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L’iˆle de France
Have you ever, on a long, cold, melancholy winter night—alone with your thoughts and the wind whistling through the hallways, the rain pounding against the windows—have you ever leaned your forehead against the mantel, absently watching sparks dance on the hearth, and longed to flee our wet and muddy Paris for some enchanted oasis? Somewhere fresh and carpeted in green, where you could lie in the shade of a riverside palm tree and doze off without a care in the world?
Well, the paradise of your dreams exists! Eden awaits you; the water flows clear and bright there, falling and surging up in bright dust; the palm fronds wave gently in the soft sea breeze like feathers in a genie’s cap. The jambosa trees, laden with iridescent fruit, stand ready to offer you their sweetly scented shade. Come, follow me now.
Let us make for Brest, warlike sister of bustling Marseille, standing sentinel over the waves. Choose a vessel from the hundreds anchored in its port—perhaps a brigantine, long-masted, lean, and light-sailed, fit even for the hardy pirates dreamed up by Walter Scott, that romantic poet of the waves. It’s early September, the perfect time to begin a long voyage. Let us board our chosen ship and leave summer behind in our quest for spring! Adieu, Brest, Nantes, Bayonne—adieu, France!
See there, on our right, that granite peak towering ten thousand feet into the clouds? Look, in such transparent water even its mighty roots are visible. It is Tenerife, the ancient Nivaria, rendezvous point for the eagles that swoop and glide around its crest, looking as small as doves from this great distance. This, however, is not our destination; it’s simply a stray bit of Spain, and I’ve promised you the garden of the world.
Look, on the left—that barren rock, burning in the tropical sun? Our modern Prometheus spent six years chained there. England chose that wasted islet to erect a monument to its own shame, to the stake where Joan of Arc burned and the scaffold where Mary Stuart died. It is a political Golgotha, and for eighteen years it was the pious rendezvous point where all ships converged. But—enough of the regicide St. Helena, we will have nothing more to do with her, now that the martyr is gone.
We’ve reached the Cape of Storms now. See the towering peak in front of us, its summit lost in the mists? This is the giant Adamastor, who appeared to the author of The Lusiads. It marks the very end of the earth—the prow of that great green vessel on which we are all passengers. How the waves crash with furious impotence against its rocky face! It is impervious, invincible, forever anchored here in the port of eternity with God himself as captain. Let us keep on. Beyond these verdant mountains lies nothing but barren stone and sun-scorched desert. I promised you pure water, gentle shade, succulent fruit, and radiant blooms, did I not?
Ah, the westerly wind has finally brought us to our destination—the Indian Ocean, theater of the Arabian Nights! There is grim Mont Bourbon, with its sulfurous, eternally flaming volcano. Spare a glance at its fiery maw and smell its fumes. Just a few knots more now; we pass between île Plate and Coin-de-Mire and round pointe aux Cannoniers, and we drop anchor at last. Our trusty brigantine has earned a rest. We have arrived! This is the blessed island itself, hidden away in this far-flung corner of the world like some virginal maiden whose mother jealously guards her beauty from covetous suitors’ eyes. This is the Promised Land—the pearl of the Indian Ocean. This is île de France.
Now, chaste daughter of the seas, twin sister of Bourbon, blessed rival of Ceylon, let me raise a corner of your veil so that I may introduce you to a foreign friend, my fellow traveler here. Let me just loosen your sash—there! Ah, beautiful captive! We are two poor pilgrims from France—France, who will, perhaps, arrive one day to reclaim you at last, rich daughter of India, for the bride-price of some poor European realm . . .
As for you, dear readers, who have followed our eyes and our thoughts this far, let me bid you a very hearty welcome to this land of fertile fields, bountiful harvests, and endless springs and summers bursting with flowers and fruit. Let me wax poetic for a moment and tell you of the wonders of this place. It is a veritable Aphrodite, born of sea foam to reign over a celestial empire, her toes in the sea and her head in the clouds, crowned with golden days and crystalline nights, eternal jewels gifted by God himself—which the English have never yet managed to take from her. Come, then—air travel doesn’t bother you any more than sea travel, does it? Good! Grab hold of my coattails, then, you new Cléofas, and fly with me to the peak of Pieterboot, almost the highest mountain on the island. We can see everything from there!
The sky is always clear, as you see, and thickly clustered with stars; it is a blue carpet where God left behind gold dust in each of his footsteps, and where each atom is a world in itself. The whole island is laid out at our feet like an enormous map, 145 leagues around. Its sixty rivers look like silver threads winding their way to the sea, and its thirty mountains are thickly forested with takamaka, palm, and basket trees. See, among all those rivers, the great waterfalls of le Réduit and la Fontaine, rushing wildly from deep in the woods to crash thunderously into the ocean below—the mighty ocean that, calm or stormy, will always defeat the fury of the cascades. There, too, is the mighty rivière Noire, flowing majestically, shaping everything in its path and showing how time and tranquility always conquer unbridled rage. Gloomy Brabant stands among the other peaks like a giant sentinel keeping watch for enemy attacks. There is the crest of Trois-Mamelles, around whose base curl the Tamarin and Rempart rivers, as if the Indian goddess Isis wished to leave her mark. Gaze, finally, at the towering summit of le Pouce, near Pieterboot, for it is the highest point on the island; it seems to touch the very heavens, reminding us of the celestial court that will eventually render judgment on us all.
