Tracing the Caribbean Wanderings of Lafcadio Hearn

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A report from Manichi.

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was perhaps the most beloved and highly regarded of all Western commentators on Japan, writing numerous famous essays such as “My First Day in the Orient” and “A Japanese Smile.” Already a well-established author when he arrived in Japan in 1890 at the age of 40, he published prolifically — at a rate of one book a year while he was here — and lived in locations as diverse as Matsue, Kumamoto, Kobe and Tokyo. He married a Japanese woman and subsequently assumed Japanese nationality.

There are several commemorative museums to Hearn today in Japan — where he is better known by his Japanese name “Koizumi Yakumo” — and thanks to superb Japanese translations of his works, he is far better known in Japan than in any other country. Despite the fact that Hearn — an otherwise accomplished linguist who could read French and Latin — could neither read nor fluently speak Japanese, he has been proudly assumed by Japan as one of its own.

This is however a little deceptive: Hearn was in truth a citizen of the world — a man of complex identity and psychology, who was an inveterate traveller and wanderer. Had he not died suddenly at the age of 54 in 1904, it is likely that his world wanderings would have continued.

Hearn was of Anglo-Greek background, born to a Greek mother on the Greek island of Lefkada (hence his name “Lafcadio”) and raised by his aunt in Dublin before being sent to boarding school in Durham, England. But placed in straitened circumstances by an unexpected loss of family wealth, he emigrated to the United States at the age of 19 and ended up working as a crime reporter on a newspaper in Cincinnati. There he briefly married a woman of mixed race, flouting the miscegenation laws of the day, but they divorced after only two years and he moved on to New Orleans where he lived for 10 years, writing books on subjects as diverse as Chinese ghost stories and Creole cuisine.

In 1887 he set off from New York on a voyage across the Caribbean, visiting numerous islands on his way to and from British Guiana in South America, a journey he subsequently described in “A Midsummer Trip to the Tropics.” Attracted in particular to the French-speaking island of Martinique, he returned and lived there for two years, writing detailed portraits of the lifestyles of the people who lived on the island. He subsequently published a classic book, “Two Years on the French West Indies,” and a novel “Youma: The Story of a West Indian Slave,” less critically well-received, also set there.

Immediately after leaving the French West Indies, Hearn began his long trek westward to Japan, and so what he saw and wrote about in the Caribbean was to inform many of the experiences and observations he subsequently had in Japan. This was a side of Hearn I knew much less about, so I decided to try and better understand the pre-Japan version of Lafcadio by flying to Martinique with a copy of “Two Years in the French West Indies” in my bag.

I had in mind that the French-speaking Hearn had a far more authentic experience of places in the Caribbean than present-day tourists who island-hop on luxury cruise liners, but in fact Hearn’s initial journey to the Caribbean was exactly just such a cruise: plus ca change.

It’s perhaps ironic that Hearn is most famous for his later writings on Japan, because his writing style — heavily descriptive, ornate, oneiric and often other-worldly — finds its perfect milieu in the sensory overload of the tropics: in its explosive profusion of colours, scents, vegetation, topography and characters.

Hearn had a keen eye for the day-by-day shift in the colours of the sea, sky and dreamy volcanic island landscapes as his ship steamed south to Santa Cruz, then east to St. Kitts, Dominica and finally Martinique.

Clearly evident are some of the themes that would later make Hearn such a deeply prized writer in Japan: his ability to see the world around him with fresh eyes, alive to its mysteries and magic. Hearn for example had a lifelong interest in the insect kingdom — he would later praise Japanese civilisation as outstanding in its ability to understand the beauty and fascination of insects — and so it is perhaps no surprise that at the beginning of his Caribbean voyage he writes:

“The first tropical visitor has just boarded our ship: a wonderful fly, shaped like a common fly, but at least five times larger. His body is a beautiful shining black; his wings seem ribbed and jointed with silver; his head is jewel green, with exquisitely cut emeralds for eyes.

And also predictably, Hearn’s magnificent Gothic imagination — which would find its fullest expression in his masterpiece “Kwaidan” (1904), his collection of Japanese ghost stories — begins to transform the Caribbean islands into a communion with ghosts and phantasmagorical visions.

“We pass away. The island does not seem to sink behind us, but to become a ghost. All its outlines grow shadowy. For a little while it continues green; — but it is a hazy, spectral green, as of coloured vapour. The sea today looks almost black….”

As always with Hearn, this was a journey as much within the interior dreamscapes of the mind as on any sea chart.

After over a week at sea, the ship anchored in the harbour of St. Pierre in Martinique, sometimes called “the Paris of the West Indies,” a flourishing city of 30,000 people which was to be completely destroyed by the catastrophic eruption of the island’s volcano Mt. Pelee in 1902, just over a decade after Hearn left.

For a reasonably small Caribbean island, Martinique has a rich cultural heritage. It was the birthplace of the Empress Josephine (Napoleon’s wife) and when Hearn arrived in 1887, the French painter Paul Gauguin was also living there, though they do not appear to have met.

On his initial tour, Hearn carried on to Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad and modern-day Suriname, describing as he went their distinctive landscapes and ethnic makeups, influenced by the racial obsessions of the age. Finally the ship turned round and began the return trip, calling in at St. Lucia. I followed the Hearn trail there and observed the spectacular landscapes he had evoked.

“A beautiful fantastic shape floats to us through the morning light: first cloudy gold like the horizon, then pearly gray, then varying blue, with growing green lights — Saint Lucia. Most strangely formed of all this volcanic family — everywhere mountainings sharp as broken crystals.”

Why did Hearn decide to journey to Japan, rather than staying on indefinitely in the Caribbean?

Part of the reason was that Hearn’s troubled psychology and confused identity led him to be in permanent flight from the certainties of Western civilisation. He was really looking for a civilisation that could match and challenge the West and in those cultural dichotomies find a space to explore his true self.

Hearn was ruled by paradoxes. At once in flight from modernity and Westernization, he was himself the very envoy of such historical change, eventually becoming lecturer in English literature at Tokyo Imperial University. While he seemed attracted to Japan by the sophistication of its civilisation, he was happiest not in its large cities, but in places like the small fishing village of Yaezu in Shizuoka Prefecture, where he often came during the summers of his final years.

On Martinique, Hearn had journeyed from the town of St. Pierre through mountain passes to the remote village of Grande Anse on the other side of the island — only 10 miles from St Pierre as the crow flies, but cut off from St. Pierre by the island’s rugged topography (even today there is no coastal road leading there).

Everything in Grande Anse was the opposite of St. Pierre: in one place they could see the sunsets, but not the sunrises, and vice versa. Even the currents of the waters flowed differently there.

This was classic Hearnian terrain — an inversion of the mainstream, the delightful simplicity of daily rustic rituals, the open-hearted warmth of the locals. Hearn described the “porteuses” (long-distance female porters), the extraordinarily sturdy porter women who walked 40 miles up mountain paths every day balancing weights of 120 pounds on their heads — all for the princely sum of one franc. He recounted how he gave one of then a tip and she went off on a two hour walk to bring him a fresh mango to express her thanks.

It would foreshadow the writings of his final years in Japan when in stories like “Otokichi’s Daruma” he would describe over-tipping the modest innkeeper at Yaezu with whom he lodged, and who tended to ridiculously undercharge him for his summer accommodation.

These simple fishing villages in places as diverse as Japan and Martinique are curiously linked in the manner in which they were apprised by the great Anglo-Greek writer, whose acuity of vision and imaginative consciousness drifted through the Caribbean, en route to its ultimate embrace of Japan.

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