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Hacktreks 2

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Auschwitz Under Blue Skies
Time has washed over this remote plantation and removed the overt signs of slavery

An hour’s boat ride from Guadeloupe lays this perfect jewel of an island, Marie Galante, named for one of Columbus’s ships on a later voyage to the New World. Shortly after his arrival, the original inhabitants were either enslaved or died off from disease. In place of the natives, more slaves came from Africa to work the sugar cane plantations of the English and French, who were engaged in a constant war of ownership. A remnant of the French colonial experience lives on in the easy patois of the island French. The main port looks like so many of the sleepy colonial towns of the belle époque, with its broad arches and white plaster that has now yellowed and peeled.

Mile after mile of this windswept island are sugar cane and banana plantations. The bitter irony is that the sugar cane in the Caribbean was used mainly for the manufacture of rum, which then was sold for more slaves. The slave trade led to the rum trade, which increased the slave trade – a perfect equation of capitalism at its best or worst, depending on your perspective. The early American republic was built on the foundation of this trade. The plantations are now smaller and many are not owned by the slaves’ descendants, but by absentee landlords. The land, which could feed the people, is focused on the same cash crops of sugar and rum. It is coarse brown rum that burns with each swallow.

At the end of a narrow dirt road we arrive at a deserted plantation. The mansion is an imposing, grey stoned and roofless shell of a building that sits on a hilltop. Not a strand of carpet, or any sign of habitation remains, but in my mind’s eye I can see the women in white hooped skirts sitting on the porch and gazing out to the sea. Acres of sugar cane fields surround this abandoned estate and the ruins of the rum factory lie less than one hundred yards from it. The lawns are as neat and meticulous as if they had been swept clean, like a grass tennis court. The bright blood red bougainvilleas grow next to a stone wall and there is a surreal stillness in the air. A few birdcalls echo throughout the estate grounds, but no human voices are heard. The group of French tourists near me remark on the beauty of the landscape and one said, "It must have been a grand place to live." But I do not think the slaves felt that way nor were they were sitting on the front porch of the mansion sipping mint juleps while watching the white people toil in the hot noon sun.

Time has washed over this remote plantation and removed the overt signs of slavery. The anchors where the chains were secured are now smooth indentations in the wall, like the fingerprints on the scene of a crime that had been wiped clean. Here in the center nave of this grey stone factory were the vats and the cauldrons that took the sweet sticky sugar cane and boiled it into rum. The constant heat of a furnace in a closed building, day after day, year after year, must have been like the hell that the Christian missionaries so often spoke of. The guide said, "The workers had Sunday off." There was no mention of slaves; they were referred to as "workers." I wonder what would have happened if the "workers" had formed a union and asked for a forty-hour work week?

There was finally a decree to end slavery in the early 1800s and the slaves were freed. But without a memory of home or a way back even if they wanted to go, almost all remained. Their descendants continued to work the fields, but the plantation owners now brought in "indentured servants" from India in place of the newly liberated slaves. In other words, indentured servants were slaves for a limited period of time.

The sky is a crisp clear blue that tells none of what it saw. The gray stone walls and the interior of the sugar cane factory reveal nothing. I touch the walls and want to feel something of what was here. I want to understand the tragedy of slavery: A life of suffering and an enforced brutal hard labor without respite. In this factory, cauldrons of sugar cane were boiled and drained, throughout the year, day after day save for the Sabbath. Are the ghosts of the ancestors around? No, just the bare bones of these ruins and the great grandchildren of the slaves remain.

As tourists, we spend a few minutes visiting this quaint and elegant spot, with little clue or desire to see the crime perpetrated. This fallen plantation is neat and flawlessly clean. Who wiped off the fingerprints at the scene of the crime? Was it time? Who cleaned the bloodstains off the factory floor? If I am attentive and quiet – can I hear the terror or the slave’s prayers for freedom in the wind? Can these walls speak of what it contained?
If this was in Germany or Poland, or if the "workers" were Jews, Gypsies, or homosexuals rather than African Americans would we now have this plantation as a monument that extols the virtues of this bygone age? I sense the memories of men, women, and children who were enslaved and spent their lives in back-breaking work, separated from their families and homes, toiling in the sun, with no hope for freedom. Was this an Auschwitz of the Caribbean beneath this serene and blue sky?

Brattleboro, Vt.

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