Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Moreau De Jonnes in the West Indies (1795)

ADVENTURES IN WARS OF THE REPUBLIC AND CONSULATE (1858) by A Moreau De Jonnes, translated by A. J. Ardy. (John Murray, London, 1920)


I saw the last days of the last race of indigenous inhabitants
of the American Archipelago, a race which dared above a11
others to stand up against the Spanish conquerors without
fear of their men-of-war and the invincible superiority of
their arms, the same that struggled through three centuries
to defend its country and independence, and which. when
it fe11, had seen the destruction of the great native empires
of the New World and the disappearance of a11 the primitive
inhabitants of the West lndies.

The two campaigns I went through with these brave
savages are among those of which l have the happiest
memory. The accident which launched me into this career
full of perilous adventures was, 1 am bound to say, most
trivial; but so it happens in real life. Swiss and Dutch
liberty had their origin, the one from the resistance of a
brave peasant who refused to touch. his cap; the other
from . a cabbage-seller who refused to pay a tax of some

La Perle frigate lay in Brest Roads ready to start on a
distant mission. The captain found that his chief gunner
not only was a bad accountant, but worked in that line
for his own profit. Determined quickly to remedy both
these failings, he applied to the Staff who ordered me to
check the accounts and to keep them henceforth as assistant
chief . I went on board at once with an old corporal named
Parmentier, who had been my master-at-arms and was (
much attached to me. Intimidation being useless with .
people like us, it was necessary to have recourse to stratagem,
and we were completely taken in. One fine morning
the chief gunner said there were some goods which would
set his accounts in order held on charge in the general store
of the port, and begged me to go and ask for a certificate
of their existence. l took Parmentier, and we made every
effort to obtain it, but at that time (and it was the fourth
year of the Republic) administrative offices opened late,
and worked slowly or even not at all. We were made to
wait an endless time and sent from pillar to post, and it
was not till near midday that we received a certificate to
the effect that the goods had no existence. We were
annoyed at being thus baffled, and little imagined we were
about to be a thousand times more so. On return to the
mast-house slip in order to go aboard by the boat which
left always at a fixed hour, we were surprised not to find
it at the usual rendezvous. While waiting l sat on a pile
of cannons on the quay and began to read, but was
interrupted by the cries of Parmentier, 'who had been to make
enquiries, and had just learnt that our frigate had fired
her blank departure rounds and had sailed two hours ago.
By now, as the wind was favorable, she would be through
the narrows.
The trick that had been played on us was complete ; we
had been sent ashore only to make us miss the sailing. It
was a serious state of things, which might lead to our
appearance before the councll of war as deserters, not to
speak of the loss of all our worldly possessions, which had
started on voyage across the ocean wlthout us. Parmentier
was inconsolable, and gave endless details to the seamen
round us of the riches in his chests. A nice-looking young
fellow, attracted by his complaints, asked to be told our
troubles, and promptly offered his good services to mend
them. He was the captain of Le Vengeur, a privateer
fitted out in the Landernau River, due to start that evening
on a cruise among the West Indies. He proposed to take
us on board, with a promise to put us aboard our frigate,
which he thought he could overtake, and agreed, if this
were impossible, to give us on his craft all the conveniences
that he could provide. Parmentier, who had a deadly fear
of military justice, pressed me so eagerly that l consented
to this arrangement. That evening we quitted Brest Roads
fully installed on a fine brig, well armed, a good sailer, and
handled by a crew of seamen such as the vessels of the
Republic rarely' possessed. You can believe that the
business of privateer, leaving as it does small hope of a
long life, conduces to a good time afloat. We were much
astonished at the cheerful life on board Le Vengeur, which ,
in no way resembled the scanty diet and hard routine of
our men-of-war. The voyage was fortunate in every respect.
The sea was calm for thirty days , we fell in with the trade
winds at the Canaries, and were carried by them across the
Atlantic as if to order. We passed, without being seen by
them, three English cruisers, whose proximity was divulged
to us by their top-gallant masts, which showed up above
to far horizon. Finally, we took three prizes, each of
which covered the cost of fitting out the privateer.

