Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a French Romantic poet who is considered as a pioneer among the French Symbolists of the 19th Century. His most famous work, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) was written when he was a young restless soul, not at peace with himself. One of the poems of this work (which was proscribed by the French authorities on grounds of immorality) is a beautiful poem called A une Malabaraise (To a Girl from Malabar):
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Your feet are slim as your hands, and your hips/Are the heavy envy of the most beautiful white woman…
Baudelaire speculates on her chores back home in Malabar (in the warm blue climate where your Gods bore you) : light the pipe of your master, to drive far from the bed raiding mosquitoes and to buy pineapples and bananas at the bazaar.
The poet ends by dissuading the girl from her wish to go with him : O, why,happy child, do you want to see our France!/That populous country slashed by suffering… seeking amongst our dirty fogs/The slender ghosts of distant coco-palms!
Who was this Malabar Girl and where did Baudelaire meet her?
Born in Paris, Baudelaire grew up as a spoilt and rebellious child resentful of the loss of his father when he was very small and the mother’s second marriage to a young and dapper colonel. The stepfather wanted to discipline the young boy and sent him off to Calcutta in 1841. A shipwreck saw the young Baudelaire landing on the shores of Mauritius, instead of Bengal. There he meets the Girl from Malabar in an account from which it is difficult to sift facts from fiction.
Here is the story:
The young fugitive who landed on the shores of Mauritius was in bad shape. He was an alcoholic and into drugs too. He had not written anything for a while and inspiration seemed to have dried up. He had even contemplated suicide, while on the ship tp Calcutta.
It was then that he met young Dorothee in a sugarcane plantation near Trois Mammelles in Curepipe area of Mauritius. (Under the shadow of the Mammelles…) Dorothee whose family ‘came from Calicut or Cochin’ was a slave girl working as a household servant. Her mother was brought by the Portuguese from Malabar and sold to the French as a slave. Baudelaire fell for the charm of the chocolate skinned Dorothee and settled down with her in the mountains.
It was Dorothee who inspired Baudelaire to write again, and poems started flowing from the 20-something young rebel and the world took notice. Thus Les Fleurs du Mal owes its inspiration to the Girl from Malabar and Baudelaire acknowledges it in his poem. But, as for taking her back to France, he demurs, raising various objections from harshness of the climate and hostility of the people! So much for his dalliance with the maid servant!
What is intriguing is how the Portuguese were exporting slaves from the Malabar coast, even though slavery was legally abolished in Malabar in 1792. There is ample evidence of the Portuguese and the Dutch indulging in slave trade from Bengal, the Coromandel coast and Malabar even as late as the 19th century. Dorothee does not appear to have been an indentured labourer, as her mother was a slave in Mauritius and the Great Experiment of importing large numbers of indentured plantation workers from India started only around 1849, while Baudelaire met her in c.1841.
Malabar springs up in the most improbable places!