Martinique News and Links

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The New York Times, February 7, 1886, p.10:

A NIGHT IN MARTINIQUE

COMFORTS AND DISCOMFORTS OF THE HÔTEL DES BAINS.

UNSUCCESSFUL EFFORTS TO SPEAK FRENCH
TO A FRENCHMAN—
A CHAMBERMAID INTERPRETER—
THE BRAZILIAN CIRCUS WITH AN AMERICAN MANAGER.

    ...We are off for Martinique; for the fairest, greenest, most beautiful island in all this wide world, I do believe. It is plainly within sight of Dominica, being only about 30 miles away. We left Dominica at 1 o'clock in the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 6, and reached Martinique three hours later. That is, we reached St. Pierre, its capital city, and anchored within a stone's throw of the landing place.

    We had steamed for some miles along its beautiful shore, near enough to see the houses, and the trees, and the roads, and the people walking and driving in them. It looked for a long distance much like the other islands we had seen—high mountain peaks, running, as usual, up into the clouds, and the slopes cultivated, and thick, dark, foliage. Only in Martinique, even as we saw it from the steamer, the cultivation was better and more widespread, and the foliage was thicker, the trees larger.
    We saw miles of roads running along the mountain sides, and sometimes up them, with rows of large trees on each side of them. We saw large groves of cocoanut trees, and snug little villages nestling in sheltered nooks on the mountain side; some large sugar estates, with extensive buildings and great chimneys, and unmistakable evidences that we were approaching a Catholic country.
    But the crowning beauty of all we saw just a short time before we anchored off St. Pierre. It was a great glen cut by nature through the rock—a glen perhaps two or three miles wide and a wall of rock on each side of it a thousand feet high and nearly perpendicular, and the glen full of cane fields and big trees and houses. It ran at nearly right angles with the water, and as the ship moved along and we passed it, and it went out of range, the wall of rock came up and shut it out and left us wondering whether we really had seen such a place or had only imagined it.

    Then we dropped anchor, with the city of St. Pierre before us. I can call this a city with better grace than any of those other towns we had yet visited, for it contains from 40,000 to 50,000 inhabitants, is regularly laid out, the streets are well paved and cleanly kept, and the whole place has an air of civilization that is somewhat wanting in the Caribbean islands north of it. The part of it nearest the landing place, we could easily see, is the oldest part. It looks as if it might be a century at the least.
    There is just a gentle slope to that part of the city, so that the roofs of houses in one street rise up behind the roofs of the houses in the street in front of it. And they are all shingle roofs, dark and gray with age. These older buildings seem to be nearly all of one pattern—either two or three stories high, built of stone, and turned, too, like the roofs, gray and dark with age. And they all have steep slanting roofs, with gable ends, of the kind that give one involuntarily an impression of vast expanses of garret—dusty, musty, rat-infested garret, full of the accumulated trash of generations.
    Further up the ascent the houses looked newer. There they were of different shapes—some flat roofs, and some, colored yellow on the outside, looking very much like some of the older dwellings in American cities.

    The gradual slope between the mountain side and the city is entirely filled up with buildings. And as the city has grown, it has begun to climb the mountain. Some dwellings are so far up the mountain, almost overhanging the city, that they seem utterly inacessible, unless by balloon or steam elevator.
    On the highest ground of the sloping land is a large stone building, a good looking old-fashioned building, with the cheering word painted across its front in big black letters "THEATRE." Ah, you Frenchmen, you will have your amusements. And the French Government, with the interest of a parent, and knowing that a really good theatre in Martinique could hardly be self-supporting, gives it a subsidy, so that these colonists may have something to entertain them. There is a performance in it three nights every week, always by French companies. I knew some colonies whose parent Government thinks its whole duty done when it sends out a Governor and a Bishop, but I have fraternal feelings for any Government that knows enough to give its colonists a play bill as well as a prayer book.

