Monday, 11 June 2012

More on the French Creoles


While making arrangements for financial support for the re-publication of the Historical Digest, a would-be sponsor said to me, "I hope you're not putting in a lot about French creoles."
I was not especially surprised about at this remark. The people of French descent, mostly of European extraction, have been held in opprobrium in Trinidad and Tobago since the 1950s. This occurred during the politicising of the country by Dr. Eric Williams, who declared "Massa day done" and went on to explain in a series of public lectures that the French creoles were responsible for the lack of progress in the fields of education, upward mobility and financial and social progress experienced by the black masses in Trinidad.
As a politician he conveniently overlooked the fact that most of his constituents came from other islands. Having no revolutionary goals, there was the necessity to find an enemy within Trinidad. Racism, which had been endemic under colonialism, was re-invented with the independence movement. This time, instead of it being directed from white people, both foreign and locally assembled, to everybody who did not look like them, it was directed from the newly independent blacks to both foreigners and to the local white community.
Like most things that came into existence in Trinidad and Tobago during the 1950s and 60s, what was said by Williams appeared to be cast in stone. Anti-French creole sentiment became institutionalised to the degree that it was not seen as racism, and, if it was, it was viewed as justified!
My response to my sponsor when he made that remark about French creoles was simply, "How could they be written out of history?" I went on to say that it would be like, in as much as we presently have a government made up of mostly Trinidadians of East Indian descent, that we started to deny the contribution of the African presence to national life over the last 200 years.
The extent to which the independence experience served to further segment the society of Trinidad and Tobago has yet to be dealt with by academics, politicians, calypsonians, trade unionists, the religious orders and of course us ourselves.
Notwithstanding and with the sincere hope of continued sponsorship, we are going to feature the French creoles of Trinidad. Of the very many different racial groups who have come to this island of ours over the last 200 years, the French stand out in an interesting manner. Their arrival in Trinidad was most consequential with regard to our economic, cultural and social development, and as such, we will strive to alleviate their being written out of history.

The Question of Nobility

As a group, they were comprised mostly of families of the French nobility. This has been denied by various people over the years, including members of the French creole community (the same sort of people who claim that no Brahmins came here with the East Indian immigration). It has been said that this was sheer romance and unsubstantiated legend. So before we go further, let us define the term "noble".
"During the "ancient regime" in France, a noble was one who had the sole right to describe himself as "ecuyer" or "chevalier", to wear a sword and to bear arms," writes Michael Pocock in his paper "Outline of duties and privileges of ancient noblesse". He continues, "He had precedence over all commoners and was alone qualified to use the titles of ecuyer, chevalier, vicomte, count and marquis."
As a class, the nobles benefited from a variety of exemptions, e.g. certain taxes, compulsory military service, and they did not come under the jurisdiction of the local provost. A nobleman was not compelled to contribute to local or community economies and could claim to be tried by the "grand chambre du parlement" (viz), which was comprised of his peers or equals and not by civil courts.
On the other hand, a French noble might not without demeaning himself—that is, lose his status—engage himself in commerce, except marine commerce, nor practice a profession, except that of a soldier, as a member of a foreign royal court, a lawyer, a notary in Paris, a glass maker or a sword maker. He was obliged to serve the King when called upon in any capacity. Noble family in Europe on the whole fell into several categories. Noblesse immemorial (those which had always been known to be noble and accepted as such without being able to trace any King awarding nobility to them) was from the feudal nobility and be known as such from approximately the year 900 AD. The well-known Trinidadian family Maingot de Surgères were vicomtes of noblesse immemorial, at least since as early as the 10th century.
During the first decades of the 14th century, the 1310s, many families received ennoblement to confirm their station. Some were previously noble, some were newly ennobled. Others became "noblesse d'extraction" or "lettres patents" or by "chargés" or function. Many of these come from common origins, but because of brains, good luck, good looks or courage were elevated to the nobility. A King of France ennobled his barber—it might have been as insurance to having his throat cut.
These titles of ecuyer or chevalier would be inherited. The particular "de", "du", "de la", and "des" never implied nobility necessarily, but serve to designate the land possessed or the village from which a noble family  comes. The noble family of Jacques de Jacque, for example, comes from a fortified hill town known as a bastide. Their illustrious ancestor was knighted on a battlefield in the Holy Land by the King in 1214. Hence, we know Jacques de la Bastide in Trinidad.
A person of ordinary background could buy land and be a "seigneur" de la whatever and still be common. Gentleman was not a title, but an attribute of either noble or common birth, hence the saying that a king can create a noble but not a gentleman.
The nobility might be described as being "grande" or "petite". The great dukes, some of them being of the royal blood, fell into a special category. Then, there were the "peers of the realm" (equals amongst themselves), some bearing titles such as marquis or comte, but others, because of the recorded age of their families, which may already have existed and achieved significance while France was little more than a small vicinity around the city of Paris 500-800 AD, would also fall under the category of "grande noblesse". In Trinidad, the Pantin de la Guerre and the de Montrichards fall under this order. So too do the de Gannes de la Chancelleries, who were descended from a cadet (junior) branch of the independent dukes of Britanny.
Broadly speaking, the other French creole families in Trinidad come from the "petite noblesse" of the provinces. Entitled to describe themselves as ecuyer (from the Latin word "equis", horse) they were horsemen or knights. This knightly class provided the personal aids, servants, attendants and soldiers for the kings, the princes of the blood and the great ducal households.
In olden days, the nobility was basically illiterate. Education was in the hands of the church men and women, clerics. The knightly class was also very destructive because of the hierarchical nature of the feudal system. A knight served his baron, who served his count, who served a marquis or duke, who served the king. As a result, petty wars and general brigandry devastated the countryside on a regular basis. As such, the church tended to avoid them. It was not until the 12th century that knighthood was given a religious overtone with the introduction of the military orders, such as the Knights Templar, the Knights of St. John and the Teutonic Knights.
Most of the nobles who found their way to the west came from fairly modest "chateaux", small castles that were hardly more than fortified farms. But whether great and illustrious or poor and uneducated, they basically all belonged to the same class and subscribed to a belief system that instilled in them the absolute conviction that they were of superior make. This view, founded in prehitory, came to be supported by the church and imposed upon the peasants. They had a right to dominate all.
This idea of caste or class of superior people was not purely a European concept. It existed in China, Africa, amongst tribal people living in the jungle, India, Japan and Arabia. It seems to be a part of the human condition.

