Thursday, 20 December 2007

Rosa de Gannes – A fictional account, based on factual elements of her life



A powerful wind buffeted the house in gusts that came every few minutes, producing a noise not dissimilar to howling. Between these blasts, the sound of the rain was like a hammering, a hammering of thousands of huge, elongated drops that drove themselves into the wooden shingles of the roof with the force of a battalion of infantry firing in unison. Lifting some, while sending others spinning away into the darkness, the enormous drops, driven by powerful velocity, dislocated garden tiles, smashed through leaves, emptied the dirt out of plant pots and shattered the glass panes in the upstairs windows. The wind, upon returning, turned the powerful downpour into a weapon even more dangerous, driving it to wash the gallery furniture off into the garden to be pounded into the mud of the devastated flower beds, bending, twisting the huge forest trees into hideous, alarming caricatures of themselves.
Inside the darkened lower story, the intermittent flashes of lightning illuminated a scene suspended in the stillness of time passed. Flowers, weary of their arrangement, wine bottles, empty of their potential, glasses drained, bouquets thrown, furniture still placed for, but now deprived of, conversation, confetti relieved of their gaiety lay about the floor, a dotty carnivalesque pattern that lead to the bottom of a flight of stairs leading to the bedrooms on the upper floor.

She lay as still as one of the embroidered patterns that decorated the quilt which covered them both, and listened to the thunder rolling away like distant artillery to be replaced by the scattershot of pelting rain and the mourn of the wind. The pounding in her head had passed, but the sweet misery in the secret parts of her body reminded her that this man whose weight dislocated the bed was her husband, and that this was her wedding night. She was 14 years old, her name was Rosa de Gannes, now she would be called Madame, Madame Roume.

The face of the earth turned slowly. The island of Grenada was relieved of the stare of the eye of hurricane, in those days nameless. The geography of the bed had changed. The weight removed, the intolerable sweetness lingered. Fun-filled childishness ended. What had taken place? What had not? Adolescence unvisited, games unfinished, world ended. World not begun. She reached for her doll. That too was gone. Outside a stillness, a hiatus, everything will be renewed. Inside, she felt a profound joy as she straightened her hair, straightened her night dress, straightened her body. The storm had passed.

Simon de Gannes de la Chancellerie married three times. From his first marriage there were two daughters, one of whom was Rosa. From his third marriage he had a son and a daughter. His son's name was Simon François Louis Chevalier de Gannes de Falaise. It is from Simon François that the de Gannes of Trinidad descend. The man that Rosa married at the young age of 14 could have been twenty-five years her senior. He, unlike his wife, came from the lesser nobility of Burgundy, France, but had risen in the colonial service and had become a wealthy plantation and slave owner in Grenada. His name was Laurent Philippe Roume.

From this marriage came three children. Philippe Rose Roume, who was born on the 13 October, 1743, another son, François, and a daughter. When Laurent Philippe, her husband, died in 1765, he left Rosa a wealthy woman, owning the prosperous estates of Belvedere and Paradise in the quarter of Sauterus in the north of Grenada, and a parcel of land of some 160 quarrées called Mont Saint Laurent.

For the aristocratic, land-owning society of Grenada of the 1740s and 50s, the island offered the best of all worlds. Men wore powdered wigs and jabots, knee-britches and swords with gold-plated hilts. Women stayed in the shade in preservation of their complexions and devised tiny, often hilarious beauty marks which they hid upon their persons so as to delight their lovers. Warehouses were full of goods to export: nutmeg, cloves, tobacco, tonka beans, cocoa, coffee, peppers, cinnamon, hogsheads brimmed with rum, sugar and molasses. Exotic fruit soaked silently in demijohns of alcohol, waiting to become after dinner curiosities for parvenus of the café society of Paris, Bonn or Basle. Other warehouses were filled to overflowing with all manner of wines, taffetas, laces, truffles, cheeses, dried fruit, farm machinery, gun powder, cannon balls and all else that was required to live in style in the tropics.

Slaves hauled, carried, fetched, worked the fields, the houses, the gardens, the yards; some were loved, others despised, some were simply worked to death, while others became the cherished and in secret, ancestors of "pass for white" beauties who went on to live in ante-bellum mansions in the state of Louisiana.

