Island Beneath the Sea
The Spanish Illness
Toulouse Valmorain arrived in Saint-Domingue in 1770, the same year the dauphin of France married the Austrian archduchess, Marie Antoinette. Before traveling to the colony, when still he had no suspicion that his destiny was going to play a trick on him, or that he would end up in cane fields in the Antilles, he had been invited to Versailles to one of the parties in honor of the new dauphine, a young blonde of fourteen, who yawned openly in the rigid protocol of the French court. All of that was in the past. Saint-Domingue was another world. The young Valmorain had a rather vague idea of the place where his father struggled to earn a livelihood for his family with the ambition of converting it into a fortune. Valmorain had read somewhere that the original inhabitants of the island, the Arawaks, had called it Haiti before the conquistadors changed the name to La Espanola and killed off the natives. In fewer than fifty years, not a single Arawak remained, nor sign of them; they all perished as victims of slavery, European illnesses, and suicide. They were a red-skinned race, with thick black hair and inalterable dignity, so timid that a single Spaniard could conquer ten of them with his bare hands. They lived in polygamous communities, cultivating the land with care in order not to exhaust it: sweet potatoes, maize, gourds, peanuts, peppers, potatoes, and cassava. The earth, like the sky and water, had no owner until the foreigners, using the forced labor of the Arawaks, took control of it in order to cultivate never-before-seen plants. It was in that time that the custom of killing people with dogs was begun. When they had annihilated the indigenous peoples, the new masters imported slaves, blacks kidnapped in Africa and whites from Europe: convicts, orphans, prostitutes, and rebels. At the end of the 1600s, Spain ceded to France the western part of the island, which they called Saint-Domingue, and which would become the richest colony in the world. At the time Toulouse Valmorain arrived there, a third of the wealth of France, in sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton, indigo, and cocoa, came from the island. There were no longer white slaves, but the number of blacks had risen to hundreds of thousands. The most intractable crop was sugarcane, the sweet gold of the colony; cutting the cane, crushing it, and reducing it to syrup was labor not for humans, as the planters maintained, but for beasts.
Valmorain had just turned twenty when he was summoned to the colony by an urgent letter from his father's business agent. When the youth disembarked, he was dressed in the latest fashion--lace cuffs, powdered wig, and shoes with high heels--and sure that the books he had read on the subject of exploration made him more than capable of advising his father for a few weeks. He was traveling with a valet nearly as elegant as he, and several trunks holding his wardrobe and his books. He thought of himself as a man of letters, and planned upon his return to France to dedicate himself to science. He admired the philosophers and encyclopedists who had in recent decades made such an impact in Europe, and he agreed with some of their liberal ideas. Rousseau's Social Contract had been his bedside book at eighteen. He had barely got off the ship, after a crossing that nearly ended in tragedy when they ran into a hurricane in the Caribbean, when he received his first disagreeable surprise: his progenitor was not waiting for him at the port. He was met by the agent, a courteous Jew dressed in black from head to foot, who informed him of the precautions necessary for moving about the island; he had brought him horses, a pair of mules for luggage, a guide, and militiamen to accompany him to the Habitation Saint-Lazare. The young man had never set foot outside France, and had paid very little attention to the stories--banal, furthermore--his father used to tell during his infrequent visits to the family in Paris. He could not imagine that he would ever visit the plantation; the tacit agreement was that his father would consolidate his fortune on the island while he looked after his mother and sisters and supervised the business in France. The letter he had received alluded to health problems, and he supposed that it concerned a passing fever, but when he reached Saint-Lazare, after a day's march at a killing pace