Lafcadio Hearn, “Martinique Sketches” (1890)

The second part of Lafcadio Hearn’s Two Years in the French West Indies is made up of fourteen beautiful essays on different aspects of life in Martinique, where Hearn spent most of this time while in the Antilles.  To continue with my observation from his “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics,” Hearn is not at all interested in what we would normally speak of as the tourist sites.  Most of the “Martinique Sketches” look at small slices of life, different classes of workers, local legends, or microhistory.  I also could not help but notice Hearn’s clear fascination with all sorts of women of Martinique.  Rarely is he not enthralled with a beautiful woman, or entire classes of beautiful women. He also continues his investigation of the complicated color line in the Caribbean, fearfully looking forward to a day when the islands will become much less diverse due to emerging racism and nationalism.


Each of the sketches begins with a creole term for a place, a legend, a class of people, or other phenomenon.  They all stand on their own, are all beautifully written, and endlessly fascinating.  Hearn draws us into another America, just a short steam-ship voyage from the emerging empire of the United States.  Instead of a fascination with the new, we find a deep appreciation for the past (including mythical legends).  Instead of an obsession with work, Hearn notices an almost universal striving for play.  I could not help but feel great sorrow for something that must have been abolished with the rise of global capitalism – the ability to experience a (truly) different way of life simply by traveling.  I will briefly describe each of these fourteen sketches to give you an idea of the rich diversity of themes and topics.

“Les Porteuses”:  This sketch explores the lives of the women transportation workers on the island.  These women can skillfully carry items on their head.  these women are always present in Martinique and are central to the economic functioning of the island, although they are highly exploited, making barely enough to survive.  Their ability to survive impressed Hearn as did the clear skill, which is taught to them at a very young age.

“La Grande Anse”: Grand Anse is a cosmopolitan town on the opposite side of the island from St. Pierre.  It is a “sleepy” and “swarthy” port city that, like “les porteuse” is essential to the trade of the island.  It is also, Hearn cannot help but notice, home to some beautiful people.  Indeed, it was stories about their beauty that convinced him to visit the city. 

“Un Revenant”: This is a journalistic discovery, and retelling of, a piece of Martinique folklore.  We are struck by the necessity of a deep historical memory for the survival and understanding of folklore.  Hearn has to build up the story piece by piece.  It reveals the interracial culture of the island and the deep legacy of slavery in the minds of the people of Martinique.  The story also intertwines with the emergence of Christianity in the Caribbean, evidence of which surrounds Hearn.  He is deeply moved again by the loss that will come with the growing racial divide in the Caribbean.  “The White Fathers have no place here now; and the Black Fathers, too, have been driven from the land, leaving only as a memory of them the perfect and ponderous architecture of the Perinnelle plantation-buildings.” (322)

St. Pierre

St. Pierre

“La Guiablesse”: This essay explores the experience of night in Martinique.  Night shows the duality of the traditions in the islands between the Christian realm and the realm of ghosts and “zombis.”  He then tells the story of one of the island’s many ghosts.

“La Verette”: This is a massive essay that takes you from a celebration of Carnival, in Hearn’s mind an extraordinary urban event.  As scholars of the Carnival phenomenon have already discussed, it was a time for playing with the boundaries between legitimate and transgressive traditions.  The essay moves into a moving description of a smallpox epidemic moving through the same city of St. Pierre.  The move from the procession of the Carnival to the procession of coffins is very striking. 

“Les Blanchisseuses”: These are the washerwomen, another element of the Martinique working class.  They are really entrepreneurial, carving out a good income for themselves through haggling and negotiation.  They also have a unique and intimate relationship with the river, being the first to be aware of – and the first to be endangered by – flooding.

“La Pelee”: This sketch is a natural and human history of “La Montagne,” the largest mountain of Martinique and a former volcano.  Its centrality to the scenery and the mind of the people of the island is a central point of this sketch. 

“Ti Canotie”: These are the boat people, often young men or boys, who use canoes to scavenge along the river floor, looking for coins or other lost goods.  They follow steamships, eager to take from them what the passengers thrown off the side.  Another element of the diverse motley crew of working people documented in this text.  His examination of the margins of the working class experience is one of the most powerful parts of this splendid book.

“La Fille de Couleur”: This chapter is Hearn’s celebration of the dress, lives and beauty of Martinique’s bi-racial women.  It is also a historical survey of the origins of the biracial population, legal efforts to suppress interracial sex, and how the image of reality of biracial women has changed.  A simply wonderful introduction to the complex racial history of the island. As always Hearn wants to celebrate the racial diversity of the island.

“Bete-Ni-Pie”: About the insect life of the island, much of it strange and in Hearns mind ominous. 

“Ma Bonne”: About food, dining customs and another woman Hearn is infatuated with Cyrillia.

“Pa combine, che”: This is an attempt to understand the experience of climatic acculturation and the relationship between the mind and beliefs of the people of Martinique in relationship to the climate.  The climate, Hearn asserts, changes you.  “Serious reading, vigorous thinking, become impossible.” (505–506)

“Ye”:  Another window into the folklore of the island, through the story of Ye and the Devil. 

“Lys”: In his final sketch, Hearn documents his departure from Martinique.

I still think Two Years in the French West Indies is a very un-American travelogue due to its celebration of the anti-work ethos of the island (and its addictive nature for newcomers), the various aspects of the diverse and marginalized working class, Hearn’s real effort to become like the people he lived with.  I find very little evidence that Hearn saw his place in Martinique as that of a tourist or an observer.  This was the work of someone who had made a real effort to assimilate into the Martinique society and contribute to its fascinating diversity – not a crude multiculturalism that Jim Crow was enforcing in the United States, but a society with many influences and broad solidarities. 

Creole Worker





2 responses to “Lafcadio Hearn, “Martinique Sketches” (1890)

  1. I have recently finally taken this book by Lafcadio HEARN from my reading pile and am about a third way through. In some senses I am reminded of the writing of Patrick Leigh FERMOR. In any event I first came across HEARN’s writing during a visit to Japan in 1990. Later I lived in the city where he spent his first year in Japan in 1890. A dozen years ago I visited Ushaw – his secondary school just several miles to the west of Durham – and two years back I was in Dublin – where he spent some of his early years with a great aunt after coming from his birthplace, Greece. I have visited many of the places where he lived and travelled in western Japan – they make for a good literary pilgrimage! I found Jonathan COTT’s Wandering Ghost (Knopf 1990) the most comprehensive of biographies of HEARN – and its inclusion of pieces of his writing from his days in Cincinnati and New Orleans revealed a writer a good century ahead of his time!

    • Jim:

      Thanks for reading. I had not know about this biography. As I rush through these writers (spending one week on each Library of America volume) I tend not to be able to get too deep into them. I would love to hear any more of your insights.


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