Review – The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands

The Traveller's Tree

Patrick Leigh Fermor, by turns youthful adventurer, linguist, classicist, and war hero, was the quintessential “gifted amateur” when he set out with two companions, in the late 1940s, to journey through the long island chain of the West Indies.

By Don Ryan

He was the ideal traveler, inquisitive, humorous, interested in everything. His budget, and curiosity for the lives of the Creole, disposed him to live among them, but introductions from home afforded him also time among the governors and administrators in colonial manor houses. His sense of history runs deep; he encountered 450-year-old cultures which he calls young. He reminds us how everything is connected by time’s threads and sinews.

Fermor was observant of architecture and of fashion and influence. He knew how to notate music and sings us overheard melodies and recites the latest Calypsos. He shows immense empathy for the Negroes and gives a long and sympathetic description of Haitian Voodoo – but is skeptical about Jamaican Rastafari. His ear for language heard the connections with West Africa.

This is a complete and evocative a description of a culture, of an archipelago of cultures, as I have ever read. But a word of caution: if you are planning a trip to the Caribbean, this is not a guidebook to take. This is to read if you will never be able to go. – Don Ryan

Geographically, the Caribbean archipelago is easy to split up into component groups….

No such brisk summing-up can be formulated for the inhabitants of these islands: the ghostly Ciboneys, the dead Arawaks and the dying Caribs; the Spaniards, the English, the French, the Dutch, the Danes and the Americans; the Corsicans, the Jews, the Hindus, the Moslems, the Azorians, the Syrians and the Chinese, and the all-obliterating Negro population deriving from scores of kingdoms on the seaboard and hinterland of West Africa. Each island is a distinct and idiosyncratic entity, a civilization, or the reverse, fortuitous in its origins and empirical in its development. There is no rule that holds good beyond the shores of each one unless the prevalence of oddity, the unvarying need to make exceptions to any known rule, can be considered a unifying principle. The presence of religious eccentrics like the Kingston Pocomaniacs and the adepts of Voodoo in Haiti and the survival of stranded ethnological rock-pools like the Poor Whites in the Islands of the Saints or the semi-independent hospodarate of the Maroons of the Jamaican mountains – all this, and the abundance and variety of superstitions and sorceries and songs, of religious and political allegiances, and the crystallization of deracination and disruption into a new and unwieldy system, almost, of tribal law – all this excludes any possibility of generalization.

The skipper heaved the sloop’s bowsprit round and pointed it at the fading silhouette of St Eustatius. The wind was piercingly cold, and as the ship leapt forward, we dug out a half-empty bottle and lowered comforting stalactites of whisky down our throats. Night fell, and the rain stopped. The heads of the Negroes, who had all taken refuge under a tarpaulin like some tremendous recumbent group of statuary before its unveiling, began to appear again round the edge. The two nearest to us were talking to each other in an incomprehensible language that was neither pidgin English nor Creole. Many of the words sounded like Spanish, but the flow of the language was suddenly thickened by noises that were guttural and uncouth. Seeing that I was listening, one of them whispered, |Papia poco poco bo tende?’ and their voices dropped. But I understood, with excitement, that they were talking Papiamento, that almost mythical compound of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English and African dialects evolved by the slaves of Curacao and the Dutch islands of the Southern Caribbean.

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2 thoughts on “Review – The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands

  1. Pingback: Amy Wilentz reviews Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s Island People | KwK Media

  2. Pingback: Amy Wilentz reviews Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s Island People – Repeating Islands

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