There was good music and bad. There were mask balls where absurd liaisons produced idiotic children, conceived in alcoholic stupor. There were the religious, the pagan, the agnostic and the ignorant. There were some who lived in the splendour of total solitude in enormous wooden mansions deep in the forested interior of the island, while others loved the winding steeps and steep twisting streets of St. George's, where fast clippers, elegant barcantines and royal frigates of the French King's ocean-going fleet turned at anchor in the most beautiful harbour in the Caribbean.

Rosa was just past 37 years of age when she met Bertrand de la Laurencie, chevalier de Charras, a sub-lieutenant in the French Royal Navy. He was fifteen years younger than Rosa; exactly three months younger than her eldest son. He came of a noble family from Angonmois, Poitou and Saintouge that had acquired the attributes of "noble and powerful" and "high and mighty seigneur" as early as the days when free use of such terms was proof of the authority that they possessed. She loved him proudly but without defiance of a society already profligate, where debauchery was an established practice and for a young gallant to be accepted by the unsurpassed beauty of the city was considered not merely "ton" or even "bon ton", but in fact "haut ton".

He claimed the title "Marquis de Charras" — like his grandfather and father, who had both been guillotined — and graced her with a coronet of that order of chivalry. It was said of him that some time before 1770, he sailed from Grenada and was never heard of again. The sad depredations of the French revolution and the work of Madame Guillotine was to confirm Rosa's illustrious title within two decades.

Rosa, perhaps lugubrious, certainly idle, passed the control of her financial affairs over to her son Philippe Rose who, hoisted upon the petard of association with the grande noblesse of the realm, elevated his surname to distinguish the wooded hillside that had become a part of his paternal inheritance and was to be known henceforth by history as Roume de Saint Laurent. Things were changing. In 1763, Grenada passed, after 150 years, from France to Great Britain by the Treaty of Paris. Philippe's attempts to capitalise on the family fortune proved disastrous in that he was no match for the agents of the merchants of London in that island, Messrs. Bosanquet & Fatio. Had it not been for the "noble and efficient" business reputation and timely intervention of M. François Besson de Beaumanoir, Rosa's situation might have proved to be untenable.

1777 was a terrible year for Rosa. It was, however, a watershed year for her son. Philippe Roume came to Trinidad - perhaps it was love at first sight, perhaps he saw a way to redeem himself and to regain his and Rosa's losses. Suffice to say that he was possessed of vision. Trinidad was uncultivated, a wilderness, underpopulated, existing in a perpetual state of potentiality since its discovery more than 250 years before. Roume set to work and within five years had in his hand the Cedula of population of 1783, the document that established a French creole planter society on a Spanish island.

The creoles arrived by the hundreds. It is of interest to note that the word "creole" is derived from the Portuguese "criollo", a derivative of "criar", to breed, to bring up and from the beginning of the 16th century, it had been used to mean "European born in the West Indies".

After the recapture of Grenada by the French in July 1779, Rosa knew that their time in Grenada was over. Now Madame de Charras, and 50 years old, with resolution she set about the considerable task of creating a new life for herself in the strange and primitive environment of Trinidad. On the 18th April, 1779, her son had bought for her the small estate of San Xavier in Maraval, comprising three fanegas of land, from Dons Miguel and Francisco Lezama. In 1782, she applied to the Governor Don Martin de Salavenia for a grant of land adjacent to her modest holdings in Maraval. Granted were 85 fanegas 5 solares. The title deed described her as Doña Rosa de Gannes, Marquise de Charras. She went on to purchase several other small estates in the Maraval valley, eventually owning it virtually in its entirety, a magnificent domain through which ran a beautiful river, shaded by enormous bamboo, graced by rolling grasslands, surrounded by high forest, virgin and extremely valuable. She named the whole "Les Champs Elysées" and built a large rambling wooden thatched house, decorated with the cast-iron pillars from her previous Grenadian mansion. These still stand at the portico of the Trinidad Country Club.

The date of Rosa's death is uncertain. In his divorce proceedings of January 1799, Philippe Rose affirmed that his parents were dead. She therefore did not attain the allotted biblical span of three score and ten. It is said that her grave is on the grounds of the country club, the exact location is only guessed at.

No comments: