Sunday, September 26, 2004

Since learning of the launching ...

of the Liberty Ship, the SS Toussaint L'Ouverture on April 4, 1944 here at the Richmond Shipyards, my mind has been racing back and re-discovering the excitement felt as a young mother lost in books when the kids were small and demanding and when escape into novels meant survival ... One of the books that held me spellbound was Kenneth Lewis Roberts' "Lydia Bailey." This served as my introduction to the Haitian Revolution. Later Roberts would draw me into his "Northwest Passage" and a lifelong fascination with the Lewis and Clarke Expedition and Sacajewea of the Shoshone (and a possible ancestor, incidentally).

But the Haitian Revolution spoke to me in a way that other wars failed to. Roberts used the times as background to his love story, but for me, at least, the background WAS the story.

It told of a Haiti ruled by Blacks and led by L'Ouverture:

The Slave Who Defeated Napoleon
by Jennifer Brainard

"...Napoleon was one of the greatest generals who ever lived. But at the end of the 18th century a self-educated slave with no military training drove Napoleon out of Haiti and led his country to independence. The remarkable leader of this slave revolt was Toussaint Breda (later called Toussaint L'Ouverture, and sometimes the “black Napoleon”). Slave revolts from this time normally ended in executions and failure – this story is the exception...."

The secondary tale was of the growing population of the Creoles (mulattos) who were the mixed-blood sons of French officers and women of color. Practice was that sons were sent at an early age to France to be educated. They were generally incorporated into the homes of their father's original French family. They returned to Haiti years later as the new elite; bright, accomplished, and sophisticated young men who eventually became numerous enough to topple the existing government. They were a challenge to Haitian-born L'Ouverture, the son of an African slave once free, and brought on the Revolution that ended his reign and his life in the dungeon of a French prison.

Daughters born of such unions were the paramours -- the equivalent of the beautiful and exotic quadroons and octoroons of the French Quarter in New Orleans, a social pattern replicated in the New World when Louisiana was a territory -- before the country was established. They were the "Geishas" of their time. Remember, we're talking here of the time of Napoleon Bonaparte's conquest of the New World in the name of France. These women were the accepted conjugal substitutions for lonely and adventurous French soldiers of fortune. This, then, is the social paradigm that describes much of early Louisiana, the new world, and my own Creole-Cajun family among many others.

If we are to accept Roberts' thesis, then the French-Haitian Revolution may actually have been far more complex than history suggests. The remnants of that Revolution persist to this day, and can be seen in our government's need to continue to challenge Black rule except when said rulers will yield to our control as in the case of the cruel and infamous Papa Doc Duvallier and his equally despotic son, Baby Doc. Interesting? Haiti has never recovered from the loss of the flamboyant and heroic leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture. He must still loom large in the history of that small and impoverished nation, and is surely an inspiration to now-deposed President Jean Bertrande Aristide and his followers if only as a reminder of those long ago heroic victories against their invaders.

How strange that a ship built in this country would be named in his honor? And, wouldn't you love to know how that came to be?

There must be some records somewhere ... .

In tracing my own family history, for instance, in the late 1700s, my father's ancestor, (French officer) Louis Charbonnet -- and family -- lived in Santo Domingo (then a part of Haiti) where he fought for the French, and returned to Louisiana as refugees in 1812. (My father, by the way -- born in 1894, bore the name, Dorson Louis Charbonnet.) My all consuming interest in Haiti is easily understood.

Even more intriguing is the biography of John James Audubon, the naturalist, and another of the names listed in the log of ship launchings. I learned some years ago that he was born in the West Indies;

(Taken from the Aubudon website.)

John James Audubon 1785-1851
The American Woodsman: Our Namesake and Inspiration

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was not the first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America (Alexander Wilson has that distinction), but for half a century he was the young country’s dominant wildlife artist. His seminal Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size prints, quickly eclipsed Wilson’s work and is still a standard against which 20th and 21st century bird artists, such as Roger Tory Peterson and David Sibley, are measured.

Although Audubon had no role in the organization that bears his name, there is a connection: George Bird Grinnell, one of the founders of the early Audubon Society in the late 1800s, was tutored by Lucy Audubon, John James’s widow. Knowing Audubon’s reputation, Grinnell chose his name as the inspiration for the organization’s earliest work to protect birds and their habitats. Today, the name Audubon remains synonymous with birds and bird conservation the world over.

Audubon was born in Santo Domingo (now Haiti), the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his French mistress. Early on, he was raised by his stepmother, Mrs. Audubon, in Nantes, France, and took a lively interest in birds, nature, drawing, and music. In 1803, at the age of 18, he was sent to America, in part to escape conscription into the Emperor Napoleon’s army. He lived on the family-owned estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied and drew birds, and met his wife, Lucy Bakewell. While there, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes; he learned that the birds returned to the very same nesting sites each year.

Note: One might wonder about the bloodlines of his "French" mistress, given the context. The rest surely fits into Ken Roberts' scenario. Audubon's physical appearance, according to pictures I've seen, is about as ambiguous as my father's. Among my Sixties activist friends from Philadelphia, he was claimed as one of us; a "brotha". Perhaps he was ahead of his time, much like my own exquisitely-blended grandchildren for whom racial identity is not much more than a political choice.

Since the SS John James Audubon was built in Richmond -- keel laid on August 28th and launched on October 8, of 1942 -- do you suppose we can make a case for adding his name to our list? Doesn't it make you wonder how many other untold stories are out there?

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