steep that the horses of the country all break down after a few years of similar journeying. The girl invariably outlasts the horse, — though carrying an equal weight. Shoes, unless extraordinarily well made, would shift place a little with every change from ascent to descent, or the reverse, during the march, — would yield and loosen with the ever-varying strain, — would compress the toes, — produce corns, bunions, raw places by rubbing, and soon cripple the porteuse. Remember, she has to walk perhaps fifty miles between dawn and dark, under a sun to which a single hour’s exposure, without the protection of an umbrella, is perilous to any European or American — the terrible sun of the tropics! Sandals are the only conceivable foot-gear suited to such a calling as hers; but she needs no sandals: the soles of her feet are toughened so as to feel no asperities, and present to sharp pebbles a surface at once yielding and resisting, like a cushion of solid caoutchouc.
Besides her load, she carries only a canvas purse tied to her girdle on the right side, and on the left a very small bottle of rum, or white tafia, — usually the latter, because it is so cheap. … For she may not always find the Gouyave Water to drink, — the cold clear pure stream conveyed to the fountains of St. Pierre from the highest mountains by a beautiful and marvellous plan of hydraulic engineering: she will have to drink betimes the common spring-water of the bamboo-fountains on the remoter high-roads; and this may cause dysentery if swallowed without a spoonful of spirits. Therefore she never travels without a little liquor.
… So! — She is ready: “Châgé moin, souplè, chè!” She bends to lift the end of the heavy trait: some one takes the other, — yon!-dé! — toua! — it is on her head. Perhaps she winces an instant; — the weight is not perfectly balanced; she settles it with her hands, — gets it in the exact place. Then, all steady, — lithe, light, half naked, — away she moves with a long springy step. So even her walk that the burden never sways; yet so rapid her motion that however good a walker you may fancy yourself to be you will tire out after a sustained effort of fifteen minutes to follow her uphill. Fifteen minutes; — and she can keep up that pace without slackening — save for a minute to eat and drink at mid-day, — for at least twelve hours and fifty-six minutes, the extreme length of a West Indian day. She starts before dawn; tries to reach her resting-place by sunset: after dark, like all her people, she is afraid of meeting zombis.
The book is in the public domain and can be downloaded at Project Gutenberg.