Into the Wind-House
There was a stillness in the heavy, humid air and smoke from
the cooking fires rose slowly straight upward into the cloudy sky a
long way before drifting off sharply to the north. The trade winds
had ceased. No comforting puff of air stirred the thick leaves of the
breadfruit trees, and in the cane fields, where a hundred near-naked
slaves bent to the work of harvest, slashing at the cane stalks with
long sharp knives, the heat by mid-morning was like an oven.
It was the thirteenth of August, 1766, a month into the hivernage,
the season of storms and rain. On the craggy, mountainous island of
Martinique in the western Antilles, four hundred miles from the
Guinea coast, clouds were piling up and an eerie darkness was gathering.
In the slave quarters there were whispers that a bad storm was
coming, for the Carib chiefs had announced that the skies were ominous
and everyone knew that on the night before, at sunset, a blood-red
light had been glimpsed at the horizon in place of the usual
emerald green a portent of death.
"It is the ioüallou," the slaves told one another and their creole
masters repeated the warning in their own tongue. "It is the ouracan."
Out in the wide bay of Fort-Royal, the clear turquoise water had
turned opaque, and by noon the ocean was choppy with whitecaps
and an angry surf crashed noisily on the beach. Ships riding at anchor
at the harbor mouth began to dance crazily in the swell, and nearer
the shore, fishermen hurried to bring their boats ashore, dragging
them up far from the beach and tying them to the wide stalks of
palm trees with thick ropes.
By early afternoon a leaden twilight had descended, and a harsh
wind off the ocean had begun to whistle through the cane fields.
Cows bellowed and pawed the earth restlessly, chickens deserted their
coops to seek refuge amid the rocks on the mountainside. Seabirds
flocked together and flew toward the center of the island, away from
the coast, and the brackish streams were full of fish swimming up
from the ocean, seeking protection from the churning waters.
Though the overseer had not yet given the order to stop work the
field hands paused in their labors and sniffed the air. It reeked of
sulphur. They looked up, and saw, threaded among the thick dark
clouds, fine streaks of silver lightning. Then the first large drops of
rain began to fall, spattering on the red earth with a sound so loud
it made talk impossible.
In the plantation of Trois-Ilets on the lower slopes of Morne
Ganthéaume, Joseph Tascher decided that it would be unwise to wait
any longer. He had to get his family to safety. His wife Rose-Claire
was in no condition to undergo hardship of any kind. For several
weeks she had been in bed expecting to deliver her third child a
child Joseph fervently hoped would be a son. The black midwives
were in attendance, prepared to deliver the child if the doctor from
Fort-Royal was unable to arrive at the plantation in time, and both
the baby's grandmothers, the aristocratic Françoise Tascher and the
iron-willed Irishwoman Catherine Brown, who on her marriage had
become Catherine des Sannois, had made the trip to Trois-Ilets in
order to be in attendance when Joseph's heir was born.
Joseph ordered a cart brought from the stable and helped his
anxious wife into it, along with his daughters Yeyette and Catherine,
aged three and not quite two, who clutched their slave nursemaids in
fear, and his mother and mother-in-law, and the six-year-old boy
Alexandre who had been living with the family since his birth. Into
the cart went a few belongings, the women's jewelry and the few
heirlooms they had thought to snatch hurriedly on their way out.
Joseph took one last look around, then ordered the driver to go as
quickly as possible to the wind-house.
Every plantation in Martinique had a wind-house, an all but impregnable
structure with stone walls six feet thick and no windows,
built deep into the hillside where no storm, no matter how fierce,
could penetrate. Massive wooden doors, made from hardwood cut in
the rain forest higher up on the slopes, opened into a dark, cavernous
room that could hold several dozen people and supplies of food and
water. In this refuge, secure behind the stout wooden doors, they
would wait out the storm.
In the high watchtower at the edge of the cane fields, the bell
began to ring, sounding the alarm. Work ceased, and the field hands
rushed at once to their huts, gathered their children and a few provisions,
and made their way to the sugar mill. The other buildings
on the plantation were dilapidated and neglected, but the stone-walled
sugar mill, built several generations earlier in more prosperous times,
was still sturdy. It would stand up to the ioüallou.
More cartloads were sent to the wind-house, full of candles and
lanterns, baskets of salted fish and cassavas and loaves made from
manioc flour, large red earthenware vessels full of fresh water and
molasses beer. The midwives brought their knives and cords and
charms made of dried palm leaves, blessed by the healers, to ward
By early evening the plantation was in total darkness, and the rain
was falling in sheets, swelling the streams and flooding the fields.
Hour by hour the wind grew in force and violence, churning the bay
into high waves and surging breakers. In the shelter where the Tascher
family and their house slaves were waiting out the storm, the thick
wooden doors began to bulge outward and tug against the ropes that
restrained them. Joseph and the other men took turns pulling on the
ropes with all their force, fighting the terrible outward sucking of the
So loud was its roaring that they could barely distinguish the
sounds of destruction outside the crashing of the huge trees as they
fell to earth, the flying apart of the two-story plantation house, the
mowing down of the cane fields and plantation gardens. The wind
had become a great scythe, sweeping across the land, cutting down
everything in its path, while rain lashed at the devastated earth and
washed the debris into the swollen rivers.
Joseph, nearly at the end of his strength, listened to the thunderous
noise of the wind and despaired. Everything he owned was being
carried off, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. He had
no money, he was deeply in debt and his health had been poor ever
since the previous year when he had nearly died of a malignant fever.
He was only thirty-six, but felt much older, worn down by the weight
of his failure, and by the continuing nagging disappointment of his
unhappy domestic life.
