How to view that old portrait? How to regard it? Was it even Jean-Baptiste Gué? We know it depicts a figure identified as an architect from Cap-Français. But was this our fourth great-grandfather, the man whose daughter would marry the first Vidaud in Cuba, our François V. du D. de B.? A few days after my post, Mari made an interesting discovery. On a site called “Les colons de Saint-Domingue (1789)” compiled by Oliver Gliech, a historian of Haiti and the French Revolution in Berlin, there’s an entry for our man Gué, and next to his name are the letters “FM,” which stand for “Franc-maçon/Freemason.” Our architect, then, could also very well have been the master of a masonic lodge, thereby increasing the probability that the canvas in Montreal could indeed be the portrait of Jean-Baptiste Gué.
But how to view that old portrait, how to regard the story of slavery that was unfolding even as Malepart de Beaucourt was applying oil on canvas in 1787? Why not simply leave all this behind and move on, like survivors do, often quite literally? The gray Atlantic was one busy waterway, with constant traffic between Europe and the Americas and human migration from one shore to another. Jean-Baptiste was a native of Brittany, but at least four of his seven children, all of whom were born in Saint-Domingue, appear to have left the colony soon after their father’s death, “returning”to France and settling mostly in Bordeaux. Pierre claims to have written his father’s tragic history at his family’s request “afin d’en perpétuer le souvenir parmi nos enfants.” But did he really want the next generation of children to dwell perpetually on that story inscribed with multiple forms of violence and inhumanity? Wouldn’t one want to say good-bye to all that?
For an amateur genealogist such as this Blogger, there is in fact nothing easier than to move on. The past has passed, and the family tree is as vast and rich as the forest primeval. If you feel burdened by the umbrous weight of a certain branch, you look for a lighter twig to behold and hold on to. I shall return to Gué’s children and their lives in France, but let’s, for a moment, contemplate María Vidaud Caignet, the distinguished lady seen here, a picture of sartorial property and domestic sovereignty. She was the sister of Alberto Vidaud, my grandmother’s grandfather, which makes her the great-daughter of our freemason architect of Cap-Français. Born in Santiago de Cuba circa 1850, she married Rafael Llopart i Ferret, who in turn had been born in 1847 in Sitges, then a small village in Catalonia. As a young man, Llopart i Ferret migrated to Cuba, where he became a prosperous businessman. He lived in Guantánamo, serving as mayor in the 1880s and devoting his attention to public health, as the Viquipèdia entry, my source, recounts. It appears he traveled back and forth the Atlantic several times; for instance, he represented the provincial government at the Exposició Universal de Barcelona in 1888. But by 1890, Llopart i Ferret, now a rich indiano, was back for good in Catalonia with his Cuban wife. In Barcelona, he owned a “botiga d’ultramarins i colonials” named — what else? — La Tropical, located on the rambla de Canaletes. At one of his properties in Sitges, the composer Enric Morera i Viura wrote and dedicated to him the opera Empòrium, which premiered at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in 1906. A grand transatlantic life, it seems, that of Llopart i Ferret! But not as long as that of his wife María, who died in January 1944 at the age of 93. Think of this: back in Cuba’s Oriente she lived through the Guerra de los Diez Años against Spain, and then in Spain, she, an octogenarian, survived the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Her obituary in La Vanguardia mentions her burial in the Cementerio del Sudoeste, on Montjuïc; after such a long life, she must have wanted to rest in peace.
My mother tells me that, “back” in Cuba, Fefa — Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, her great-aunt — often talked about her cousins the Lloparts and Vidauds, who lived in Barcelona. She remembered them fondly and had many photographs of them. Perhaps they had even spent time together at La Reunión? One of Fefa’s cousins was Rafael Llopart i Vidaud, the man seen here. He was born in Guantánamo in 1875, so he was an adolescent when his parents, Rafael and María, settled permanently in Catalonia. His Viquipèdia entry describes him as the “fill de l’enriquit indiano sitgetà Rafael Llopart i Ferret.” (Ah, those newly rich indianos whose gawdy architectural tastes changed the face of Sitges and many other coastal towns!) But the younger Rafael had his own remarkable accomplishments. He was one of the founders of Martí, Llopart i Trenchs S.A., a textile manufacturer, and in 1919 he was one of the engines behind the Exposició Nacional de Clavells, the carnation exhibit linked to the Corpus Christi celebration in Sitges. In 1930, Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia de Battenberg visited the exhibition, and Rafael, a gardener and a botanist, deploying carnations he had grown himself, decorated the royal platform with a sign that read “Floreal a Sus Majestades” — an inscription not devoid of a measure of irony for those of us for whom the word “floréal” is first and foremost the name of a springtime month in the calendar of the French Revolution, an event that led, of course, to regal beheadings. But I digress. Rafael’s ascension to everlasting digital glory happened between 1915 to 1916, when he presided over the Futbol Club Barcelona. Indeed, the Barça website describes his appointment as “l’inici d’una etapa de pau i consens al si del Club,” a period of peace and consensus marred only by a refereeing controversy at a game against Real Madrid (really!) during the Campionat d’Espanya. Despite widespread support, Rafael Llopart resigned the presidency. Maybe that’s when the idea of the carnation show came up. I wonder what botanical conversation he and E.L. Ekman might have had if they had ever met.
Carnations, the opera, sportsmanship, a royal encounter — such are the charms of a certain Mediterranean bourgeoisie far removed from the cold and brutal Atlantic. I have no idea what the life of María Vidaud Caignet was like in the metropolis, but there must be letters somewhere that might someday be read in order to recover a sense of her thoughts and affects. Did she think much of the island of Cuba? Did she miss her relatives there and speak fondly of them? Did she ever give a thought to the slaves she must have known as late as the 1880s? And did she know much about the life of her maternal grandfather, one François Caignet, presumably the same François Caignet of Saint-Domingue who, according to the Louisiana Slave Records, in June 1815, in the city of New Orleans, sold a twenty-four-year-old woman named Rosalie as a slave for 500 dollars, and also sold a boy named Casimir, Rosalie’s four-year-old son, as a slave for 550 dollars? Such, I’m afraid, are the awful triangulations of the Atlantic Ocean that suddenly pop up on the well-lit screens of ancestry.com. Knowing this tale of Africa in the Americas, how should we regard María Vidaud Caignet’s lovely portrait? How should I regard a mindless snapshot I have of a little white boy with Martha, his black nanny, taken in Santiago de Cuba circa 1961? When should one declare the past officially dead, or is the past an everlasting thing?