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




Lafcadio Hearn, “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” (1890)

Lafcadio Hearn published his Two Years in the French West Indies, of which “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” is an extended prologue.  It was in print before it became part of the larger world on the two years of his life Hearn spent in Martinique.  To properly historicize this text we need to understand that Hearn was a vocal anti-racist (in word and in deed) at a time when race relations were near their worst.  While the United States was moving toward racial segregation, disfranchisement, and the codification of Jim Crow, Hearn married a black woman, wrote essays against racial discrimination, and describe favorably the former slave societies in the Indies.  Martinique would become one of the loves of his life.  When he left, after a smallpox outbreak on the island, he wrote “It seemed like tearing my heart out to leave Martinique.”  He went these, seemingly to abandon the United States, its systematical racial oppression, and the professional of journalism, tainted, in his words with “pettiness, cowardice, selfishness.”  (I cannot help sympathize as someone leaving academia with similar resentments shaping my judgment.)  “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” documents his 1887 cruise.


While I have not revisited it yet (and I truly fear putting my foot in my mouth here), I recall Innocents Abroad as being a profoundly American type of travelogue.  In that text Mark Twain toured the Mediterranean as an American, armed with American wit and sensibilities.  It is a busy book.  It is a tourist account.  Twain and his traveling companions saw what they were supposed to see.  Travel was a series of checked boxes (pyramids, the Levant, Paris).  Hearn’s account in contrast strikes me as profoundly un-American (for the Gilded Age anyway) in its sentiments and attitudes.  His account ends with an anti-racist stand, challenging the prevailing theories on segregation, nationalism, and scientific racism.  Hearn mourns for a moment the end of racial diversity, but he sees it as an inevitable conclusion to centuries of racial violence and animosity.  Hearn would spend the next two years of his life challenging the trend that would to the end of whites (and then mixed race people) in the islands.  “And the true black element, more numerically powerful, more fertile, more cunning, better adapted to pyrogenic climate and tropical environment, would surely win. [We see here, of course, that Hearn is not fully immune from scientific racism of the day.] All these mixed races, all these beautiful fruit-colored populations, seemed doomed to extinction: the future tendency must be to universal blackness.” (246)  It does without saying that this a goal of Jim Crow in the United States.  Hearn himself was fired for breaking anti-miscegenation laws.  Rather than seeing racial separation a key to preserving the integrity of racial categories, Hearn suggests that it is a recipe for disaster and would lead to “a struggle for supremacy.”  Earlier in the travelogue he wrote: “You are among a people of half-breeds, — the finest mixed race of the West Indies” when speaking of the human urban landscape of St. Pierre.  A few pages later is describes with wonder: “There is one rare race-type, totally unlike the rest: the skin has a perfect gold-tone, an exquisite metallic yellow; the eyes are long, and have long silky lashes; — the hair is a mass of think, rich, glossy curls that show blue lights in the sun.  What mingling of races produced this beautiful type? — there is some strange blood in the blending, — not of coolie, nor of African, nor of Chinese, although there are Chinese types here of indubitable beauty.” (188) When Hearn discusses the scenery, natural landscape, and architecture of the islands he is similarly celebrating the plurality of influences: the dress, the sugar plantation, the cross on top of houses of worship.   Even the sea is speaking to him in the language of miscegenation.  “Only, instead of a blue line at the horizon, you have a green line; instead of flashings of blue, you have flashings of green, — and in all the tints, in all the combinations of which green is capable: deep green, light green, yellow-green, black-green.” (195)


Hearn expresses horror at what can best be called “modernization” on the islands.  Much like Chita the story begins with the unfolding of nature.  Modernization on the island must engage in a continual struggle with nature.  “You see no human face; but you see all around you the labor of man being gnawed and devoured by nature, — broken bridges, sliding steps, fallen arches, strangled foundations with empty basins; — and everywhere the pungent odor of decay.” (204)  As with Hearn’s views on race, this pessimisms about development and his tendency to give the reigns of power to nature runs against the grain of the predominate ideology of post-Civil War America.  At a time when the United States capitalist class waged a brutal war against the mountains, plains, rivers, and resources of the North American continent, Hearn looks at development in the Caribbean with the eyes of a 20th century conservationist.  “Under the present negro-radical regime orders have been given for the wanton destruction of trees older than the colony itself; — and marvels that could not be replaced in a hundred generations were cut down and converted into charcoal for the use of public institutions.” (204)

Finally, Hearn cannot help but pay attention to and appreciate the growing population of new immigrants to the islands, particularly the so-called “coolies” from India.  Hearn seems to realize that the position of these new immigrants into the already complex racial mixture of Martinque or Trinidad.

I am hoping that Hearn will provide a less impressionistic account of some of these issues in his “Martinique Sketches” the second part (and the majority) of Two Years in the French West Indies.  For now, I want to suggest that Hearn might be a very un-American tourist in the sense that he is seeing in the West Indies shadows of the issues plaguing America, but his observations take him in the opposite direction than the U.S. was heading in the 1880s and 1890s.