He had been struggling fitfully since his marriage five years earlier
to make the plantation a success. Trois-Ilets, its buildings and its
hundred and fifty African slaves had been a wedding present from
Rose-Claire's parents; Joseph had an obligation to make it profitable.
But well-intentioned though he was, he was ineffectual; he lacked the
energy and capability to manage a large estate. Neither manly nor
masterful, as his younger brother Robert was, Joseph could not seem
to find the discipline or the skill to increase the plantation's output
of sugar. He was reasonably intelligent, but pleasure-loving and easily
distracted. He preferred spending time at Fort-Royal to meeting with
his overseer Blacque or listening to the complaints of his unhappy
wife, whose task it was, in his absence, to run the plantation.
Life was so much easier at Fort-Royal, the chief town of the island
and the center of its social life. There he could sleep until noon,
meet with his friends in the evenings to dine and play cards, visit his
beautiful mulatto mistresses and pretend that he was a man of substance
and breeding instead of a near-bankrupt and the son of a
disreputable father. In recent years he had been spending less and less
time at Trois-Ilets, letting his responsibilities go. Times were hard,
what with the British blockade making it all but impossible to sell
what sugar the estate produced; it hardly seemed worthwhile to keep
trying. And the longer Joseph stayed away, the more run down Trois-Ilets
became, the buildings falling into disrepair, the fields only partially
cultivated, the slaves dwindling in numbers as their absent
master failed to provide for them.
Now, of course, none of that mattered. The hurricane was sweeping
everything away. Everything but his family, that is. He still had
his daughters, and the son he and his wife were expecting. At least
the family name would be carried on, even if there was only a ruined
plantation and a thick sheaf of debts to go with it.
There was a boy attached to the family already, of course. Little
Alexandre, who had lived with them for all of his six years, was a
sort of surrogate son. A tall, dark-haired, good-looking child, well-spoken
and good at his lessons, Alexandre had been born in Martinique
and given to the Tascher family to raise a temporary
arrangement, it was understood, but one that did not seem likely to
end soon. Alexandre was the son of François de Beauharnais, former
governor of the Windward Isles, who now lived in Paris with his
married mistress, Joseph's sister Edmée. Alexandre's mother, who was
in poor health, also lived in France but apart from her husband, and
apparently did not mind living apart from her son as well. So little
Alexandre continued to be raised as a creole, along with the Tascher
children Yeyette and Catherine, spending time with grandmother
Tascher and grandmother de Sannois as well as at Trois-Ilets, never
having known his parents. In every respect but that of blood kinship,
he was one of the family.
Throughout the night the storm continued, save for an hour of
unnatural calm the eye of the hurricane when the wind dropped
suddenly and all was still. For that brief interval the victims of the
storm, crowded together in the wind-house, tried in vain to rest. But
the respite was brief. Soon the assaulting gusts returned, and so greatly
did their force build that for a time it seemed as if the mountains
themselves would be shaken into the ocean. Once again the doors of
the wind-house bulged outward, and the weary occupants, exhausted
from their long vigil, said their prayers and clutched each other in
Not until dawn did the ceaseless roaring and shrieking of the wind
begin to die down, and it was mid-morning before Joseph Tascher
cautiously opened the thick wooden doors and peered out at the
A pale sun shone down on a sea of mud that had been the plantation
No trees were left standing. The two-story plantation house, with
its wide veranda and its straggle of outbuildings, had vanished, along
with the rose garden and the wide courtyard with its fine avenue of
tamarisks. The bell tower had gone, the rows of slave huts had been
demolished, and in the fields stretching away from where the plantation
house had been, no stalk of cane was left upright.
The quiet was unnerving. There were no birds to sing, no frogs
to croak, none of the everyday animal and human sounds that were
the familiar backdrop to plantation life. Even the hum of insects had
been stilled, for the clouds of mosquitoes, which had been unable to
escape the cruel wind, had perished in their millions.
One building still stood. The refinery appeared to be untouched
by the storm, and when Joseph and his family left the wind-house
and made their way to it, they found within its spacious interior,
amid the machinery and rows of barrels and freshly cut cane stalks,
most of the field hands and their families.
Over the following weeks the slow, dispiriting work of restoration
began. Debris was sorted and cleared away, fallen trees were chopped
into timber to build new sheds and huts and carts and a new bell
tower. Dead cattle were buried, along with a number of slaves, for as
always happened following a severe storm, there was an outbreak of
fever and many did not survive it.
Gradually news reached Trois-Ilets from other plantations, and
from Joseph's brother Robert in Fort-Royal. The devastation had
been island wide. Fort-Royal itself had been badly damaged, and
many smaller settlements had all but disappeared. Out in the bay,
hundreds of ships had sunk, with a very high loss of life. It had been,
everyone agreed, the worst storm anyone could remember.
In the refinery, Rose-Claire Tascher lay on a makeshift bed,
watched over by her mother and mother-in-law and the black midwives.
She was past her time.
She had no privacy. The entire population of the plantation slept
in the same large but crowded room, the master and his children and
other relatives, the slaves, many of whom lay stricken with fever, the
overseer and the few visitors who arrived with supplies and messages
On the oppressively hot night of September 2, three weeks after
the storm struck the island, Rose-Claire went into labor. She was
prayed over, massaged, protected with amulets and given rum to drink
when the pains became too great to be endured. Finally, on the following
day, her baby was born. Everyone in the community, caught
up in the drama, listened for the cries of the newborn infant, and
smiled when they heard its first thin wails. The birth was an omen
of better times to come, they told one another. The hurricane had
brought death, yet despite its ravages, new life was coming into the
But Joseph, haggard and careworn, turned his face away from his
child and tried to hide his tears of disappointment. He had another