Thursday 5 January 2012

Born in Dominica - The Foundation of St. Anns

"La Fantaisie Road," she murmured, looking over her shoulder. The MG picked up speed. "Who lives there?"
"The Prime Minister."
"La Fantaisie, what a lovely word."
She smelled vaguely of the type of cologne wealthy women wear. Her eyebrows, unshaped, were quite thick. They gave her an outdoor, sporting sort of look.
"Who gave La Fantaisie Road its name?"
"I believe it was named by Celeste Rose Peschier. It was really the driveway to a lovely house nestled between gigantic trees, long ago demolished. This is a very old part of Trinidad, in the sense that its development dates from the 1790s or even before."
"Do you know about it?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do."
I was taking my charming guest to Maracas Bay. "It all began with the wars between France and England for the control of the Caribbean's sugar-producing islands... It's quite a tale, I am afraid that I'll take a few liberties in the telling - but Maracas is a long drive."
"Artist's license?"
"Well, you be the judge!"

She had been born in Saint Domingue, Haiti, and there was no date of birth for her. For people like her you were either born before or after the revolution. Her circumstances were thus: her father, a Frenchman from Nice, butcher by profession, was sentenced to five years deportation for the attempted murder of a cooper over a matter of honour. It would appear that he had attempted to drown him in a barrel of his own manufacture. For five years he had laboured in the cane fields along side the seventeen slaves and three Canary islanders who, like himself, were indentured to Clotilde Voisin. Freed from indentureship, his life forever altered, he practiced his profession at the Grand Market in Port-au-Prince. As soon as he had enough money put by, he presented himself at the slave market and for the sum of one hundred and eighty pilars - silver Mexican-Spanish dollars - bought a tall, flat-chested, aggressive Ibo woman to be his house keeper, companion and mistress. His choice had been inspired by the fact that the available white women on the island of his class were absolutely worn out by their previous profession of prostitution and poverty in France, followed by five years of working under the tropical sun.
Much in this manner in those days, there came into being three classes, the white, the mulatto and the black, which at that time implied no particular evil, except the obvious one of slavery. Their domestic life together was organised along the lines of never ending attack, defense, capitulation, occupation, revolt, over throw, accommodation and the perpetual destruction of most of their worldly goods. It was during one of their more ferocious engagements that Ameline Louisa “Cocutes” Paseu was conceived, and it was at the time when the eye of the most devastating hurricane ever to surge out of the Atlantic ocean was steering down upon the most hideous collection of shacks that huddled in and around an enormous rubbish pile in the quarter of La Pac, that she was born. As a consequence there were no more offspring to the state of war that passed for their relationship. After a while he forgot that he owned her and she, despising both her keeper and her child, became a wealthy marchande and something of a power broker in the Grand Market at Port-au-Prince.
She grew to possess her mothers height but not her temperament, her fathers commitment to survival but not his lack of ambition. She belonged to a category of persons who were woven into the very fabric of the islands society. She belonged to all classes and to none. The entire system, the very structure of society of life, even death, on the island was based on the colour of your skin. It had nothing to do with class, money or worldly achievement. The coloured man could own 10,000 acres of land and be the master of 1,000 slaves and still be nothing in the eyes of the authorities. He could not carry a side arm, a sword or a sabre. He had to sit in public places where he was told. His life was circumscribed by the irrational fear of the European, who had engendered him and by his aversion to the race that had bore him. For the mulatto woman there was one way in which to conquer: it is said that they, in their youth, combined a natural naiveté, a touching gracefulness and a lascivious languor that could enflame the most placid, the most disdainful or the most sanctimonious of men. By the time of her sixteenth birthday she knew everything. The place was too crowded, there was too much competition. She needed a smaller island. She found passage on a windjammer by charging her favourite currency and within a week arrived on the beautiful island of Martinique. She became the plaything of an elderly Count who owned a plantation on nearby Trois Islets. He was attempting to paint, in watercolour, an idyllic scene from a classical fantasy on her smooth and slightly palpitating stomach when the calamity of revolution overwhelmed them.
Their escape was described by his later biographers as providential. For propriety's sake, she was written out of the story. Fleeing from the revolution, it took them south along the Caribbean chain to the Spanish isle of Trinidad, where before death closed his eyes he provided for her by introducing her to, and recommending her, as a housekeeper, companion and mistress to a young protégé of his by the name of Jean Charles Baron de Montalambert. He himself had recently escaped the guillotine by immigrating to Trinidad where he had joined another young aristocrat by the name of de Mallevault in an agricultural enterprise in the Cascade valley at a site where two rivers met, that they named, for sentimental reasons, Coblentz.
In the days of great peace, their love produced a boy of exceptional beauty, tall for his age. He was his father's constant companion. The plantation had come into existence as a result of a heroic escape from the bay of Ste. Anne in Martinique during a period of a particularly bloody war of retribution conducted with legendary savagery by all concerned. Amongst the several hundred, black and white, slaves and free, that had crowded the careening decks of the frigate "Marshall de Castries" was a dwarfish creature too ugly to be recognised as either man nor woman, who had secretly come aboard. Huddled in a chest that belonged to no one, it had with it just one possession: a vial of the most virulent poison to ever leave the Guinea Coast. He, for it was a man, was to become the estate’s cutler, sharpening all knives, plows, shares and scissors.
During the period of slavery, poison was the most preoccupying consideration for the proprietors of plantations. Either the estate had a poisoner or it did not. The most commonly used poison was of course arsenic. It was used in the fields as an insecticide. But there were other sinister poisons such as the venom of snakes, centipedes, scorpions, the pulpy white starch that oozed from the manchineel plant, the dirt from graves and cesspits were easy to obtain as well as many roots and herbs. There were also the more obvious killers such as ground glass.
Poison and the poisoner on estates was a viable alternative to life as a slave and was sought after to gain release. Poison, applied when profound injustice with no hope of retribution was dished out between the enslaved, and for vengeance, was sought at a price. Poison was when a master, too cruel to accommodate had to be got rid of. Poison was used by an old man gone mad with an old man’s sense of obsolesce in a place so far from his ancestral gods that it might just as well been hell. Poison was used at Coblentz Estate in the year 1803. Amongst the 70 people who died was the masters son. Amongst those who lived was an incredibly ugly, short old man and a beautiful mulatto woman whose descendants might be found amongst the Bonaparte, Lambert, Danglarde and Foncette families and St. Anns and La Pastora."
We had arrived at Maracas.
"And what happened, how come 'La Fantaisie'?"
"Gyal, I'll tell you about that after a shark and bake!"
(continued next month)

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