Monday 10 October 2011

Jeanette - free negro woman

The rain beat so hard on the shingled roof that it was difficult to speak softly in the room where the old woman lay dying. Outside, the gusts seemed to turn the trees inside out. In the bay, the schooner ‘Crispin Whyne’ reared up on her mooring, twisting on her anchor chain. The ship’s boat plunged through the waves, driven by the easterly wind. Four big men were at the oars, another giant at the tiller. Their lone passenger, a bundle of damp oil cloths over wet clothes, shivered. Her rain-washed face held no expression.
They brought the long boat ashore with the help of the huge waves, running it up past the high water mark on the curve of sand and making fast to an old almond tree. Night had come quite quickly. The giant tiller man picked her up from her seat. His huge black arms cradled the little woman as they all set out up the hill to the old house above the main bay on the Caribbean isle of Petite Martinique.
Judith Philippe was just in time to see her mother die. Old, toothless, nearly bald, the dying woman glimpsed her daughter’s pretty face.  Her eyes, once sparklingly bright, still a light brown in her coal-black face, closed for the last time. “Jeannette Free Negro Woman” of Grenada, Petite Martinique and Carriacou, was dead. Around her, her fair-skinned, slim-built daughters in long white dresses tightly clasped at the waist, their heads tied in the old style, moved about the lamp lit room in slow motion. Her two sons sat at a table by the window, a bottle of rum and two shot glasses between them untouched. The rain fell unabated.
Many, so many years ago, she, Jeannette, her mother, had walked up to the big house above Tyrell’s Bay, Grenada. They had stood at the main door until the man had noticed them. They were both slaves, his slaves. Her mother had left her there. There were no words between them. She was remarkably beautiful in her youth. The painted miniature in Judith’s hand still attested to this. Monsieur Philippe gave her freedom. Together, they had ten children, five girls and five boys.
The free mulatto woman Judith, Jeannette’s third daughter, and her eldest son Honoré, were the executors of a considerable fortune. Judith herself was the matriarch of one of the Caribbean’s more significant families. This dynasty of black women heirs to estates on Carriacou, Grenada and the entire island of Petite Martinique is remarkable in that their descendants include revolutionaries in the Fedon revolution in Grenada of the 1790s, a very wealthy landowning family of south Trinidad, European-trained medical practitioners, and the celebrated author of ‘A Free Mulatto’, a paper presented to the House of Lords in Britain that was more than likely the first civil rights case upheld in the western hemisphere by a superior court. The Philippes also produced towards the end of the 19th century, a mayor of Port of Spain, a Solicitor-General of the Crown colony of Trinidad and an author.
In the publication ‘Description of the Grenadines’ by S.V. Morse, published in 1795 and quoted by Lorna McDaniel in her paper ‘Madame Philip-O: Reading the returns of an 18th century free mulatto woman of Grenada’, there is a description of Petite Martinique:
“Petite Martinique lies about a mile and a half south west from Petit St. Vincent - it is the joint property of Jeanette Philip, a free negroe woman, and a number of her Mulatto Children, Left them by a French Man of that name... it contains four hundred and seventy seven acres of which four hundred and sixty four are proper for cultivation. Both the soil and surface of this island are better than most of the Grenadines - There are three white men, five free coloured people, and eighty nine slaves - There is a large mountain near the middle of the Island which rises to a considerable height.”
It was from this island base that the course of destiny was charted and set. For reasons unknown, the brothers Honoré’s wealth was delivered to her in 1793 as was that of her other siblings Suzanne and Louis upon their decisions to relocate to Trinidad. The family generated wealth. Those who came to Trinidad took advantage of the Cedula of Population of 1783. Louis Philippe owned large sugar plantations in the Naparimas and was possibly the largest slave owner amongst the free coloured people in Trinidad at the time. Lorna McDaniel writes that Judith also had access to a leasehold house in England at 33 Great Coram Street in London, where she traveled in 1807.
“It is known that her nephews, Jean Baptiste and St. Luce, were students in England during that time and her mission to Europe most likely included their concerns.”
Judith was the generous benefactress to neighbours and friends, and godmother to 22 children. She could neither read nor write; neither could her sister Jeanne Rose. The school on Carriacou, established on her land, enrolled 96 free coloured children and 7 slave children. As Lorna McDaniel writes:
“African women like Judith’s mother, whether enslaved or free, were the source of this new mobile class, the ‘coloured’. They, mating with white planters, not only created a politically and military active progeny, but often acquired manumission, education, power and wealth for their mixed-race children and sometimes for themselves. The increase in social power within succeeding generations of the Philippe family is accompanied by the exclusive education that many mixed-race progeny acquired who were allowed education in Europe.”

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