A couple of days after finding the online image of E.L. Ekman’s twigs in the Harvard Herbaria, and after having exhausted all possible googling combinations for retrieving La Reunión, I decided to reread M. Vallantin Dulac’s “Généalogie de la Famille Vidaud” as carefully as possible in search of more clues to the problematic farm. That’s when I first noticed the name of Jean-Baptiste Gué, mentioned in passing in the short paragraph about François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. Our François V. du D. du B., we’re told, “émigre à la Révolution à Saint-Domingue avec quatre de ses frères, et y épouse Julienne GUÉ, née à Fort-Dauphin en 1780, fille de Jean Baptiste, architecte à Fort-Dauphin puis à Port aux Princes.” In what must have been yet another sleep procrastination ploy, not thinking that I’d really find anything, I googled “Jean-Baptiste Gué architecte,” the name and profession of our ancestor’s father-in-law, which is to say our ancestor too. To see where my idle surfing took me, click right here on the “Tragique histoire de Jean Baptiste Gué, architecte du Cap Français, par son Fils Pierre Gué, 1800.” What I found on that new digital shore was astonishing. This was not your usual skeletal chart, but rather a full-blown narrative of some extraordinary events.
As far as I knew, Bebé Vidaud had limited his genealogical research to the Vidauds, and had not really looked at their in-laws. I myself had never heard of these Gués, this previously unseen seed in the family forest. To gild the fleur-de-lys, Jean-Baptiste Gué was an architect, the profession I might perhaps have chosen had I not been a mathematical zero. It was also the career Ana María would have pursued had her parents allowed her to attend the University of Havana instead of the local Universidad de Oriente. With a few clicks on the keyboard, I recovered an architect ancestor, a figure that spoke of happiness to us.
But Pierre Gué had described his father’s life as a tragic story. I think I suspected why, but the text’s editor provided a clue: “Cette histoire a été écrite par Pierre Gué au début des années 1800 dans les termes et avec les idées de l’époque. Certains termes peuvent donc étonner ou choquer le lecteur.” What terms in an early nineteenth-century work set in the French colony of Saint-Domingue could “astound” or “shock” a modern reader? This could only be a tale of race and slavery, and indeed it was — of the bloodiest kind. Morbidly, I devoured each word of Pierre’s reverent account of his father’s life.
One of numerous siblings, Jean-Baptiste had been sent to Saint-Domingue from his native Brittany at the age of twenty with nothing but a “pacotille,” a load of cheap goods to be sold in the colony. He first settled in Fort-Dauphin, present-day Fort-Liberté, near the Dominican border, and there he met his wife, Jeanne-Marie Lavit, whose father was an architect from Nancy. They were married in 1778 (earlier than Vallantin Dulac said). Young Jean-Baptiste, whose rapport to “belles lettres” had been neglected, had by contrast a talent for mathematics and became an architect himself. Pierre, the first of seven children, was born in 1779. Soon thereafter, Jean-Baptiste moved his young family to Cap-Français, known as the “Paris des îles” for its commercial vitality and opulent lifestyles. He was then appointed Architect and Surveyor of the city and its surroundings, in charge of the cathedral, the governor’s palace, a military fortress. Life was good, but lest we suspect this state of things will last, narrator Pierre injects an ominous prolepsis: “Hélas! il était loin de penser qu’il nous préparait un refuge momentané et qu’un jour, tout près de là, violemment arraché à la vie, reposerait sans honneurs, sa dépouille mortelle !…”
