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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Baudelaire and the Girl from Malabar

Charles Baudelaire
Courtesy Wikipedia
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):
Malabar Girl 
copyright: imagesof
 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!


  1. This is incredible - are you putting all this together in a book? It will be a very entertaining read.

  2. The nefarious activities of the French and Portuguese in those days in India must be brought to light. I am frankly surprised by the French practice of exporting slaves. But the Portuguese were known for their cruelty.

  3. Strange that a Christian women got exported to Mauritius.

  4. Wikipedia mentions that during the 19th century, indentured labors from india (who were no less than slaves) migrated enmass to Mauritius, Guyana, the Caribbean (trinidad- Naipaul?), Fiji and East Africa. A majority of these included people from Bihar driven by poverty. But sporadic individuals from Malabar may be traced among them. I believe one may find similiar stories in Fiji and maybe trinidad.

  5. Dear CKR,
    The latest contribution of yours about Baudelaire and the Girl from Malabar=Dothee, took me through the interesting by lanes of history.Very colorful. Thanks for these interesting trips to the forgotten past, Dorothee seems Tobe following the Malabar Custom of topless attire ,.Name seems to be one Europeanized.I dont think she was a Christian ?.Padris make converts wear upper cloths In Tellicherry "Krishnan" became "Christy"after conversion
    Best wishes,premnath

  6. Coming back to Malabar Girl-and her name. Lakshmi is often called fondly as "Dechi" in Mahe , Tellicherry side. I was wondering did Dechi get transformed to Dorothee?

  7. How poignant that slave trade in Malabar continued even aftr legal ban! But then, do we do onlylegl things the world over? Slave trade predates recorded history, as everyone knows. It's truly remarkable that a chocolate-colored slave girl inspired Baudelaire to write such glowing eulogy on female beauty. Equally interesting, how he dissuaded Dorothee from her dreams of going to France. Finally, sincere compliments to CKR for his wonderful research. Radhakrishnan, Trivandrum

  8. Kudos to Calicut Heritage. Baudelair's connection with this Region is well traced by Calicut Heritage.

    Calicut, which is a heart of Kerala and having its own charm and also having a woderful heritage. More such things will substantiate its position.

    Some thing about Baudelair's Ode

    Mr. Mazhar Mehdi,a Urdu Poet from Hyderabad had translated Baudelair's Poem in Urdu as 'Baudelair Ki Nazmein in 1988'along with this particular ode. He had maintained a title "Malabari Dushaizah Ke liye". The book had been published by Maktaba-e-Sher-e-Hikhmath,6-3-659/2, Kapadiya Lane, Somajiguda, Hyderabad-500004

    His translation is given below:

    Tere payun Itne hi nazuk jitne tere haath
    Tere Kolhe utne choude chakle ke gori rashak se samajaye
    Saaheb-e-fikr funkaar ke liye tera badan khabil-e-khadar, baase Mouzuh
    Teri badi siyah Makhmali Ankhen Tere badan se Siyah


    A full version will be uploaded later.

    Dr. Ataullah Khan Kak Cenjary
    Reader & Head, Dept. of Urdu,
    Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Regional Centre, Koyilandy-673 305.

  9. The story is a complex one actually and the girls identity is still cloaked in mystery. From a real portrait of hers, there sees to be less of a likelihood that she was from Malabar.

    In an attempt to draw his stepson away from the company he was keeping, Aupick sent him on a voyage to India in June of 1841. Baudelaire jumped ship in Mauritius and eventually made his way back to France in February of 1842.

    Some people had the girl subject identified in the Revue de France of December 1921 as Dorothee, an Indian girl, foster-sister to Mme Autard de Bragard. The Malabar girl was one of the two women Baudelaire came across in Mauritius and Reunion islands when he was living there.

    The Malabar girl poem was originally called Indian girl and the girl in his mind would probably have been from Orissa or Bengal. So there comes a twist, in the first version in 1845-6 the title was ‘a une Indienne’ and it was renamed in 1857 (Baudelaire and nature - By F. W. Leakey (Pg 40)).

    This poem has been analyzed in detail and while the first paragraph describes the girl’s beauty, the second takes a moral stand decrying the decadence in France compared to the simple life of Malabar.By 1857 the Malabar girl that he possibly saw in Mauritius is linked to the foster sister of his Dame Creole – Jeanne Duvall and the problems in France. Some feel that the last lines were added in 1857 after coming back and spending another 10 bad years in France. It also appears that the girl had tended to him in the Bragard household in Mauritius.

