Island Beneath the Sea

by Isabel Allende and Margaret Sayers Peden

Island Beneath the Sea

Hardcover, 457 pages, Harpercollins, List Price: $26.99 | purchase

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Island Beneath the Sea
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Isabel Allende and Margaret Sayers Peden

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Paperback, 457 pages, Harpercollins, $14.99, published April 26 2011 | purchase

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Island Beneath the Sea
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Isabel Allende and Margaret Sayers Peden

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Book Summary

In a novel where the setting moves from the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue to the lavish parlors of New Orleans at the turn of the nineteenth century, an African slave and concubine is determined to claim her own destiny against impossible odds.

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Excerpt: Island Beneath The Sea

Island Beneath the Sea

The Island Beneath the Sea

A Novel


Harper Perennial

Copyright © 2011 Isabel Allende
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-198825-7

Chapter One

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 Haïti before the conquistadors
changed the name to La Española 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
Vakmorain 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 through a gluttonous and hostile nature, he realized that
his father was dying. He was not suffering from malaria, as Valmorain
had thought, but syphilis, le mal espagnol, which was devastating whites,
blacks, and mulattoes alike. His father’s illness was in the last stages; he
was covered with pustules, nearly incapacitated, his teeth were loose and
his mind in a fog. The Dantesque treatments of bloodletting, mercury,
and cauterizing his penis with red-hot wire had not given him relief, but
he continued them as an act of contrition. Just past his fiftieth birthday,
he had become an ancient giving nonsensical orders, urinating without
control, and passing his time in a hammock with his pets, a pair of young
black girls who had barely reached puberty.
While slaves unpacked his luggage under the direction of the valet, a
fop who had barely endured the crossing on the ship and was frightened
by the primitive conditions of the place, Toulouse Valmorain went out
to look over the vast property. He knew nothing about the cultivation
of cane, but the tour was sufficient for him to understand that the slaves
were starving and the plantation had been saved from ruin only because
the world was consuming sugar with increasing voraciousness. In the
account books he found the explanation for his father’s bad financial
condition, which was not maintaining his family at a proper level in Paris.
Production was a disaster, and the slaves were dying like insects;
Valmorain had no doubt that the overseers were robbing his family, taking
advantage of the master’s deterioration. He cursed his luck and set about
rolling up his sleeves and getting to work, something no young man from
The Spanish Illness
his milieu ever considered; work was for a different class of people. He
began by obtaining a generous loan, thanks to the support and connections
of his father’s business agent’s bankers. Then he ordered the
commandeurs to the cane fields, to work elbow to elbow with the same people
they had martyrized, and replaced them with others less depraved. He
reduced punishments and hired a veterinarian, who spent two months at
Saint-Lazare trying to return the Negroes to some degree of health. The
veterinarian could not save Valmorain’s valet, who was dispatched by a
fulminating diarrhea in fewer than thirty-eight hours. Valmorain
realized that his father’s slaves lasted an average of eighteen months before
they dropped dead of fatigue or escaped, a much shorter period than
on other plantations. The women lived longer than the men, but they
produced less in the asphyxiating labor of the cane fields, and they also
had the bad habit of getting pregnant. As very few children survived,
the planters had concluded that fertility among the Negroes was not a
good source of income. The young Valmorain carried out the necessary
changes in a methodical way, quickly and with no plans, intending to
leave very soon, but when his father died a few months later, the son had
to confront the inescapable fact that he was trapped. He did not intend to
leave his bones in the mosquito-infested colony, but if he went too soon
he would lose the plantation, and with it the income and social position
his family held in France.
Valmorain did not try to make connections with other colonists. The
grands blancs, owners of other plantations, considered him a presumptuous
youth who would not last long on the island, and for that reason they
were amazed to see him sunburned and in muddy boots. The antipathy
was mutual. For Valmorain the Frenchmen transplanted to the Antilles
were boors, the opposite of the society he had frequented, in which
ideas, science, and the arts were exalted and no one spoke of money or
of slaves. From the Age of Reason in Paris, he had passed to a primitive
and violent world in which the living and the dead walked hand in hand.
Neither did he make friends with the petits blancs, whose only capital was