As a literature professor, I am tempted to engage in a close reading of Pierre’s text, to examine every phrase: the momentary refuge; the violent snatching of life; the mortal remains. Is Pierre Gué a Romantic author? Perhaps, but let history, for one, trump fiction. What follows concerns the French Revolution and its aftermath in the Caribbean — the slave revolts that eventually led to the establishment of the Republic of Haiti. It is a story I’m familiar with, if only because I assign Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World to my students from time to time. But there’s not a semblance of the novelist’s marvelous-real artifice in Jean-Baptiste’s plainly narrated demise. It’s 1793 and Louis XVI has been guillotined; Polverel and Sonthonax, revolutionary civil commissioners, have arrived in the colony; the slave revolts are all too real. Pierre devotes much of his text to recounting what he perceives to be the rebels’ sheer brutality. As the city burns, their house is vandalized. Armchairs, beds and mirrors are thrown out, and so is, predictably, a sonorous emblem of European civilization: “Le piano de ma sœur, lancé dans la rue, vint presque tomber à nos pieds.” Pierre doesn’t mention the sister’s name, but we may presume the destroyed piano belonged to the oldest daughter, Anne-Julienne, future wife of François V. du D. de B. and thus our direct ancestor. Later, two of the family’s women slaves, “fidèles et sensibles,” find that the children whom they had nursed as babies have sought refuge in a hospital; they sob and cover them with kisses. But the narrative moves inexorably toward the violent death of Jean-Baptiste. With eyes covered and kneeling down, the architect is executed by men armed with muskets. Inside the house, his wife and children hear the shots. It is no wonder that by 1800, when Pierre writes his account, most of the family appears to have left the island and crossed the Atlantic — for the first time, really,since all of them except for Jean-Baptiste had been born in Saint-Domingue. They settled in Bordeaux, one of the axes of the triangular slave trade, but a bourgeois environment where they must have felt safe.
Reading the tragic history of Jean-Baptiste Gué, one of course feels for him and his wife and their innocent children. But the notion of the architect as a slaveowner, no matter how typical it may have been, is not an easy image to reconcile oneself with. Yet Pierre’s text simply confirmed what I always suspected, which is that my ancestors had been closely connected to the practices of slavery. When I was a child in Exile, my grandmother once told me a story that concerned another child, a little black girl she played with when she was growing up at La Reunión. I cannot recall the point of the story with any precision, but it must have taken place at the time when Ekman was carefully gathering his botanical specimens in the Sierra Maestra. Lowering her voice, Carmela described how children in her milieu would be assigned at birth a black child of their same gender with whom they could play, etc., as they grew up. Slavery had been abolished in Cuba only in 1886, less than twenty years before my grandmother’s birth in 1904. Slaves were a thing of the recent past, and certain attitudes were not quite dead yet.
Yesterday morning I woke up at 7:00 a.m. and did what I do most weekdays, which is to turn on the TV on some news channel as I check Facebook on my iPad. And there it was, this image you see right here, this man in lovely eighteenth-century whites and blues. My newly found twenty-five-year old Vidaud cousin from Miami, whose deep surfing of the web rivals Captain Nemo’s undersea adventures, had made a curious announcement the day before in our secret Facebook group: “Yo tengo un retrato que muy posiblemente sea de nuestro ancestro Jean-Baptiste Gué. Es imposible confirmarlo pero es muy muy posible que sea él. Pronto lo pondré. How is that for a teaser!” How was that for a shock? The portrait was now posted there, but could this man inhabiting the screen be Gué himself? The artist is François Malepart de Beaucourt, from Quebec, and the canvas, painted in 1787, is titled Portrait of an Architect, Master of a Masonic Lodge in Cap-Français, Saint Domingue, and it is housed in Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts. My cousin’s thinking persuades me that this resplendent figure could very well be Jean-Baptiste Gué himself. He was born circa 1754, and is thus the correct age, plus he was the architect of Cap-Français. The Masonic connection is yet to come, but I suspect, from things I’ve recently read, that it’s inscribed in the very name of La Reunión. Truth be said, I love the tools of his precise metier, plus the columns and dark skies and low hills behind him. But I don’t detect much of an air de famille on that oval visage. Then again, I’ve never seen such a ghost before. I keep looking at his image, wanting to view myself in the man, seeking to understand this revenant from the heart of darkness.