TWENTY miles north of St. Lucia is the French island of Martinique. It can be seen from the heights above Castries whenever the sky is clear, a pillar of cloud resting on the sea, silver-grey at noon, lilac at sunset.
Columbus landed here one day in June 1502. It was a spot he was curious about, for he had heard of it on a previous voyage as the island of Matinino, where all the inhabitants were women. It was a strange legend, with some element of prophecy in it, for the Martinique of today is famous, above all, as the home of comely women. The men of the place are of no particular distinction, certainly of no interestmere West Indian negroes and mulattoes. The women, on the other hand, are, as an American writer expresses it, ” a race apart.”
Like others of the volcanic isles Martinique is green and ruggedgreen with vast jungles, rugged with a thousand hills. ” Although less than fifty miles in length and less than twenty in average breadth, there are upwards of four hundred mountains in the little island, or of what at least might be termed mountains elsewhere. These again are divided and interpeaked, and bear hillocks on their slopes.”
This island of ” indescribable glory ” is so fascinating that to those who know it best it is Le Pays des RevenantsThe Country of the Comers-back. Martinique was colonised by the French in 1635, and although it was for many years a shuttle-cock of war, and although the British seized it on four separate occasions, and indeed held it once for a period of six years, it has remained French to the backboneas French as the town of Blois.
Fort de France, the capital, lies on a plain at the foot of low hills. From the bay there is little to be seen of it but a jumble of red roofs and palm trees, above which rises the spire of the cathedral. To the south of the town is an immense grey fort whose surly walls stand half in the water and half on land, an amphibious place already mouldy and rusty from neglect. This is the Fort St. Louis, which plays no small part in the annals of the British navy. On a height behind the town is a still larger and dingier fort, the Fort Bourbon. It sulks there, black and forbidding, coiled up like a colossal snake that had been driven out of the gay-coloured town. It was from the harbour of Fort de France (then Fort Royal Bay) that Count de Grasse sailed with his fleet to meet Rodney on the glorious 12th of April, 1782.
Fort de France, a prosperous place of 17,000 inhabitants, will occasion some surprise to the visitor who is acquainted only with the British possessions in these seas. Landing from a rowing-boat at a small pier on the fringe of the city he will find himself suddenly, in spite of palms and sand-box trees, in France and in the streets of a French country town. The chief street, Rue Saint-Louis, is typical of the place. Here are brightly painted houses with green jalousies and iron balconies, houses let in flats where women chat for ever out of windows, familiar French shops, the Bazar Parisien,” the ” grand cafe ” with its small tables, the restaurant with madame, fat and busy, sitting at a high desk. The very names of the streets are written in white letters on those plaques of blue enamelled iron which mark every Paris street corner. On any spare wall are the gaudy advertisements of the French provincesthe persistent aperitif, the marvellous hair wash the unanatomical gloves and shoes, the everlasting chocolat.
Happy is he who reaches Fort de France for the first time on a Sunday. The streets are then thronged by a moving company as brilliant in colour as are the idlers at the foot of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Burmah. The crowd is composed mostly of women. They present every tint of skin from white to ebony. Here are the heavy-featured but smiling negress, the girl with the ” sapota ” skin, the girl with cheeks of cinnamon or chocolate, the nut-brown maid, the matron with the skin of a fawn, the stately woman whose complexion has the sunny tint of an ear of ripe corn. The fairest of all is the file de couleur, the darker are the quadroon and octoroon, the metisse, the chabine of Martinique. ” A population fantastic, astonishinga population of the Arabian Nights.” Some of these women are remarkably beautiful, tall, lissome, and statuesque, with rounded limbs, perfectly moulded necks and a fine carriage of the head. They walk erect with swaying hips, lithe and languorous, graciously, yet with just some suggestion of coquettishness. Here is a porteuse, a half-clad figure of bronze perfect in its modelling ; and here are two girls holding baskets on their heads who are veritable Caryatides. Many have sad, regretful-looking eyes, many a mien of gentle dignity, others a bearing that is quite imperious.
There are few who are not bare-footed, and the rustle of their feet on the dry road is a sound the most enticing that human” steps can make. It his its very opposite in the mechanical tramp of drilled men, and its complement in the clatter of Japanese clogs in a temple close. ” Soundless as shadow,” writes Hearn, ” is the motion of all these naked-footed people. On any quiet mountain way, full of curves, where you fancy yourself alone, you may often be startled by something you feel, rather than hear, behind you,surd steps, the springy movement of a long lithe body, dumb oscillations of raiment,and ere you can turn to look, the haunter swiftly passes with creole greeting of ` bon-jou’ or ` bonsoue, missie.’ ”
Their costumes mimic the daring colours of the tropical bird. A few of the womenfolk wear a long, trailing dress, the douillette, made in one piece from neck to foot ; others a robe, over a white petticoat, a linen bodice and a foulard, or silk kerchief, across the shoulders. The head-dress is very picturesque. It consists of a ” madras,” an ample silk handkerchief wound about the head turban-fashion, and finished off by a projecting end, which stands up like the eagle’s feather in an Indian’s hair. The colour of the madras will be usually a canary-yellow or yellow striped with black. The hues of the dresses are bewildering. Here are a skirt of roses and a foulard of sky-blue, a gown of scarlet and yellow with a terra-cotta scarf across the breast, a dress of white striped with orange below a foulard of green, a frock of primrose spotted with red and completed by a scarf of mazarine blue. Add to this the necklace of gold beads, the heavy bracelets, the great earrings, and the ” trembling pins ” that fix the madras ; and then realise, over all, the white light of a tropical noon.
