Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Moreau De Jonnes in the West Indies (1795)(Part 3)

Chapter 8--TRINIDAD-EARTHQUAKE


The next morning, on my descent from the mountain, 1
found all trace of cultivation swept away, hamlets beaten
down, and whole families of Caribs, who the day before had
been surrounded by prosperity and abundance, now seated
on the flooded earth without food or hope of obtaining any.
The chiefs were assembled in council, and Pakiri called me
to him and asked how the white man's superior intelligence
could be used to avert famine.

l at once wrote a note to General Hugues, begging him
to send help to the starving Caribs; without it,
notwithstanding their hate of the English, there was no
course open other than to throw themselves on their mercy. l
felt so sure of the effect that this suggestion would have
on the proconsul that I did not hesitate to promise the
council very prompt help, provided my letter were sent
immediately to Guadeloupe.

It was of no use to appeal to St. Lucia for help, as it
was as badly devastated as St. Vincent, and required all
that could be provided for its own inhabitants.
In the midst of this disaster a little was gained from the
peculiarities of two food plants. A1l the harvest exposed
to the violence of the storm had perished, and no trace
remained of fields of maize or banana plantations. But the
edible roots manioc and yam, being underground, had
escaped, though their stems had all been cut of level with
the soil. They were found buried under the d├ębris washed
down from the mountains, and would assure a meagre
subsistence to the population until help came.

It was decided to take silver recovered from a wrecked
Spanish galleon, and long kept hidden in a mountain cave,
to pay for provisions from Trinidad, a Spanish island near
the American continent abundantly furnished with the foods .
of all sorts, and at a low price, now required by St. Vincent.
A war canoe manned by sixty rowers was quickly fitted
out, and Pakiri himself took charge of this important
mission. He and the other chiefs begged me also to go,
both to help in overcoming any difficulties that might
arise and, if necessary, to employ the powerful name of the
general by whom I was commissioned as representative to
an ally of France.

The uncertain life of a soldier or sailor makes him a
ready believer in presentiments. I have known many
clever and hearty people who were obsessed by this belief :
Admiral Villaret, General Hoche, and Marshal Gouvion
St. Cyr. My early education set me against them. Still, l
was surprised when all was settled eventually to find how
coldly l looked forward to this expedition. There must
have been some warning of i11 which was not clear to me.
I Welded to the arguments raised, and sacrificed my
instinctive repugnance to motives whose power over me
would be just as strong to-day.

My love of travel awoke as our voyage displayed the
chain of islands extended to the south as far as the continent
of the New World. But when in order to sail the canoe
heeled over to the wind, and l could only see land in the
distance, l wrapped myself in my cloak and went to sleep
on a mat.

l as awoke by the cries of the Caribs, who hailed with
joy their ancient fatherland, the continent of America.
Our canoe had covered more than forty leagues in ten ,
hours.
Land stretched in front of us from east to west, the coast
of the lovely province of Venezuela. The northern shores
of the Island of Trinidad prolonged to the east to line
of continental territory. It As separated from the mainland
by the narrow channel of the Dragon's Mouth, through
which pours a swift and troubled current strewn with '
rocks. My fellow-travelers had need of all their skill.
strength, and experience to enable them to clear this
dangerous passage.

Ai length we entered the Gulf of Paria, which lies between
Trinidad and the continental coasts of Cumana. The
waters of the sea mingle with those of the Orinoco. It is
this river current which pours through the Dragon's Mouth,
and in meeting the sea raises a constant eddy or raging
tide-race.

As soon as we had doubled the promontory of Trinidad,
which closes the Gulf of Paria to the north, we found the
island stretched before us. It is most lovely; a girdle of
low ground fringes the shore, above rises an amphitheater
of hard-wood forest trees, acacia, mahogany, and a thousand
other valuable kinds. The tops of the mountains are
crowned with peaks formed by ancient volcanoes, to which
the island owes its origin. The highest and doubtless the
most recently active is named Tamana. It was then free
from clouds, and I could clearly see rising from its summit
a high column of smoke, a sure sign that the extinction of
its fires was not as complete as the inhabitants averred.
This phenomenon aroused my interest greatly, and I wished
that Pakiri could have satisfied my questions; but I only
obtained from him tales as senseless as those of the ancient
Greeks concerning Mount Etna and the island of Lemnos.
It is strange that men separated through all ages have been
lulled with the same tales. While yet my eyes were fixed
on the columns of smoke from Tamana, I remarked with
astonishment that its height, at first prodigious, was lessen-
ing by degrees. A few minutes later this magnificent
spectacle had vanished. "That is a bad sign" said Pakiri
gravely to me. This did not influence me as it should have
done, since, owing to his solicitude for his people, Pakiri had
regarded as an omen everything we had seen on the voyage.

