Monday, March 9, 2009

Pere Labat – Dominican Missionary, Gastronome and Occasional Spy

Père Labat, a Dominican missionary (and engineer, botanist and explorer), spent ten years living in the Caribbean until 1705. He was based in Martinique, but he was an adventurous type and was able to travel widely in the region. He was endlessly inquisitive, always humorous and a busy-body without compare. He recorded his experiences in his /Nouveau Voyage aux Iles de l’Amerique/, which was published in 1705.

As a religious man he was of course charged with tending to people spiritually, which he did in the Atlantic parish of Macouba in Martinique, but he was just as happy to defend them militarily and at times he is seen manning cannons when a ship comes under threat. And as it happens, he was also particularly keen to tend to his stomach. His writings are peppered with stories of the sumptuous meals he enjoyed.

One minute he is found chatting, over dinner of course, with English admirals in Barbados (and quietly making sketches of the island’s defences for his compatriots) and the next he is giving Mass to Catholic pirates and buccaneers. He even devised a system of compensation for their injured - so much for an eye, a hand, a leg – a pension scheme for pirates if you like. Smuggling was rife at the time. In Barbados he noted that the ship hands worked hard unloading their cargo by day – but twice as hard at night when they were away from official eyes…

And he had a fair few adventures in his ten years. Once, on his return from Santo Domingo, his ship was taken by Spanish pirates. He refused to fire the last cannon ball in their defence. After all, he claims, it was needed to crush the garlic. A moment later he was about to be put to death, he thought, but suddenly he found himself surrounded by his captors, all on their knees... While looting his luggage they had come across a cross of Holy Inquisition… He was obviously not someone to mess with. Labat claimed that the cross was there quite by accident, but it
was enough for the pirates to set him free…

An abridged version of Labat’s work, /The Memoirs of Père Labat/, was published in English by John Eaden in 1931.

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