Wednesday 2 November 2011

Victor Hugues

 “They say he was a ‘red-skinned’ man of French and African descent, and he had been born at Marseilles, France, perhaps in 1760. His father was a baker, they say. He had gone to school in France and had a grasp on learning. He yearned to travel and shipped aboard a merchantman as a cabin boy, sailing the trade routes on the Atlantic run. He often wintered in the Antilles, enjoying the wealthy mulatto lifestyle of the parvenus and the debaucheries of the harbour towns.
“A raucous man of huge sexual appetite, he tended to attract the young, naive and impoverished whites. A thirst for knowledge an the pursuit of belonging made him seek the membership in esoteric, pseudo-masonic order, called ‘Societé d’Harmonie’.
“He opened a comptoir, dealing in an assortment of goods, acquired, collected or purchased either by trading, smuggling or exchange at Port-au-Prince on the island of Saint Domingue, Haiti. This island, incredibly wealthy, produced huge quantities of sugar and consumed the lives of tens of thousands of slaves brought out of Africa to be worked to death in the cane fields. It produced a rapacious society of bewildering compositions of European and African strains, universally despised by both the black and the white, despising themselves in their misfortune even more.
“In his youth, blinded by his physical appetites, he could not care less about the miserable blacks nor the ‘hoity-toity’ whites, but as he grew older, his envy of the wealthy Europeans who scorned him or used him at their pleasure, filled him with disgust.
“They say it was a Sunday in the middle of August 1791 on the Leonormand plantation in Bois Caiman that a party of persons met and i silence paced the dark night. The plantation Great House shone with an ethereal glow, whiter than white in the full moon. In the gallery, massa and his sons and their wives were rocking gently, digesting, fanning the warm wind. Those who served them their wine knew well, but kept their faces carefully arranged in servitude, bare feet making whispering sounds on the highly polished floor.
“Upstairs, in the enormous rooms bathed in a yellow glow, the children slept or stirred or sucked at the huge black breasts of their wet nurse. She, too, knew. All the slaves of La Cap knew.
The party of persons shipped from barrack to barrack. Their message was their presence. One week later, they struck with a vengeance. A wail of terror that distroyed in fire the filigree, the  gingerbread and the turned wood of the most beautiful houses in the Americas. They butchered all, black, white or mulatto, who barred their way.
“The uprising in the Cap caught him by surprise. He did not know. The swarming mob distroyed his comptoir. The men in rage had no time for his talk. He hid in the cellar of a burnt-out public building, with looters living above him, not daring to breathe. It gave him time to think.
Hunger drove him from his cell. In the dark and blazing night, he saw the madness of the slaves, the aristocrats begging for their lives, the perfection of their French theatrical. He saw the bloody men surge by, a blond baby spiked through waving before them as a banner for the damned, their eyes those of the undead.
“He escaped by swimming out into the Harbour Road, where a schooner was making ready. At first, they fired on him. He commanded them to hold and, responding to the authority in his voice, hauled him up the side as the schooner heaved to, its wake leaving a white line that caught the flaming town, tingeing it to blood.
“This was where I met Victor Hugues. We sailed the Atlantic in a pounding sea. Sheets creaked in the winches. The black sky cracked by day, appearing to shatter with the lightning that walked on crooked legs on the horizon’s edge. He told me he would return, his time had come. He was not escaping. He was in search of a mandate.
“We parted at Marseilles, the sea, exhausted, could only lap. He left before we made fast as he had come, overboard, and made his way to Paris to find the centre of the storm, the vortex of the revolution, to match his rage with theirs, to outrage them.
“Robespierre recognised the zeal in his hatred of the rich, the noble and the clergy, and appointed him public prosecutor at Rochefort. There, I heard that he had set up a guillotine in the courthouse, so as to facilitate the quick turnaround of justice.
“He joined the extreme Jacobine group known as the ‘Mountain’, so called because they occupied the high back seats of the convention chamber. He was known to be one of the ‘enragés’. The Mountain established its control of the convention on June 2, 1793, not by vote but by force, a force that sent many of their fellow revolutionaries flying for their very lives. Such were the revolutionary credentials of this fearsome tyrant.
“Guadeloupe had been French since 1635. In 1759 it was taken by the British. After Britain declared war against France in February 1793, following the guillotining of King Louis XVI, plans were made to recapture the island lost to France, and in 1793 a force of 800 British was landed at Martinique. It was welcomed by the royalist planters, who were terrified by the execution of their king. Many aristocrats were taken off by the British, and several of them found their way to Trinidad.
