At the heart of a glittering archipelago that encircles the waist of the Americas lies the birthplace of Empress Josephine. Today the island of Martinique is a bustling French de’partement. It is as much a part of France, theoretically, as Loir-et-Cher or the Pas de Calais, except that it is thousands of miles away from the mother country, set in the turquoise of the Caribbean Sea. The human mosaic that is its populace tells a complex story of slavery and settlement. The racial melange of its people derives from Africans and Amerindians, white planters and indentured Indians who replaced slaves in the cane fields, as well as Chinese and Syrian merchants.
The island’s geography is as variegated as its people.
Shaped like one of the exotic butterflies that so abundantly populate its foliage, Martinique is a voluptuous island, its rolling hills interspersed by verdant valleys. Mangoes and pineapples flourish here without any human encouragement. Bananas grow upwards, swollen and yellowing towards the sun, and fat green bread­fruits cling heavily to the trees. In the north, dense lush forests are decorated with ferns and orchids. This luxuriant herbage is counterpointed in the south by vegetation typical of any dry zone: cactus and brush. Indeed, Martinique is like two islands in one. The side bordering the Atlantic is steep and subject to a heavy surf. The other coastline, which is fringed by the Caribbean Sea, is as smooth as an azure rug.
Martinique has a lurid, swashbuckling history. Enticed by tales of an island populated “entirely by women”, Christopher Columbus dropped anchor in ‘matinino’ in 1502. By then the island’s original population, an Amerindian tribe called the Arawaks, had been massacred by the more warlike Caribs. The latter coexisted relatively peaceably with the first trickle of Europeans. Western arrivistes could be divided roughly into two categories, the desperate and the damned: people fleeing from justice, soldiers fed up with fighting, sailors who came and never left. All the newcomers were dismayed to discover that this particular paradise was prodigiously populated with snakes.
The French officially claimed the island in the 1630s and the colonial race began in earnest. Intoxicated by the promise of the New World and the fabulous wealth to be found there, settlers came from far afield: from France mainly, but also from England, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and later Italy. Adven­turers with titles of nobility newly bought or forged, and younger sons hoping to earn the fortunes they could not inherit, joined the recidivists, vagabonds, beggars and prostitutes that the French authorities sent to the island as engage’s to work out their prison terms in exchange for their freedom. These new migrants were dreamers and gamblers all, flush with hope, dazzled by the possibility of reinventing their lives.
But the islands were lawless. Pirates and privateers, with their histories of murder, violence and shipwrecks, dominated both the commercial and military lives of the colonies. Clad in their signature garb of leather waistcoat and gold hooped earrings and wielding well-honed machetes, this inter­national cast of reprobates terrorized the daily life of the region and indelibly wrote themselves into the Caribbean’s colourful mythology. These were the golden days of piracy, the most unpredictable and dangerous of times. The “brotherhood of the coast” counted amongst its members men like the Eng­lishman Bonnet, who claimed that he had taken to the sea to escape a nagging wife, and the French nobleman De Grammont, who killed his sister’s seducer in a duel; they fought alongside the likes of Monbars (the “Exterminator”), and the “Emperor of Buccaneers’, Sir Henry Morgan.
By the eighteenth century Martinique’s flourishing trades, legal and illegal, had turned it into a thriving colony. The Caribs had been almost totally exterminated. Slavery, introduced more than a hundred years earlier, had been stepped up in order to meet the demand for sugar, the “white gold” that had enriched Caribbean islands beyond all expectation. Martinique’s geographical position as gateway to both South and North America guaran­teed its military importance and gained it the nickname the “pearl of the Antilles’. Its two largest cities, Saint-Pierre and Fort-Royal, were the most cosmopolitan in Les Isles du Vent – the Windward Islands – a playground and meeting place for traders, travellers and military men alike. It was no wonder that, in a treaty concluded with Britain in 1763, when presented with the choice between holding on to Canada (which Voltaire famously dismissed as “a few acres of snow”) or to the commercially and strategically important ‘sugar islands’ including Martinique, Santo Domingo and Guadeloupe, the French chose the latter.
Josephine’s family story is intricately woven into the tapestry of Martinique’s history. Pierre Be’lain d’Esnambuc, the founder of French power in the Antilles, who had taken possession of the island on behalf of Louis XIII in 1635, was one of her ancestors. She was also a descendant of Guillaume d’Orange, a courageous and audacious leader, who was responsible for protecting the colonials from Carib aggression in 1640 and who played a crucial role in defending Martinique during the Dutch Navy’s attempt to take the island in 1674. Six generations on, a descendant of both these men – Rose Claire des Vergers de Sannois, daughter of a prosperous plantation dynasty – married Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher de La Pagerie.
