Monday, July 9, 2018

Stones and Bones 12 - Cimetiere de Morne-a-l'Eau

Guadeloupe Island is located in the southern part of the Caribbean in the French West Indies. The island is described as the butterfly island because it is shaped like a butterfly with each wing having its own name and distinctive characteristics. The eastern wing is called Grande Terre and is described as flat and is a filled in coral reef and the western wing is Basse Terre, which is mountainous and still has an active volcano. What we would call cities are referred to as communes on the island. One of these communes is Morne-à-l'Eau and it is here that one would find the Cimetiere de Morne-à-l'Eau.
The best descriptive word for this cemetery is whimsical. Not a word one would equate with a burial ground, but it's the best way to describe a place with mausoleums stacked up on hills with black and white tiling. A few feature other colors. Join me as we explore the Morne-a-l'Eau Cemetery.

Morne-à-l'Eau is located in the heart of Grande Terre at the junction of roads leading to Le Moule, Les Abymes and Anse-Bertrand. The cemetery in Morne-a-l'Eau is said to have been arranged outside the commune's perimeter by a decree in 1784 by Baron de Clugny. He was Governor of Guadaloupe at the time. Burials may have taken place at that time, but the oldest burial here dates to 1847. The entrance is very simple with just a couple of concrete columns with a gate.The cemetery is right along busy streets and surrounded by an iron fence on a concrete base. Before the cemetery was founded, wealthy families that lived here would bury their dead on their property, most of which were sugarcane plantations. The city itself was founded in 1827. Burials on the plantations were split into sections, so that masters and slaves did not mix. When burials began in the graveyard, this rule was no longer followed. I should touch on a group of people called the Beke here.

The Beke are descendants of the French settlers. This group speaks Antillean Creole, which is related to Haitian Creole. The first Frenchman to establish a permanent French colony in the Caribbean was Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc. He did this in 1635.  Cardinal Richelieu formed a company with him and they received a 20 year charter for most of the islands in the area. The British drove them from some, but Guadaloupe was held by the French. Africans were brought in to work the sugarcane plantations that were established here. There is still to this day, a separation in the classes between the Beke and the blacks on the island. But in the cemetery, there is no distinction. The oldest tomb does belong to a Beke family. Slavery was abolished here in the 19th century and then Indian labor was brought in to make up the gap. These people were treated like indentured servants. Many were seeking to escape the caste system of the country of India and believed in the promises of colonial agents.

The cemetery is built into what almost seems to be a natural amphitheater. It is on the sides of this amphitheater that many mausoleums have been set and these look like little houses and some have slanted roofs and terraces. And each of these mausoleums is covered in black and white tiles like a checkerboard. No granite or marble is allowed to be used in the building of memorials. The tombs start off as concrete and then the tiles are used to decorate the outside. As to why black and white tiles were chosen, no one knows for sure, but one theory is that white is a symbol of mourning in Africa and black is a symbol of mourning in Europe and so these represent the mix in cultures. There are a few mausoleums that are pink or blue.

Families decorate their deceased loved one's burials with little shrines that feature pictures, flowers, candles and other memorabilia. All Saints Day is a big celebration in the graveyard and the memorials are covered with thousands of candles. Sellers of bokits, which are a type of local sandwich, and peanuts set up their stands near the cemetery for the holiday. There's something of a party atmosphere.

The Moutoussamy family have been prominent in Guadaloupe and their mausoleum is a two-story pavilion with a terrace and French window. This is an Indian family and those that live here descended from 40,000 indentured workers who were brought from India to Guadeloupe in 1861. The importation of Indian labor ceased around 1883. Many were treated harshly and it wasn't until  1904 they received some political rights. In 1923, Guadeloupeans of Indian descent were granted citizenship and the right to vote. Members of the Moutoussamy family actually gained prominent political positions.

Another burial here is that of Pierre Monnerville. He was born in French Guiana in 1895. Monnerville went to Toulouse to study in 1911. He became a physician assistant in 1917 and was wounded in the war in 1918 for which he received the war Cross and the Legion of honor. He earned his doctorate in medicine in 1921 and left to settle in Guadeloupe. He was a country doctor in Morne between 1921 and 1956. he went into politics and became mayor of Morne from December 1947 to his death in 1970. He took on issues that would improve the living conditions of residents of French overseas islands.

Finding out who is buried in the 1800 tombs here is difficult. The graves have very basic information. One thing is certain. Family members know where their ancestors are and they honor them every year. And whomever was the first to use the checkerboard design was a genius because this is one of the most unique cemeteries I have ever seen! And that was just a little about the stones and bones found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment