Wednesday, 21 December 2011

French Immigrants


 Grenada had become a French possession in 1674. For some 20 years the Caribs had held out, boldly meeting their foe, matching weapons of wood and stone against cold steel and gunpowder. They had fought the French on the beaches and in the steep inland valleys amongst the towering trees of the islands interior. The ancient volcano belching fire and sulfuric flames, forming a hideous backdrop to this their doomsday scenario, which finally came with a mass suicide when the last remnants, hounded by the invader, leaped to their deaths in a mad forecast of the things to come some three hundred years earlier.
The island was cultivated and an African slave society was introduced. The plantocracy comprised in the main of the French provincial gentry with money to sustain their endeavor until profits could be realized. The other French islands in the Caribbean, apart from Haiti, comprised of Dominica, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia and St. Vincent. Professor Gordon Rohlehr observes "The island of Grenada was captured by the British in 1759 and ceded to Britain in 1763. The British sought to accommodate the French residents whom they included in the limited assembly of the time." The British were aware of the necessity to maintain a united European front against the free blacks who outnumbered them. These arrangements in the main did not last as the French were more than a little sympathetic with the rebellious American colonists who were seeking to over throw British rule on the North American continent.
The French government did all in its power to undermine the British imperial expansion. In response Britain attempted a few years later to capture Haiti from both the French and the Black Jacobins who had risen in revolt. As the winds of the European wars surged back and forth in the Western oceans, Grenada was captured by the French in 1779 at the height of the American War of Independence. However it was returned to the British under the Treaty of Versailles. It was against this background of being fearful of British recrimination, for the discrimination which the French had perpetrated against the British over the previous four years, made the planters glad to take advantage of what was being offered to them under the Cedula of population of 1783. This accommodation by the Spanish crown to fellow Catholics in the Caribbean, that was increasingly torn apart by war, was in fact a defining element in the history of Trinidad.  The inability to recognise the bicentennial of this event in 1983 by the government of the day in Trinidad was a testimony of our social and political immaturity. Significant anniversaries  are important landmarks which give us the opportunity to re-examine these special events. The French entry into Trinidad was very significant. French researcher F. P. Renault wrote:
"The French inhabitants of the islands considered themselves as brothers, jointly responsible to each other and hardly coming to care for a nationality which they would probably never employ for long. Also, they were more attached to the islands where they had established themselves, to the islands in which they were united in memories and interest, than to a mother country which they had left with no thought of returning. It was because of this that the all powerful tradition of kinship developed and became central to the French Creole character.
The original colonists were known as the new colonists to distinguish them from the old Spanish settlers ... Many had left the land of their fathers several generations before, and had helped to colonise French possessions in other parts of the New World. Some families began their colonial experience in Acadia, in what is now Canada, in the 17th century, others in Louisiana and New Orleans.
In their migrations, subject as they were to changes political, economic and climatic, they found themselves at times completely uprooted; their circumstances substantially altered, often having to start afresh; and because of the fortunes of war, families would find themselves distributed among several islands whose ownership would change hands from one year to the next, while in reality they would continue to share identical interests and a way of life that had evolved as a result of living in the tropics, on cocoa and sugar plantations operated by slave labour for, in some cases several generations. All the while they maintained the language and traditions of the land of their origins. All these factors contributed to the fostering of a West Indian spirit, a West Indian French Creole way of life, as well as to produce a community of opinion between the colonists of various islands, in spite of the strict application of the various colonial laws."
Other French elements made their way to Trinidad, as Professor Bridget Brereton wrote in 'Book of Trinidad':
"Right from the start of the French Revolution, in 1789, privileged Frenchmen, and especially members of the noblesse, fled from their native land to the comparative safety of exile. This exodus stepped up during the first half of the 1790s, when the revolutionary regime  was at its most extreme. Although the emigrés included thousands of clergymen and members of the Third Estate (commoners), it was the noble exiles who gave the emigrés as a group their main characteristics: royalist, fiercely Catholic, and bitterly opposed to the revolution and all its works.
