X – Slavery and Brotherly Love

Rereading the last entry on Étienne O. Vidaud and his Brooklyn descendants, it occurs to me that I need to add yet another reason to those I listed earlier for these botanical expeditions up and down the family tree — or trees, really, many trees, since at some point one needs to ask, you know, maybe young Erving Wheelock Vidaud and I have common ancestors, but are we in any way part of one family? Let’s call it, then, the family wood, a thick maze of trunks, branches and twigs, and half-visible rhizomes too, a garden of forking paths as wild and mysterious as the forest primeval. But I digress. Or maybe not. “The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight” — that’s what Longfellow wrote in the 1840s, when this country was still a young republic. So here it is, the newly identified reason for all this hiking and foraging. I believe that by finding these early Cuban-American Gauls, this first wave of Vidauds, I imagine I take possession of this land and its history, this space and time — or, to put it less histrionically, I move the date on my certificate of citizenship from 1976 back to the 1850s, or even earlier.

This is not recent history. More than fifty years before Étienne settled in Brooklyn, three of his father’s uncles resided temporarily in the United States. Once again, I’m afraid I have to lead the fearless reader into an onomastic labyrinth, a private fraternity where names, in Borgesian fashion, multiply and uncannily mirror each other. Consider, for instance, François Vidaud du Dognon, the priest, not to be confused with his older brother, our François, i.e., François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, from whom we (our little clan of genealogists) descend. As it turns out, their father, André Martial Vidaud, had fourteen children, and five of them, as if to seed some confusion in the genealogist’s plot, were named François. So we, the descendants lost in the family forest, in a taxonomical gesture less poetical than that of Linnaeus, have assigned numbers to each organism. Fortunately, M. Vallantin Dulac’s account is rigorously precise in these matters, and he is the head botanist through all this. Our François, born at the Château de la Dourville in 1764, is No. 7, while the priest, born in the same place in 1768, is No. 11. Yet another François, No. 3, died at the age of ten, in 1770, the day before his older brother, Jean, No. 2, died at age 11. The two other brothers sharing the same name remain more of a cypher to us. Of François No. 8 we know the names of his godparents, but that’s about it. As for the oldest sibling, François No. 1, my cousin Mari found a reference to him in a book titled Êtats détaillés des liquidations faites par la Commission d’indemnité, etc., etc., in which he is described as an “émigré.” We know this is a reference to No. 1, specifically, because it mentions as his heir “le comte Dudognon (Michel)” — and we know from M. Vallantin Dulac that François No. 1 had a son named Michel Vidaud du Dognon, baptized in 1782, who must have inherited the title of count from his father. The fact that François No. 1 is described as an émigré persuades us to believe that he must have been one of the five brothers who, including François No. 11, the priest, left France for Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that François No. 11 with brother Jean Michel, No. 6, and quite possibly François No. 1, were the first Vidauds to set foot in the U.S. — specifically, Philadelphia.

Indeed, as I recounted in an earlier post citing M. Vallantin Dulac, the risky position of François No. 11, the Abbé Vidaud, during the Reign of Terror propelled him and four of his brothers to cross the Atlantic and seek refuge in the colony of Saint-Domingue. But that sense of security did not last, as the Abbé, serving as préfet épiscopal, would find out. The problem, as Vallantin Dulac would have it, was slavery: “De là, échappant à une mort certaine infligée par la révolte des esclaves en ce pays, et pourtant ayant tant combattu les abus de cet esclavage, il dut s’enfuir à Philadelphie qui réfugiait tant d’exilés français.” And from Philadelphia, as I also mentioned earlier, the Abbé Vidaud, together with Jean Michel, No. 5, and a second François who we think must have been No. 1, returned to France after the Empire’s proclamation. The three brothers neatly completed the three sides of a transatlantic triangle, thereby undoing their status as migrants or, arguably, further replicating it.