The marriage was not one that her father, Joseph-François des Vergers de Sannois, would have regarded as a social coup. The groom’s father, Gaspard-Joseph, had arrived on the island in 1726 with nothing but his certificate of nobility to commend him. His pedigree was impressive enough: his ancestors included a Tascher who had endowed a monastery in 1142 and another who had been a crusader in 1190. But Gaspard himself was made of less impressive stuff and he didn’t particularly prosper in Martinique. Despite a promising marriage to a plantation heiress, he had not been able to consolidate his position and ended up working as steward on a number of plantations, living off the good will of his powerful connections. His reputation on the island was so poor – in spite of his constant boasting about his noble descent – that the father of one of his daughters’ suitors hesitated to agree to marriage because of “the loose living of her father and the public disorder of his affair’s.”1
Des Vergers de Sannois pe`re had an equally noble pedigree, the bulk of the family originating in Brest, but his roots on the island were considerably longer than those of the Tascher family, as long as the history of settlement itself. He was a true Creole, the name given to those of European descent born in the colonies. (The slaves called them beke’s, an Ibo word which, derived from the phrase “whites found under the leaves’, had derogatory connotations of low or illegitimate birth.) The Sannois family had numerous plantations scattered throughout the region; their holdings on Martinique alone were worth 60,000 livres*, in addition to which they had substantial cash savings. As the putative head of one of the oldest and most renowned families on the island, he was a grand blanc, one of the elite caste of plantation dynasties who intermarried and interrelated, dominating island life through their virtually unimpeded power. (The petits blancs, many of them the poor white descendants of engage’s, worked largely as sailors, petty administrators and tradesmen.)
Were it not for the dangerously advanced age of Rose-Claire, M. de Sannois would probably never have considered the union. But at twenty-five she was – by the terms of the island nobility – virtually unmarriageable. No doubt Rose-Claire, who had never left her small island, was seduced by the young Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher de La Pagerie, with his easy manner and veneer of sophistication acquired during his five years at the French court, where he had been a page to dauphiness Marie-Joséphe de Saxe. But her father was not. Still, the young man had a good military reputation; he had become the first lieutenant in the coastal artillery on his return to Martinique and had distinguished himself in the military skirmishes of the island. This was small consolation for the Sannois family, but against the fear of remaining without an heir her reluctant parents agreed to the marriage.
The couple’s first child was born in Martinique on 23 June 1763 and five weeks later the robust baby girl was christened at the tiny white church in Trois-I‘lets where her parents had married two years earlier. The Capuchin friar who conducted the service wrote in his records, “Today, 27 July 1763, I baptized a little girl aged five weeks, born of the legitimate marriage of Messire Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher and Madame Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois’. The child was put forward for baptism by her maternal grandfather and her paternal grandmother. Her given name was Marie-Jose`phe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie. After the ceremony, which had been attended by a large gathering of family and friends, Rose – or little Yeyette, as she had been dubbed by her mulatto nurse, Marion – was, as tradition demanded, taken on a tour of neighbouring plantations where she was feted, kissed and complimented, and numerous items were added to her layette.
After the celebrations the little girl returned to the extraordinary place where she had been born. The plantation, or as it is called l’Habitation de la Pagerie, now a museum, is situated in the south-west of Martinique in the tiny hamlet of Trois-I‘lets, which takes its name from the three miniature islands that adorn its bay. Until it was hit by a hurricane, the town’s vista was dominated by the small white church in which little Rose was christened. To the west of Trois-I‘lets lies the plantation, nestling on a little plateau in the middle of a slim, funnel-shaped gorge. Its setting, wrote one observer, seems a “haven of peace”.2
Known in the area as “Little Guinea”, after the African origin of most of its slaves, L’Habitation de La Pagerie was and is a place of exceptional natural beauty. It is not difficult to understand the passionate attachment Rose’s family had for it. They felt that they had literally carved their new life out of the wilderness. In order to subdue this land and claim it, they had waged an unceasing war against nature. Almost as quickly as her ancestors cut and cleared, burnt and built, the vigorous vegetation of the island went about sabotaging their work; splitting walls, dislodging stones and destroying foun­dations. Every inch of the plantation’s five hundred hectares represented a victory to Rose’s family, a monument to their will, a symbol of their tenacious ability to prevail in the most impossible of circumstances.
