Tuesday 26 June 2012

Don José Maria Chacon

The foregoing article, which is sourced in its entirety from E.L. Joseph's "History of Trinidad", written in 1883, serves to provide an excellent description of life in Spanish Trinidad in the 1750s and 60s. The extent to which the island existed in total poverty, almost without any population, was the degree to which one family, indeed sometimes one individual, controlled the island. The steps taken to introduce schooling for the young or coins into circulation so as to implement commerce were tentative. It can only be imagined how the island would have fared, had the rigours of the inquisition been applied.
Within twenty-five years of laws being passed to compel the inhabitants to stop living in seclusion in the high woods, a new and enlightened government took office in the new capital at Port of Spain on the 1st September, 1783, in the person of Don José Maria Chacon, a rear admiral of the Spanish royal navy, a knight of the order of Calatrava, obviously educated.
Chacon faced during his tenure as governor of Trinidad several crises, starting with the recaltriance of the entrenched interest as personified in the governing body, the "Illustrious Cabildo", who in the recent past did not hesitate to imprison governors, putting them into irons and to forbid them their leaving of the colony. Also, he had to deal with the influx of a large quantity of French people under the Cedula of Population. E.L. Joseph mentions 12,000. The Spanish establishment, that is, the officials, were "few".
Chacon undertook large public works, such as diverting the St. Ann's river, whose course once took it across Park Street, going west, then down to, more or less, where Frederick Street and Chacon Street are now, into the Gulf of Paria. He paid about one third of this project from his own pocket. Chacon established the village of San Juan and the town of San Fernando. Port of Spain began to assume a respectable appearance.
This city was never an easy place to run. His Excellency had to deal with an influx of riotous French republicans, revolutionaries bent on overthrowing his government by force of arms and to murder the island's royalist inhabitants. He had to contend with violent riots in the city with a handful of trusted men, and with looters who broke into the state armory and stole guns and ammunition.
The British navy landed. This precipitated another round of riots in the city. The French revolutionary leader, Victor Hugues, was a very serious threat to the government of Trinidad, in that insurgents acting on Hugues' behalf were operating in the colony. The threat of slave uprisings in the style of Haiti and of mass poisonings on the estates instilled fear and suspicion on a large scale. Unruly blacks – "masterless men" – threatened disorder. The rule of law was slipping out of Chacon's hands. The island was a Spanish colony, but the population was almost entirely French. But even this was a divided population. On the one hand, royalists, well armed, swept the islands of the Caribbean. With the monarchy overthrown in France, they had nowhere to go. On the other hand, a republican menace made up of slaves who had freed themselves, free blacks looking for the opportunity for vengeance ("I will kill your white father, you killed mine") and republican French seeking their fortunes.
Governor Chacon might just have welcomed his next great crisis, the invasion of his island by a British army and his ultimate surrender. His return to Spain was under a dark cloud. The subsequent court marshall condemned him to exile. His reprieve arrived to find him on his death bed and he is remembered today in Trinidad by a city street which bears his name, and a wild forest flower which is our national flower. A fitting tribute for the last Spanish governor of Trinidad!

Wednesday 20 June 2012


It was during the administration of Don E.S. de Liñan, governor of the island of Trinidad, that in April of 1749 a remarkable earthquake occurred. I had just entered the town of San José de Oruña, being on my way to pay my respects to Doña Marie Beatrice Bay. My mule Florencia seemed to stumble, while all around there could be heard such a rumble as the road appeared to undulate in a manner not dissimilar to ripples on a pond. I saw the steeple on the church move from side to side, thatch falling from its roof, while a large crack appeared in the adobe walls above the door. Within moments, it was over. Much damage was also done to the Government House. Florencia seemed rooted to the spot, and in her terror, she would not budge.