The conduct and attention of the captain was a11 that
l could desire. He was an educated and well brought up
young man, much beloved by his crew. He had a small
library, of which 1 made good use; he did me a good service
in encouraging me to follow the working of the vessel's
course and the fixing of her position by dead reckoning and
observation. Every day I made out my own estimate,
either with him or with the chief helmsman, as if it was my
duty to lay down our course between the two hemispheres.
One evening at sunset we sighted the West lndies. 1
don't believe there is anywhere else in the world so lovely
a prospect. There, as far as eye can reach, are displayed
verdant islands, forming a chain broken only by channels
which allow the ocean billows to pour into the Gulf of
Mexico. These isles emerge from the sea and tower to the
clouds, in which their mountain-tops are lost.

On their sides lie the cultivated fields, rising in terraces
and stopping short at the forest zone. Near the coast could
be seen plantations of sugar-cane, with their reed-like
foliage of tender and brilliant green. Higher the chequerwise
coffee plantations, the growers of which fill the air with
perfume. At last come the forests, whose verdure seems
blue at a distance. From the vast mass of ancient trees
which clothe this region peaks of basalt and porphyry
stand out, covered with herbage up to their pointed tops
and crowned with stormy clouds.
As we approached the isles we saw about midday, in the
half-defined distance, the rugged Mornes of Grenada ; near
us showed clearer, like high crenelated walls, the half-
extinct volcanoes of St. Lucia ; on our right we made out
the toothed crags of Dominica, and before us were unrolled
on many different plains the fields of Martinique, dominated
by ranges of peaks as picturesque as any in the world.

We shortened sail to enable us, under shadow of night,
to slip through the channel between Martinique and St.
Lucia without being seen. We went right through this
passage, and about midnight entered a bay of the former
of these islands at its southern extremity, resembling a
recess hollowed out of the high mass of the promontory,
and called the "Gros Morne du Diamant". It is a kind
if circular vat with very high sides, and of a depth so
great that the brig was moored alongside the rocks, and
communicated with the shore by means of a gangway.
We immediately sent ashore into the woods which cover
this desert end of the colony a negro, who, I believe, had
been specially embarked with a view to acting as spy. The
rogue, who knew the locality, ran off at full speed, with the
satisfaction of being soon about to play a sorry trick on
his former masters and friends. At daybreak, having
discovered from the other side of the mountains that two
laden ships were about to set sail from Fort Royal, he
signaled to us accordingly by setting light to two wood
piles on the slope of the Gros Morne, while at the same time
a lookout whom we had placed on this mountain informed
us that a schooner was coming towards us with no suspicion
of our neighborhood, since we were hidden by the enormous
mass of the Diamond, a volcanic rock steeply scarped,
200 feet high, and separated from the body of the island
by a channel deep enough to allow of the passage of the
largest vessels.

It was of vital importance that this little vessel should
not escape us, for she could warn the frigates on the station,
which would soon be in pursuit of us. On a signal from
our lookout we sallied from our ambush, and in three tacks
were alongside the schooner. Its skipper, who was an
elegantly dressed young man, thought we were an English
brig that had made a mistake in seizing him, and hastened
to hoist the British ensign. Our cheerful sailors burst into
laughter on seeing the mistake he had made, and at once
showed we were French, who, as everyone knows, are the
only people in the world to find something to laugh at
under any circumstances.

Seeing his mistake, the skipper drew from a hiding-place
some papers, which he hurriedly threw into the sea, but
one of our sailors jumped overboard from the brig and
recovered them by swimming. It was a11 done so quickly .
they were scarcely damp. Our captain questioned the
skipper, whom he had called on board. He, after some '
hesitation, declared himself to be Captain D-- of the
Royal Engineers, coming from St. Vincent and going to
Martinique. He begged earnestly to be released on parole,
promising in exchange for himself twenty French prisoners
from amongst those in the casemates of Fort Royal. He
promised to send them off in the course of a day if we would
come under flag of truce to the entrance of the bay in which
this fortress lies. This proposition seemed too insidious to
our captain, and made him suspicious. It was still worse .
when I informed him of the contents of the papers recovered
from the water, which, as might have been expected, were
written in English. The chief document was a memorandum
addressed to the commander-in-chief of the British forces
at Martinique. Captain D-- described how he had the
unique opportunity of penetrating the part of the Isle of
St. Vincent inhabited by the Caribs, the last asylum of that
people. He had made use of his stay there to reconnoitre
from a military point of view that country of difficult
access, to study its defensive positions, its paths, its ravines,
its hiding-places, fortified caves, and its hiding-places of food stores,
which were State secrets with these savages. He wound
up with a calculation of the number of fighting men that
could be placed in the field by the two principal tribes in
the island, the Red Caribs and the Black Caribs; he also
described the operations by means of which their territory
and villages could be invaded, their stores of provisions
carried off, their crops burnt, and finally their destruction
effected by famine or by fire and sword. This cruel plan
was signed by the author who when sick, had sought rest
and health in the mountains of the island. It was under
cover of hospitality given him by many Carib families that
be had formed this plot and considered means of executing
it. Several times during the reading of the document in
which he set forth his scheme the indignation of our crew
burst forth in threats, the least of which was to throw the
English captain into the sea.