Before us is Port Louis, formerly Port Napoleon, the island’s capital city, protected from invaders by île des Tonneliers. See its many wooden houses and the two rivers running among them, which turn into veritable torrents after every storm. Its population holds a sample of every race of Earth. There are Creoles being carried about in palanquins, so indolent that their slaves are trained to respond to gestures rather than words; then there are the blacks, for whom the sun rises and sets by the lash of a whip. Falling somewhere between these two extremes are the Lascars, faces tanned under their green and red turbans. There are the Yoloffs of Senegambia, tall and handsome, with skin dark as ebony, sparkling eyes, and teeth like pearls; there are the short Chinese, flat-chested and wide-shouldered, with their bare heads and drooping mustaches. No one understands their language, yet they are masters of trade; there is no profession they do not practice; no merchandise they do not sell; no service they will not provide. They are the Jews of the colony. Gaze at the Malays, small, cunning, copper-skinned, and vindictive, who will forget a kindness in the blink of an eye but bear a grudge forever; the gentle giants of Mozambique; the Malgaches, slim, ruddy, and clever; the tall, proud Namaquois, trained to hunt tigers and elephants from earliest childhood. And there, in the midst of this teeming mass of humanity, are the English officers stationed on the island or in the port, proud in their scarlet jackets, black helmets, and white trousers. They look around them with supreme disdain, dismissing Creole and mulatto, master and slave, native and colonist with equal scorn; they speak only of London, of dear old England, and of themselves.
Behind us bustles Grand Port, formerly Port Imperial, established originally by the Dutch and then abandoned, for the same strong breezes that bring vessels so easily into the harbor too often prevent them from leaving as well. After years of neglect and decay, it is only today that houses are beginning to rise anew from the old ruins—a town once more, with a bay in which schooners seek refuge from pirates against a backdrop of green-forested hills where slaves hide from their tyrannical masters. Just behind those emerald peaks, almost under our very feet, you will find the region of Moka, lying on the slopes that face away from the port, perfumed with the scents of aloe, pomegranates, and cassis. It is a garden within a garden, the garden of the world; always festive and beautiful, the most breathtaking spot on the island.
Let’s face Madagascar again. To our left, beyond le Réduit, are the beautiful plains of Williams and Saint-Pierre, then Moka, the loveliest part of the island, divided by the rounded bulk of Mont Corps-de-Garde, shaped like a horse’s rump. Farther on, past the Great Woods, is the savanna, with its winding rivers called Citronniers, Bain-de-Négresses, and l’Arcade, and its well-defended port, so perfectly protected by steep hills that only friends may enter. Its pastures are as fertile as those of the Saint-Pierre Plains, its soil as virgin and untouched as that of the American wilderness. Farther inland there is an enormous lake filled with moray eels large and savage enough to devour live deer and even runaway slaves foolish enough to attempt a swim.
Finally, we turn to our right. Here is the Rempart district, dominated by the peak of Mont Découverte, beyond whose summit the ships’ masts rise like so many delicate willow branches. There are Cape Malheureux, the Bay of Tombeaux, and the Church of Pamplemousses. Here, too, are the two side-by-side huts of Madame de la Tour and Marguerite. It was at Cape Malheureux where the Saint-Géran sank, and in the Bay of Tombeaux that the corpse of a young woman was found, a torn portrait clutched in her hand. She was laid to rest in the Church of Pamplemousses, and just two months later a boy of the same age was buried beside her. You may have already guessed it: They were the tragic young Paul and Virginie, star-crossed tropical lovers buried in a single crypt, whose deaths are still mourned in the sighing rise and fall of the waves as a tigress might mourn the cubs she herself destroyed in a momentary fit of rage or jealousy.
So! Now that I have acquainted you with our fair island, with her inlets and shores, her rivers and hills, you may go wherever you like, day or night—to the île de la passe de Descorne in the southwest, or to Mahebourg on Petit-Malabar; along the coasts or deep in the interior; you may swim the rivers or climb the mountains, or watch the blazing disk of the setting sun light up the plains as if they were afire or the moon cast her melancholy light on the peaks, and if you are lulled by the afternoon heat, the Chinese rose water, or the Spanish jasmine, if you feel as lazy as if you had taken opium, you may stretch yourself on the soft green grass and abandon yourself without fear to the voluptous pleasures of sleep. If you are wakened, though, by a gentle rustle of leaves, be assured that it’s no Jamaican beast nor Bengal tiger; there are no reptilian hisses to be heard on île de France, nor the nocturnal roars of any predatory animals. No; it is only a bright-eyed young black girl gazing curiously through the bamboo stalks at this new European visitor. Simply smile at her and she will gather you a feast of ripe bananas, mangoes, and tamarinds. Say but one word to her, and she will reply, in her low and wistful voice, “I slave; I do what you want.” Shining with pride and satisfaction at your kind looks or tolerant words, she will refuse all pay and offer to lead you to her master’s house. Follow her down a tree-lined avenue to a pretty home with a flower-filled garden. Here lives the planter—he may be a benevolent father to his slaves or he may be a tyrant, but then, that has nothing to do with you. Enter and sit at the family table, and you—the honored guest—will be served from dishes of fine china and goblets of clearest crystal, endlessly refilled with the island’s best ale. Hunt in your host’s fields as much as you like; fish in his rivers; dine on his fattest calf. Here, the arrival of a guest is cause for celebration, like the return of a prodigal son to Paradise.
The English have long coveted this beloved daughter of France. They have hovered around her, attempting to seduce her first with rich gifts, then threats, and finally by force. She met every approach with supreme disdain, this lovely Creole of ours; she acquitted herself so well, in fact, that the men who desired her were so anxious to possess her that she had to be guarded as one might keep watch over a fragile Spanish nun. For a time it seemed that she would be left in peace, that she would be able to fend off any aggressors—but England launched a final, impassioned attack, and one morning île de France learned the terrible news that her sister island Bourbon had been taken. Sharpening their knives and polishing their guns, the defenders waited for the enemy to appear—and on August 23, 1810, accompanied by the deafening thunder of cannon fire, they came.