At this time the Island of Trinidad was still in the same
wild state as on the day of its discovery, though Spanish
colonization dated back four centuries. The alluvial soil
on the western shores had no inhabitants but herds of wild
cattle. The herdsmen who rode among them with couched
lances lived in barn-like huts which afforded but little
shelter, and civilization was As far from them as it was
4,000 years ago from Abraham's shepherds. It was only
when we had passed the Coloras Isles that we found
cultivation and houses. We were near the end of our voyage.

Before us lay Port of Spain, whose buildings looked all like
churches, to judge by the number of bells hung on them.
A large tower and some badly armed batteries formed its
defenses. On the left, behind a group of islands which
served as a breakwater, could be seen the famous harbor
of the Careening Bay, where formerly lay the galleys of the
Conquistadors of America. As our canoe was able to
go anywhere, we went on to the upper end of the harbor
near the mouth of the river and found ourselves at the
landing-stage, in daily use by the canoes of the natives
of Guiana and Venezuela. Pakiri, who knew the place,
was soon in touch with agents ; he easily arranged to freight
several schooners, and bought cargoes of foodstuffs with .
which to load them at once. But he was worried with one
gmat anxiety. The fear of incurring the displeasure of the
English and of getting into trouble with their cruisers
might stop the Spanish authorities from granting permission
to export from the colony foodstuffs destined for
allies of France.

In his anxiety Pakiri determined to call as intermediary,
an old French doctor, long established in Trinidad, where
by his practice he had acquired wealth and consideration.
Some services rendered to him by the Caribs gave cause to
hope that he would assist them now. I offered to go and
help in this important negotiation.

To find his house we had to traverse most of the town,
Its aspect was very different from those in French and
English colonies. Beyond the port, where the mercantile
and marine bustle recalled the more important St. Pierre
of Martinique, all was deserted and silent. The houses,
turned their backs on to the street, as in cities of the East,
and their rare openings consisted of long barred windows,
which lit the rooms so badly that nothing could be
distinguished inside them. Badly built walls stood on each
side of many streets, only broken by the porch of a church,
the grille of a monastery, or the entry to a cemetery. There
was no one from whom to ask the way. At last we reached
the doctor's house, one of the brightest in the town. A
crowd of servants ran to watch us with impertinent
curiosity. 1 was put out by this reception and exasperated
by the answer of a fat mulatto woman, bursting with
arrogance, who said her master could receive no one, as
he was taking his siesta. "Go and tell him," said I, "that
the doctor of General Hugues has come from Guadeloupe
to see him, and remember that 1 am not one who likes
to be kept waiting." The mulatto, hearing the name of
the proconsul, thought she saw the advanced guard of those
terrible privateers whose deeds recalled those of the pirates;
she ran to find her master, who in his turn appeared in
such a hurry that he had no time to put on his wig
or his dressing-gown. He was a small, ruddy old man,
stout, active, and full of vigor. He greeted me
affectionately, and congratulated me on being charged with
the precious care of a personage so famous in the West
Indies by the boldness and success of his undertakings.

l was beginning to say that I was not his doctor, but
one of his Staff officers, when my companion, in fear for
the grave interests involved in our mission that the doctor
would be put off by my declaration, interrupted me,
explaining the object of our visit. I joined in his prayer
to the doctor to use his influence on behalf of the Caribs.
Directly we had explained their sad state, the doctor
dressed himself in his official uniform and went to find the
governor. On his return he gave Pakiri three permits
allowing the schooners to sail ; following the custom of the
country, he had helped on their issue by pressing some
doubloons into the hand of his excellency's secretary,
and he had got the governor himself to sign them while
giving him advice on an attack of gout from which he was
suffering. If by bad luck we had been dealt with by the
second commandant, all would have been lost, as, said he,
that official was more English than the Governor of
Barbados.

