National Geographic : 1943 Apr
Color Glows in the Guianas, French and Dutch BY NICOL SMITH THE two Guianas, French and Dutch, lie side by side on the north coast of South America like a pair of twin beds moved close to each other. Only the brown ribbon of the Maroni (Marowijne) River divides them. When one looks down on those huge twin beds from an enormous height, they can scarcely be told apart. Each one appears to be covered with a green counterpane, the end less roof of the green jungle. For these two Guianas are virtually all jungle, nearly a hundred thousand square miles of it. But at ground level, as I knew from pre vious visits, there would be a riot of color: not only the violent colors of tropic birds but the crazy-quilt pattern of the costumes of Java and other parts of the Far East, the Congo black man and the Carib red man, all under that jungle roof. Loren Tutell and I flew from Martinique to Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, on the afternoon of May 31, 1941, to make motion pictures in color of the colony and of its penal camps (page 476). Cayenne has some 13,000 people, of whom scarcely a thousand are of white blood. The Cayenne River bounds it on the west, the ocean on the north, and the jungle hems it in on the other two sides. Our Pan American Airways seaplane's "landing field" in the river seemed deep in the jungle, although actually only three or four miles from town. At the pier we handed our passports to a diminutive French military policeman whose uniform consisted of brown shorts and an open-necked shirt, approved costume for Cay enne's hot and muggy climate. A House of Many Colors We went on by taxi to the center of town. Color was everywhere. I remember one little street lined with tiny houses set in gardens, no two houses alike in color. Blue, yellow, red-brown, each sang a different tune, a danc ing tune. We passed a garden wall of pink stone, with a big gate of delicate iron grill work, and behind it a hedge of vivid green. The hedge enclosed a house of three stories, each a different color. The first floor was pale blue, the second canary yellow, the third deep blue, and the roof was bright red. Our hotel fronted on the Savane, the city's principal public square, shaded by tall palm trees and palmettos. That evening we watched the citizens pa- rading in their finery. Nine out of ten per sons on the streets were black, or shades of black, although there were many Chinese, Indo-Chinese, and a few Indians. At the gates of the Governor's Palace Sene galese soldiers in colorful uniform stood guard. Splendid fighters, these troops, numbering only a few hundred, are the entire military force of the colony, except for the military police, who guard the prison camps. Governor Robert Chot, of dynamic per sonality, wiry and athletic, with coal-black hair and flashing eyes, seemed even younger than his forty-odd years. Already he had served France in the colonial administration of Madagascar and Pondichery. French Guiana's Wealth in Forests Much of the wealth of French Guiana lies in the forests, whose stands of greenheart and purpleheart timber in the Territory of Inini seem inexhaustible. These woods are highly prized for shipbuilding and dock building, be cause of their resistance to borer insects. Much timber is felled by convict labor. We accompanied the Governor in his little launch to one of the largest of these prison camps in the forest, near Cayenne. Here were some 175 prisoners, all from French Indo-China. Some were felling timber with two-man saws, others pulled up stumps with a tractor. Their midmorning meal was brought them in two baskets suspended from a pole slung across the shoulders of a Tonkin ese coolie. One basket was heaped with cooked rice. The other was laden with casseroles containing shrimps, pork, string beans, corned beef, and stews of meat and fish. "They are served this sort of meal twice a day," said the Governor. "And on Sundays," added the commandant, "if they have behaved themselves well during the preceding week, they are allowed to fish and hunt. They find game plentiful-wild pig, agouti, deer, and birds." We strolled from the timber clearing to the big barn, both the repair shop for the tractors and the warehouse for the food supplies, pass ing a meadow on the way. Rice was growing in its rich wet soil. Back in Cayenne I met a young French phy sician named Floch, who had been associated with the Pasteur Institute, in Paris. He ar rived in Cayenne late in 1938 and heroically attacked the leprosy problem singlehanded.