    It was easy to see how the city had gradually spread. Shortly to the left of the hill on which the theatre stands is a deep ravine, through which a tiny river trickles. This ravine is bridged, and the buildings go on for a mile beyond it—newer buildings, some of them made of wood—till at length the houses begin to straggle, and then lose themselves in the green country. The sloping space between the sea and the mountain is, perhaps, a quarter of a mile wide, and this is filled up with houses as thickly as any part of New-York—perhaps thicker, for the streets are very narrow.
    Far off to the right, as we look ashore from the ship's deck, is a high hill, and on its summit a white statue of heroic size.
    "What is it up there for?" I ask somebody.
    "That is a statue of the Virgin," somebody replies, "and it was put there in old times to frighten off the pirates." But I don't believe the pirates ever were such timid fellows as to be frightened by a statue.

    The further up the mountain a huge white cross with a large white base, which looked at that distance as if it might be a drinking fountain. This was put there, I was told, to insure the future welfare of a number of persons who were killed on that spot years ago by a landslide from the mountain. And further off to the right, the high hill sinking down to the sea level again and a road running over it and through it (by a tunnel near the end) and then coming out unexpectedly on the seashore, where there was a fine white beach with houses near it, and these houses standing in the midst of a great grove of gigantic cocoanut trees.

    And all these things, please to bear in mind, set in a framework of green such as cannot be seen anywhere north of this island—not even in Cuba. I do not think there is any point nearer to New-York than Martinique is where you can see it in its glory. Even the best parts of Mexico do not compare with it. There is much grander and wilder scenery in Mexico than there is in Martinique, but there is no such foliage. And as to Cuba, it is a barren island compared with this.

    Swarms of boatmen came out to the ship in quest of fares, as they do at all these islands. But here they were more quiet, more polite, and less inclined to take passengers by the collar and drag them into their boats. They all spoke French, of course; but most of them had picked up a few words of English, and a few could speak it very well. They were better dressed, too, than the boatmen at any of the other islands, and their boats looked neater.
    One intelligent young fellow came up to me and asked in English whether I wanted to be taken ashore. But I was going in the ship's boat, and told him so. He said he was a guide as well as a boatman, and would take me to any part of the city. I thought then that I did not need his services, but afterward I found him very useful.

    The afternoon was traveling along to a close, so we once more availed ourselves of the muscles of "Sanny" and his companion, and were rowed ashore in the broad safe boat belonging to the ship. Another night on shore, we thought, would be pleasant after 11 days and nights on the ship. Mr. Dupont had recommended us by all means go to the Hôtel des Bains, or hotel of the baths, and I had spent some time trying to get my tongue used to the French pronounciation of the name, which, as nearly as I can write it was said to be "Bee-ang."

    We landed at a very neat little wharf, by far the best we had seen yet, and close to a substantial lighthouse. No Custom House officer troubled us, though we carried ashore some small satchels. We found ourselves in a little park by the water, with a stone paved levee running from it down to the sea. The park was well shaded and provided with benches.
    So we started off to find the "Hôtel day Bee-ang." This was not so easy as it seemed. I asked one gentleman to direct me to it, and he made some reply in French which I took to mean that he did not understand English. I asked another with the same result. The third told me the same thing. I looked about for a policeman (being a New-Yorker, and naturally supposing that all policemen are Irishmen,) but there were no policemen in sight.
    Just at the right moment the young boatman who had talked to me on the ship came up. He guided us to the hotel in short order. It was not more than three or four blocks from the landing place, and we went in by a big double door, that at home we would be strongly inclined to think was a stable door, and through a long, dark, broad, brick paved hallway.

    This led us into the café and office of the "Hôtel des Bee-ang" which occupied two sides of a square, the centre being a sort of open courtyard, paved with flat stones, with a very large dove-cote in the centre of it, and a large stone fountain at the rear.     There were tables all about the café, at which gentlemen were sitting, eating, drinking, and playing cards. It seemed rather an odd place to take ladies into (there were two ladies with me,) but there was nowhere else to take them. In one part of the café was a raised platform perhaps a foot high and five feet square, on the front of which stood a large desk. This was the office of the Hôtel des Bains.
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  Martinique News



