Tuesday 20 September 2011

The French Creoles

‘The white people business’ - a turn of phrase that when used long ago excluded a vast percentage of the island’s population. This was the case because Victorian Trinidad from the late 1830s to the turn of the 20th century was a very hierarchial society. No one questioned the position of white upper class people. Their power in terms of the economy, political control and defining social rules and behaviour was complete.
Not everyone of European descent, however, belonged to this August group. The Portuguese, for example, were white but were looked upon as peasants. Many Venezuelans of Spanish descent were not accepted, although some because of their wealth and manners were.
A lot of people came from England and other parts of Europe as clerks, N.C.O.’s, estate managers, teachers, shop assistants, journalists, policemen and printers. They were white, but not a part of the elite. If, however, they made a bit of money and acquired some manners of the drawing room, they may have been admitted to the fringes of Trinidad’s polite society, e.g. the sporting clubs or the reading rooms. Church work helped, and the ownership of a fine cocoa estate would be benefit, as would be elevation to a post of manager.
A fortunate marriage to an impecunious aristocrat’s daughter would be a windfall beyond imagination, and together with the cocoa estate by the next generation if accompanied by a good British accent and the right wardrobe, admittance to the Elysean fields may be gained.
Trinidad’s white society in the 19th century was made up to two basic goupings. There were the governor and the top officials, the chief judge, the chief of police, the colonial secretary and others holding top posts. Then there were the English and Scottish merchants, planters and other professional colonialists, resident for the time being.
The other group were white creoles, born in Trinidad. They were the descendants of the French cedulants, the original colonists of old Spanish Grandee families, and the Irish, Corsican and German families who had intermarried with them from very early times - these were the ‘old families of the old blood’.
The British officials were looked upon by all as ‘birds of passage’. They were the professional empire-builders. They earned large salaries, lived in circumstances beyond their wildest dreams and believed it was their divine right to dominate any country in which they were resident.
Local newspapers were always on their case, as one remarked:
“Englishmen with capital went to Australia, with brains to India, with neither to the West Indies.”
Black intellectuals like J.J. Thomas castigated them and those who wrote on their behalf, but in fairness conceded that there were Europeans of another type, neither officials nor ‘the remnants of the slave-holding class with its Bourbon mentality’. These whites depended on brains, energy and capital. They were shrewd, upright and honest. They made their homes here and raised families. These people were never slave-owners, neither were they official colonialists. Many still live in Trinidad, e.g. the Hales, Gatcliffes, Fitzwillams, Brydens, McBrides and others.
The French Creoles were a different matter. As one sociologist remarked, they are somewhat neglected. Chastised by the independence movement that took Trinidad into modern times, they are now all but ignored.
“French Creoles, however, are not merely Europeans in the tropics,” writes Dr. Bridget Brereton in her book ‘Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad’. “They are integral elements in the segmented society, natives just as much as other members of the population.”
The great majority of Trinidadians of European descent might have the physical characteristics of the ‘white race’, but in sociological terms they were marginal not to their own local island society, both black and white, but to European society.
They had and still possess a double frame of reference, one for people from away, and another for their own and for non-whites. Dr. Brereton describes it in saying:
“The first was identical to that of the metropolitan white, egalitarian and modern, when not concerned with race. The second was framed by historical factors: slavery, plantation society, the patriarchal milieu.”
The French Creoles of Trinidad are not that unique. They exist in Martinique, Guadeloupe, in pockets of Louisiana in the U.S.A., and in French Canada to degree. In 19th century Trinidad they formed a closely knit and united elite, racially exclusive group, maintaining an aristocratic tradition that was framed by 18th century standards of behaviour and points of view with regard to class structures - views that in Europe had been more or less swept away by the revolutions. L.M. Fraser, historian, describes them thus:
“Families belonging to the old noblesse, tempted by St. Laurent’s glowing description of Trinidad, who had left the other French colonies in the hope of redeeming fortunes squandered in the salons of Paris and Versailles, ... formed the nucleus of that refined society for which the island has always been celebrated, and which constitutes one of its most distinctive features.” (quoted from Brereton’s ‘Race Relations’)
The French people who came here were not the low class dregs of the Caribbean. The vast majority were descendants of the petit noblesse of the French provinces, the cadet branches and in some cases the senior lines of aristocratic houses.
The basic criteria for ‘membership’ in Trinidad’s French creole society in the 19th century were first of all ethnicity. The possession of African ancestors, no matter how remote, would preclude one from being invited to soirées or business dealings. Even to be suspected of such was alarming - to be accused of such could cause blood to flow.
Kinship also played a role, that is, to be known to belong to certain extended families by marriage or by birth. People had to know who you are, not just in the Caribbean, but back in France. It was easy to assume the poses of gentility, however, out here ‘in the bush’ it was very rare to possess courtly manners. Thus, it was not difficult to spot the bounders!
Another criteria for the French creoles was denomination - one had to be Roman Catholic. Europe’s wars of religion in previous centuries had been hard fought. Also, under the Cedula of Population, land in Trinidad had been granted only to Catholics. The ownership of property was thus another important criteria for one’s inclusion into the French creole society. That notion also stemmed in an aristocratic world view: for the nobleman, the engagement in trade, commerce and business would mean a loss of caste. And finally, marriage outside of this order meant automatic dismissal.