Permit me to introduce myself. I am Jacques d'Albuquerque, a direct descendant of the great d'Albuquerque who explored the coast of Africa in the days when Christofero Colon was experimenting with transatlantic navigation. Being possessed with the urge to travel, I ventured to this island from my native Lisbon, where, as a member of the nobility, I enjoyed from my childhood the privileges of that rank.
So impoverished are all the inhabitants of La Trinidad, who live in lowly estate in the mountains round San José, that their Cabildo called a special meeting to form a committee to tax the inhabitants in proportion to their means in order to thatch with palm leaf (carata) the Cabildo hall. A census of the inhabitants has been taken, and every free man's name was entered into the books of the Cabildo. It appears by this that there are 162 adult males on the island, out of these only 28 were white. The naturals, called Indians, are not considered inhabitants. No account is taken of the slaves. There are a few of them on the island. From these inhabitants, a revenue of 231 dollars was raised.
The earthquake has brought out the town's inhabitants. The sergeant Manuel Ximines is differing with the priest as to its cause, maintaining that is of natural consequence. The priest is convinced that, like the failure of cocoa crop a few years prior, the accumulated sins of the populace is to blame.
I, myself, am for Doña Beatrice Bay's house, a worthy widow, whose previous husbands practice of medicine I am about to assume. I am pleased that the town council were impressed by my certificates, which they were unable to read , and have appointed me "because he seemed to be a physician". both the Sergeant and the padre halt their heated argument on the vicissitudes of the weather and the merits of the confessional, as she opens her front window for me to climb through.
Her door, as a result of the weather or of the sins no longer opens.
I am here to collect a hammer, chisel and a ten-inch saw belonging to her former husband, in that I am to remove by amputation Señor Lezama's left leg, and as such I must also build a table. The medicinal services on this island are primitive.
Maria Beatrice, as the granddaughter of the last marquis de Soto y Xaraza, has the blood of the conquistador de Berrio. Possessing large tracks of land in the interior of the island. Maria Beatrice came to my attention at the governor's garden party, where she had appeared enlightened as the result of the thousands lightning bugs, or as they call them on this island, candle flies, sewed into the lace appliqués of her gown. There is a sense of levity about the place, absent in other Spanish colonies down the main. I suppose it is because the inquisition never sat in Trinidad.
This I read in a record book of the Illustrious Cabildo, as they call it. Governor Martin Mendoza de la Hoz y Berrio around 1641 refused permission to Padre Dionysio Misland, a French Jesuit, to introduce the inquisition in Trinidad. He had done this mainly because the powers of the colonial governors were circumscribed in colonies in which the inquisition operated.
His reason given was that the English and the Dutch Protestant settlers had little influence over the Caribs in Trinidad, and the inquisition was not needed. He urged Padre Misland to go to Guiana, where the English and Dutch were operating. Such are the origins of nations. I presume events as these shape and dictate the destinies of people yet unborn.
As we sample some of Doña Beatrice's rum, we discuss the consequence of the unborn. Florencia has come to watch us. The following day, I attend a general meeting of the inhabitants in my role as surgeon general. This meeting is to prevent the introduction of the smallpox, then raging on the continent. A "strong guard" is to be posted at the Bocas so as to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country, as if this has ever worked.  Contraband, alive and dead, move in and out of this island with impunity. But then we live in a barbaric age in a frontier environment. It is, after all, 1743. Who knows what the future will bring?
Notwithstanding, this dreadful malady has come to visit this island and is committing terrible ravages amongst the poor Indians—all this despite the vigilance of the strong guard. I have bathed Doña Maria Beatrice in a solution of chamomile, braced with lavender, with a teaspoon of rum. Much to her benefit. It is not clear whether the contagion was imported, wafted here by air, or finally whether it rose spontaneously.
The smallpox has also thinned the  monkeys to an astonishing degree. There is to be a petition so as to protect the island, and for other purposes that His Majesty would be pleased to send a guard of fifty men, in addition to the twenty stationed at the Caroni River: further that he should be pleased to pay in coin, the same as in Puerto Rico and at San Domingo, in order that it may circulate amongst the inhabitants. Such is the origin of commerce in these distant islands.
