Tuesday 18 June 2019

Roume de St. Laurent ... A Memoir

"A creole cocktail of political thriller, historical romance and dashing picaresque replete with pirates and lost gold, corrupt financiers, ravishing coquettes, rabid revolutionaries and future emperors (Dessalines, Naploeon), Roume invites us to consider modernity in the New World, or what Besson frequently refers to as “the nightmare nest of slavery”. In dramatic fashion Roume examines the entanglement of Europe and the Caribbean on the cusp of the Haitian Revolution, the crossroads where the spirits of outmoded European feudalism and nascent capitalism, Enlightenment libertarianism and universalism collided with and contested the magical realism of an Afro-Creole worldview uneasily yet expediently allied with the ambitions of the offspring of the entanglement – the conflicted mulattoes.”
(Simon Lee,  Trinidad Guardian, 3 October 2016)

"Roume ‘works’ as a story from beginning to end, always moving and exciting, always unveiling inner truths about the Trinidadian or Caribbean spirit but also about the human spirit. It is never sensational, not even when you’re describing the horrors of the French Revolution. You ‘explain’ Trinidad better than any author I’ve read, although ‘explaining’ Trinidad is not your main goal. (Or is it?)
Most impressive to me is how you are able to display everywhere in your account such a keen sense of the virtue of restraint and subtlety.  I kept waiting for excess but never found it, not even once. The ‘poetical’ passages and touches are always deeply moving, and plausible, too. The whole thing is stunning.”
(Arnold Rampersad, Letter to the Author, 12 August 2016)

"Philippe Roume de Saint Laurent—who was he? Was he one of Trinidad’s heroes? He’s been called the “coloniser” of the island; he had a lot to do with the 1783 Cedula of Population and the subsequent waves of French migration here, which did indeed “populate” the island and open it up to plantation development….This long, sprawling novel reads like an epic romance, even though the basic facts about Roume’s career are accurate. There’s piracy in the Caribbean, hidden treasure (buried in a cave in Gasparee), revolution and war in France and Saint Domingue/Haiti, intrigues, villainies, manhunts and plots…. Besson’s exciting and lushly written novel gives us a romantic and fascinating view of Trinidad, France and the Caribbean during the era of Revolution—the best and the worst of times, as Dickens famously wrote at the start of his A Tale of Two Cities.”
(Bridget Brereton, Trinidad Express, 2 June 2016)

ISBN: 978-976-8244-21-5
530 pages
Softcover / Kindle

Click here to purchase the book on Kindle and as a paperback on Amazon

Click here to purchase the book as a paperback on barnesandnoble.com

Making room for Creole history
Review by Simon Lee
Published in the Trinidad Guardian, 3 October 2016

