Tour Of The Caribbean – The Song of Casimir Delavigne

THE history has yet to be written which will deal with the effects of the French Revolution upon the people in the French West Indies, and, at the same time, tell of the strange activities it aroused and of the bizarre ends to which it led.

The greater number of the inhabitants of these islands were negroes who were living in a not-oppressive slavery. To them came, with much shouting and with an unfamiliar shaking of hands, the knowledge that they were ” men and brothers.” The information flattered their pride even though it was conveyed in terms of some ambiguity. The tricolour was planted on the island fort. There was much strange speech in the streets and on the quays, yelled by loud-voiced men standing on sugar tubs. It was very pleasant : it was an inspiring change, and when in 1794 slavery was abolished in the French West Indies there was a practical outcome for a deal of talk.

There entered, at this time, into the negro’s life an indefinite joy embodied in the term “the rights of man.” The phrase was comforting, full of sweet promise and wild possibilities. It was not precisely construed, but there was in it some hint of eternal idleness, some forecast of that basking in the sun which, in the negro’s creed, represents ” the whole duty of man ” as well as the eternal privilege of the angels. The ” rights of man ” included not only bawling in the streets and lounging on the quay side, but they embraced free access to rum, some acquiring of that property which was common to the Brotherhood, and the occasional diversion of seeing a planter’s mill in flames.

Amongst other effects of the Revolution was an abhorrence of the unenlightened English. That people did not embrace the negro with brotherly arms, nor did they profess any knowledge of the ” rights of man.” They so believed in ” good, old-fashioned ” slavery for the negro that when a French island was captured the coloured folk found themselves once again in bondage. Thus it came about that, at this period, the black man sided with the French whenever war was in progress. Abercromby in his attack upon the islands in 1796 found himself opposed, not only by his old friends the French, but also by their new friends the negroes. The English, when they had taken St. Lucia, learnt that their endeavours were by no means at an end as soon as they had conquered the Morne Fortune and had pulled down the French flag.

There was peace on the hill but not in the woods. In the forests was a hidden army, silent, desperate and venomous. It was made up of runaway slaves, of negroes whom the Revolution had set free, and of escaped or deserting French soldiers. These were the brigands or bushrangers who introduced the Reign of Terror into many a smiling island. So full of hate were they, so merciless, so driven to extremes, that they became more deadly than the yellow vipers that slunk around their bivouacs. The chronicles of that invisible army were rich in murders and ambuscades, in kidnapping, man-hunting and cattle-raiding. They avoided battle, being content to count as their victories the burning homestead, the planter stabbed in the back, the mutilated woman and the dismembered child.

The leader of the brigands in St. Lucia was one Lacroix, who, in his communications to Sir John Moore, styled himself ” Commandant de l’Armée Francaise dans les bois.” ” The Army in the Wood ! ” a battalion of half-naked negroes, armed with knives and bludgeons, of famished and unshaven white men with the rags of the uniforms of France hanging from their limbs, their muskets rusty, and their eyes aflame from the last orgy on rum. A company of these men, squatting in a clearing in the forest to discuss fresh schemes of murder, must have appeared—from their hungry looks and savage growls—no other than a gathering of wer-wolves.

The Revolution of July 1830, modest as it was, led to results in the Far West which were wholly unexpected. It was by the uprising in July that the people in Paris deposed Charles X. and placed Louis-Philippe in his place upon the throne. It is not easy to see how a change in the reigning family, from the house of Bourbon to that of Orleans, could have concerned, or even interested, the negro labourers in a remote island like Martinique. What did, however, happen is very graphically told of by Breen in his ” History of St. Lucia.”

In the autumn of 1830, a French ship arrived at St. Pierre in Martinique, laden with heroes fresh from the streets and slums of Paris. The friends of Louis-Philippe, finding their master firmly seated on the throne, thought well to get rid of some of their tools. The most dangerous of these tattered king-makers they shipped across the seas to people Campeachy and other wilds in the New World. It was little matter where they went so long as it was far enough from Paris. The barque that carried this precious cargo had the appropriate name of the Glaneuse—the Gleaner. The harvest had been reaped, and it was well to clear the mowed field.

With the pious intention of introducing new blood among the inhabitants of Martinique the Glaneuse landed a number of these choice citoyens upon the quay of St. Pierre. They were the scum of Paris, such human froth as only the bubbling of a revolution can bring up from the depths—a crowd of reputed artisans, street loafers, decrotteurs, jail-birds, discharged soldiers, and those half-crazy folk who rush out of alleys to scream and wave banners whenever there is a rising of any kind in any city.

These ” heroes of July ” found, when they landed, that they were shunned by the respectable French of St. Pierre. They therefore hobnobbed with the negroes. The blacks were delighted and indeed honoured. For days and days, says Breen, “negroes and ` heroes of July’ paraded the streets arm in arm, or caroused together in the beer-shops.”

The newcomers told their black brethren of the glories of street fighting, of barricades made out of overturned wagons and coaches, of the joy of kneeling on a soldier’s chest while you jagged his face with a broken bottle, of eyes ripped out upon the cheek by well-aimed flints, of the looting of taverns, of petroleum poured into cellars and followed by a lighted match. To the listeners this was delicious converse. The negro is theatrical in matters of the emotions, he is illogical and impulsive, for there is still a good deal of the savage in his blood.