Pakiri filled with joy, ran off to dispatch his convoy,
refusing to wait for the splendid dinner just being served,
leaving me as a pledge of the recognition that he and his
country owed to the good doctor. He arranged a meeting-
place for our departure next morning, and entrusted me
to the care of a young Carib whose intelligence and bravery
were well known to him. The meal, improvised as it was,
was worthy of a doctor receiving 100,000 francs from his
clients and as much more from his property. "The
Seigneur des Isles," as he called Victor Hugues, "is far"
said I, "from living so magnificently even in the best of
times." A greenhouse, next door to the doctor's study,
protected a collection of the most beautiful plants of the
tropics, not against cold, but against excessive heat. I
recognized and named each by their Linnaean titles,
specifying for most of them their medical properties. "Ah!"
cried the old doctor, "how happy are you young people
to have lived in an age when science has so extended her
limits!" Then he told me that some months previously
an Irish adventurer had appeared at Port of Spain
professing to be a doctor of the new school, and curing
without fail all diseases by chemistry, electricity, magnetism,
cupping, and many other means, the equipment for
which had plunged the old doctor in stupefaction. This
was not all; the new-comer had accused my old host of
want of skill, and tackled his patients with such boldness
that he gained successes. In this sad state of things my
poor friend thought of a plan the success of which seemed
sure to him. "Renounce," said he, "your service, which is
honorable enough, but will never bring you a fortune.
Come here and share my practice and house with me ; we
shall have the monopoly of treating the whole colony, and
they will come from Caracas and Cumana to consult us,
like the oracle of Cos of old. With the advantages of your
modern science and activity, joined to my old experience
and established reputation, we need fear no rival, and will
drive away this Irish intruder."

Reflecting that this Eldorado promised me at Trinidad
was near to that discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh of
romantic memory, I was unable to check a smile of in-
credulity. "I can see," said the doctor, "that you credit
this country with European habits of meanness. Believe
me, that here no gentleman would disturb a doctor such
as you or me without tendering quadruple or at least double
fees for the shortest visit. Every evening in the good season
I put a thousand francs in my desk, whilst at home l had
difficulty in making half a crown. Money without estimation
would be little ; but in this respect I will let you see
with your own eyes how high a position we can reach by
means of our kindly offices among the most noble and
powerful people. The welcome you will receive under my
auspices will make you wish to return and help me." Then,
with the avowed intention of seducing me, the old doctor
proposed that 1 should accompany him in his visits to some
of the best society in Port of Spain. 1 agreed, and was
furnished with a rich costume, with my black hair curled
and powdered in true doctor's fashion.

With a small hat under my arm and a gold-headed cane
in my hand, 1 set forth with the old doctor, now delighted
at the prospect of our future partnership, and rubbing his
hands over the discomfiture of the charlatan who had dared
to set up in rivalry of him. We visited many people of
title, who received the doctor with marked distinction, and
invited us to parties, family gatherings, or religious
ceremonies. We excused ourselves in general terms, and at
last reached the convent of the Benedictine Ladies of the
Annunciation, where we were to finish our busy evening.

Outside, the day had become most oppressively hot, but
on entering the convent vaults we found it deliciously fresh.
The doctor having announced his arrival in Oriental fashion,
we were introduced with grand ceremony. A1l the convent
was assembled in a large hall. The abbess was seated under
a canopy, and the ladies of honor occupied lower places
on the stages of the platform on which she was enthroned.
To right and left were the nuns, dressed in white with black
veils reaching to the ground; then the novices all in white,
and the pupils in ordinary dress. We were brought up to
offer our respects to the abbess, and, whilst the doctor
talked to her, a lady who spoke French fluently asked me
about Guadeloupe, where she had friends. Our conversation
was interrupted by a message from the abbess asking
us to tea that and the following evenings. The message
was brought by a pretty novice. l replied that 1 was sorry
so charming an invitation could not be accepted, owing to
my departure the next morning. A minute later we passed
into a saloon worthy of a palace, at one end of which played
a fountain of cool water, fed from a spring in the mountains
some way from the town. A meal of a thousand dainties,
the secret of which was known only in the convent, was
served by young novices. After it I was allowed to witness
the novices and pupils at their evening work, and was
shown specimens of their skill in lace, embroidery, or needle-
work pictures. Finally, I was asked to advise on their
illnesses, and agreed very unwillingly. In this way many
real and imaginary sick came to consult me; l found the
latter the more difficult. Presently, however, a strange
noise set all the party in a flutter. There was a large
aviary in the cloister ; the birds in it had suddenly woke
up, and were making deafening calls. At almost the same
moment arose a concert of sharp, piercing cries, and a
long column of parrots, parakeets, cockatoos, and other
birds unknown to me, entered the saloon. A11 of them
had quitted their perches and come to seek their mistresses,
calling out their deafening cries, flapping their wings, and
threatening with their beaks the servants who tried to stop
them. This invasion could only be repelled by their
mistresses tempting them with cakes and taking them back
to their perches. I doubted very much the explanation
that they had been scared by vultures that had come down
from the mountains, especially when I heard it had not
previously happened. My doubts were increased by
another outbreak of tumult in the cloisters, and a crowd
of mulatto women and half-castes, who acted as lady's-
maids, rushed into the saloon shrieking with fear. Behind
them entered slowly a hideous monster, an alligator more
than 10 feet long. He lashed his long tail, knocking over
the marble ornaments, but neither attacked nor followed
anyone, and seemed dazzled by the light. There was
hardly time to take much notice of him, as the gardener,
a sturdy negro, ran up and lassoed him round the body.
He was given a chicken and leg of mutton, and allowed
himself to be led away. I then learnt that, through the
old doctor's kindness, the beast had been placed in the
garden when quite young and small to kill the bull frogs,
which had filled the air with their raucous cries, rendering
sleep impossible. He had successfully accomplished this,
and ever after had received in his pond a daily pittance
from the kitchen. Only once before, when his meal had
been forgotten, had he come out of his pond.