"Jerry Besson’s latest foray into the not so distant but largely forgotten past –a fictionalized memoire of Philippe Roume de Saint Laurent, the man who engineered the 1783 Cedula for Population which birthed modern Trinidad – ebulliently mixes genres in a stampede of individual and historical narratives, exploring aspects of Creole sensibility which have slipped through the seine of recent Caribbean historiography.
 Yet this heavyweight, at close to 500 pages and hugely ambitious in its scope (tracing the creolization of Enlightenment ideals and centering the ‘peripheral’ Caribbean at the heart of the ill-fated French and successful Haitian revolutions) lightly sidesteps the tedium of much historical fiction. Roume immerses readers intimately in the lives of such unforgettable imaginary characters as Sarusima the Carib or the demented white Creole Tante Mam’zelle, along with historical figures like Roume’s shape-shifting second wife Marianne ‘Soubise’ Rochard, the Grenadian mulatresse, whose fictional journals both anchor her husband’s narrative of opportunism and also provide another, insider’s point of view of the events he engaged in.
 A creole cocktail of political thriller, historical romance and dashing picaresque replete with pirates and lost gold, corrupt financiers, ravishing coquettes, rabid revolutionaries and future emperors (Dessalines, Naploeon), Roume invites us to consider modernity in the New World, or what Besson frequently refers to as “the nightmare nest of slavery”. In dramatic fashion Roume examines the entanglement of Europe and the Caribbean on the cusp of the Haitian Revolution, the crossroads where the spirits of outmoded European feudalism and nascent capitalism, Enlightenment libertarianism and universalism collided with and contested the magical realism of an Afro-Creole worldview uneasily yet expediently allied with the ambitions of the offspring of the entanglement – the conflicted mulattoes.
 Although the Haitian Revolution/War of Independence has attracted the attention of writers across the region from Walcott and Lamming, to Cesaire, Glissant and Carpentier, only historians like Laurent Dubois have attempted to chart revolutionary movements throughout the Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century. In fiction it is only Besson who has made the connection between the Haitian uprising of 1791 and the Fedon uprising in Grenada of 1795, which like similar uprisings in St Vincent and St Lucia challenged the institution of slavery and European hegemony. It is the figure of Roume, a white Grenadian-born creole, who allows Besson to make the connection. Roume’s life journey took him on the wings of ambition and opportunism from Grenada to Trinidad, South America, Europe, Tobago and twice to Haiti, first as an agent of the French crown and then as High Commissioner of the French Revolution.
 Besson characterizes Roume as Frontier Man and Creole by birth and sometime conviction, embodying in him the contradictions of the Caribbean white massa slave-owning class, tainted by the legacy of the nightmare nest of slavery. When his first European-born wife Fanny recoils from him, still reeking from his latest sexual encounter on their Grenadian estate, he dashes her exotic fantasies (“a life of adventure, a sensual mixture of fecundity and elegance in a place on the frontier of the New World…she saw herself with him in paradise”) with all the callousness of those who viewed the slaves as property at worst, or “intelligent animals…without souls” at best. “You had to cover them, conquer them, breed them,” he rages at her with plantation pragmatism.
 Ironically it is a product of precisely this brutal regime, the mulatresse Soubise Rochard, who becomes his second wife, soul mate and companion for life. Born as Marianne Katronice, the illegitimate daughter of an estate owner and his slave mistress, she crosses the divide erected by the aristocracy of the skin when freed by her dying father. However, in pre-Fanon style, for survival purposes, she cultivates a Creole identity as Soubise, only reverting to Marianne when occasion demands.  She is aware of the common ground which unites her with Roume and which ultimately severs him from the Old World despite his manoeuvring: “As a Creole, descendant of Europeans born in these islands, Philippe had an understanding of the land, climate and the blacks…The salt of the Caribbean Sea ran in his veins…we, Philippe and I understood things differently –Phillipe’s imagination contained a great deal of my own.”
 Soubise also recognizes Roume’s fluid identity, knowing “he possessed the actor’s gift of being all things to all men. A born Creole.” His central belief in free will and choice, allied to his insatiable drive to be an agent of change lead him to a major role in the worst excesses of the French Revolution, when as a “blooded Jacobin” he embraces the period of The Terror drawing on an internalized legacy of violence: “we of the slave islands understand how to live without a sense of humanity.”

By positioning Roume at the centre of the revolution in France, Besson echoes the theory of CLR James and others that the modern world was birthed in the Caribbean, in Haiti. Some of the best elements of Enlightenment philosophical theory (equality, liberty) were compromised, betrayed and eventually reversed by the French, because philosophy makes for bad economics and the French Revolution depended financially on slavery as much as the Ancien Régime. As one of the metropolitan characters puts it when dismissing the slaves’ claims to the Rights of Man: “ Rights, human rights cannot apply to them. Soulless, they have not the faculty of choice. Anyway that would mean a collapse of the economy. France cannot afford to free her blacks.” It took the “soulless creatures” of Haiti to effect the praxis of Equal Rights and fight for them successfully, establishing the world’s first free black republic at the same time as Napoleon swept aside the vestiges of the French Revolution to re-establish the old order, in the new guise of an empire.
 Roume’s decline is directly linked to the ascendancy of both Toussaint l’Ouverture  and Napoleon. Sent back to Hispaniola as the Republic’s High Commissioner in 1799, Soubise recognizes the dilemma he faces: “ You must make up your mind, are you of the Caribbean, or do you belong on the other side, the Atlantic.” Although Roume has by now arrived at a common understanding with Toussaint whom he reveres (“both believed that a Caribbean interpretation of the republican ideal could be arrived at. This belief had at its centre the certainty shared by them that the African…was a complete human being.”) he elects to put down his bucket with Napoleon, rejecting Toussaint’s offer “Stay and this nation will honour you…You will stand, an equal, with the men who have liberated the New World.’ Roume’s hestitation can be read as symptomatic of the Creole malaise of failing to fully embrace first liberty and much later independence, the same psychopathology Fanon and Naipaul highlighted, which is still with us in the postmodern Caribbean.
 Roume can stand alone as a viscerally entertaining text, dramatizing the genesis of the modern Caribbean. Viewed in the context of Besson’s prolific oeuvre, both historical and fictional, we can also read it as the continuing expression of a minority or sidelined narrative in the post-independence history of the Caribbean – the Afro/French-Creole story. Political correctness, politically manipulated Afrocentrism and some of the worst aspects of globalization and (under) development have obscured or obliterated this narrative, which we must all be grateful to Besson for retrieving, in the interest of better understanding who we are now and how we got here."