“He returned with a mandate, as he had planned. It was simple: kill all royalists. He landed in Guadeloupe and routed the British. He erected the first guillotine ever seen in the western hemisphere. He killed thousands of French royalists and sent the remainder scampering for their lives to Grenada and then to Trinidad.
“Also flowing to Trinidad were republicans, pro-revolutionaries comprising poor whites, lower class half-casts, criminals, some insane, adventurers and opportunists of all shades and conditions. The Spanish governor, Chacon, was barely in control of the situation.
“Hugues cynically offered to ‘help’ Chacon. He organised rebellions in St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada. In Tobago, there was serious cause for alarm. Now in British hands, once more the African slaves, most of them French speaking with connections in other islands, had already been indoctrinated by revolutionary fervour that had swept the island, causing Scarborough to be burnt. Now Tobago’s planters were asking for a ‘stout frigate to be stationed in Great Courland Bay’.
“He attempted insurrections in Dominica and Martinique. These failed. His emissaries were captured and put to death. With Castries burning, a man called Dominique Dert was able to grab the Charter of Lodge United Brothers and flee to Port of Spain. Under the French Constitution, it was numbered 327. Later, under the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, it became No. 77 and yet later again under the Scottish Constitution, it  was registered 251. Captain Ache sailed from the Bay of St. Anne in Martinique with as many people as his 77 gun frigate could carry. His decks awash, he braved a terrible storm to bring royalists and their slaves, free blacks and people of colour to Trinidad. Many of these settled in the wooded valley north of Port of Spain, which they named St. Ann after the bay from which they had been rescued.
“Bryan Edwards, the contemporary historian, described what happened to those who remained:
“The republicans erected a guillotine, with which they struck off the heads of fifty of them in the short space of an hour. This mode of proceeding, however, proving too tedious for their impatient revenge, the remainder of these unhappy men were fettered to each other, and placed on the brink of one of the trenches which they had so gallantly defended: the republicans then drew up some of their undisciplined recruits in front, who firing an irregular volley at their miserable victims, killed some and wounded others, leaving many, in all probability, untouched. The weight however of the former, dragged the rest into the ditch, where the living, the wounded, and the dead shared the same grave, the soil being instantly thrown in upon them.”
The obituary of Victor Hugues in Memorial Bordelais, reproduced in the Trinidad Guardian of March 13, 1827, even after taking account of public attitudes in the reign of that most reactionary of kings, Charles X, last monarch or the House of Bourbon, reflects the opinions, concerning the man, of people who lived at the time of his atrocities.
“The man of blood, the Robespierre of the colonies, has breathed his last - Victor Hugues is dead, and humanity again respires. The accomplice of those wretches who overwhelmed France in misery and ruin, he surpassed them all in his cruel mission. Landing at Guadeloupe, by an effect of that fate that presides over misfortune, he proclaimed liberty to the blacks, and he slaughtered their masters. The moiety of the proprietors fell under his executions, and every family bewailed its victim. The colony, then extremely rich, was plundered, and Hugues amassed by this means immense wealth. The scourge of that quarter of the world, he produced insurrections in St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada, but he failed at Dominica and Martinique - there his emissaries received their merited reward. The whole of them were captured and put to death. The cruelties for which this terrible man was notorious can scarce be enumerated, and some of them even surpass belief. Recalled in 1798, he was confirmed by the Consuls in his office of Commissioner of Guyana, where, as in Guadeloupe, he acquired a considerable fortune by his exaction. After the capitulation of that colony, he returned to France, where Bonaparte made him disgorge a part of the gains of his robbery. He then sought refuge in the Department of Gironde, in the commune of Rion, where he remained until his death, with the exception of six months that he passed with a person named Mark Borders, a potter, his nephew, and formerly his confidential secretary.”
Such was the fanatical revolutionary who descended on Guadeloupe in particular and the Caribbean on the whole. To what extent his presence pushed Chacon into easy surrender to the British in 1797 may only be guessed. The fact is that tens of thousands of us who walk the streets today, were brought here because of the displacement of our ancestors to these shores by Victor Hugues.

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