Again, as the number of women greatly exceed that of men, the former might choose husbands amongst the soldiers, whom His Majesty should be please to send, so that the practice of family planning may be commenced among the inhabitants. It is embarrassing to relate, but at this time the Cabildo had but one pair of small clothes between the whole of the members. This petition is signed by J.E. Farfan, Diego Arriesta, Josef M. Farfan and J. Ximenes, members of the Cabildo
It was during a period of digestion that Doña Maria Beatrice and I heard the report of a violent dispute between the Cabildo and the military commander. It appears that the governor had left the island for Cumana without formally announcing his intention to the Cabildo, as by the law required. The military commander wishes to make himself governor. This is opposed by the Cabildo. As much as I have little interest in this, Doña Maria Beatrice, her immediate dependencies and myself repair to live in a rustic manner at her "Palisio" overlooking Las Cuevas.
Upon our return to San José, I hear that a stormy meeting has taken place, at which was debated whether the military commandant, Major Espinoza, or the Alcaldes, Dons J. Lazado and H. Soto, should take command. It was decided that in the absence of the governor, the Alcaldes ought to represent him and therefore had a right not only to the civil but to the military command. The major dissented from this decision and ordered all the inhabitants to assemble at Port of Spain with their arms at the firing of the cannon. I myself enjoy an entirely different point of view with regard to a call to arms. Doña Maria Beatrice and I await the return of the inhabitants of San José. It would appear that the civil authority has carried the day. In fact, the Cabildo seemed to have carried all things with a high hand over the military. The soldiers appeared to have done nothing but smoke cigars. At a further meeting, the members of the Illustrious Cabildo evoking "the laws of the Indies", remonstrated the military commander.
Upon the return to the colony of the governor, they carry their audacity much further. By raising a general outcry against him, they allege that the governor has abused his authority by oppressing and ill-treating them. The little colony was now amusing itself with revolt on a small scale.
As we can all attest, amusement is a most necessary diversion in that it dispels monotony, banishes boredom and fires the imagination. Doña Maria Beatrice and I were disturbed to hear that the inhabitants, whose exasperation has been raised against the governor, have risen upon him and placed him in the Casa Real in Port of Spain. They have put him in chains with two pairs of irons on his feet. Kept two sentinels over him night and day, in order that he might be narrowly watched and at the same time laid an embargo on his property.
Such is the manner that the inhabitants of Trinidad treat their governors. He was to stay in confinement for the next six months.
This revolt, it would appear, was carried on with the full support of the soldiers. The inhabitants in general and the Cabildo in particular have decided that the governor was an "intruder". They first declared him no governor, and then ordered him to be suspended as governor. Doña Maria Beatrice remarked to me during siesta that it was astounding what a group of men who had but one pair of drawers between them could do.
The governor appears to have remained chained and imprisoned until the 4th December, when the viceroy of the new kingdom of Granada sent here Don Felix Espinosa de la Monteros with sufficient force to quell the insurrection. He released the governor, whose health had suffered from his long and severe confinement. He therefore solicited and obtained permission to leave the colony—he has left de la Monteros as his successor.
Dons J. M. Farfan, A. Ramaro and G. Infant were banished for ten years. They went to Havana. A large proportion of the male population have fled the island in order to avoid being prosecuted for their revolt. It has been a bloodless revolt, but one that has affected the economy in that there are now so few men.
The treasury of the island, counted by the proper official, has been found to contain $ 1,216. Yet, strange to say, this year the church at San José was ordered to be thatched and the Cabildo said they had no funds to do it. The way the treasury of this island is managed has always been singular.
The illustrious Cabildo has petitioned the Kind on the worn-out subject of the failure of the cocoa crop and, can you imagine, the scarcity of fish. They should have said, their sheer laziness to take it! They say that the recent troubles have so reduced the population that they pray that His Majesty would be pleased to pardon all those implicated, so that they may return to the bosom of their families.