At present, we don’t know much about the Abbé Vidaud’s Philadelphia sojourn — perhaps it lasted as long as three years? — but, given my genealogist cousins’ talents, I suspect we will find more. What we do have is a glimpse into what happened in Saint-Domingue. As with Jean-Baptiste Gué, there exists a full-blown narrative of terrible events. The text is titled “Précis des évènements arrivés à la députation envoyée au Port-au-Prince lors de la descente des Français,” and it’s dated Pluviôse An X, the winter of 1802. (Victor Hugo, to whom I’ll come back in a later entry, was born on 14 Ventôse X, a month later, corresponding to 26 February 1802.) Its author is Jean-Baptiste Gemon, captain of the frigate La Guerrière, which, as the text begins, has sailed into port in a time of turmoil. I’m no historian, but this appears to be the the period when Jean-Jacques Dessalines starts the struggle that will result in the proclamation of the Republic of Haiti in 1804. The episodes recounted by Gemon appear to foretell the Massacre of 1804, which, not to quibble with words, Wikipedia describes as “a genocide […] carried out against the remaining white population of French Creoles,” and Wikipédia somewhat downgrades to “assassinat de tous les Créoles” and “bain de sang.” Gemon’s account is difficult to follow, not just because of its subject matter — a series of bloodbaths — but also because of its focus on discreet events separated from the larger picture against which they occur. Without alluding to any historical causes, he narrates how, on 3 Ventôse, white men “furent liés deux à deux et rangés derrière leur prison où un détachement, s’avançant rapidement, les égorgea impitoyablement.” Anybody who has sung “La Marseillaise” may have felt a certain aesthetic frisson upon reaching the last lines of the first stanza, in which the “féroces soldats” are coming right into your arms in order to “égorger vos fils, vos compagnes” — but this is the real thing now. There is slitting of throats, but the tale’s hero, the Abbé Vidaud, the priest of the village of Petite-Rivière, does as much as he can to stop the violence. Even as he omits the sins of slavery, Gemon praises “M. l’abbé Videau-Dugnon,” calling him “respectable ministre d’un Dieu de paix” and “cet homme sublime.” On 5 Ventôse, white men are rounded up, stripped naked, and tied by their necks and arms, upon which the Abbé intervenes in their defense: “Emporté par un zèle héroïque, l’abbé Vidaud-Dudognon, ne voyant plus que la couronne du martyre, voulant ou terminer ses jours, ou sauver ces malheureux, s’élance au milieu des cannibales … ” The crown of martyrdom, accusations of cannibalism — where have we seen all this before? As in the best Christian drama, the Abbé then faints. The enemies, terrified by the priest’s “profond évanouissement,” are overwhelmed by “un saint respect, une terreur religieuse,” and, as if by a miracle, they give up. In the text’s one footnote, Gemon gives us the denouement; the Abbé must seek refuge in the United States, but returns to France in 1805, where he chooses obscurity over any kind of ecclesiastical honors, devoting his life to relieving the suffering of others. He serves at the small chapel of Notre-Dames-des-Bézines in Angoulême, where, according to an 1857 history of the chapel by Alexis de Jussieu, he dies in 1845. In a footnote of his own, Jussieu reminds his reader that the Abbé Vidaud descended from Jean Vidaud, a consul of Limoges, who on 20 October 1605 witnessed Henry IV’s solemn entry into the city… But I digress, encore.

As interesting as the Abbé’s story may strike us to be, François No. 11 strictly speaking is not one of our ancestors; he had no children, and thus no one descends from him. But one of his brothers, François No. 7, is a different matter. His two sons, named Adelson and Adolphe, as if enraptured by alliteration, married two sisters named Corinne and Charlotte Caignet. My grandmother’s grandfather, Alberto Vidaud Caignet, is one of Adolphe and Charlotte’s seven children. The sisters’ father was one François Caignet, who was the son of yet another François Caignet, who, as we saw before, was known to have been in New Orleans in 1815, where he sold a mother and child as slaves. François Caignet, the son, had a farm in Oriente named Mon Repos, but his repose rested on the forced labor of others. In “État des propriétés rurales appartenant à des Français dans l’île de Cuba,” a consular report drafted in 1843 in Havana for the Ministère des Affaires étrangères, someone surnamed Caignet is indeed mentioned as the proprietor of Mon Repos, a sixty-hectare coffee plantation, and the owner of forty slaves. It is terrifying to think that the purchase of that lovely-named property — indeed, its sustenance — was built on the institution of slavery, a despicable commerce that seems to have taken the first François Caignet from Saint-Domingue to Louisiana. Weren’t all men created equal? Was this an honorable way to engage in the pursuit of happiness? Whatever happened to liberty, equality and fraternity? Could it be that we, the Americans who descend from the Cuban Gauls, could have a slave trader as our first ancestor in this nation?

