« PreviousContinue »
was respectively entered. Thence we proceeded to the house of the general in chief, Christophe, who received us with civility, and made several inquiries relative to the existing state of affairs in Europe and the prospects of peace, subjects extremely interesting to the chiefs of Hayti. Upon this occasion I made before the general a little faux pas, the particulars of which I will relate, to give you a specimen of the politeness of a Haytian gentleman. Having been in the island once before, I knew the value of newspapers to the Americans, and was also perfectly aware of the difficulty of getting them again, after they had once been in possession of the officers of the government. On these accounts I had determined upon denying that I had any, and what my pockets would not contain, I snugly concealed in the crown of my hat, previously to leaving the vessel. When his excellency asked me if I had any, I replied in the negative, under the persuasion, that in so harmless a case as this, the end would excuse if not justify the means. No sooner had we left the room, than the interpreter to my astonishment said to me, "When you told the general that you had no newspapers, why did you let him see into the inside of your hat?" I was no less surprized at the discovery, than chagrined at the unguarded action by which it was produced; but although I was not positively convinced that the general had perceived the papers, I was sure the interpreter had, and as I felt myself indebted to his urbanity in not exposing my hat, I could not refuse to lend them to him upon his promise to return them, which he strictly adhered to.
There are now resident at this place of our countrymen about twelve or fifteen, and a few English and Irish gentlemen, who are ranked in the class of American merchants, we being at this day the only people carrying on the commerce of the island. Our society is pretty much confined to ourselves, for except by special invitations to festivals or balls, there is very little social intercourse supported between the natives and the Americans. This arises principally from the disposition of both to associate with those of their own colour and language, and partly from the pride of the former, who do not by any means feel disposed to be intimate and familiar with the whites. I speak. of the nabobs of the country, who being the present
lords of the soil, assume all the pompous dignity and conse. quence of noblemen. Those of a middling class among the citizens are much inclined to be civil, and such of the Americans as are desirous of cultivating their acquaintance, find no difficulty in so doing. But what is lost in attention from the warriors, statesmen, and other grand dignitaries of the empire, is amply compensated by the kind reception which is every where met with from the fair sex, by our gallant countrymen, who are lovers of beauty under whatever coloured veil it may appear.
A description of the persons and characters of the women, constitutes a very important branch of the duty of the traveller, who undertakes to write an account of any particular nation; and I should consider myself as falling very far short in my respect for the ladies, were I to pass unnoticed the gay and sprightly damsels who make so conspicuous a figure in the beau-monde of Hayti, or who display their charms with such fascinating lustre at the imperial court of Jacques the First. I anticipate the smile which will be excited, as you picture to yourself a sable belle decorated in all the splendor and taste of fashion, tripping down the mazy dance, and rivalling even the very Graces, in a display of her accomplished movements and graceful attitudes. But pardon the interruption, I mean not to embellish my narrative with such fancy coloured descriptions, as your imagination may invent, but to delineate the Haytian ladies in their true colours, that you may yourself form a judgment of their merits. You, as well as others must know, that the inhabitants of the United States have been accustomed to see people of colour in no other capacity than that of slaves, servants, or labourers, without education and consequently incapacitated for any stations in life but those of the most humble nature. This being the case, they have very naturally imbibed certain prejudices, which have become so habitual as to be with difficulty removed. They are accustomed to consider all those who are possessed of even a single drop of African blood in their veins, as belonging to the class of negroes, and the only idea they are disposed to form of people of colour, is founded upon what they have been in the constant habit of wit
nessing. Thus it is extremely difficult for an American to believe, that there can be in this island, mulatto men who have been brought up by their white fathers, with all the care and attention, which parents usually bestow upon their legitimate offspring, who have been educated at colleges in France, and who are accomplished classical scholars. Yet the fact is so, and perhaps when this information is premised, it may not appear so extraordinary, that among the Haytian women also, many should be found who are adapted for a different sphere of life, from those of our own country.