    In the book ‘The flowers of evil’ - By Charles Baudelaire, James McGowan, Jonathan Culler (Pg 382), the authors state that she was called Dorothy (from Poem # 61), but at the same time she should not be confused to the Dorothy in poem # 10 who was a prostitute in the island of Reunion.

  10. The complete poem goes thus

    To a Lady of Malabar (To a Malabar Woman)

    Your feet are slim as your hands, and your hips
    Are the heavy envy of the most beautiful white woman;
    To the thoughtful artist your body is soft and lovable;
    Your great velvet eyes are darker than your skin.
    In the warm blue climate where your God bore you,
    Your task is to light the pipe of your master,
    To keep the flasks of fresh water and spices,
    To drive far from the bed raiding mosquitoes
    And, when the plane-trees sing in the morning,
    To buy pineapples and bananas at the bazaar.
    All day long anywhere you lead your naked feet,
    To low humming of old unknown tunes;
    And when the scarlet cloak of evening drops
    Softly you place your body on a mat,
    Your floating dreams are full of humming birds,
    Ever, like you, graceful and flowering.
    O why, happy child, do, you want to see our France!
    That populous country slashed by suffering,
    To confide your life to the arms of strong sailors,
    Bidding last farewells to your darling tamarind-trees?
    There, clad in sleazy muslin,
    Shivering in the snow and hailstorms,
    How you would cry for your sweet free playtimes
    If, with the cruel corset clasping your breasts,
    You had to glean your supper from our mud,
    To trade the perfume of your foreign charms
    With your pensive eyes seeking amongst our dirty fogs
    The slender ghosts of distant coco-palms!

    — Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)

  11. Thank you, Nomad and Clash for the kind words!

  12. Rao - Many thanks. We agree that the Portuguese were the worst culprits. But, there is a twist in the tale.She could have been one of the several Nair women who had refused to be converted and had been sold by Tipu Sultan to the Dutch. The Dutch also had a vigorous programme of export promotion of Nair girls!

  13. PNS- Many thanks for the comment. In fact, Dorothee's mother would not have been a Christian when she was sold.She could have been converted later and the child naturally became Christian. You are right that there was some ban by the Pope on exporting Christians as slaves.

  14. wannabeintellectual - Your comments add value to the post -thanks. However, it is doubtful whether Dorothee's mother was an indentured labour, as she had reached the island much before the campaign (called The Great Experiment) had started. You are right that there are several such stories of persons from Kerala finding themselves on strange shores, including places in Central America and Carribeans!

  15. Yes, Premnath. Perhaps her mother who was the original slave, was not Christian.(PL. see our comments above) The photograph is not of the original Dorothee, but some other Malabar Girl taken in 1905.

  16. Dr.Cenjary - Grateful for the Urdu connection of Baudelaire. It is fascinating to know that the Malabar Girl has travelled places - even the Urdu speaking world!

  17. Maddy - as usual, your comments are richer than the original post! Thanks for the wealth of information. As we mentioned in the blog, it is difficult to sift the facts from fiction. The details provided by you only confirms this. In any case, it is rather naive on our partnto identify any character in fiction with its real life model! It undergoes several changes in the artist's fertile mind and what comes out is a mesh of facts and imagination!

  18. Radhakrishnan - many thanks for your comments! Keep visiting.

  19. Inspiring post. Thanks. About 20 years back, Hari Neelgiri, one of my close friends and college mate had translated this poem into Malayalam...REgards Anvar Ali

  20. the hero of Saramago's last work of fiction: the elephan't journey (a novel narrates an incident during the medieval,colonial period) was a mahout from Bengal- clearly a slave exported by the Portuguese to Europe, along with the elephant,an eternal slave of man both in native land and abroad.
    Portuguese's greatest poet Cameos wrote a book full of Malabar experiences. In another novel, recently published, by a Macedonian young novelist (A conversation with Spinoza) a Dutch man from 17th century , writing from Malabar coast, who himself a missionary priest and zoologist. Many of the European poets and writers drew immensely from their Colonial experience and in most of them Malabar coast and its people were narrated in detail.
    thank you calicut heritage.
    ajai p mangattu

  21. Interesting. There's also a short story on the inspiration behind the poem, see:

  22. Thank you, Ajay and Gopan for your comments. Ajay, you are right - there is a wealth of colonial writing about Malabar experience. We are still discovering these. Keep visiting.


  23. There is a quote in the article referring to a verse by Baudelaire: “Under the shadow of the Mammelles...” which I could not manage to find anywhere in his work. Could anyone kindly enlighten me on its source ? Thanks

    Giovanni Tovt

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