The “great house” at La Pagerie was a relatively modest affair. As was the tradition, it was built on slightly raised land so that the planter could keep a continuous eye on his investment. It was a simple, one-storey building, white and wooden and airy, covered with tiles and perched on a foundation of large squared stones. Inside the house was equipped with an eclectic mixture of traditional French furniture and pieces constructed in the Americas. The rooms were scented by blossoms cultivated on the property: tuberoses, jasmine, immortelles. Around three sides of the house ranged a glacis, a type of covered veranda with slatted railings which the young Rose spent much time peering through.
Immediately surrounding the house was a neat shady garden, dominated by large tamarind, mango and frangipani trees, their flowers and foliage almost obscuring the house. To the extreme right and left were the outbuild­ings, including the kitchen which served the great house. A hedge of hibiscus, roses, immortelles and acacias surrounded the entire domestic compound. It is easy to imagine Rose as a little baby being walked by her nurse up and down “palm alley”, which extended to the right of the house. This honour guard of gigantic palm trees rose like Roman columns on either side of the road, their verdant fronds interlaced to make a giant canopy; it remained one of her favourite places.
As the months passed, Yeyette’s plump little legs carried her further around her family’s plantation. The true majesty of La Pagerie was not its architec­ture but its land. It was set in a valley dramatic with slopes and gullies and giant ceiba trees, about which Josephine often reminisced. The voluptuous hills were interspersed with green pastures and savannahs and field after field of green sugar cane. Here on rolling grassy land cows and sheep endlessly grazed. The sugar cane rippled continuously in the breeze, creating a song that never ceased, and enclosed the factory and the dwelling houses “like a sea”. Visible through the gaps in the foliage was the iridescent blue of the Caribbean water.
The area was originally cultivated by the Caribs, so by the time Rose’s family settled there it was already richly endowed with fruits and vegetables. On the slopes of the hills grew a mixture of coffee, cocoa, cotton and cassava, while the abrupt and precipitous mountain sides were covered to the summits with luxuriant hardwood forests. At the edges of the plantation, always threatening to encroach, was the dreamscape of the rainforest. Here tangled vines and serpentine lianas concealed ravines and hung their garlands around anarchic vegetation. Sustaining all of this was the river La Pagerie, which ran like a vital artery through the body of the property. Sometimes sluggish and noxious, sometimes meandering and sweet tasting, at other times dangerous and swift with unpredictable currents, it is really numerous rivers rolled into one; today it is known as “the River with Five Names’.
Viewed from the summit of the hills of Lamentin, L’Habitation de La Pagerie is even more spectacular. The plantation is bordered on three sides by a range of hills that spread out, gradually losing their green to the misty blue of the sky. The highest peak, Carbet, is wrapped in a headdress of vapour. On the fourth side the property slopes down to the bay of Trois’lets. From this vantage point the funnel-shaped valley is reminiscent of some giant natural amphitheatre. Every slope and gully is cloaked in foliage. The air is fresh with salt, sweet with the scent of tropical flowers. The sense of peace is absolute. It is no wonder that Rose, buffered between hills and sea, felt so safe here. Her family’s land stretched as far as the eye could see; to a young girl it must have seemed like the entire world.
In the days of Rose’s youth La Pagerie was indeed a world, an enclave complete unto itself. Like most plantations it was a self-sufficient community, as self-contained as any small town, sustained largely by what was grown on the property and by the hunting and fishing yielded from its own lands. It had its own carpenters and ironmongers, its own flour mill and sawmill and a tiny hospital. While the cane crop provided the backbone of the plantation’s economy, La Pagerie also sold the small amounts of coffee, indigo and cotton cultivated on its slopes. It even produced its own honey and polish, much sought after in the district, derived from the large colony of bees that thrived amongst its myriad varieties of vegetation.
The La Pagerie family ruled like despots, absolute monarchs of all they surveyed, and little Rose was brought up with the privileges of any royal heir. She was surrounded by loving relatives and courtiers, including her mother and father, her grandparents de Sannois, her aunt, nicknamed Rosette, and her sisters, Catherine-D’siré, born 11 December 1764, and the youngest girl, Marie-Françoise (known as Manette), born in early September 1766. She was watched over by her much loved nurse, Marion, and her young helpers, Genevi’ve and Mauriciette, who bathed and dressed her, pampered and cosseted her. Brought up amidst slaves who were exclusively occupied with fulfilling her every desire, Rose was typical of many Creole children, who were often characterized as ‘excessively capricious’.3
By her own admission it was a “spoilt childhood”. From a very early age she was blessed by a sense that she was loved and appreciated and beautiful. Despite this she managed to remain a sweet-natured child of enormously appealing appearance. With her large, amber eyes and luminous complexion, little Yeyette was a delicious sight. Her chestnut hair, meticulously curled, glistened golden in the island’s bright sunshine. Her skin, burnished by the sun, glowed. The “pretty Creole”, as her neighbours called her, had an irresistible charm even in her infancy. Everyone adored her, particularly her usually stern grandfather.
The peace of Rose’s life at La Pagerie was rudely shattered on 13 August 1766 when a hurricane hit the island and did not relent for two days. Three­year-old Rose was asleep in her little wooden bed during the first indications of the storm: a gentle obscuring of the horizon on the north-west side of the island. Then the night abruptly fell into profound darkness. The tropical sky, normally lit by moon and stars, was enveloped by black, bursting clouds and lashed by rain. The smells of sulphur and bitumen, produced by the combination of electricity and moisture, befouled the air.
Rose, bundled in her nurse’s arms, fled the house along with her heavily pregnant mother, her father, her sister Catherine and a handful of domestic slaves, to take refuge on the first floor of the purgerie (“sugar-drying house”). Winds of over one hundred miles per hour swept across the island; the earth trembled and flames spurted from its breast. Rivers burst their banks. The sea was no less intimidating: the waves were so high they seemed to merge with the clouds. The moans and cries of the drowning were obliterated by the noise of the surf. “It was,” said one survivor, “a horrendous turmoil; a terrible fury of water, fire and wind. It seemed as if nature itself was coming to an end.”4
Nothing could withstand the hurricane’s rage. The island’s crops of sugar, indigo, bananas and cocoa were entirely lost; trees were ripped out by their roots; men and cattle were thrown into the air. A cabin boy was lifted from the deck of a ship and deposited unharmed on dry land. Houses were prised open and roofs lifted off like corks being pulled from bottles. In the town of Trinite”, near Trois-I“lets, the force of the hurricane, “almost as if in defiance of God”, detached a church from its very foundations, lifted its walls and threw them back down in pieces. “When it was over a woman was found crushed to death, her two children sleeping peacefully in her arms. Another family escaped death by using the door of their home as a raft and clung on till they could be rescued.”5 Altogether 440 people died and 580 were injured; countless were made homeless and the economy was devastated. Beholding the aftermath, according to one report, many in the population, soaked and shivering, fell to their knees and prayed for the clemency of God.
When the exhausted and bleary-eyed La Pagerie family emerged they were confronted with a scene of total devastation. The slave quarters, constructed of fragile bamboo, had been entirely swept away. The cane crops and much of the rest of the plantation’s vegetation had been levelled. The pastures were strewn with the corpses of cattle, and in the river floated the bodies of those slaves who had not managed to find a safe haven during the storm. The earth was strewn with the skeletons of trees, and much of the family’s property: clothing, crockery, bits of furniture. Nothing was left of the great wooden house. Only the purgerie, where they had sheltered, and the stout stone-built kitchen remained intact. It was a disaster from which the plantation would take decades to recover.
After the shock had subsided, the work of reconstruction began. The entire island was mobilized to clear debris, replant crops and nurse the injured. At La Pagerie they rebuilt the slave quarters, the laundry and the dovecote. The upper floor of the purgerie was converted into a family abode and a veranda was built along the south side. These rather uncomfortable and makeshift domestic quarters were intended as a temporary arrangement, but because of financial problems and Rose’s father’s inertia they were to remain the family home for the rest of her childhood.
The economic devastation wrought by the hurricane was only exacer­bated by the death of grandfather de Sannois six months later. The family had anticipated a generous legacy, but the machinations of a corrupt notary meant they inherited only debts. Rose’s dowry, already depleted, now disap­peared completely. Money was to remain a worry throughout her childhood. At first Rose was too young to fully appreciate the implications of this. The family’s precarious finances became more of an issue as she grew older and had more contact with the highly materialistic and competitive plantation families. But at four years old the lack of certain comforts barely impinged on her daily life. Her experience was of an affectionate, loving environment, buffered by the planters’ life of apparent ease; a leisure made possible by slave labour.
Life slowly returned to normal. The family, which had been famous for its hospitality, resumed entertaining. The loss of the house precluded formal balls and dances, but the large, lavish lunch parties – which were traditional on the island to celebrate Easter, Christmas and birthdays and to honour important visitors – were still possible. An army of slaves would labour for days, cooking, baking and cleaning, to feed up to three hundred guests. The food was laid out, usually on long trestle picnic tables covered in white linen and decorated with the exotic flowers grown on the plantation. Typically the fare was a mixture of French and island specialities: fine French wines were offered as well as ti ponch, the island version of rum punch; roast meats and saucissons were served with local delicacies like crab soup, sweet potato and fricasse”e of turtle; pastries were provided alongside tropical fruits like mangoes and guavas. If the weather was particularly hot the company was fanned by slaves with huge fans made from lengths of bamboo and ostrich feathers, or they retired indoors – into rooms that were darkened against the heat and light – for the afternoon siesta.