Doña Maria Beatrice and I enjoy a delicious paella, the recipe for which is as follows: fry some chicken, wild meat and rabbit in some good oil, add thyme and garlic and some carrot and tomato, add some water and bring to a boil. When the broth is nicely cooked, add fish, fish heads and tails, and seafood. Let the broth simmer for a moment and cool overnight. The following day, fry some rice in some good oil, add the broth and the meats, sprinkle with saffron, add some little green peas and pour into a pan. Sprinkle with olive oil and bake in the oven until the rice is golden and tender.
On the 11th April, 1751, many of the late insurgents were allowed to return. The governor de la Monteros has been struck with palsy. The Cabildo has assumed the government. The governor has asked permission to leave the island for Cumana for the benefit of his health. This the contentious Cabildo has refused to grant. A legal battle ensues, where the law of the Indies is both quoted and misquoted. In the end, the governor escapes. The vicar general wrote privately to the Cabildo, requesting permission to deport the island on a visit to the mainland. He was forbidden to do so and a long war against the priests was commenced by way of variety.
The dilapidation and the lack of population in the city of San José de Oruña has forced many of the inhabitants to remove themselves to Port of Spain. The Cabildo is presently amusing itself by preventing Don Gabriel Infanta to leave the island on the grounds of his charitable disposition.
Doña Maria Beatrice has pointed out that for more than 100 years, there never was a Cabildo without one person, at least, of the name of Farfan. Don Pedro de la Moneda, the new governor, has proposed a new government house at Port of Spain, and the filing of the holes and ditches at San José. On this, the inhabitants remonstrated in the most lugubrious manner, stating that they had no time, that they had to mount a guard at the Caroni, there being but ten soldiers on the island. They declared that it would take all the inhabitants one entire year to fill all the holes in San José, that so unsuccessful was the fishing that they were often obliged to go without food for a whole day. They further alleged that the house could not be built because there is but one carpenter in the island. He, upon attempting to leave, was captured and returned. The dispute with the priests continues. The vicar apostolic is once more under fire, because it was recollected that he had been in the island several years without showing his credentials. excommunication and representations, anathema and protests, were banded about for a long time. The church was closed, and the inhabitants kept in a state of disorder, for which they appeared to have had a particular taste.
The Illustrious Cabildo, after receiving a representation of the procurator syndic Farfan that a schoolmaster be appointed to instruct the children of the island at the following rates of remuneration: teaching the alphabet 1/2 real per month, reading 1 real, writing and arithmetic 1 1/2 reals. As such, the marvels of the educated mind is introduced to this island for the first time.
In an effort to put the medieval times behind them, the Illustrious Cabildo has ordered that all the inhabitants of the colony come out of the bush, woods and high forest, where they have been living "au natural" for want of proper clothes and other amenities. They are now required to build houses in San José, live in them and plant gardens near. All this in an attempt to make the city habitable.
The one aspect of these new mandates that is of special interest to both myself and Doña Maria Beatrice is that rum is now forbidden to be made by hand mills. The method being that a hole is made in a tree and a lever is introduced in this hole; the cane is put in and expressed by means of the lever. Of course, the liquor so expressed must undergo a process of fermentation before it could be distiller.
I must now close this correspondence with heartfelt felicitations from Port of Spain, La Trinidad, 1750. Jacques d'Albuquerque.

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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Friday 8 June 2012

Rosa de Gannes

A powerful wind buffeted the house in gusts that came every few minutes, producing a noise not dissimilar to howling. Between these blasts, the sound of the rain was like a hammering, a hammering of thousands of huge, elongated drops that drove themselves into the wooden shingles of the roof with the force of a battalion of infantry firing in unison. Lifting some, while sending others spinning away into the darkness, the enormous drops, driven by powerful velocity, dislocated garden tiles, smashed through leaves, emptied the dirt out of plant pots and shattered the glass panes in the upstairs windows. The wind, upon returning, turned the powerful downpour into a weapon even more dangerous, driving it to wash the gallery furniture off into the garden to be pounded into the mud of the devastated flower beds, bending, twisting the huge forest trees into hideous, alarming caricatures of themselves.