The party was nearly at an end, and I was about to take
leave of these kindly Spanish ladies, when suddenly the
spouting waters of the fountain ceased to flow. The mouths
from which they issued began to snort like the tubes of an
organ. Very soon a pestiferous sulphur vapor spread
through the saloon and dimmed the lights. In the midst
of cries, tears, and prayers I gained the door with the rest,
and found in the parlor the young Carib whom the chief
had ordered to accompany me. We reached my lodgings
at the doctor's house without further adventure. l
quickly threw off my borrowed plumes and washed the
powder out of my hair. I resumed my sea-going kit,
prepared my arms, and flung myself on my bed, whilst
my companion stretched himself on a mat. We had only
four hours to sleep, but slept five, and day was breaking
as we left the house ; at the moment we should have been
with Pakiri in order to start. As 1 passed the convent
square 1 heard religious chants rising under the roofs of
its church, and wishing to see these poor recluses for the
last time, 1 turned into the nave. As they passed beyond
the grating in procession in order to leave, I recognized
several sisters and novice acquaintances of overnight, and
saw by an occasional sign that, though l had changed my
dress, recognition was mutual.

Suddenly the bells of the main tower of the convent
began to clash, and rang as if for a funeral or an alarm.
A bronze lamp hung by a chain from the roof of the church
began to swing of its own accord, like a pendulum. A
distant noise, rapidly approaching, sounded like the roar
of a rising tide; but when these strange sound: arose from
beneath our feet the noise was more like that of the artillery
of an army rolling over the cobbles of a city. "All is
lost!" cried Baribarou, my young Carib, and his sinister
prophecy, though half unintelligible, was fulfilled almost
as soon as made.

The earth shook so violently that we were nearly thrown
down; we lost our foothold as in the pitching of a ship, '
and everything round us quivered, even the massive grating
of the choir, to which we clung to save ourselves from
falling. From behind this funeral screen we saw the
hideous destruction of every one of the young sisters and
pupils. They were crushed by the fall of the roof . The
arch of the transept over our heads lasted only a few seconds
longer, and we were knocked over by a hail of carved
stones. Baribarou picked himself up, and dragged me
beneath the arches of a side chapel which withstood the
frequent earth-shocks. l do not know how we reached the
door. I only know that on getting out on to the square we
sat there bewildered, shaken, bruised, and nearly deprived of '
our senses. Here, owing to the distance of the falling houses,
there was some safety, and hither crowded all the unhappy
people who had escaped from the ruins. Their troubles
were increased by the escape of prisoners and slaves from
gaol, who robbed them of the money and jewels they had
tried to save. Not only men, but beasts, added to the
disaster ; a successful toreador had recently arrived from
Caracas with a herd of bulls ; these, escaping owing to the
fall of the walls of their pens, rushed through the town,
trampling on many who thought they had escaped from
danger; we heard the roar of the bulls as they rushed across
the end of the square.

We reached the port with difficulty. Pakiri received us
with open arms, took us on board the canoe, and we started
at once. I did not feel myself safe from the fatal influences
of the island until the canoe rocked on the waves of the
Gulf of Paria. As soon as 1 was sufficiently recovered,
Pakiri told me that, thanks to the doctor's permits,
the three schooners had passed the customs and set
sail at night. On the first shock being felt on the quay,
he had made every man take his place on board; this
measure had saved the canoe from the ill-effects of the
earthquake on the waters of the port. Twice had the sea
ebbed out of sight, leaving vessels high and dry, but it
had returned with a rush, and had filled and turned over
every vessel which was not properly prepared. The canoe,
manned by its oarsmen, had suffered no harm.

When on landing at St. Vincent I found the island re-
victualed by our successful expedition and its population
happy and conscious of delivery from famine, 1 experienced
a feeling of satisfaction at having taken part in effecting
this happy change. The schooners had arrived safely ; the
islanders could quietly wait for the harvest, which the
quickly ripening maize promised them in forty days, and
they need dread no other scourge than war, nor other enemy
than the English.