The French come to Trinidad

From the early 1600s, French people, led by nobles, set out for the New World. They made their homes in the northern hemisphere in a place they called Arcadia, later to be called Canada. Almost 200 years later, with the fall of Quebec to the English, many of the Arcadians left to join their fellows in the southern United States in Louisiana, which was still a French colony. By that time, Saint Domingue (Haiti) had become a thriving slave colony, driving a massive economy based on the production of sugar.
The French also had established themselves on several islands in the Lesser Antilles and from the early 17th century, the 1600s, on through to the 1790s to the present, a strong French influence was to pervade islands such as Guadeloupe, Martinique (still "departements" of France), St. Lucia, St Vincent, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti of course, French Guiana, and for a short while the French held Tobago at the end of the protracted war between England and France at the beginning of the 19th century.
The western hemisphere, in so far as the French influence is concerned, is as we see it today. The 1790s were, however, the crucial time for the French. In the Old World, the revolution had destroyed the monarchical system in France and had removed the nobles from power. Then, to their dismay, the Revolution was transported to the New World. From Haiti to Grenada, down the chain of islands, the French establishment, owned and operated by the "ancient regime", was destroyed by the revolution organised and directed by Victor Hugues. Tens of thousands, perhaps more than 100,000 royalists, many of the aristocrats, were slaughtered. Trinidad became a safe haven because of Roume de St. Laurent's inspired move of ten years before, when under a Spanish government a Cedula of Population (1783) made it easy for French-speaking Free Black people, French colonists and others, to come to this island, the main stipulation being that they be Catholic. And come they did.
From far away as New Orleans and Haiti on through all the French-held islands of the Caribbean they came, but mostly from Grenada. Some of these French were just out of France, young adventurers from good families and a little money, seeking to cash in on the sugar plantation business. Some were serving in the British army. Many, perhaps the majority, were established colonists of three or four generations in the Caribbean, long accustomed to running large plantations with slave labour. Owning slaves meant getting more land, so too, arriving as a family, the more members, the more land. With a strong sense of being pioneers, with an even stronger sense of being the master of all he surveyed, but with a degree of trepidation, the French of the Caribbean came to this island. In the short span of 15 years, they were to create and economy and establish the basis of a society, both of which has continued to exist.
It has been speculated that the majority of slaves brought to Trinidad in the 1780s were "well seasoned", that is, they were not newly out of Africa (those would come in the next few years). They had been born on plantations in the islands and were, like their "owners", Caribbean of more than two generations. They spoke French, which made communication easy, were to some extent immune from tropical disease, knew how to work to establish an estate, were Catholic and in some instances had had long and familiar relationships with their masters, mistresses and the children on whom they were completely dependent.
Plantation society during the period of slavery was complex. It was, however, not unfamiliar to the French in the sense that as an aristocracy they were accustomed to command. Soldiering was part of their inheritance. Believing that they were superior came naturally. Discipline was fundamental and was instituted through fear, intimidation and violence. Again, none of the above was strange to the French slave owners in that perhaps in a slightly different or modified from this was exactly  what was dished out to the European peasantry that toiled on their fathers' farms somewhere in the Bourbonnais in central France.