Inside the darkened lower story, the intermittent flashes of lightning illuminated a scene suspended in the stillness of time passed. Flowers, weary of their arrangement, wine bottles, empty of their potential, glasses drained, bouquets thrown, furniture still placed for, but now deprived of, conversation, confetti relieved of their gaiety lay about the floor, a dotty carnivalesque pattern that lead to the bottom of a flight of stairs leading to the bedrooms on the upper floor.
She lay as still as one of the embroidered patterns that decorated the quilt which covered them both, and listened to the thunder rolling away like distant artillery to be replaced by the scattershot of pelting rain and the mourn of the wind. The pounding in her head had passed, but the sweet misery in the secret parts of her body reminded her that this man whose weight dislocated the bed was her husband, and that this was her wedding night. She was 14 years old, her name was Rosa de Gannes, now she would be called Madame, Madame Roume.
The face of the earth turned slowly. The island of Grenada was relieved of the stare of the eye of hurricane, in those days nameless. The geography of the bed had changed. The weight removed, the intolerable sweetness lingered. Fun-filled childishness ended. What had taken place? What had not? Adolescence unvisited, games unfinished, world ended. World not begun. She reached for her doll. That too was gone. Outside a stillness, a hiatus, everything will be renewed. Inside, she felt a profound joy as she straightened her hair, straightened her night dress, straightened her body. The storm had passed.
Simon de Gannes de la Chancellerie married three times. From his first marriage there were two daughters, one of whom was Rosa. From his third marriage he had a son and a daughter. His son's name was Simon François Louis Chevalier de Gannes de Falaise. It is from Simon François that the de Gannes of Trinidad descend. The man that Rosa married at the young age of 14 could have been twenty-five years her senior. He, unlike his wife, came from the lesser nobility of Burgundy, France, but had risen in the colonial service and had become a wealthy plantation and slave owner in Grenada. His name was Laurent Philippe Roume.
From this marriage came three children. Philippe Rose Roume, who was born on the 13 October, 1743, another son, François, and a daughter. When Laurent Philippe, her husband, died in 1765, he left Rosa a wealthy woman, owning the prosperous estates of Belvedere and Paradise in the quarter of Sauterus in the north of Grenada, and a parcel of land of some 160 quarrées called Mont Saint Laurent.
For the aristocratic, land-owning society of Grenada of the 1740s and 50s, the island offered the best of all worlds. Men wore powdered wigs and jabots, knee-britches and swords with gold-plated hilts. Women stayed in the shade in preservation of their complexions and devised tiny, often hilarious beauty marks which they hid upon their persons so as to delight their lovers. Warehouses were full of goods to export: nutmeg, cloves, tobacco, tonka beans, cocoa, coffee, peppers, cinnamon, hogsheads brimmed with rum, sugar and molasses. Exotic fruit soaked silently in demijohns of alcohol, waiting to become after dinner curiosities for parvenus of the café society of Paris, Bonn or Basle. Other warehouses were filled to overflowing with all manner of wines, taffetas, laces, truffles, cheeses, dried fruit, farm machinery, gun powder, cannon balls and all else that was required to live in style in the tropics.
Slaves hauled, carried, fetched, worked the fields, the houses, the gardens, the yards; some were loved, others despised, some were simply worked to death, while others became the cherished and in secret, ancestors of "pass for white" beauties who went on to live in ante-bellum mansions in the state of Louisiana.
There was good music and bad. There were mask balls where absurd liaisons produced idiotic children, conceived in alcoholic stupor. There were the religious, the pagan, the agnostic and the ignorant. There were some who lived in the splendour of total solitude in enormous wooden mansions deep in the forested interior of the island, while others loved the winding steeps and steep twisting streets of St. George's, where fast clippers, elegant barcantines and royal frigates of the French King's ocean-going fleet turned at anchor in the most beautiful harbour in the Caribbean.
