The tiny island of Marie-Galante is not one that is on most people’s vacation plans. Located off the coast of Guadeloupe, in the French West Indies, it is a haul, no matter how you arrive. It’s one of those places that makes me muse about how folks arrived there in the first place and what life must have been like in the era before planes and fast boats. On Marie-Galante (which I visited with a Guadeloupean girlfriend), though, there is ample evidence of what life must have been like, at Habitation Murat.
Habitation Murat, located on a bluff overlooking the breakers of the sea, is a breathtaking reminder of the importance of sugar in the Caribbean. The great house was built in the early 19th century by Dominique Murat, who arrived in the region from southwestern France in 1770. By 1839, it was the largest plantation in the dependency of Guadeloupe.
Sitting on the green and brown grass of the mown lawn under the brilliant red flamboyant trees that brighten the perimeter, I could sense that a storm was coming by the threatening clouds. No storm came that day, though; perhaps I was only being haunted by the plantation’s ghosts. I looked up at the limestone steps of the majestic great house of the plantation that housed at its peak 209 slaves and thought of those who had toiled in the cane fields that the house overlooked. I thought of the lives that had been spent in the fields and those who had been born, grown up and died there in the 200-plus years that the plantation was in operation. I thought of the limbs lost to the crushers that ground the cane and of the boiling pans and hot cane juice that scorched and burned and perfumed the air with the sweet smell of cane at harvest time when the mills ran day and night.
The imposing mansion, magnificent although roofless, is awe-inspiring in that it is one of the few complete sugar plantations in the Caribbean that give a sense of the scale of operations. At the same time, the massive plant and its remote location made me wonder at the audacity that it had taken to even conceive of such a project and the labor required of those who built it and who kept it running.
Today, the Habitation Murat, an open-air museum open to the public, is a money pit, a sad symbol of Marie-Galante’s once grandiose past. The history of Europe’s rise and fall in the region can be read in the decrepitude of the great house. The island was once a booming sugar community exporting the white granulated gold to Europe from wharves bustling with activity. Now, only Habitation Murat remains, a silent witness to past glory. In town, I purchased a bottle of the local rum – Rhum du Père Labat - at one of the small, sleepy boutiques. Then I headed to the airport, leaving the small island where today there are only cows, ghosts and rhum.
It’s rum season around the world. I don’t know whether Rhum du Père Labat will be available for quaffing, but you can sample some of the world’s finest at the UK Rumfest, in London on Oct. 24-25. For more information, go to www.rumfest.co.uk