The French creoles during and after slavery

Gustave Borde, the historian of Trinidad in the 19th century, says that the planter lived much like the seigneur of France, combining rough justice with generosity. There was much rough justice, floggings, branding, being locked up in stocks, balls chained to the feet of slaves, iron collards, iron masks, all sorts of cruelties. Most cruel was the absolute ownership and total control of master over slave in every personal detail.
In Trinidad, there were laws that governed the punishment of slaves, called the "Code Noir" (black code), which was enforced to a degree. Trinidad was not a slave colony for centuries as say, Jamaica, Barbados or Grenada. Slavery existed on a large scale in Trinidad from the 1780s to 1834, just 50 years. The violence of slavery on the scale of other islands was not our experience. Slaves were also very valuable in monetary terms, costing, in some instnaces, a couple hundred dollars a head, and slaves were not easily killed or made infirm any more than a farmer would destroy a tractor just because it won't start on a morning.
After Emancipation came immigration from other islands with longer memories of slavery, which have become our memories [the memories of the French creoles] as well.
With Emancipation, the plantation society folded. Some have speculated that the freeing of the slaves had to do with the destroying of the West Indian planter interest, many of whom were French in the newly captured islands, in favour of new sugar interest in India and West Africa, where the land mass was greater and the labour present.
The ruined French planters of Trinidad had in any event nowhere to go. The France they knew didn't exist any more, and that country was no longer home. Their relatives had been decapitated by the million. Property had been confiscated. They had not choice but to become Trinidadians and make the best of it with their traditional enemy England now the owner of the island.

The retention of French culture in Trinidad

The challenge was to remain French, retain the cultural identity, religion and a sense of who they once were in terms of class. The retention of French as a language was not too difficult in that although the island was English after 1797, everything else was French, and was to remain so for almost 100 years. The  vast majority of the people, black, white and mixed, spoke French, the newspapers were in French, and the courts of law, all spoke French. Patois or creole was the common tongue as English is today.
French was the style of cuisine, the style of dress, French culture in music, song and dance impressed itself upon the society of Trinidad indelibly up until this time.
Carnival and its product calypso are French children. The Afro-French culture of this island, despite it being an English colony, was enormous and was to remain that way for some 170 years.
French culture, emanating from no more than perhaps 1,300 people, at any point in time defined this island, making it different from Barbados or Tobago. This French creole culture withstood the arrival of thousands of immigrants from English/Protestant islands, absorbing them and creolising them.
The quality of life as lived by the French planters coming, as they did, from the old aristocracy of Europe, was remarked upon by visitors to Trinidad. L. M. Fraser wrote:
"Families belonging to the old noblesse formed the nucleus of that refined society for which the island has always been celebrated and which constitutes one of its most distinctive features."
Throughout the 19th and 20th century, Trinidad possessed a high upper class of white people that was not matched with ease either in the United States, the islands of the Caribbean or South America. High class, that is, in that so long as European mores were used as a yardstick to define stations in life and accepting the concept of an aristocracy at the top. High class in the sense of more than just good manners, but courtly behaviour, gentlemanly and ladylike attitudes in terms of the virtues, a generosity of spirit beyond mere hospitality. The French noble families imported to all a sense of "noblesse oblige" [- not for nothing is that sentence usually used in its original French pronunciation!], which made this island remarkable. They gave it style. They also gave it an economy, first sugar, built upon slavery, until emancipation in 1834, then cocoa, from the 1870s on through to its ruin in the 1960s.