Rosa was just past 37 years of age when she met Bertrand de la Laurencie, chevalier de Charras, a sub-lieutenant in the French Royal Navy. He was fifteen years younger than Rosa; exactly three months younger than her eldest son. He came of a noble family from Angonmois, Poitou and Saintouge that had acquired the attributes of "noble and powerful" and "high and mighty seigneur" as early as the days when free use of such terms was proof of the authority that they possessed. She loved him proudly but without defiance of a society already profligate, where debauchery was an established practice and for a young gallant to be accepted by the unsurpassed beauty of the city was considered not merely "ton" or even "bon ton", but in fact "haut ton".
He claimed the title "Marquis de Charras" — like his grandfather and father, who had both been guillotined — and graced her with a coronet of that order of chivalry. It was said of him that some time before 1770, he sailed from Grenada and was never heard of again. The sad depredations of the French revolution and the work of Madame Guillotine was to confirm Rosa's illustrious title within two decades.
Rosa, perhaps lugubrious, certainly idle, passed the control of her financial affairs over to her son Philippe Rose who, hoisted upon the petard of association with the grande noblesse of the realm, elevated his surname to distinguish the wooded hillside that had become a part of his paternal inheritance and was to be known henceforth by history as Roume de Saint Laurent. Things were changing. In 1763, Grenada passed, after 150 years, from France to Great Britain by the Treaty of Paris. Philippe's attempts to capitalise on the family fortune proved disastrous in that he was no match for the agents of the merchants of London in that island, Messrs. Bosanquet & Fatio. Had it not been for the "noble and efficient" business reputation and timely intervention of M. François Besson de Beaumanoir, Rosa's situation might have proved to be untenable.
1777 was a terrible year for Rosa. It was, however, a watershed year for her son. Philippe Roume came to Trinidad - perhaps it was love at first sight, perhaps he saw a way to redeem himself and to regain his and Rosa's losses. Suffice to say that he was possessed of vision. Trinidad was uncultivated, a wilderness, underpopulated, existing in a perpetual state of potentiality since its discovery more than 250 years before. Roume set to work and within five years had in his hand the Cedula of population of 1783, the document that established a French creole planter society on a Spanish island.
The creoles arrived by the hundreds. It is of interest to note that the word "creole" is derived from the Portuguese "criollo", a derivative of "criar", to breed, to bring up and from the beginning of the 16th century, it had been used to mean "European born in the West Indies".
After the recapture of Grenada by the French in July 1779, Rosa knew that their time in Grenada was over. Now Madame de Charras, and 50 years old, with resolution she set about the considerable task of creating a new life for herself in the strange and primitive environment of Trinidad. On the 18th April, 1779, her son had bought for her the small estate of San Xavier in Maraval, comprising three fanegas of land, from Dons Miguel and Francisco Lezama. In 1782, she applied to the Governor Don Martin de Salavenia for a grant of land adjacent to her modest holdings in Maraval. Granted were 85 fanegas 5 solares. The title deed described her as Doña Rosa de Gannes, Marquise de Charras. She went on to purchase several other small estates in the Maraval valley, eventually owning it virtually in its entirety, a magnificent domain through which ran a beautiful river, shaded by enormous bamboo, graced by rolling grasslands, surrounded by high forest, virgin and extremely valuable. She named the whole "Les Champs Elysées" and built a large rambling wooden thatched house, decorated with the cast-iron pillars from her previous Grenadian mansion. These still stand at the portico of the Trinidad Country Club.
The date of Rosa's death is uncertain. In his divorce proceedings of January 1799, Philippe Rose affirmed that his parents were dead. She therefore did not attain the allotted biblical span of three score and ten. It is said that her grave is on the grounds of the country club, the exact location is only guessed at.

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