    Martinique: Martinique is an island in the eastern Caribbean Sea, having a land area of 1,128 km². It is an overseas department of France. As with the other overseas departments, Martinique is also one of the twenty-six regions of France (being an overseas region) and an integral part of the Republic. As part of France, Martinique is part of the European Union, and its currency is the euro. Its official language is French, although almost all of its inhabitants also speak Antillean Creole (Créole Martiniquais).
    Wikipedia: Martinique


Area of Martinique: 1,100 sq km
slightly more than 6x the size of Wash., DC

Population of Martinique: 429,510
July 2004 estimate

Languages of Martinique:
French
Creole patois

Martinique Capital: Fort-de-France


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    Behind the desk sat the most remarkable human being I ever saw. I was convinced that it was human from the little I could see of it, but whether it was man or woman, boy or girl, it was impossible to determine. It proved to be the landlady, wife of the proprietor, and a lady of color. Her head was completely enveloped in an immense red and yellow checked turban. Her face (a very full, round face,) was tied up with another turban, so that there was hardly anything visible of her but eyes, nose, and mouth. These features had a Chinese appearance, and her whole make-up made her startling to look at. On the desk in front of her she had not only her account books, but the stock of cigars, cigarettes, and toothpicks inseperable from a restaurant.

    I asked her, through the boatman interpreter, whether she could let us have two rooms. The boatman spoke to her, she replied in French, and the boatman said she said we could have a large room with as many beds in it as we wanted. I tried to be as emphatic as possible in explaining that that would not do at all, that we wanted two rooms with one bed in each. The boatman had another conversation with her, and she began to shake her head. This was ominous.
    Then the landlord was sent for, and the boatman stated the case to him. When they got through their talk, this was the report the boatman gave me of it:
    "He says you don't need to bring any servants. They have servants in the hotel."
    I wonder what French word means both "rooms" and "servants?" Nobody had said a word about servants—at least not in English. But it was ridiculous, this talking to a hotel keeper through a boatman...
    At any rate, the landlord gave me up for a bad job, and, instead of saying anything more to me, he put both hands to his mouth to make a trumpet and called:
    "Marguerite!"
    In a moment the summons was answered by a light-colored girl wearing a skirt that was short in front and trailed on the ground fully a yard behind, with a turban on her head and a stylish air that no negress carries half as well as a French negress. The landlord nodded his head from me to Marguerite, which I understood to mean that I was to talk to her. So I told her what we wanted.
    "Ah, oui," said Marguerite, "ze gentleman and ze ladies wish for two rooms. J'entends." And she told the landlord what we wanted, and he once more said, "Oui, oui, oui," and took down a bunch of keys and handed them to Marguerite, who immediately invited us "to go up ze stairs wiz" her and see the rooms. We went most willingly...

    The other room was up one more flight of stairs, and was reached by going along a narrow outside balcony overlooking the courtyard. A number of other rooms opened upon the same balcony, which answered the purpose of a hallway.
    The room was a large one, with two immense beds in it, and two dormer windows, opening out upon the tiled roof. There was no carpet, of course. But there were any number of chairs—a dozen, I should think—and a large sofa, and a small table. A door with a transom without any sash in it opened into an adjoining room; and in that other room a gentleman connected with the theatrical company then in the city was rehearsing his part. A window, as well as a door, opened from the room upon the balcony. It certainly was an "owlish" looking place...

    We would most likely need to spend some money that same evening, and would certainly have a hotel bill to pay on the morrow—and I had not a cent of French money, not even English money—nothing but greenbacks. And nothing would pass current in Martinique, I was told, but French gold and silver. I began to have a strong desire to see the American Consul to learn where I could get some money changed, so I summoned Marguerite.
    "Ah, oui, oui. Ze Consul. His brother is now in ze café. I will bring him." And off she went, coming back presently with a very polite and accomodating young American gentleman, who soon gave me directions that saved me any further trouble about money.
    They called us down to dinner soon afterward, in the "salle à manger." This was a large front room on the first floor, paved with bricks, and very nicely furnished with marble-top tables and comfortable chairs. They gave us an excellent dinner, with a pint of claret each to wash it down; everything was clean and neat; the dishes were well cooked and well served, and we had every reason to congratulate ourselves that our lines had fallen in such pleasant places.