Gué, Anne-Julienne - MarriageAnd then one fine morning, I woke up to a fresh discovery by my cousin Mari, posted on Facebook and staring at me like a radiant full moon from my iPad. I’m not sure how she did it, but she had found positive proof that another ancestor — a woman, a girl really — had been in the United States two decades prior to the slave trader Caignet. Mari’s find was contained in the “Marriage Registers of Holy Trinity Church of Philadelphia, Pa.,” edited in 1913 by the Rev. Thomas Cooke Middleton of Villanova College for the twenty-fourth volume of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia. In that church, on 14 January 1795, a man named Anthony Tardet de Larochell (or La Rochelle), son of Anthony Tardet, married a woman named “Anna Julia Gué, daughter of John Baptist Gué, of Cap François.” We’re not sure how it happened, but it seemed to be a self-evident truth that, after the tragic death of her architect father in 1793, Anne-Julienne Gué had somehow made her way north to the City of Brotherly Love, where, at the tender age of fourteen, she became someone’s wife. We were confused because the names and dates didn’t fully match M. Vallantin Dulac’s account. In his version of things, Anne-Julienne’s first husband is François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, No. 7, and Julien Tardy — not quite the same name as Anthony Tardet — is her second husband. But if the Philadelphia marriage record is correct, and we have no reason to believe otherwise, it is very unlikely that someone as young as Anne-Julienne could have been married, had two children, Adelson and Adolphe, and presumably become a widow before the age of fourteen. M. Vallantin Dulac mentions that François married Anne-Julienne in Saint-Domingue, and that her third child, Anne-Joséphine Tardy, was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1800 — but these claims became problematic in light of the Philadelphia marriage record. Alas, a genealogist’s edifice is built on quicksand, and his family trees are exposed to all kinds of hurricanes, and nothing may end up being what it first appears to be.

But one thing was clear. By the iPad’s eerie light, as I reflected on these things, I could proudly hail Anne-Julienne Gué, if only for a brief moment in the 1790s, as our first American. And even though I wasn’t a believer, I could even like much of what I read in the twenty-fourth volume about Holy Trinity, a church that had been organized for German Catholics — as opposed to St. Mary’s, which was English — but had welcomed (like St. Mary’s itself, as argued by the Rev. Middleton, whom I’m citing here) “the French too, of whom a great number flocked to that city, — refugees for the most part from France and her West Indian settlements during the horrors of the Great Revolution in that country […] thus making that church cosmopolitan rather than distinctively sectional in character.” Indeed, the records of Holy Trinity are truly catholic in their embrace of people born in multiple European countries and Caribbean islands. What’s more, as its website recounts, its churchyard inspired the end of Longfellow’s Evangeline. Far from Acadia, the heroine, yet another Francophone exile, finds refuge in Philadelphia, where she, a Sister of Mercy and an old woman, is finally reunited with Gabriel, her dying lover. They’re buried together: “Still stands the forest primeval; but far away from its shadow, / Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping. / Under the humble walls of the little Catholic churchyard, / In the heart of the city, they lie, unknown and unnoticed.”

Gué, Anne-Julienne - BaptismMy fourth great-grandmother, Anne-Julienne Gué is the mother of us all, but could we learn anything else for sure about her? Yes, we could, and in fact did. Just a few days after Mari’s discovery, my cousin Vidaud from Miami, a French speaker and a patient and subtle paleographer, found in the Archives nationales d’outre mer — a wonderful digital trove if there ever was one –the florid document reproduced right here for all to peruse. It’s the baptism certificate of little Anne-Julienne, a brief first-person account in which the priest states that on 15 November 1780 he baptized Anne-Julienne Gué, who had been born on 10 October, and was the legitimate daughter of Jean-Baptiste Gué, an architect, and Jeanne-Marie Lavit, his wife. Recorded too are the names of the child’s godparents, and everyone’s proudly assertive or slightly hesitant signatures. Most prominently inscribed is the capital G in Gué’s tiny surname. Thirteen years later, the architect would be dead and most his children — or perhaps only Anne-Julienne — en route to exile in Philadelphia. By the turn of the century, most of those children — but not Anne- Julienne — appear to have crossed the Atlantic and settled in Bordeaux. We shall return to Pierre and the rest of them, but we continue to search for specific details regarding Anne-Julienne’s marriage to François V. du D. de B., No. 7; the birth of their children, Adelson and Adolphe; their own deaths. After all, those two, Anne-Julienne and François, are our first couple.

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