the color of their skin, a few poor devils poisoned by envy and slander, as
he considered them. Many had come from the four corners of the globe
and had no way to prove the purity of their blood, or their past; in the
best of cases they were merchants, artisans, friars of little virtue, sailors,
military men, and minor civil servants, but there were always troublemakers,
pimps, criminals, and buccaneers who used every inlet of the
Caribbean for their corrupt operations. He had nothing in common with
those people. Among the free mulattoes, the affranchis, there were more
than sixty classifications set by percentage of white blood, and that deter-
mined their social level. Valmorain never learned to distinguish the tones
or proper denomination for each possible combination of the two races.
The affranchis lacked political power, but they managed a lot of money,
and poor whites hated them for that. Some earned a living in illicit trafficking,
from smuggling to prostitution, but others had been educated in
France and had fortunes, lands, and slaves. In spite of subtleties of color,
the mulattoes were united by their shared aspiration to pass for whites
and their visceral scorn for Negroes. The slaves, whose number was ten
times greater than that of the whites and affranchis combined, counted
for nothing, neither in the census of the population nor in the colonists’
consciousness.
Since he did not want to isolate himself completely, Toulouse
Valmorain occasionally had interchange with some families of grands blancs
in Le Cap, the city nearest his plantation. On those trips he bought what
was needed for supplies and, if he could not avoid it, went by the
Assemblée Coloniale to greet his peers, so that they would not forget his
name, but he did not participate in the sessions. He also used the occasion
to go to plays at the theater, attend parties given by the cocottes—the
exuberant French, Spanish, and mixed-race courtesans who dominated
nightlife—and to rub elbows with explorers and scientists who stopped
by the island on their way toward other more interesting places. Saint-
Domingue did not attract visitors, but at times some came to study
the nature or economy of the Antilles. Those Valmorain invited to
Saint-Lazare with the intention of regaining, even if briefly, pleasure
from the sophisticated conversation that had marked his youthful years
in Paris. Three years after his father’s death, he could show the property
with pride; he had transformed that ruin of sick Negroes and dry cane
fields into one of the most prosperous of the eight hundred plantations
on the island, had multiplied by five the volume of unrefined sugar for
export, and had installed a distillery in which he produced select barrels
of a rum as good as the best in Cuba. His visitors spent one or two weeks
in his large, rustic wood residence, soaking up country life and appreciating
at close range the magic invention of sugar. They rode horseback
through the dense growth that whistled threateningly in the wind, protected
from the sun by large straw hats and gasping in the boiling humidity
of the Caribbean, while slaves thin as shadows cut the cane to ground
level without killing the root, so there would be other harvests. From a
distance, they resembled insects in fields where the cane was twice their
height. The labor of cleaning the hard stalks, chopping them in toothed
machines, crushing them in the rollers, and boiling the juice in deep
copper cauldrons to obtain a dark syrup was fascinating to these city
people, who had seen only the white crystals that sweetened coffee. The
visitors brought Valmorain up to date on events in a Europe and America
that were more and more remote for him, the new technological and
scientific advances, and the philosophical ideas of the vanguard. They
opened to him a crack through which he could glimpse the world, and as
a gift left him books. Valmorain enjoyed his guests, but he enjoyed more
their leaving; he did not like to have witnesses to his life, or to his property.
The foreigners observed slavery with a mixture of morbid curiosity
and repugnance that was offensive to him because he thought of himself
as a just master; if they knew how other planters treated their Negroes,
they would agree with him. He knew that more than one would return to
civilization converted into an abolitionist and ready to campaign against
consumption of sugar. Before he had been forced to live on the island, he
too would have been shocked by slavery, had he known the details, but
his father never referred to the subject. Now, with his hundreds of slaves,
his ideas had changed.
Toulouse Valmorain spent the first years lifting Saint-Lazare from
devastation and was unable to travel outside the colony even once. He
lost contact with his mother and sisters, except for sporadic, rather formal
letters that reported only the banalities of everyday life and health. After
his failure with two French managers, he hired a mulatto as head overseer
of the plantation, a man named Prosper Cambray, and then found more
time to read, to hunt, and travel to Le Cap. There he had met Violette
Boisier, the most sought after cocotte of the city, a free young woman
with the reputation of being clean and healthy, African by heritage and
white in appearance.

(Continues...)




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