Most of the women have come from the fast-emptying cathedral, bringing with them the odour of incense. Among the crowd are a few Europeans dressed in the costumes of Paris, and looking stiff and out of place. In the street also are dapper French soldiers and officials in white uniforms, gnarled country women with broad-brimmed hats, and a number of bronze men with naked chests, most of whom are bareheaded or are decked with ‘ a hat ostentatiously shapeless.
The crowd makes way for the nuns and their queue of school-girls, as they pass along the streets from the cathedral to the convent. The sombre robes of the nuns and their dead-white wimples contrast severely with the sensuous colours around them. The girls are all mulattoes, whose pretty brown faces are surmounted by turbans of royal purple. Their dresses are of one pattern, blue with white spots, very simple and demure.
One thing assuredly the French have taught the golden brown maiden of Martinique, and that is, how to dress with justice to her good looks and credit to her stately figure. Very striking is the comparison between these statuesque women and the ” coloured lady ” of Barbados, who has learnt to make herself ridiculous by a travesty of the fashions of London.
Even more bewildering in colour than the streets is the market-place, where are stalls covered with surprising fish, blue, green, scarlet, and gold, piles of brown fruits, heaps of yellow bananas, unfamiliar vegetables of unfamiliar shades of green, as well as a mound of silk scarves like a crumpled-up rainbow.
The cathedral is such an one as rises above the roofs of a hundred French towns. It is just as weather-worn without and as tawdry within, while from its steeple floats the same jangling chime of small-voiced bells. In an enclosure behind the church is the white figure of the Virgin from St. Pierre which miraculously escaped the cyclone of flame by which that town was overwhelmed.
Just outside the city is an unkempt, uncared-for common, dignified by the name of La Place de la Savane. It is meant to be a park, but it is no more than a piece of open ground where the loafer can sleep and where the children have worn away the grass in untidy patches. It boasts a meagre band-stand, such as a provincial townlet might set up in a moment of ambition, and then forget and leaveas this is leftbare even of paint.
In the centre of this Ishmaelitish waste, guarded by a clump of palms, is a very unexpected object–a white marble statue of a woman, an imperious woman, the Empress Josephine. She was born on the island at Trois Ilets, a village which lies hidden away in one of the many green creeks of Fort de France Bay. The charm of this tall, pale figure is irresistible. She is in the costume of the Empire, with bare neck and arms. On the cushion of her pretty hair rests a crown. Her left hand leans upon a medallion of Napoleon. She is raised aloft, against the blue sky, on a classic pedestal of white stone. The finding of this superb lady of courts and palaces, the chatelaine of Malmaison, on a poor patch of out-cast land by a West Indian town is beyond words surprising. Her face is plaintive and tender, gracious and infinitely womanly. ” Over violet space of summer sea, through the vast splendour of azure light, she is looking back to the place of her birth, back to beautiful drowsy Trois Ilets, and always with the same half-dreaming, half-plaintive smileunutterably touching.”
Josephine was the eldest daughter of Joseph de La Pagerie, a lieutenant of artillery, who a few months after his marriage had helped to defend the island from an attack of the British in 1762 La Pagerie owned a plantation near the hamlet of Trois Ilets, and in the mansion upon the estate Josephine was born on June 23, 1763. She was educated at a convent at Fort de France (then Fort Royal), leaving at the age of fifteen, by which time she had learnt little more from the ” Dames de la Providence ” than how to dance, to sing and to embroider.
Of the house in which Josephine was born nothing now remains except a fragment of the kitchen, for the building was totally destroyed by the fearful hurricane of 1766. The hurricane brought ruin upon the family as well as upon the house. The mansion was never rebuilt, and the planter, his wife and children, took up their abode in the sucrerie. This structure is still in existence, a low, shed-like building of stone, with dormer windows in the roof and a tall chimney at one end of it. Such is the only home that Josephine can have known at Trois Ilets. It is a remarkable contrast to the stately house at Malmaison with its many-mirrored salons, its exquisite gardens and pleasances. It was at Malmaison, it will be remembered, that the deserted Empress died.
She left Martinique in 1779, at the age of sixteen, to marry a son of the Marquis de Beauharnais, the one-time governor of the island. She landed at Havre. After her separation from her husband Josephine returned to Trois Ilets. This was in 1788, when she was twenty-five. She stayed in the island two years, when she joined Beauharnais again and remained with him until his execution, at the time of the Terror, in 1794. After his death she was reduced to great straits for money, living with her two children in a very humble house in Paris. The story need not be retold of her meeting with Napoleon, or how it came about that she married him in 1799. He was then a man of thirty and she a woman of thirty-six. He writes to her as his “dear little wife,” and is always wondering ” what is the secret of her influence.”
She must have been a woman of remarkable fascination, clever and the mistress of consummate tact. Conspicuous among her many fine traits are her tenderness and warm-hearted amiability. As Napoleon said, ” She had no more sense of resentment than a pigeon.” One most womanly qualitya love of pretty clothespossessed her to the very end of her days, for Madame de Remusat has said that ” she died covered with ribbons and pale rose satin.”