Since many of the noble emigrés had been military officers (the army being one of the few acceptable careers for young noblemen), it was natural that they would want to serve the great counter-revolutionary military alliance spearheaded by Britain, Austria and Prussia. And of these, large numbers did enlist in the armed forces of these three powers as officers, to such an extent that special French units were organised in each army. The British military authorities allowed many emigrés to raise regiments for regular service with the army, such as the 'Chasseurs Brittaniques', only one of many. Royalist emigrés often bought commissions in regular British companies or regiments.
Many of these emigrés serving as officers with the British armed forces fought in the Caribbean campaigns of the 1790s. As early as 1792, before Britain was at war with revolutionary France, plans were being hatched among emigrés in Britain with property in Ste. Domingue (Haiti) to ship an army of emigrés to the Caribbean, presumably to crush the revolution in the French colonies. This came to nothing, but many French emigrés from the Antilles received commissions in the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th West India Regiments, which were raised in Guadeloupe and Martinique and were taken into the British Establishment (i.e. as regular British troops) in 1798. White French Creole officers serving with British-raised black troops in Ste. Domingue during the British occupation (1794-1798) often remained in the British service after the occupation was over. Many emigrés without Caribbean connections, who had received commissions in regular British troops, took part in the West Indian campaigns of 1793-1797, in one of which Trinidad was conquered. Several of them stayed on in Trinidad."
Apart from the military men, there were other French royalists from Haiti who offered their services to the British forces during their ultimately abortive campaign to undermine the Haitian revolution and wrest Haiti from both the blacks and the French republicans. Rejected by the British in Jamaica because the assembly there feared that their Haitian slaves might have absorbed the dangerous doctrine of republicanism, Haitian planters and their slaves were re-settled in Trinidad. The impact of the Haitians, both planters and slaves, was felt in Trinidad. The Haitians tended to settle in the south of the island, and, whether true or false, the planters found themselves stigmatized as being licentious and accused by the other French colons of indulging in outrageous orgies. Their slaves introduced the syncretic African religion, 'voudoun', and with it the pathological fear of poisoning and the creation of the 'zombi', or the living dead, a cult that was unknown in the French islands of the Lesser Antilles. Mistrust, financial insecurity, an atmosphere bordering on hysteria, all this helped to determine the spirit of the first years of British rule in Trinidad. The British did not trust the loyalty of the French, whether freshly arrived royalists or seasoned Creoles in their second or third generation. They trusted the free coloureds and free black people even less, fully aware that the Grenadian revolution of 1795 was led by Fedon and other free coloured republicans. This revolution had cost the lives of some 7,000 persons on that island. Dr. James Millette in "Genesis of Crown Colony Government" tells us of the great care that was taken by the region's military governments with regard to slaves from Haiti. In the case of Trinidad, taking all but 39 of 300 Haitian negroes refused at Martinique, there were plots or rumours of plots to wipe out the entire European population. This was dealt with by Governor Thomas Picton very harshly. Notwithstanding poisoning did take place on several estates. One case, a serious one, occurred at Coblentz in St. Anns.
The year 1803 proved to be very fatal for the Coblentz estate, as the owner, Baron de Montalambert, lost 70 out of 150 slaves in a period of nine months. Governor Colonel Hislop commissioned St. Hilaire Begorrat, a member of the Council of Government, and Louis François Sergeant, a French notary from Martinique, to inquire into the circumstances of this tragedy. Eventually the principal driver, the hospital orderly and three slaves of the estate were convicted of poisoning and executed. During the inquiry, it became known that amongst the slaves on the estate were some who had been brought by Monsieur de Mallevault, the previous owner of Coblentz, from his estates in Martinique, where in 1793 a similar excessive mortality had occurred, where as well the use of poison had been suspected. Was one of the Africans he brought Trinidad's first (and thank God so far only) mass murderer, hitting his victims both in Martinique and here?
As the report of the Commissioners states:
"Every experienced planter knows that the negro doctors, obeahmen, are nothing but poisoners who profit by the ignorance and credulity of their comrades. They sell them some insignificant powders to which they attribute miraculous virtues, and after carrying on with this trade for some time to acquire reputation, always finish by selling poisons extracted from plants with which they are well acquainted and can always find. The police can never be too vigilant of these sort of doctors, as they are dangerous from their principles and from the consequences they produce."
The Baron de Montalambert was near total ruin by the loss of almost half of his slaves. In 1806, he sold his town house property on Frederick Street between Woodford Square and Park Street, and in 1808 he put up large sections of his St. Anns estate for sale. That same year, the planter died as well.

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