Wednesday, February 25, 2015


"Guadeloupe is a group of Caribbean islands located in the Leeward Islands, in the Lesser Antilles, with a land area of 1,628 square kilometres and a population of 405,739 inhabitants." 

This is Wikipedia, trying for once to be accurate. But how can you be so precisely accurate, with population figures? Does nobody die or get born in Guadeloupe? Does nobody migrate or emigrate? And what about land erosion, when the tides do their wicked work? These numbers are as accurate as a stopped clock.

Recognising Guadeloupe as a cluster of small islands thousands of miles from Paris, you will be able, by this stage of reading this blogbook, to deduce for yourself that it must be a dependent territory of France. 10 out of 10. "Overseas region" is the technical term on this occasion, though how exactly this is different from the others is beyond my capacity to explain. The fact is, Guadeloupe, more than four thousand miles from the coast of France, is a part of the European Union, uses the Euro, speaks French (badly, but still better than the Quebecois), and qualifies for the Eurozone. Isn't that just weird! One day, who knows, the European Parliament will be moved to Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe's capital and the French and Germans will take up cricket.

Because these things matter, at least to the people whose families have lived there for many centuries longer than the French or even the Spanish, the real name of the island is Karukera, which means "the island of beautiful waters", and its indigenous peoples, before Columbus brought Christ and civilisation to enlighten them and make their lives joyful (he also discovered, and named, the pineapple there), were second the Arawaks and third the Caribs; we don’t know who the first were, because the Caribs went in for ethnic cleansing, just as Columbus’ Catholics did, and wiped them out; just as the French did when they took over the place in the 17th century, and wiped out all the Caribs.

The Spanish and French fought over the islands for several centuries, but as always it was the British who won (they simply seized the place, a traditional act of piracy), and then established sugar plantations worth more than all their other sugar plantations combined. When Napoleon’s aspirations forced Great Britain to choose between Canada and Guadeloupe, they obviously chose Canada (why would you take the beach-hut if you are offered the country estate?), and Guadeloupe became French again, though the islanders refused to accept the Napoleonic Codes and Edicts of Tolerance, which gave equal rights to all people, including “free people of colour”, a term that did not include slaves, who rebelled. It gets complicated after that, with Britain retaking the islands, then Napoleon again, and Napoleon of all things unabolishing slavery which that slave rebellion at the time of Victor Hugues had briefly achieved. At one point it was even made part of Sweden, but finally it went back to France, and has remained there. 

Sugar cane is still the main agricultural product, with bananas now added, but unemployment is not a problem as France has an extremely generous social security system, and most Guadeloupans are happy to take advantage of it.

Victor Hugues (not to be confused with Victor Hugo) is an interesting man, not much known about outside the French-speaking world, and generally overlooked or at least disregarded inside the French world, where witty phrases like "the Colonial Robespierre" and "the demon of Republicanism", or cruder derogations like "disgustingly lewd cynic" and "the well-known brute" are employed to dismiss him. 

The son of a baker, he was born in Marseilles in 1761 - so say the history books, without first taking a careful look at the accounts of those who knew the family; the son of a baker who was himself probably of American Indian origin, and a woman of African descent, is a more likely account of his ethnicity, though you will struggle to find this in French text-books. Enlisted as a soldier at the age of seventeen, he was sent to Santo Domingo, where he remained for the next twelve years. Then came the French Revolution, the dawn of Enlightenment, the incipit of the epoch of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité but not yet Sororité, and Hugues, whether because of his ethnic background or because of what he had witnessed all those years in Santo Domingo, Hugues declared his personal support for the new democracy, as a consequence of which he was transported back to France, arraigned before the Committee of Public Safety, found to be honest and genuine in his convictions, and promoted instantly as commissioner to the French West Indies, with orders to reconquer Guadeloupe from the English. This he did quite ruthlessly, following the model set down by the newly established regime of Enlightenment in France: three hundred of the French emigrés who had supported the British were shot as traitors, despite their having voluntarily surrendered; while another hundred “free people of colour” were put in chains to undertake public works; and in the meanwhile Hugues employed the guillotine liberally to inspire the Utopian idealism of the new French state in the hearts and souls, but not any longer the heads because they had been decapitated, of his new empire, which he defended by means of the forced conscription of more than fifteen thousand "natives", while simultaneously plundering the colony's wealth for his personal use, and hundreds of the colony's women for the same purpose.

In 1798 he was recalled to France, which was now in the hands of Napoleon Buonaparte, who appointed him Governor of Cayenne, instructed him to manage affairs somewhat more gently than he had in Guadeloupe, and court-martialled him ten years later, when the gentler approach failed and he was obliged to surrender his territory to the British. Accused of incapacity as well as treason, he spent five years defending himself, and was not only acquitted (the charges were stupid: the man was capable to a level that Machiavelli would have commended, and as loyal to Napoleon as Goerring was to Hitler), but actually sent back to Guadeloupe by the new Emperor, Louis XVIII, as governor, which post he held for two years before retiring as a private citizen on the island, and returning to France only in 1826, and only then because he wished to be buried in his native land.

This, with some of my more cynical interjections, is the standard portrait of him, as painted in France: the portrait of a most unpleasant individual who nonetheless provided good service to his nation. The view from Guadeloupe is rather different - even crueller, even more vicious, even more monomaniacal. Rather than me recounting it, I recommend you to read Gerard Besson's version, in the Caribbean History Archives. As a study in human wickedness, it does for reality what Shaespeare's Macbeth could only do in fiction.

Marks For: 2

Marks Against: 4

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