Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
Island Beneath the Sea
Isabel Allende is most well known for her first novel The House of Spirits which began as a letter to her 99 year old grandfather as he was dying and became a best selling novel in both Spanish and English. Born in Chile, Isabel Allende grew up as the step-daughter of a diplomat and was educated at international private schools in Beirut and Bolivia. Leaving Chile after the military coup in 1973, she lived in Venezuela. After the end of her first marriage, taking her two children, she remarried and has now lived in California for many years.
Isabel Allende’s new novel The Island Beneath the Sea is very timely with the island of Haiti so much in the news recently. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered about the history of this island, and I have learned a lot of that history while reading this novel. In the 1700’s the island that is now both the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic was a French colony called Saint-Domingue. The French had arrived, succeeded in completely wiping out the native Arawak Indians, and brought in slaves to work the sugar plantations established on the island.
We begin the novel in 1770 meeting the nine-year-old slave Zarité, called Tété, as she begins the story that we will follow for the next forty years. The story of the life of the fictional Tété is fascinating, and so is the real history of the time woven into her story.
At this time Saint-Domingue is an island of French owned sugar cane plantations, worked with slave labour. The owner of the plantation where Tété ends up is Toulouse Valmorain, a man who has come to the island to see the plantation that has provided his family in France with income all of his life. His visit lasts for the rest of his life. And life is quite good for the French on the island in spite of the tortuous heat and the insects. There is a very distinct social hierarchy – the grand blancs at the top, followed by those whites less affluent, the petit blancs, followed by the light skinned mulattos, those with darker skin, and finally the negroes. The grand blancs men have their mulatto mistresses and their white wives – and children from both, making for many complications as time goes on.
The French Revolution has a profound effect on the colony. “The grand blancs, conservatives and monarchists, looked upon the changes with horror, but the petits blancs supported the Republic, which had done away with differences among classes: liberté, egalité, fraternité for whites.”
Tété becomes the mistress of Toulouse Valmorain and soon gives birth to a son who is given away to a childless friend to be raised. The young mother is broken hearted by has no choice in the matter, she becomes the nurse maid to her masters legitimate son and then gives birth to a daughter, who she is allowed to keep.
Meanwhile life for the plantation owners is no longer so easy – the slaves want their freedom and there is much unrest on the island as escaped slaves form themselves into an army and are as brutal to the whites as the whites had been to the slaves. The Valmorain household must literally run for their lives as the plantation is burned to the ground by “a hurricane of hatred that had been accumulating strength across the Caribbean for a hundred years”. Le Cap, “the Paris of the Antilles, reeked of garbage and excrement, the corpses of the executed rotting on the gallows…” Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are executed in France. Port-au-Prince is burned, as black slaves support the few French Republican troops in exchange for freedom – the new French Republic has now abolished slavery.
Valmorain, father and son, and Tété and her daughter, escape to Cuba and then to Louisiana, still a French colony at this time. In 1803 Napoleon sells the colony to the United States – the same month as the independence of Saint-Domingue is declared under the name the Republique Negre du Haiti. Haiti – the word means “land of mountains” in the language of the Arawak Indians who had been completely wiped out by the French many years earlier. There is another huge migration of whites and mulattos from Haiti to Louisiana.
This is a wonderful novel, full of interesting characters –doctors and “witch doctors” who teach the medically trained valuable lessons, slave owners, cruel and kind, and slaves. There is a wonderful mix of Catholicism and Voodoo belief. There are children born of recognized marriages, and those who do not know their true heritage. Life has been hard for Zarité, she has lost many whom she had loved. The novel ends revealing the title, as Tété reflects, “ visiting my dead ones on the island beneath the sea.”
There is the rising abolitionist movement, as we follow the life story of the woman at the centre of it all, from slavery to freedom. It’s a fascinating story and a very satisfying novel.