Economics of the French creole families

The cocoa economy generated wealth on all levels of society and served to re-establish the fallen fortunes of the earlier French colonists. It revived aristocratic dreams and pretensions, and breathed new life into illusions of grandeur that were on the point of becoming lost.
Cocoa made money for the French families and allowed for education. The white people of French descent could not hope to get the topmost jobs in British colonial Trinidad, which were for the British expatriates, but they manned the upper levels of the civil service. They were administrators, wardens, justices of the peace. They were top doctors, lawyers and surveyors. They owned the export-import businesses to some considerable extent, and sat on the nominated benches of the Legislative Council. In some families, they supported reform of colonial rule, such as the Rostants and Ciprianis. Most of all, they were cocoa estate proprietors.
Some of these families were civil servants virtually from one generation to the next, as well as cocoa planters. There was a time when you could find a de Verteuil in every government department, from the top to the mail room. The de Verteuils were also priests and nuns, teachers and medical doctors (they still are). Of all the French creoles, one could say that although they were not of the "grande noblesse" of France, this family came to be regarded as the epitome of the community in Trinidad. Their illustrious ancestor came  as a soldier with the British army in 1797. They first appear in recorded history in 1080.
Others, like the Ganteaume de Monteau family, ennobled in the 14th century, were washed ashore on the east coast of Trinidad by a ferocious storm. Their founder married twice, producing some 23 children. As such, just about every French creole family is related to them. They were to some considerable extent responsible for the proliferation of coconuts in Mayaro. The nuts, too, had been washed shore in a previous century.
The Valleton de Boissière were Protestant and, although of the nobility, supported the more humane elements of the revolution. They were also moneylenders and by the 1820s were the owners of Champs Elysées estate in Maraval. They produced legislators, writers, social commentators and politicians. They first appeared in records in 1036 and were ennobled in 1336.
Others, like the Rostant, Leotaud, Quesnel, Pasea, Vessigny, Lefer, Lange, Besson, Sellier, Pollonais, Pampelonne, de la Bastide, de la Peyrouse, d'Abadie, La Cardre, Aché, André, Giraud, Blanc, Gransaull, Anduze, de Verteuil, La Barnet, de Boissière, Cornillac, de Meillac, de Crenu, de Deshayes, de Loudré, Roger, de Belloquet, together with the Corsican Agostini, Giuseppi, Cipriani, Gianetti, and the Spanish Sorzano, Basanta, Gomez, Llanos and Garcia and many others, some whose names have died out in Trinidad, are all essentially of the "petite noblesse" of the ecuyer or chevalier class. There were other French people who came to Trinidad, tradesmen, republicans, sailors, artisans, various. They would be regarded as peasants and, like the Portuguese, were not "socially white" or of the upper classes. Notwithstanding, they were amongst the French families, such as the Tardier, Begorrat, Didier, Ambard, Jaffon, Conpariolle, Rigaud and others who were of the middle classes. Over time, these married into the French creole matrix. In fact, French creoles could marry Irish, German, English and Corsican, as long as they were to "the manor" born, had money, owned land, were white and Catholic. This is why there are so many people in Trinidad who are called French creoles and have names that denote other European nationalities. One could become a French creole by assimilation. A French creole could be called Devenish, O'Connor, Kenny, O'Brian, Cipriani, Agostini or Gianetti, Boos, Urich, Wupperman, Herrera, Garcia or Gomez.
The French creoles were mostly royalists—a handful are to the present—although there were a few who subscribed to the views of the enlightenment and supported certain aspects of the revolution. The majority were loyal to the House of Bourbon for several generations, even after it had ceased to exist in France.

Victims of tribalism

The basic criteria for membership to the community were, first of all, ethnicity. The possession of African ancestors, no matter how remote, would mean disbarment. Marriage to a coloured person meant expulsion. Kinship also played a role, that is, to be known to belong to certain extended families by marriage or by birth. People had to know who you are, not just in the Caribbean but back in France. It was easy to assume the poses of gentility, however, out here in the bush, it was very rare to possess courtly manners. thus, it was not difficult to spot the bounders. The result of all this meant that only a limited number of families could fit the bill. As a result , familial incest became increasingly common, even seen as a virtue. The extent of intermarriage between the fifteen or twenty families made all French creoles, born after the 1880s, related to each other.
It is important to bear in mind that the French creole community in Trinidad are not Europeans living in the tropics anymore than the "Syrians" in Trinidad are Syriatics living out here, or that the "Africans" in Trinidad are surgeoning on this island, or are somehow more Trinidadian than the "Indians". We are all Trinidadians. Racial segmentation is a curse, it is, in fact, where the process that took us into independence failed us totally.
The term "tribalism" is a negative, insidious remark, used by some for their own personal gain. French creoles may have the physical characteristics of the "white race", but in sociological terms they are marginal, not to their own Trinidad society, but to European society. The same applies to Trinidadians and Tobagonians of African, Indian or other descent. It is high time that French creoles of European descent come "out of the cold", which they must do for themselves.

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