Monday 3 October 2011

The Murder of a Priest

Pierre-Jean Luc Marie Bertête was a coloured cocoa planter from Guadeloupe. He was attracted to Trinidad in the 1870s by its developing cocoa industry and by the liberal attitude of the British administrators to well-off coloured people who had money, education and various social and agricultural skills. His correspondence to his wife Louise, who later joined him on his estate at Montserrat, has survived in parts. Originally penned in French, they were translated into English by Andre Elegor, a schoolmaster of the district some 70 years ago.
“Ma chère Louise,
you would not believe the story that is being whispered from ear to ear in this town! To say the least, it is quite shocking, so prepare yourself to quite an experience when I write you of it! But first, let me tell you about my situation here.
I am presently making myself comfortable in a room that I have taken in the town. It is very pleasant, although not so clean. Creole is spoken by all classes, except the English. I have made the acquaintance of Louis Fabien, André Paty and Paul Remy. They are like ourselves proprietors and gens de couleur, and have been well educated. The békés, like our own at home, are preoccupied by their positions and are not approachable, but are however polite and willing to do business. I have visited and dined with Les Frères Unis at their lodge at the town’s eastern rim. The lodge was founded by M. Benoît Dert in 1795, a family who came from St. Lucia and who have a strange and romantic history.
The native-born population is about 80,000 souls; about ten or twelve thousand were born here of East Indian parents. Indian people started to come here after 1845, after the emancipation of slaves which in Trinidad had taken place in 1838. There are some 50,000 noirs and 10,000 gens de couleur, and two or three thousand békés, amongst whom you can find all the nations of Europe.
People come to this island to seek their fortunes. Out of a population of about 150,000, some 70,000 were born outside of the island! From Venezuela, some 2,000 people have come, driven from their homes by the tyrant Guzman Blanco. I have met the diminuitive Generalissimo Pacheco, Colonel Ramon Pazos, José Escava and others. The ‘Hotel de France’, to which I will move when I have received the advances from papa, serves French cuisine and has a familial atmosphere. There are many poor Portuguese from Madeira on the island, and also many Chinese.
But let me tell you of the great scandal taking place in the town. It concerns the murder of a priest, one Abbé Jouin! It would appear that the Abbé was sent to a parish in a district called Diego Martin, well outside of the city. While there, he became friendly with a coloured family of considerable substance by the name of Brunton. He would often dine there at their home and became godfather to one of their children. According to the experts on the affair, Madame Brunton often visited the priest at the presbytery, and on a certain occasion confided to him that her husband not only had a mistress, but had gone so far as to bring her into the family home and had, can you imagine it, installed her there! On top of it, the mistress was married! Madame begged the Abbé to speak to her husband, both as a friend and as a priest. Her husband would often visit the Abbé and was known to have cautioned him concerning his movements late at night.
It would appear that Monsieur Brunton began to suspect something was amiss. Feeling that a man in his position could have a mistress, if he desired, he nontheless felt that his honour would be wounded if his wife was having an affair with the parish priest! This Abbé, it would seem, had something of a bad report in that he had fallen out with his parishioners at his former parish at Mayaro in the south of the island.
About a week later, there had been a knock at the priest's door at around midnight. Upon his asking, a group of men told the Abbé that Madame Brunton had suddenly been taken very ill. The priest followed the four men from Bunton’s estate on his horse. As they enter the cocoa estate, Brunton himself approaches the priest with passionate accusations as to how the Abbé had gotten himself mixed up with what goes on in the house. Another man, a parishioner from Mayaro, joins in with the accusations, and before long the priest gets thrown off his horse, and one of the four estate labourers wound him several times with a cutlass!
In the morning, he is found dead, and mutilated in a most obscene and disgraceful manner that I cannot bring myself to pen. At any rate, there was a trial. M. Brunton is charged for the murder of the Abbé, and it seemed that it would go against him. But no, despite the judge giving instructions to the contrary, the jury returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’, bon Dieu! What an outcry! The people say that it was a matter of obeah and not judge and jury. A famous practiser of that ‘art’ known as Djab Papa had stood outside the courthouse during the proceedings and had fixed his gaze on the sun.
A Monsieur LeBlanc made a song about him:
“The sun, the trees, all nature cried,
The day when Abbé Jouin died,
Ah! What a brutal death,
In a thousand years we’ll never forget.
It was Djab Papa, the villain, who saved the murderer.”

As you can see, this island is very much like our own in many ways. Scandal abounds!Brunton lives under a cloud. He was travelling on the Gulf of Paria the other day and sat on a chair. A white man appeared and ordered him off of it. The man then put on a glove and threw the chair over the side of the ship. “Why,” I asked, “did you do that?”
“Do you think I would sit in a chair that a murderer sat in?”
Well, ma chérie, that’s all the news of the moment. I will be going to visit several plantations during the week and will write again soon. My address is now 10 Clarence Street, Port of Spain. All my love to you and to Ninon. I hold you ever in my heart.

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