    We learned, on inquiry, that there was to be no performance in the theatre that evening, that being one of the "off" nights. But I discovered that I could buy 20 very fair cigars in the hotel for a French 50-cent piece and that there was plenty of ice in the house, so I did not worry.
    We sat for an hour or more in our private parlor, from whose broad back window we could watch the interior of the café, and see the gentlemen still playing cards, still eating, still drinking, and still smoking. The temperature was not much too warm. We could hear the dripping of the stone fountain outside our window, and there was nothing to find fault with.
    From our front windows I could see a large and well-lighted room in the house oppposite; and although the lower sections of its inside shutters were tightly closed, I could see that it contained a large green-covered table, and that eight or ten men sat around this table, and that their arms were continuously reaching out over the table, as if they were handing things to each other. I thought perhaps it was a committee meeting of the Young Men's Christian Association, till I saw waiters handing very frequent drinks to the gentlemen, and then I saw that it was a gambling house.

    At 8 o'clock, or thereabout, when one of our ladies had retired to rest, and when the remainder of the party were thinking very seriously of following suit, Marguerite came in to tell us that there was a play that evening after all, and we had just time to go. So two of us determined to see the play, and we inquired where we could get a carriage.
    "Carriage! Ah, non, non! It is just one leetle wee distance," holding up both hands about six inches apart. It will not fatigue ze Madame. If you will pay for my ticket, I vill go wiz you and show you."
    Most accommodating of all chambermaids. She would even be our guide to the theatre! But we accepted her offer, and were glad enough to have her.
    I hinted mildly to Marguerite that we would expect her to grace the gallery with her presence, and to this she offered no objections. She reappeared in a short time decorated with a fresh turban and a pair of gold earrings about the size of ink bottles, and we started off...

    We pushed along and at length reached the Savannah—a large open square, bordered with fine large trees. And at the further end of it a great big tent, well lighted inside, and a band playing. Verily, Marguerite had led us to the circus.
    We saw the advantage of this at once. We could understand the circus performance, while the play would have been in unintelligible French. We found a crowd about the tent, of course, which we pushed through and made our way up to the ticket office. I inquired about the price of seats and was told they were 6 cents each.
    "Are those the best you have? Do you speak English?" I inquired of the ticket seller.
    "Well, I should smile if I didn't," he replied. "I wouldn't be found dead talking nothing else." Then he told me that the circus company was from Brazil, and that he had been sick for a week and was anxious to get home.
    We bought some reserved seats, and sent Marguerite in on a six-cent ticket to a part of the tent in which she speedily found acquaintances. Our "reserved seats" were on a narrow board, without any back, but we managed to sit through about half the performance. The tent was lighted by a "chandelier" hanging around the centre pole, holding 20 or 30 candles, and in the middle of an act the rope that held it broke and the whole thing came down with a crash. Some colored gentlemen came out and put it up again, and the play went on.
    There were no horses, but some of the performers were very good acrobats.

    On the way back to the hotel our route led near to a big stone wall, on the other side of which was a deep ravine, and through the ravine ran the little river which I have mentioned before. There was a bed of grass, perhaps 20 feet wide, between the sidewalk and the wall. I wanted to see the river, and started to walk across the grass to look over the wall. But Marguerite took hold of my sleeve and held me back.
    "Non, non!" said she. "You must not walk on ze grass at night. Ze serpents! Ze serpents!"
    We reached the hotel in safety, and passed a comfortable night. In the morning the whole world of Martinique lay before us.
WILLIAM DRYSDALE.

The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1886 was equivalent to $22.88 in 2007.
The US Mint reported that the French franc was worth about $0.193 in 1886; so the French 50 centimes that Drysdale "could buy 20 very fair cigars" for was worth less than 10 cents US then, or about $2.20 in 2007.


    On May 8, 1902, the Mt. Pelée volcano erupted, destroying the city of St. Pierre (Saint-Pierre) and killing 29,000 people, the largest number of casualties for a volanic eruption in the 20th century. The heat of the volcano melted the "huge white cross" made of iron which Drysdale describes in his article above. recent view of Mt. Pelée and rebuilt St. Pierre

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