Under the weight of general hatred the prisoner, if he
remained on board, ran a great risk of misadventure, so he
made no objection when again taken back to his schooner
and confined to his cabin with all access to it closed. Our
captain decided that 1 should take charge of the little craft.
and after calling at St. Vincent to warn the island chiefs
of the plot formed against them, 1 should go to Guadeloupe
to hand over the felon officer to Victor Hugues, the energetic
Commissary of the Convention and governor of that colony.
During my absence, which should not be more than two or
three days, Parmentier was to carry out my duties on the
brig. I was given a sailor and a cabin-boy, and started.

The island towards which I steered was thirty leagues
ahead ; but the clear atmosphere of the West Indies showed
it distinctly on the horizon like a rounded mountain emerging
from the sea, which, at first low and inconspicuous, swelled
by degrees, then assumed the color of emerald green and
split into many peaks the single top it showed afar Like
all the other isles of the archipelago, St. Vincent owes its
origin to a submarine volcano, which still gives signs of its
former 'activity through boiling-hot springs, columns of
smoke, violent earthquakes, and eruptions of cinders and
pumice-stone, carried by the wind to the huge distance of
more than one hundred leagues. The Caribs, successively
driven out of a11 the West Indies from Porto Rico to Trinidad,
took refuge in St. Vincent, which they occupied entirely;
but the English colonists of the neighboring islands
managed to establish themselves there, and to build a
town defended by a citadel and forts.

They cultivated the surrounding land, and gradually
seized upon the territory up to the wooded mountains
which divided the island into two unequal portions. La
Basse Terre, which they occupied, had the advantage of
a port and of easy communication with the rest of the
archipelago, but La Cabestre, which they coveted, was
larger, more fertile, and more healthy. According to the
colonists, there would be no harm in taking it from pagans,
who were, moreover, devoted allies of the French, and in
every war for 150 years had made common cause with
them. Circumstances were favorable. Martinique, de-
fended by General Rochambeau, had been obliged to
surrender to superior forces; it is true that Guadeloupe had
just been retaken by Victor Hugues and a handful of
volunteers, but the English were masters of the sea, and
could transport troops sufficient to capture in succession
all the islands chosen for attack.

The destruction of the Caribs had been planned a century
before, and had nearly been effected ten years previously.
After the war which had freed the North American States
from England's heavy yoke, the Cabinet of St. James had
prepared an expedition of four regiments against St. Vincent,
but the French Ministry had intervened in time to stop its
sailing by insisting on the observance of the treaties safe-
guarding the rights of the Caribs to retain possession of their
own country. Disasters to our fleets, leaving England
mistress of the West lndies, once more exposed the natives
to her ill-feeling, and it was in this service and, further,
with a view to his own advancement to colonel, that
Captain D.-- had formed his plan of attack by the unworthy
means of espionage and treachery. We shall see
how he was rewarded.

Never was sea voyage more lovely, more agreeable, than
was mine to St. Vincent. A soft and fresh breeze drove the
schooner through the smooth, silvery channel of St. Lucia.
Martinique, which l left behind. me, shot up into the sky,
its pitons surrounded with a crown of heavy clouds. Above
Xa winding and densely wooded coast the island of St. Lucia
displayed a soufriere whose smoke caught from the sun's
rays all the tints of the rainbow. In every direction could
be seen some place linked with the memory of those intrepid
Frenchmen who came to bestow on these shores the name
of their own country, and by the work of their hands founded
flourishing colonies of which little but fragments remain.