During the existence of the ancient system of colonial government, which was terminated by the French revolution, when peace and tranquillity held their united empire within the bosom of this then happy island, Hispaniola possessed in a profuse degree, all that wealth and luxury, which the fertility of its soil was calculated to produce, and the inclinations of its inhabitants predisposed to enjoy. Hospitality then extended her downy wings over the splendid mansion of every opulent planter, and with joyful welcome invited the sun-oppressed and weary traveller, to partake of the festive board of her generous patron. But unfortunately it not unfrequently happened, that tokens of domestic kindness, and of zeal for the accommodation of the guest, were not confined to the social pleasures of the table, or the unbounded varieties with which it was loaded. A looseness of moráls had by degrees been introduced, which corrupting the virtue of a chaste hospitality, transformed her sacred rights into the lewd practices of a brothel. The master too was not ashamed to indulge in a similar illicit and disgraceful commerce with his own female slaves, and hence was produced a race of people, whose approximation in colour to the white, advanced with every new generation, until in the year 1789, a population equal to four fifths of that of the whites, was extended over the island. As the colonies became gradually more and more accustomed to the sight of persons of a mixed blood, it was in the same proportion deemed less discreditable in a white father to rear and educate his coloured child. But a deep-rooted prejudice against people of colour as regarded their claims to any degree of rank, so completely governed the European as well
as the Creole white, that a woman of the latter complexion would never associate with one of the former, neither was a coloured man permitted to hold any office under the govern ment or practise any liberal profession, although many of them were men of education, and proprietors of great estates. Had not this bitter prejudice been carried to such an unlimited extent, it is highly probable, that the unhappy revolution which has caused so much banishment and bloodshed, would never have terminated as it has, for the mulattoes would have had no cause for revolt, and without their talents and counsel it could never have been successfully conducted. But to return from my digression.
The women of Hayti, like those of all other communities, are composed of various classes, according to their stations in life. I shall consider them under the three general heads, to which I think they may with propriety be reduced. The highest class, or first circle, comprizes the ladies, and daughters of the chief officers military and civil, the maids of honour attendant upon the empress, and her daughters the princesses, and a few women of degree, who are perhaps related to, or very intimate with, some of the families of distinction. Of this rank, there are some of all colours, from the lightest shade, to the purest black. In the second or middling class, may be included the wives and daughters of merchants, subaltern military officers, mechanics, and the great body of shopkeepers, mantuamakers, and milli
The division of labour is here so justly apportioned, that all the easy light work, such as that of retailing dry goods, belongs exclusively to the women. By this means they are enabled to support themselves respectably, and to be highly useful to their country, for in consequence of their industry, more men are left to devote their services to the various military and agricultural employments, for which they are required. Of this class, there are likewise some of all colours. The lowest class, composed of servants, plantation wenches, washers of clothes, &c. are nearly all black. You will seldom see one of a lighter shade than the mulatresse, and of that colour but very few.
That particular portion of them which is the most likely to attract the attention of strangers, is composed of those who belong to the three lightest shades of colour called quinterone,
quarterone and mistive. The great body of these women are handsome, and many of them beautiful. The short curly wool of the negro is lost in their fine long flowing tresses of hair, and there is scarcely any thing in their appearance which indicates the least consanguinity to the black. The colour of many so far from appearing to be produced by the mixed nature of their blood, resembles entirely the effect of the sun and climate, and there are not a few of a much lighter complexion than some American brunettes. Their persons, particularly those of the young women, are generally slender, and well proportioned, their features delicate, and their deportment lofty. Their mental acquirements are generally limited, though many of them have excellent educations. But in some accomplishments they are by no means deficient. They sing with elegance and melody, play on the guitar with judgment, and dance with gracefulness. Of these fashionable amusements they are extravagantly fond, but of others again they are entirely negligent. I have never seen, for instance, a Haytian lady seated at a gambling table, with a pack of cards in her hand, exhibiting a countenance expressive of such interest as if her whole happiness was involved in the issue of the game. Their leisure time is employed in pursuits of industry, and as they excel in all the nice branches of needlework and embroidering, they are enabled to procure à maintenance. Their language, which is the refined Creole, (for even this simple tongue has its various dialects and styles) is extremely fascinating, and with the soft and melodious accents with which it is artfully uttered, is well adapted to the science of making love, and is often successfully displayed.
The Haytian lady is excessively fond of dress, and in her costume exhibits a great deal of taste and neatness. Jewels, trinkets and rings of considerable value and splendour form a considerable part of her wealth, but the article which is more highly esteemed than all the rest of her wardrobe together, is a fine Madrass handkerchief for her head. So great is the predilection for this article, that if a Haytian lady was in want of one, and at the same time of an under-garment, and had only money enough to purchase one, she would buy the former. A single Madrass handkerchief, of a singular and beautiful pattern,