Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The de Boissières

What do Champs Elysées (now the Country Club), Boissière Village and Dr. Eric Williams all have in common? Well, they are products of a family called de Boissière.

This family presents an essentially different picture from the somewhat stereotype view of the 19th century French Creoles of Trinidad, in that they were Protestant - not Catholic. They were also Republicans, not Royalists in their outlook, and for five generations did not marry into the main matrix of the French Creole extended families. Another difference was that for generations, they acknowledged and supported their coloured illegitimate offspring.

Medical doctor Jean Valleton de Boissière was born in Bergerac in France in 1733. A true man of the Enlightenment, he developed in collaboration with Dr. Jenner a vaccine for smallpox. He formed an association with Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, whose studies on animal magnetism were quite en vogue in the second half of the 18th century.

When the French revolution dawned, Jean Valleton became active as an ‘agent nationale’ in Bergerac, on the side the revolutionaries, sending many of the aristocratic French in the arms of ‘Madame Guillotine’. For safety, he sent his four sons Jean, Eli, Gustave and Villeneuve to the West Indies. It was Jean, born in 1777, who arrived in Trinidad in the 1790s with his brothers and his bride Claire. He formed the partnership of Bossière & Channon with the purpose of importing and selling slaves.

When the English took over Trinidad seven years later, Jean and Eli became John and Elias Bossière. John’s business activities expanded into money lending and acting as estate agent for absent landlords.

Being a man of practical common sense, he saw that he would spend the rest of his life engaged in trade in the colony. Since even the most honourable trade is inappropriate in connection with carrying a title of nobility, he dropped the particule ‘de’ and in Trinidad called himself John Bossière up to his death in 1853.

In 1817, John acquired Champs Elysées estate, consisting of almost 1,000 acres in Maraval, from the de Gannes family in a foreclosure on money owed to him. Champs Elysées was a profound symbol of the French royalist establishment, and it was quite a thing for it to get into the hands of the republican!

John and Elias bought and sold. No bank would be established in Trinidad until 1837, with the creation of the Colonial Bank, so they did quite well. John and Claire had one son, known as Henri Diable, who is remembered as a wild and impetuous youngster. John also had two sons, Joseph and Auguste, and two daughters, La Cocadie and Esther, with a slave woman today remembered as Zuzule.

Henri Diable’s son, Dr. Jean de Boissière, married his first cousin Poleska Roget de Belloquet. Dr. de Boissière practiced medicine and was a member of the Legislative Council. He left the running the estate to Poleska. The industrious woman came up with different income streams: she founded several villages. Most of the villages she rented to Tamils, Indians who had served their indentureship, at the price of $ 1 per month for a lot of 5,000 sqft. Poleska didn’t stop there. She organised quarrying in the little stream that ran through the estate in Maraval, and soon she was able to provide sand and gravel for various building projects in Trinidad, one of which was the Hospital in St. Anns. No wonder Poleska cultivated the image of a grand matriarch and is remembered as ‘La Chatelaine’!

Two of John's descendants, Tony and Ralph de Boissière, became milestones in their turn in 20th century Trinidad. Tony became a writer and famous gourmet cook, and was celebrated in the artistic bohemia of Trinidad after the Second World War as an Epicurean and raconteur. Ralph migrated to Australia, and published two world-famous books about the struggle of the working class in Trinidad: ‘Crown Jewel’ and ‘Rum and Coca Cola’. Another significant descendant of the de Boissières was General Sir Frank Masservy who at the head of an Anglo-Indian Force liberated Burma from the Japanese in 1944.

As the winds of independence blew in the British Empire, another offspring of the de Boissière family emerged. Born in 1911, Eric Eustace Williams was a son of Eliza Boissière, and grandson of Jules Boissière, son of John Nicholas Boissière. The brilliant Eric won scholarships all the way from Queen’s Royal College to St. Catherine’s Society at Oxford, where he obtained his Ph.D. in philosophy. From there, he went to Washington, D.C. and taught at Howard University, where he became a professor in 1945.

Because he had specialised in Caribbean social history, Williams returned to Trinidad as Deputy Chairman of the Research Council of the Caribbean Commission. He resigned from this post to form the People’s National Movement (PNM) in 1955, the party he would lead for the next thirty odd years. In 1962, Williams became the first Prime Minister of an independent Trinidad and Tobago and in 1964, he was admitted to the Privy Council. He refused a knighthood but accepted the more acclaimed award of Companion of Honour. He also became the pro-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies in 1964. Dr. Eric Williams died in 1981 while in office of diabetes.

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