On approaching St. Vincent 1 felt some anxiety at the
discovery that the eastern shore, on which I had to land,
was girdled with coral reefs. No doubt some passage
through this natural rampart existed, but the rough map
in my possession did not even show the reefs. 1 hoisted
the tricolor which Parmentier had the good sense to give
me, and immediately, as if by the operation of magic, the
shore, which had seemed deserted, was crowded with people,
and the tranquil lake, lying within the reefs on which the
waves broke, was ploughed by canoes manned by skillful
and strong rowers. This was my first view of men indigenous
to the New World. I was as much struck by their
looks as was Christopher Columbus. The first thing l
noticed was their grave demeanor, dignified and proud.
There was in this respect some likeness to the Spaniards.
It was easy to recognize a people never disgraced by slavery,
who regarded themselves as anyone's equal. Their looks
were assured, and in them could be read the indomitable
courage which had stood the proof of three centuries.
Their arms were beside them in the canoes. These were a
bow of iron wood, a quiver full of stout arrows, and a kind
of tomahawk, a club without a handle composed of a piece
of wood, heavy as lead, brightened with colored designs,
and operated by means of a line, which served to launch
it near or far with irresistible force. Their boats were
carved, ornamented, inlaid, made of a wood so light that
though they held five men it only took two to carry them
over the reefs without unloading any of their kit. As to
their persons, the Caribs were men of middle size, sturdy,
well made, active, and of great bodily strength. Their
skin was copper color, very like the hue that the leaves
of certain trees take in autumn. No crossing with a black
race gives a similar color, and it is impossible to confuse
a Carib with any half-breed, as has been suggested, quite '
wrongly, in a contemporary romance. The arms and
shoulders of the rowers of all the canoes were perfectly
beautiful; any one could have been taken as an academy
model. Another perfection, equal in both sexes and typical
of breeding, was the smallness of hands and feet. In
Europe they would be supposed to belong to a superior
class, whereas this was the common type. Not a man was
fair, ruddy, chestnut, yellow, or bearded, as may be found
with us. All had raven-black locks, piled in a tuft on the
top of the head, and carefully combed and bound. There
were no beards, and this mark of manhood is foreign to
the human race in the New World, without any prejudicial
effect to its reproduction, as might be believed.

The first act if these savages bore a trace of distrust,
which showed that their neighbors had taught them at
their expense that a flag often disguises an enemy. They
would not come on board the schooner until they had
examined and recognized the crew. I told them I had
important news to give their chiefs, and wished them to
take me into one of the harbors of the neighboring coast.
Two canoes took the schooner in tow along the chain of
reefs as far as a narrow opening which allowed of passage.
The heavy seas being cut off by this wall of coral, the water
beyond was perfectly calm, with a smooth surface, reflecting
the blue of the sky and the wooded slopes of the shore as
in a mirror. Directly the canoes had seen from my cockade
and uniform that I was a French soldier, they had informed
the large hamlets or villages of the coast by trumpeting
with enormous single shells, called in the West lndies
"lambis". The entire population assembled in a twinkling.
The old men took their seats on blocks of basalt carried
down from the mountains by torrents or hurled from old
craters on to the beach. The children were perched on the
trees, which hid the opening to a deep valley; the men
grouped their canoes in squadrons to meet us; the young
girls, confident in their swimming powers, pushed planks
of floating wood, on which, with wonderful skill, they seated
themselves as if in a room, instead of being suspended over
forty fathoms of water.

Except the men, who, no doubt, believed that they
owed it to their dignity to maintain a grave demeanor,
the whole crowd was cheerful, talked without ceasing,
laughed in their sleeves or uproariously, and amused them-
selves in watching the tricks the young girls played on each
other. As we drew near the bank we saw emerging from
an entrance closed in with rocks and shaded by trees a
large war canoe, manned by sixty rowers. It was the chief
of the Red Caribs who came officially to receive me, and
do honor to the flag of the French Republic. He addressed
me, and himself directed the schooner to the port where we
were to stay and rest under his protection. This haven was a
basin surrounded by a shelf of basalt 15 to 20 feet high; the
depth of its water was enough to float a frigate. Two hillocks
covered with a rich vegetation stood on each side of its
opening to the sea, and their tufted trees, bending over
the surface, formed a canopy to it. Beside a rushing stream
which flowed from the mountains of the interior into the
harbor rose the many huts of a large hamlet, like beehives
in the shape of their roofs, made of palm-leaves, but their
wattled sides allowed a free passage to the breezes and
rays of light. In the middle of the village was a communal
house containing an assembly-hall at least 80 feet long;
there I found gathered together the chiefs and warriors of
the two tribes, the Red and the Black Caribs. l had not
previously seen the latter, and from misleading accounts
I had formed quite a false idea of them. I believed,
from the missionaries' tales, that they owed their origin
to negro slaves escaped from neighboring colonies. l was
much surprised to find them of quite another race. In place
of woolly hair, of flat nose, of a gaping mouth set with
thick out-turned lips, they possessed the traits of the
Abyssinians : smooth hair, long and black, more like a mane
their nose was straight, standing out from the face but
slightly curved at the end, and such as you would never
see from Cape Bon to the Gulf of Guinea; finally, their
mouth was furnished with thin lips in no way like that of
a negro, except for the beauty of the teeth. They had,
moreover, an air of sovereign pride which changed at the
least opposition to a savage expression, full of threats,
arrogance, and fierceness. However, the chief of this tribe
came to meet me, and asked me to visit his village, which
lay in another part of the island. He and his people only
associated with all other Caribs in important matters.

The national council having taken its seat in the center
of the large assembly-hall, l set forth in a few words
how an accident had revealed to my captain a secret of
importance to the Caribs, and he had sent me to impart
it to them. l reminded them that an officer of the Kings-
town garrison had last year asked from them remedies for
a disease from which he suffered. Immediately the name
of D-- ran through the ranks of the warriors crouched
in a circle round me. I told them that as a price for their
generous hospitality and in payment for the life they had
restored to him he had drawn up a plan for the invasion of
their hearths, the devastation and pillage of their fields,
and 1 read slowly the details of his scheme, which was
perfectly understood, as the Caribs knew French and spoke
it with facility. The audience, stupefied, no doubt, at such
ingratitude, such perfidy, at first kept silence, but soon
murmurs of suppressed rage produced a sound which, '
increasing by degrees, broke into the most terrible storm of
human rage ever aroused. The "Away with Him!" of the
Jews, the death-cries "A la lanterne! A l'Abbaye!"
never had a more savage accent of fierceness. Happily,
the object of this frenzy was safe on board the schooner,
and his enemies could not tell how near he was to them.

I was giving myself credit for the trouble l had taken to
hide him, when a noise broke out in the crowd round the
village, followed by frightful shouts that informed me of
the simultaneous discovery of the captivity and escape of
the cursed prisoner. I had some trouble to find out how this
annoying thing had happened. It appeared that Captain
D ' , seeing me stop at St. Vincent, instead if going
straight to Guadeloupe as he expected, thought that we
had determined to hand him over to the Caribs. His terror
increased directly we arrived among them, and to escape
from an imaginary danger he rushed into a real and
terrible one. When night fell he uncovered in his cabin an
air-hole or scuttle which opened close to the rudder and
had escaped our notice. It was a round hole through which
it seemed impossible for a child to pass. However, the
prisoner succeeded by taking off his clothes in getting
through this narrow channel, in which he ran the chance
of being stuck as in a trap. He let himself drop quietly into
the water, and in three strokes he was able to gain the shore,
hide himself in the brushwood, and soon fly to the mountain
forests, making use of his perfect knowledge of the

The sailor on watch on the schooner, going to take him
some food, discovered the prisoner's escape almost
immediately. In his anger he broke into curses against Captain
D--, and thus revealed to the natives the fact that the ,
traitor whom they had condemned to death was in their
territory within reach of their vengeance.

Search was made for him, but he managed to get away
to a cave in the cliffs inhabited by Black Caribs, where he
was caught by some women of the tribe. Once more he
escaped, and was supposed to have tried to get out of
Carib territory by a cliff-path.

The chief of the Black Caribs, having learnt that an
English officer had visited this track, made it much more
dangerous several days before Captain D-- tried to
escape by it, and there is little doubt that the wretched
man had fallen into some trap and met his death as the
reward of his treason.

(More to come.)