This style of entertaining, which became known in the islands as “creoli­zing”, was relaxed and leisurely, and guests sometimes lingered for days. But these great social occasions were few and far between. On most days no visitors came and Rose and her sisters were expected to make their own amusements. Plantation life tended to be insular and isolated, and La Pagerie was no exception. It was difficult to reach, accessible overland on horseback or by carriage only by treacherous and rudimentary roads in an era when most travel was laborious and slow. And so – with the exception of an occasional visit from the curate on his donkey – the family and its slaves were left largely to their own devices.
Were there a painting depicting Josephine’s childhood, its palette would resemble that of Gauguin, who first acquired his taste for bright shades on a visit to Martinique in 1887. This was a world of primary colours: the cobalt blue of the sky, the searing gold of the sun and splashes of red provided by sunsets and tropical flowers. Interspersed with these dominant pigments was the full range of the spectrum: pinks, purples, oranges, yellows, whites and infinite hues of green; provided by tropical plants like orchids, bougainvillea, scarlet flamboyant trees, hibiscus and amaryllis. The plantation was gaudy with colour; the air thick and wet and scented with honeysuckle, jasmine and frangipani.
In the background, but shaping all their lives, was the agricultural enter­prise that was the plantation’s raison d’être. Life at La Pagerie was ruled by the rhythms of sugar production. The plantation’s dwellers were woken every morning by the slave master blowing his conch shell to summon the slaves to work. Cane could be planted at any time of year and the reaping of one crop was often the signal to plant again. So the slaves worked ceaselessly: digging ditches, planting, harvesting, clearing and then beginning again. (One of the emblematic symbols of the Caribbean remains that of women carrying the bundles of cane on their heads to be pressed.) The extraction of the juice was an urgent affair lest the canes begin to rot, so slaves worked up to eighteen hours a day, first to transport the canes, then to extract the juice and manufacture the raw sugar. The sugar mill was like a scene from Dante’s inferno. Here near-naked slaves laboured in the glow of the flames and the roaring noise and terrible heat of the boiler room to transform the recently pressed juice into a thick, dark syrup. At these times the air of the plantation, always slightly sweet because of the growing cane, was heavy with the cloying scent of burnt sugar.
Rose adored sweet things. She haunted the cane fields in the hope of being given a section of fresh cane, cut and peeled, so that she could chew and suck the sweet juice from the fibrous cane husk. Many years later she would grow sugar cane in the greenhouses at Malmaison so that her grand­children could experience her childhood love. But at La Pagerie the cane juice was just the first delight. There was also le sirop, when the recently pressed juice was transformed into a thick dark syrup, then the dark treacly molasses, then the raw crystalline brown sugar, before it was refined into the final exportable product. Rose’s sweet tooth left a lifelong legacy: a cavity in her front left incisor which prompted her to develop her distinctive smile, broad and beguiling but with her teeth resolutely covered.
But the process of “civilizing sugar” only intermittently encroached on her daily life, which was centred around her family and a handful of slaves who were carers and companions. It was a childhood conducted in the open air, with a freedom of movement encouraged by the loose, cool, cotton clothes that were the fashion for colonial children. Here in their own natural theme park the girls discovered trees, flowers and fruits, and watched black finches, blue herons or any of the twenty-five other species of birds that inhabited the plantation. They had races and played catch or hide-and-seek. There were hives to scrutinize, lizards to torment, endless places to explore or to retreat to or to fall in love with. The plantation was an intensely evocative place and its im­ages sank deeply into the child’s mind, reappearing in the gardens she created many years later in France.
It was a physically active childhood. Rose went riding on her little Spanish pony or walking in the hills. Long journeys were taken by palanquin, a kind of hammock decorated with fringes and bird feathers and carried by slaves. There were excursions to the sea for fishing parties, trips in the small, quick canoes known as pirogues or swimming in the shallow bathing spots in the bay, which are now called “baignoires de Jos’phine” in her honour. She danced alongside the slaves as they celebrated their days off in marathon dance sessions of release and pleasure sometimes lasting from sunset to sunrise. As an adult she recollected primarily the sensations of her childhood: the intense quality of light, the warmth of sun-baked skin, above all the feeling of being light, free, unencumbered. “I ran, I jumped, I danced, from morning to night; no one restrained the wild movements of my childhood.”6
Little Guinea had so many magical places guaranteed to stir a child’s imagination. There were mysterious places, like the curious water tank built out of three tiers of rock one hundred years earlier by the Caribs, whose cryptic carvings could be found repeated on stones throughout the island. There were peaceful places, like the river’s shady bathing pools in which semi-precious stones could sometimes be found glittering in the river bed. Accompanied by her beloved nurse Marion or her sisters and friends, Rose would bathe here, then sit on cool, mossy stones and chat or dream. There were exciting places, hills and ravines and dark places in the tropical forest, which she explored despite the attendant dangers of snakes, tarantulas and scorpions underfoot. Here Rose and her sisters would play and prowl and dream and rummage on the borders of their small world.