The passengers from the Glaneuse had much to say that was inspiriting about the ” rights of man.” They brought with them also another phrase which more vividly impressed the heavy mind of the field labourer. They talked of ” the will of the people.” ” Look,” said the heroes of July, ” what the people can do and have done ! They alone are the power in the State ! Is it all well with you, the people of Martinique ? ” The plantation hand answered that it was not well.

One thing more the men from Paris introduced to their negro friends. They brought with them Delavigne’s song ” La Parisienne.” This had been the hymn of the Revolution. It had been yelled in defiant chorus by frantic mobs, had been sung solemnly at secret gatherings and often in a woman’s sweet voice, had been hummed or whistled by a thousand stragglers through the panic-hushed streets of Paris. It was the war cry of the revolutionists, the chant that had led them to victory. Casimir Delavigne, the famous lyric poet, the author of “.Les Vepres Siciliennes,” had little thought to what ends his song would lead.

Every negro in St. Pierre learnt the rhyme and sung it. It could be heard the day long, in the cabaret, in the streets, among the brakes of sugar-cane, on the solitary road.

Paris n’a plus qu’un cri de gloire : En avant marchons Contre leurs canons. A travers le feu des bataillons, Courons a la Victoire !

To suit local affairs and to indicate the objects of all hatred, the negro, in his singing, substituted for ” leurs canons,” ” les colons.”

En avant marchons Contre les colons

became the refrain whenever no planters were near to hear.

Now began pleasant days for the coloured folk of St. Pierre.’ Under the guidance of their friends from the Emotional City they planned a revolution of their own. The rising was to be in February. They were then to enforce the will of the people and to make themselves immortal as the Heroes of Martinique. There were secret meetings at midnight on silent beaches and in glades of the forest, where the plotters talked in whispers and where oaths were sworn. There were all the delightful mysteries of passwords and signs, the covert understanding, the sense of power. Every- ‘ where and at all times could Casimir Delavigne’s song be heard in the air. It was the rumbling of the volcano.

The rising planned by the schemers broke out prematurely at St. Pierre on February 9, at seven in the evening. It began by the setting fire to eleven sugar plantations and to certain prominent houses outside the town. In a moment St. Pierre was in an uproar. The streets were alive with troops, both horse and foot, hurrying to the suburbs ; with them were the gendarmes and such white men as happened to be in the city at the time and could carry arms. Sailors who had been landed from the various ships in the harbour came running up the narrow lanes at the double, cutlasses in hand. The alarm bell was ringing in the cathedral tower. Shops were shut and houses barricaded, while women rushed to and fro terrified by the cry ” The negroes are coming ! ‘ Now and then a rider would gallop along the street with news of fresh horrors creeping upon the town. The glare of fire was in the sky while, far away above the hubbub and clatter, the refrain of Delavigne’s song rose up from a thousand exulting throats.

The would-be heroes of Martinique were soon overcome. By 5 A.M. next morning the great revolution was over. Five hundred arrests were made and out of the number taken twenty-two were condemned to death. The last phase of the sorry story is well described by Breen who was an eye-witness of it all.

” On May 19, the day appointed for the execution, the town of St. Pierre presented one of the most melancholy and heartrending spectacles ever exhibited in any country. Twenty-two human beings, having each a rope round his neck, were marched forth from the prison, near the Batterie Decnotz, escorted by soldiers, priests and policemen to the Place Bertin, where a gibbet sixty feet long had been erected for their execution. Several were foaming at the mouth, and by their gestures, language and looks manifested the working of the evil passions within. But the greater number appeared resigned to their fate, and were attentively listening to the exhortation of the clergy.

” The Place and every avenue leading to it were thronged with mounted gendarmes and troops of the line. On reaching the foot of the gallows the agitation of the wretched culprits assumed a frightful degree of intensity. The spell was now broken ; the veil of delusion torn from their eyes ; all their visions of glory had vanished ; all their dreams of power and preponderance had dissolved, and nothing remained but the startling, shadowless reality of an ignominious death.

” The most remarkable actor in this tragic scene was a coloured man named Chery, who had been the chief promoter of the insurrection. At the sight of the gibbet he gave himself up to the wildest despair, vomiting forth imprecations, both loud and deep, against the white inhabitants, and expressing his fervent hope ` that the island of Martinique might be swallowed up in the ocean before another generation should pass away.’ He had just commenced ` En avant marchons’ when the bourreau, shaking him by the rope that dangled on his back, said, pointing to the gallows, ` Voila votre chetnin !’ Chery grinned and gnashed his teeth ; then tossing off his shoes in the air (one of which struck a gendarme with great violence on the face) he ran up the ladder to the head of the gallows, and in a few seconds was seen hanging without a struggle or a sigh.

” The others were then thrown off in succession, until the whole twenty-two were left hanging together at equal distances from each other. In an hour after the bodies were cut down, and a long and lowering day closed on this lugubrious spectacle, just as the twenty-two corpses, the destined food of sharks, were dropped into the sea at some distance from the beach.” 1

Thus, with the setting of the sun, there came an end to the song of Casimir Delavigne.