Saturday 1 June 2019

Don José María Chacón, Knight of the Order of Calatrava, Last Spanish Governor of Trinidad (1784–1797)

He buckled on his helmet coming down the flight of wooden stairs, and entered the atrium just as Alejandro, his squire, was bringing in his black Arab charger ‘Champion’. Skittish, he danced lightly sideways, tossing his handsome head, making castanet sounds on the limestone floor. From the distance came shouts and calls above the general noise. Earlier, there had been shots fired.

He swung his long, thin legs over the side-stepping horse and settled himself. His saber of the best Andalusian steel made familiar and comforting noises at his side. Already, the heat was rising in his tight-fitting, closely buttoned gray and gold uniform, a uniform which defined him as Rear Admiral of the Spanish navy.
The gold and blue enamel decorations proclaimed him a Knight of the Order of Calatrava, an ancient and noble order that more than three centuries before had absorbed the remnants of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, who were stationed in Spain when their order was destroyed abroad by both pope and king.
In his middle-thirties, he was intelligent, well educated and competent, and had brought many advancements to this colony. He was presently presiding over a dangerous, possibly explosive affair. Lt. Col. Don Matias de Letamardi and Lt. Col. Don Miguel Herrera awaited the governor’s pleasure outside what would be later called the Charlotte Street gate of the old Government House in Port of Spain. Both were well mounted and armed. Opposite, a troop of the governor’s bodyguard was drawn up with lances held at ease. A colour party, displaying the imperial and regimental colours as well as the governor’s personal ensign, was already present on the Plaza de la Marina, opposite to the foot of the Calle Santa Anna, now Charlotte Street.

The last Spanish governor of Trinidad is remembered 
by the national flower, the "Chaconia", and by Chacon Street in Port of Spain 
that still bears his name. He arrived in Trinidad on the 1st September, 1784, 
as the the 38th governor in a succession that covered a period 
of some 250 years of Spanish rule.

A document signed by Chacón said to be his passport
or accreditation papers.

During his tenure, foreigners in large numbers had arrived on the island. Some were dedicated to agriculture, others to commerce. In the wars between England and France that were fought in the Caribbean Sea in the 1790s, the latter had sent a large squadron under the command of the Count de Grasse to protect its colonies in the West Indies. This force was engaged and beaten and almost destroyed by the English under Admiral Rodney. As a consequence, the latter raided and invaded the French Antilles.  This was followed by a period during which the French Republican government in Paris, for expediency’s sake, freed the slaves in their colonies.
Inspired by the notions contained in “The Rights of Man”, the Free Blacks and People of Colour, mulattoes, in the region along with other Republican minded people, including a quantity of the formerly enslaved, were happy to receive Victor Hugues, a rabid Jacobin republican. He introduced the guillotine to the French colonies as well as other maxims of the French Revolution and orchestrated uprisings in Grenada St. Lucia and St Vincent. All this resulted in a massive dislocation of thousands of persons, royalist and republican alike, both black and white, free and formerly enslaved Africans from the neighbouring islands, causing many of these to come to Spanish Trinidad, some with their money and slaves, others with the ideology of the French Revolution.
This movement of people into Trinidad was facilitated by Chacón’s lack of military strength in the colony, which diminished his authority considerably.
The sequence of events that would eventually lead to the invasion of Trinidad by the British had its origins in what increasingly became an English blockade of the island. Trinidad was flooded by foreigners as the result of what was taking place in the region. Many who would have slipped away, were forced to stay.

French soldiers served with the British Army in the conquest
of Trinidad. This was during the time of the French Revolution,
when many French officers joined the British Army in the Caribbean.

The Admiral Governor had very few resources, hardly any troops, no fortification, and a shortage of heavy masonry. There were no jails, no barracks or armory magazine. In fact, he was left to the goodwill of the public, and this public was made up of individuals from other nations, with the fewest of them actually being Spaniards. As a consequence, the people were disunited by mutual discords through different traditions. They were rivals by constitution and enemies amongst themselves. There was about the place a sense of fermentation.
Many of those with republican sentiments - both French and African - had encountered the English on the high seas. It became an inevitability that something would arise to trigger a disaster. Already, there was random violence some days prior. Two men, both French, had been killed; several negroes had been gravely wounded.
The following week, a British squadron had entered the Gulf of Paria. Spain was not at war with England as the result of a short lived truce. The squadron dispersed a flock of republican privateers, sinking some of their dilapidated craft in Chaguaramas Bay. The English sailors later came into Port of Spain.

The bar belonging to an Irishwoman was crowded with French seamen, some of whom had lost everything. One thing led to another, and a brawl ensued. Captain George Vaughan of the British Frigate ‘Alarm’ came on the scene, and with sword drawn made a way through the crowd, stabbing a Frenchman. The English sailors were mobbed and fled to a nearby house. The mob began to take apart the house, and Captain Vaughan fired his pistols.
The governor, disturbed from his dinner, made hasty preparations to send patrols to close off streets. People in town, ever awaiting any sign that could trigger wholescale looting, seized the opportunity to break open an arsenal and steal as many guns as they could. It was not until midnight that the town was pacified and the English captain and his men were safely back on their ships. Events, however, were far from over.

Peru Estate, owned by the Devenish Family, where the British
landed in 1797, now called Invaders Bay.
Watercolour by Captain Wilson, 1837

By morning, it was clear that the British were going to come ashore. The slaves from the nearby estates had come into town at the time of the disturbance. The tricolour cockade, which they regarded as a symbol of liberty, was worn by several, and others were persuaded to wear it.
Chacón acted quickly. He had several slaves whipped publicly on the spot, thus dampening the spreading libertine spirits. French republican sentiment worked like a magnet on the free coloured classes and the slaves. The slaves wanted freedom, the free blacks and coloured needed equality with the whites. The island teetered on the brink of civil war.
Captain Vaughan put ashore a company of Royal Marines and a party of drummers, and with flags flying and with an expectant crowd growing larger by the minute, they set out to meet the republican French, who had gathered on the western edge of the dry riverbed of the Rio Santa Anna.
(The river in those days crossed what is now Park Street, traveled down Frederick Street, crossed Woodford Square and made its way to the sea.)

Governor Chacón had acted just in time, for as the opposing sides were about to hurl themselves at each other, his bugler sounded his call and his standard bearers preceded his slender column into the dry riverbed (which, many years later, would bear his name as Chacón Street). Silence fell about him as the call echoed away.
Ignoring the rabble, the governor addressed the English captain, asking him the significance of his actions. Vaughan answered that he had come armed for his own protection. The governor had then to make him realise with various reproaches and reasoning the impropriety and violence of his transgression without regard to the fact that the two countries, Spain and England, were not at war. He left him a choice of two alternatives: either he may be disarmed and return in column with the assurance that he would be allowed to go without harm, or that he could put himself at the head of his troops and may begin hostilities whenever he may like, in which case the Governor would reply to him.

The Spanish fleet on fire,
blockaded by the British Fleet
in Chaguaramas Bay in 1797.
The sun, now directly overhead, hammered a ferocious heat onto the bolder-strewn riverbed. Above, a hawk circled, and a star blazed for a moment in the blue. No one noticed. The thin red line of British withdrew. Don José Maria Chacón sat erect upon ‘Champion’. The republican French, the free blacks and the runaway slaves hooted and shouted bad remarks. Captain Vaughan later committed suicide. The British government used the incident as one of several reasons to start a war with Spain - which they won. Trinidad fell to the English in 1797. Don José Maria Chacón, last Spanish governor of Trinidad, disgraced for the loss of a Spanish island in the Caribbean, returned to Spain to eventually die almost anonymously, his story untold, his history virtually forgotten. Except here in Trinidad where he is remembered by the street in Port of Spain that bares his name and the National Flower of Trinidad & Tobago, the Chaconia.

Plan of redoubt built in 1730 to defend the western approaches
of the town of Puerto de los Hispanioles under the Spanish Governor Augustin de Arrendonda

Over the centuries, there has been much speculation concerning the governor’s relationship with a local lady who is remembered in some old Trinidadian families as Maria Teresa, possibly also known as Maria Teresa Beauvais. There is also that Don José Chacón might have married in Trinidad an Irish lady by the name of Dorothy Lyndsey during his last years in Trinidad has been suggested.

An entry in the Espasa-Calpe encyclopaedia, published in Madrid, reads: "Chacón, Ignacio. Spanish General, born in the island of Trinidad of the Windward Islands, and died in Madrid in 1855."

If Ignacio Chacón was born in 1785 (earliest possible date if he was the governor’s son being the year after José Chacón took up office), he would have been 70 years old when he died. If he was born in 1797 (unlikely), he would have been 58. Anything within this range would have been a healthy life span in those days. Would he, then, have been José’s son?
If so, Chacón had more children than tradition allows for, and one must have gone back to Spain with him. (Note that Spanish society was not as colour-conscious as British and French society, so if Ignacio was not white, it would not have hindered his advancement. Further, José Chacón did have friends at Court — that’s obviously why St. Hilaire Bégorrat, a French planter who was in support of a faction intent on defaming Chacon instructed the Spanish prosecutor to place his attack on Chacón directly in the hands of the king.) Later on, the entry states that Ignacio became a field marshal, gentleman of the bedchamber and secretary to the king.

That Don José Chacón had other children in Trinidad with his pardoner, Marie Teresa is a tradition maintained by several Trinidadians, and amongst these are the Jobity, Diaz, Walker, des Iles and Hodgkinson extended families in whose possession a few relics of his survive.

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!

The Chaconia.