The physical texture of her days was very different from that of a child brought up in France. She jumped from scorching paving stones onto damp, cool grass; savoured the bitter taste of the golden-skinned June plums, with their prickly seed inside; breathed the smells of sun-baked stones mingled with those of vanilla and eucalyptus leaves; felt the darting surprise of tiny shoals of mercurial fish that flashed silver past her feet as she swam in the clear Caribbean water. At dusk she watched the fiery red-and-yellow sunset, chased fireflies as they floated like miniature lamps in the tropical night and fell asleep to the sound of the cicadas and tree frogs whose symphony accom­panied the day’s descent into darkness.
“Night”, one traveller said of Martinique, “has the luminosity of the supernatural.”7 For a little girl raised on the folk tales of her black nurse, this was particularly true. The night was a procession of phantoms: the breeze shook the trees like castanets, the cane rustled, the fruit bats whistled in the dark. Vegetation that seemed innocuous in the sun became frightening and grotesque under the moon’s diaphanous rays. The tree that in the daylight was simply a tree became a being, one of those zombies the islanders called tim-tims, or the ghostly moun-mos. These eerie sensations were only height­ened by the noises from the slave village. As the family sat sedately indoors, playing cards, singing or talking, the slaves’ fires were all that was visible to the main house. But the sound of their singing and the murmurs of their story telling wafted through the clear evening air. Night was the slaves’ time, their only real period of leisure, so all their living was done then. It was then that the masters felt least secure about their investment. It was the time of revolts and mysterious disappearances which heightened the strained atmos­phere and made the night even more disturbing and curiously exciting for an imaginative little girl like Rose.
So much of who she was – and would become – was forged here, in the exotic sensory splendour of her birthplace. It was a world that had to be apprehended through the body, not through the intellect. It helped to account for her mainly sensual intelligence and her highly evolved aesthetic judgement. Her style was reminiscent of that of the mulatto women who brought her up: opulent and highly seductive, just as it was their contagious Creole accents that inflected her beautiful voice with its appealing island lilt. Even her carriage, for which she would become so renowned in France, was like one of the “Caribbean Venuses’ of the islands, who walked, remarked one observer, as if they were “floating across sand”, slowly and languorously, their heads held perfectly upright.
In later life Rose tended to depict life in Martinique as a pre-Lapsarian paradise. But there was already a serpent in this garden of Eden: slavery. Many biographers have been disposed to give her family the benefit of the doubt in relation to their treatment of slaves, describing them as “benevolent protectors’. But there is no evidence to suggest that La Pagerie was any better or worse than other plantations or that the family had pioneered a utopian scheme to eliminate exploitation from plantation life. Had they done so, this would have been so unusual that it would certainly have been recorded in the accounts of the period. Brutality was an intrinsic part of plantation life and no child, however privileged or protected, could escape its ugliness or its savagery.
La Pagerie was a place of disturbing contrasts. The family compound, with its pretty gardens and shady trees, overlooked thirty-eight squalid little huts that constituted the slave quarters. Here in dark, airless hovels with the beaten earth for a floor and beds of straw or animal hide, 150 men, women and children slept and ate, lived and died. Here was also home to many of the young slaves who were Yeyette’s childhood playmates: Maximin, TiMedas, infirm since birth, and one-legged Bocoyo. But at the end of the day the La Pagerie sisters returned to their enchanted life in a world of meticulously maintained grace and beauty, and their companions returned to that other, dark, world of deprivation and suffering.
The sight of slave gangs working in the cane fields, half naked under the searing sun – backs bent under the lash, sweat pouring from their bodies – which so disturbed and awed new visitors to colonial territories, was a part of everyday life for Rose. As they advanced side by side through the sugar cane, working with a collective rhythm, they seemed, to one observer, “as formidable as a phalanx of infantry”.8 But the crop was harvested at the cost of beatings and brutal suppression. The slaves’ cries and groans punctuated the air. They worked from sunrise till sunset, six days a week, all year round. On their day of rest they were expected to work on their own plot of land. Overcome by overwork, disease and a lack of food, death seemed a blessed release. “The whip”, wrote the fervent abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, is the ‘soul of the colonies’. It is “the clock of the plantation: it announces the moment of waking up and of going to bed; it marked the hour of work; it also marked the hour of rest . . . the day of his death is the only one in which the negro is allowed to forget the wake-up call of the whip”.9
In the early, most brutal, days of slavery, the average life expectancy of a slave in many colonies was a dismal twenty-five years. The Code Noir, insti­tuted by Louis XIV and enacted in 1685, was designed to lay out the structure of colonial society. It purported to ensure human and civilized social structures; in fact, it encoded brutality. Beatings, brandings and being burnt alive were accepted punishments for a sliding scale of offences. There were few, if any, legal or social constraints on the more bizarre cruelties that have been recorded and which nearly always went unpunished. Slaves were covered in honey and staked out on anthills to be stung to death; other planters preferred inserting gunpowder into offenders’ orifices and then igniting it. One visitor to the island was horrified to discover that just prior to dinner his charming hostess had had her cook thrown alive into the oven and watched impassively as he screamed and burned to death. His crime? An infraction regarding washing the dishes.10
Slavery did not exist just on the master’s lands; it lived in his house and pervaded the intimate relationships of his household. About one quarter of the slaves at Little Guinea worked as domestics: valets, laundresses, nurses, cooks, cleaners. They were inevitably entangled in the family’s daily life. The atmosphere of the plantation house was not unlike that of a royal court, with the plantation owners in lieu of a royal family. They saw it not only as their right but also as their duty to meddle in their charges’ lives: dispensing advice and punishment, even interfering with their sex lives, since any child begat at Little Guinea was their property. Slaves, in order to obviate the powerless­ness of their situation, acted like courtiers: collecting information, lobbying for position and status. Everybody scrutinized everyone else. There were endless bickering, gossiping and rumours. Intrigue was rife. Underlying this was a continuous undercurrent of fear and suspicion. Slaves knew that their very lives were dependent on the whims of their owners. The owners wondered whether every acquiescent, smiling face might provide the Judas kiss; whether the nurse who cared for their children, or even their own illegitimate offspring, might become the purveyor of ground glass or the wielder of a knife in the dark. (In 1806 Rose’s mother did prosecute one of her servants for an alleged attempt to poison her.)11
Sex made the already intense atmosphere of plantation life even more heated. It was widely accepted, and expected, that male plantation owners would take liberties with their slaves. As a result, women like Rose’s mother were often expected to live with their fathers’ and husbands’ concubines as well as their illicit offspring. It was no wonder that Creole women had a reputation for vindictiveness in relation to their female slaves, for these women, their most constant companions, were also their rivals.
The slave system, which encompassed sexual and reproductive compul­sion, created a hidden history in every plantation family. The La Pagerie family was no exception. A question mark hung over the racial origins of Rose’s grandmother Mme de Sannois, n”e Catherine Brown. On an island where individual pedigrees were minutely scrutinized to avoid the “horror” of misce­genation, her antecedents remain shrouded in mystery. More concrete were the queries about the paternity of many of the mulatto women who worked in the house, like Rose’s nurse, Marion. Was she fathered by Blanque, the overseer? grandfather de Sannois? Joseph? Or some other white man from some other plantation? There was little doubt about the paternal identity of the pretty mulatto slave Euph’mie, who eventually accompanied Rose to Paris: it was widely accepted that she was the illegitimate daughter of Joseph de La Pagerie. But in the morally askew world of the colonies, family could also be property; Rose’s half-sister was also her slave. Even within the home, slavery distorted human relationships and warped affectional ties.
Rose once declared, “I was always careful to cover with a favourable veil those faults [in the slave] which did not affect me personally.”12 Her own com­passion towards the plantation’s slaves was never in doubt, and they recipro­cated with a fierce loyalty that would be useful when she returned to the island years later. But the cruelty of her world was inescapable. Rose learned early to compartmentalize her feelings, exercising great kindness while closing her eyes to wider cruelties – a skill that would serve her greatly in later life.
Rose was born in a complicated place during a tumultuous time. As one of the most strategically placed and valuable sugar islands in the region, Mar­tinique was a favourite pawn, continually being passed backwards and forwards between Britain and France in the endless wars for economic and tactical supremacy in the Caribbean. According to family lore, Rose was still in her mother’s womb when Mme de La Pagerie, accompanied by two slaves, climbed the hills of the plantation to watch the terrible battle raging in Fort­Royal’s harbour in which her husband was fighting. For three nights the guns roared and blazed in what would prove to be a watershed victory for the French troops and the islanders caught up in the fallout of the Seven Years War. Three months before Rose’s birth, Martinique was returned to France after almost a decade of occupation. Rose thus avoided being born a British subject by as slim a margin as Napoleon – born on the island of Corsica which had recently been recaptured by the French – would avoid being born Italian.