The French creole families were mostly royalists, although there were a few who subscribed to the views of the enlightenment and supported certain aspects of the revolution. The majority were loyal to the House of Bourbon for several generations, even after it had ceased to exist in France.
Like in many ethnic minorities, it was a lot about blood. Tribalism was expressed in phrases like “I am a respector of the Old Blood ... I have that which money cannot buy”, as said the grandson of a count. Extreme sensitivity was prominent on all points of family pride and family honur. The slightest offense or insult, even a ‘bad eye’ could cause a duel. Coloured editors who made unseemly remarks were horsewhipped in public!
French creoles could marry Irish, German, English and Corsican, as long as they were to ‘the manor’ born, had money, owned land and were Catholic. This is why there are so many people in Trinidad who are called French creoles and have names that denote other European nationalities. One could become French creole by assimilation. A French creole could be called Devenish, O’Connor, Kenny, Agostini, Gianetti, Boos, Urich, Wuppermann, Herrera or Gomez.
Only a limited number of  families, however, fit that bill. As a result, familial incest became increasingly common, even seen as a virtue. The extent of intermarriage between the fifteen or so families made all French creoles born after the 1880s related to each other. Marriages within the first degree cousinage had to be santioned by the Catholic church. This sanction was more often than not given. It was felt at the time, when political tensions between the English Anglican party and the French Catholics, that numbers had to be kept up.
Numbers were also maintained in another sense. In the plantation system, it was practice for French creole men to have mulatto mistresses. More often than not, these were not just passing relationships, but longterm arrangements that produced several children. Wills left by these men in the period of the 1800s to the 1840s give us today an idea of how this offspring was treated. To be included in the will as a ‘natural  child’ meant having a place in the emerging coloured middle class. To receive $700 was vital to a coloured family in those days. To receive “my watch and chain, my bedposts and all my clothes”, as Henri de Boissière bequeathed to his son (or reputed son) Louis André Boissière, son of Rosalie Rose of Champs Elysées, was to position that branch of the de Boissière family in such a way that by the next generation they produced a vetenary surgeon and two medical doctors, a prominent landowning family and a Lt.-Colonel in the British army. These went on to marry white people, and today most of them live abroad.
Inclusion in the will meant acceptance. One was able to be proud of one’s French connections and go into denial concerning the ignominy of slave ancestors and illegitimacy.
The ‘watch and chain’ have long since dissappeared, but the bedposts are still there - silent, elaborately carved, huge, baronical monuments to nights of love and laughter. On the other hand, to be left out of the will left you poor and not belonging really anywhere, neither to the white nor the blacks. This ‘cult of the will’ gave rise to dreadful complexes, insecurities and fears. Some social scientists have called it hte ‘mulatoo syndrome’.
It has often been put about that slavery in Trinidad was somehow milder than in other islands. it has been argued that slaves were more precious and less expendable here,that the French were resident and not absentee, that they lived with ‘their people’. This was not so. To pretend to own some other human being is absurd. To pretend that the system made you do it is untrue. Slavery was a datastrophy for all those involved. The so-called paternalistic attitude of the French creoles has its roots in shared circumstances, a common faith, the command of the same language, Patois, a common creole culture experienced on smaller plantations, a common alienation from the British and no home to return to. Plantation life dictated that discipline was imposed and punishment delivered swiftly and harshly. It also dictated a degree of caution. Poison was always a means of revenge. At an estate in Diego Martin, the poisoner on the estate took revenge not only on the master’s cattle and children, but on the master’s slaves, murdering many and putting the planter out of business. In Mayaro, old Madame Ganteaume died of poison in the weeks that followed emancipation.
The idea of paternalistic attitudes comes from the post-emancipation period. Robert Guppy wrote that in 1838 “the French planters retained the services of most of their old slaves, whom they treated with good temper and honesty; they were economical and firm without tyranny.”
Some planters, such as Philip Maingot, Monro Pasea and Toussaint Rostant, to name a couple, were remembered publicly in the press for the exemplary treatment of their slaves. Of Pasea it was written in his obituary:
“In private life, as a planter, his career has always been marked by that firmness and justice, tempered with tact and kindness, which characterise our extensive resident estate holder; and it would perhaps be difficult to meet with any other planter who is a greater favourite with his work people.”
Only a few memoirs of the 19th century French creole life exist today. The memories of the very old who remember their mothers and grandmothers telling of long ago, when some of the French creoles still lived in the ‘old style’ of the huge wooden plantation houses, surrounded by giant forest trees, the candles flickering in the crystal chandeliers, lighting the eyes in the portraits of ancestors long dead on aother islands, the tropical night closing round. The great feasts when hundreds of slaves dressed in spotless white would line the drive to the estate house, holding high lighted flambeaux to guide the way for the carriages, while an ox would be roasted whole on an open spit. Inside, up on the olished floors, the minuet and waltz wouls be danced with grace and charm and for a night or perhaps a moment, amid the laughter and champagne, the memory of another time and of another age would be evoked.

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