Tour Of The Caribbean - Castries and its People
( Originally Published 1925 )
CASTRIES, in spite of its chequered and unrestful history, is not interesting. It sprawls upon a flat at the foot of the hills, a poor meagre place, quite out of keeping with its superb surroundings. The houses are mostly of wood. Those who built them would appear to have been dissatisfied with the world, and to have had little heart to make their homes either comely or long-abiding. The quay, although gloomy with the coal-dust of half a century, can claim to provide a good background for the women folk of Castries who, when in their gala dress, are as gorgeous as red and blue macaws. There is a dejected square in the centre of the town which looks as if it were up for sale. It has around it, however, some " ornamental trees " planted by Sir Dudley Hill about 1834, which help to cover its nakedness.
Even now it would need a very unscrupulous estate agent to make it appear that Castries was a place of " desirable residence." In days not long gone by it was famous for its reckless death-rate. Its insalubrity was due to many things, to swamps which bred malaria, to yellow fever, to a contempt for drainage, and to the cheapness of a fiery drink called " white rum."
The ill repute of the town was, according to Breen, once made use of to dispose of an inconvenient guest. The historian of St. Lucia states that, early in the 'thirties, the bishop of the diocese, in the course of his tour, reached Castries. He was naturally asked to dine at Government House. The hour for dinner would probably have been about four in the afternoon. The Governor then in residence was a mean man who had many reasons for not wishing to take the bishop and his suite into Government House. Apart from the mere question of economy the Governor's wife and family were in England and the establishment had been reduced to the barest possible compass. After dinner the Governor essayed to show the bishop over the building and in the course of the survey treated him, it may be imagined, to some such converse as the following : " This is the best bedroom, bishop. It was here that my predecessor died of yellow fever. You will remember him—a most genial man. Look out for this step in the passage ! We found it a very awkward corner for a coffin. This next room has a charming view of the sea ; the bedstead is a specimen of creole work. Poor old Colonel Smithson had his worst fit on that bed ; took two men to hold him ; poor dear man, he has now been paralysed three years. This third bedroom we call the red room : it gets the morning sun. I hope you admire the curtains, they came from England. Here poor Morris, my secretary, died. He seems to have got typhoid fever in the house, although we are most careful. A short illness, poor fellow! I bought his horse, that roan you saw at the door. Now you must come upstairs and see the blue room and the fine outlook over the town. It was where poor Major Jones died when he was here on a visit. Abscess of the liver, you will recollect. Dreadful case ! You could hear his groans down in the smoking-room."
But the bishop did not want to see any more nor to hear any more. He ordered his horse and rode down into the town, reflecting as he went on the uncertainty of life—at least, in Government House. After he had gone the one man-servant probably found the Governor alone in the smoking-room chuckling to himself about " a house with a reputation."
At set seasons Castries was liable to be raided by hurricanes, or to be paralysed by earthquakes. The householder in this peculiarly unquiet town was prepared at any time to see his roof torn away by a tornado, or his windows shaken like dust into the road by an earthquake, or a coffin carried into his door by callous men who " had come for the body." It is no wonder if the citizens became neurotic. " The slightest shock (of earthquake)," writes Breen, " drives the people into the streets, throwing the gentlemen out of their windows and their wits, and the ladies into holes and hysterics."
Never, indeed, could one find
Calm and deep peace on this high wold.
A body of looting soldiers in the streets duly heated with white rum, a rising of the negroes bent on arson and murder, or the bombardment of the Morne were events to be expected only from time to time, but never was there immunity from the snakes, the centipedes, the scorpions, the tarantulas, the mosquitoes and the wasps with which the island was overrun in Breen's time.
St. Lucia will always be notable in books on natural history as the favourite haunt of that "abominable reptile" the Fer-de-Lance, or yellow viper, the " Death of the Woods." Of all venomous snakes this execrable creature is the fiercest, most aggressive and most deadly. The very name the " Yellow Viper " would seem to be as loathsome a title as could be invented for a living thing, and if a tenth of the stories told about it be true it deserves any ignominy. It has a low, flat head, triangular in shape. Its skin affects the yellow-brown tint of decomposition. " The iris of the eye is orange, with red flashes : it glows at night like burning charcoal. In a walk through the woods at any moment a seeming branch, a knot of lianas, a pink or gray root, a clump of pendent yellow fruit, may suddenly take life, writhe, stretch, spring, strike."
Castries is still distinctly a French town in spite of its long occupation by the British. The negroes talk a fearful patois, "a jargon of lop-sided French and maimed English, flavoured with the Ethiopian twang." A large proportion of them own to French names, but a negro's name is an uncertain guide as to the nationality he may have adopted. Breen furnishes an illustration of this. Monsieur Jean Marie Beauregard, a coal-black negro, comes to think Jean Marie too vulgar, so he takes to himself the more refined name of Alfred. His friends find Beauregard too long, so he becomes Monsieur Alfred and his wife Madame Alfred. In this manner an apparently new family is founded.
The population of St. Lucia may be precisely described as " mixed "—mixed both as to nationality and colour. There is every tint of skin, from ebony to jessamine white. Picturesque mulattos are here of all grades of yellow or brown, fair creoles who may claim descent from ancient French families, or who may trace their ancestry back to some adventurous Scots who left their villages in the Highlands at the bidding of the call of the sea.
Certain black folk in St. Lucia are descendants of the Passparterres—the come-by-land people. They were refugees from Martinique, who fled from that island when it' was French to St. Lucia when it was British. They kept secret the method of their escape from slavery as well as the means whereby they reached St. Lucia. " How had they come ? " asked the meddle-some and inquisitive. " They had come by land" was the courteous answer of the grinning stranger. Thus it was that they were called the Passparterres. As the English would never give these refugees up to the French, they remained free men and became, in many cases, desirable settlers and citizens.
Breen had so long an experience of the West Indian negro, that his account of him is worthy of attention. He describes the black man as gay, good-humoured, docile and sober, generous and fond of children, " submissive but never obsequious, active but not laborious, superstitious but not religious, addicted to thieving without being a rogue, averse to matrimony yet devoted to several wives." His profound capacity for indolence he illustrates in the following manner : " A negro espies his fellow at the end of the street, and rather than join him in a tete-a-tete he will carry on a conversation with him for several hours at the top of his voice, to the unspeakable annoyance, perhaps the scandal, of all those who may occupy the intermediate houses. Should the wind blow off his hat he will continue the conversation, and let someone else pick it up for him ; or if he condescends to notice the occurrence will walk leisurely after it until it meets with some natural obstruction."
It was into the harbour of Castries that there crept on May 8, 1902, an unexpected and woeful-looking steamer. She came slowly, as if in pain, her screw labouring through the water with much moaning and creaking. She was grey and ghost-like. Every scrap of paint had been burnt from her sides, or was hanging from the bare iron like flaps of skin. Her ropes were charred ; the planks of her charthouse were blackened. A fainting man at the wheel clung to the spokes to prevent himself from falling. His face was so blistered that his eyes were nearly shut ; his hair was singed close to his skull ; his hands were raw and bleeding ; his clothes scorched into something that was black and brittle. The decks of the ship were like a grey sand-dune, for upon them were many tons of still hot ashes. There were horrible shapes lying muffled in this dust—the bodies of dead men who were covered with cinders as with a shroud. This was the steamship Rod-dam, the only vessel that escaped from the fearful disaster which had overwhelmed the town and harbour of St. Pierre.
Towards the south of the island is the curious little town of Soufriere, lying in the bend of a glorious bay whose blue depths are such that an anchor, to reach the bottom, would need from 300 to 600 feet of cable. This haphazard village of wooden shanties is placed at the mouth of a green valley which is making its way seawards. The place has a look of unreality appropriate to some pirates' lair " in a scene at a theatre. The stepping forth of a corps de ballet and a crowd of much rouged buccaneers would hardly excite surprise.
On the occasion of the steamer's visit the motley inhabitants came down to the beach en masse, jostling and grinning, men, women and children, hazy dotards and naked infants. From under the trees, from out of quaint streets and lanes they poured to the water's edge, where they crowded about the primitive boats and the piles of gaudy fish on the beach. The children crawled and wriggled to the front as if the Pied Piper of Hamelin were calling them from the bay. Over the sea of heads, heads of woolly hair, heads covered with brilliant turbans, golf caps, sombreros, straw hats without brims and felt hats without crowns, it was possible to see into the town and to see that it was empty, save, perhaps, for one single belated woman who, having picked up a forgotten baby, was rushing helter-skelter to the shore.
The population of the settlement is given as 2300. Whatever it might be, I am convinced that we saw the entire number on the beach that day, excepting only the bedridden and the moribund.
On the south of the cove are the two famous pyramidal or tooth-shaped rocks, the Pitons, which rise to the height respectively of 2460 and 2620 feet. They are sheer, isolated and terrible, with the aspect of Titanic mountain peaks which have been removed and cast into the sea. They are partly covered with trees which hold on to the rock face in some miraculous fashion. The appearance of this almost vertical forest provokes a sense of dizziness. The root of one tree may be on a level with the top of the one just below it, each clinging to a narrow ledge on a sheer wall.
Some little way inland, behind the opera-bouffe town, are the sulphur springs of Soufriere. The same are thus described by Mr. Paton : " We came to the verge of a yawning gulf, a mile or more in circumference, whose sides rose perpendicularly, in fact almost overhung the dismal abyss, at the bottom of which, two or three hundred feet below us, we could see many springs boiling amid rocks that looked like the ruins of ancient lime kilns. Issuing from these pits were clouds of fetid steam, noisome exhalations, causing destruction of vegetation near the pits and blackening the rocks on which they condensed. It was a most uncanny sort of place, desolate, infernal in aspect, and to the leeward of this Avernus the grass and blighted vegetation for a long distance all around were discoloured and stained, which gave them the appearance of lying continually under the shadow of a dense cloud."
King Louis XVI. caused baths and appropriate buildings to be erected near these springs " for the use of his Majesty's troops in the Windward Islands." In the course of time a quite extensive spa was established about a mile from the town. Invalids came hither from all parts, even from France, in spite of the dangerous and weary journey. They came to the spa because it was new, little known, and a long way off. As is the habit of the sick they were attracted by something pungent to smell and disgusting to drink, and by mysterious modes of bathing, associated with some suggestion of the rites of sorcery. They were attracted also by that pathetic belief in the miraculous and the supernatural which figures ever in the despairing creed of stricken men and women.