Peace arrived in the form of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, but it came at enormous cost. During the years of blockade and enemy occupation the island’s planters had accrued huge debts and their plantation incomes had fallen to less than one-third of operating costs. Those estates which had not been razed by fire had been so seriously neglected that many of the buildings were in total disrepair, while their fields and pastures had all but reverted to wilderness. At Trois-“lets, the situation was compounded by a malaria epi­demic as well as outbreaks of dysentery and yellow fever that ravaged both the black and the white populations.
A series of natural disasters exacerbated the terrible economic effects of the initial blockade. Martinique seemed to be conspiring against its own recovery. A few months after Rose’s birth, the island was infested with ants unwittingly imported with a cargo of slaves from Africa. In neighbouring Barbados these had already caused such extensive damage that plans had been drawn up to evacuate the island. In Martinique the ants consumed almost all the vegetation, even the pastures on which the animals grazed. The trees were so thickly smothered that birds did not dare alight on their branches. Even the island’s fearsome serpents were defenceless against the marauders, which ate them alive in their relentless march across the island. Travelling in great armies, the ants managed to cross streams by forging bridges from the innumerable dead bodies of those which had gone before. Despite the best efforts of the islanders, who organized hunting parties to burn the ants in their millions, for a time they seemed unstoppable. Such was the threat to householders that little Yeyette was constantly guarded by slaves, who were stationed at the foot of her cot as she slept.
Just two years later the great hurricane of 1766 further devastated the island. Even worse, Mt Pel”e, the island’s volcano, was in murderous mood throughout Rose’s childhood. With terrifying regularity it smoked and spewed ash, tossed blazing scoriae and dribbled lava, keeping the populace on tenterhooks, never letting them forget its deadly threat. The earth tremors, endemic to the island, seemed to grow even more frequent. When it finally did erupt, in 1902, Mt Pel”e completely destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre, killing its entire population of twenty thousand people in ten minutes and covering the island in ash. The only survivors were a tailor returning to the town on his donkey and a drunkard who was protected from death by the underground jail cell in which he had been incarcerated. He was later employed by P. T. Barnum as a wondrous curiosity displaying his magnificent lava burns, the only living testament to Mt Pelée’s awesome destructive power.
Martinique housed another volcano – the institution of slavery itself. It rumbled and festered beneath the society’s surface, putting pressure on its fault lines, constantly threatening to erupt and destroy everything in its path. The difficulty of a small minority ruling over a population ten times its size caused ceaseless concern. The systematic brutality of the slave system, designed to keep slaves obedient and fearful, could not assuage all the colonial­ists’ fears. They worried about uprisings and the possibility of being poisoned in their own homes; they feared that the marrons, runaway slaves who had fled to the hills, would raid their plantations and murder them in their beds. Perhaps their guilt, however well suppressed or unacknowledged, added another noxious ingredient to the pressure cooker that was slave life. Certainly the intense paranoia and hatred was contagious. Governor Fenlon wrote in 1764, “I arrived in Martinique with all the prejudices of Europe against the harshness with which the Negroes are treated”, but after a short stay he declared that “the safety of the whites requires that the Negroes be treated like animals’.13
The anxieties of planters in islands like Martinique were heightened by the burgeoning abolitionist movement, which they feared might boost slaves’ hopes and incite them to rebellion. In the second half of the eighteenth century the critics of slavery were becoming more vocal. In England the movement gained ground massively after 1765. In France it had been boosted by philosophers and writers like Montesquieu and Rousseau, whose book Le Contrat Social condemned slavery and whose ideas fuelled an enthusiasm for the exotic and associated images of the “good savage”. The romance of this ideal was given a further fillip by Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko, about a noble African prince sold into slavery. Originally published in 1699, the novel was hugely popular throughout the eighteenth century. The great Diderot – the driving force behind the ten volumes of L”Encyclop’die, which appeared from 1765 to 1772 and featured discussion of the main ideas and philosophical debates of the day, with contributions from all the important French writers of the time – also attacked slavery, as did the chevalier de Jaucourt, whose book on slavery and the treatment of blacks was fervently condemnatory.
*A livre at the end of the eighteenth century was worth about “43 today.
Copyright ” 2003 by Andrea Stuart. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.