If the past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote, how does one go about reconnoitering its alien shores, inaccessible landscapes, impenetrable citadels and cities, quaint customs and manners — its essential opacity? Consider, for instance, the ever receding nineteenth century, an age in which men could only marry women, and women men. What a strange world it must have been.
And consider these two nineteenth-century characters, a respectable couple, it seems. The bearded gentleman is Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, and the lace-veiled lady is his wife, Charlotte Caignet Hevia. They are my third great-grandparents. Faithful readers of this blog have seen the stern-looking Adolphe before. He matters to my cousins and me because he is, in a sense, the first of our Cuban Gauls. His father was François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, who left France for Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror with four of his brothers; unlike at least three of them, who returned to France, François No. 7 (as we call him to distinguish him from his homonymous brothers), appears to have spent the rest of his life in the Caribbean, probably in Cuba. In the earlier entry on Adolphe, I could do little more than speculate about the milestones of his life. We really just had the information that M. Vallantin Dulac provided in his “Généalogie de la famille Vidaud du Dognon,” published online: “Adolphe VIDAUD du DOGNON de BOISCHADAIGNE, marié à Santiago de Cuba avec Charlotte COIGNET [sic], dont les sept enfants ont laissé postérité actuelle à Santiago de Cuba.” We know who the seven children are, but then there were more questions than answers. We wanted to know whether Adolphe was born in Cuba or France. We were curious about how he and his younger brother, Adelson, had come to marry two sisters, Charlotte and Corinne — a triumph of alliterative love. We thought Adolphe must have died in Cuba, but we weren’t sure. At one point — for a few minutes — we thought we had a firsthand account of a visit by an American traveler to his coffee plantation, named La Carlota — a sad instance of briefly mistaken identity. We did have a portrait of him, but it wasn’t in the best condition. To apprehend him, I could stare into his severe visage hoping to be carried by the wings of physiognomy, or I could close my eyes and think of, well, perhaps someone like Victor Hugo or Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, whom I thought he resembled. But Adolphe, of course, a ghost from the past, escapes me.
As for Charlotte, what little we knew of her line was troubling. Her father, François Caignet, sold slaves in New Orleans in 1815 and later appears to have possessed a coffee plantation named Mon Repos, along with forty slaves, in Oriente province. (Many years later, the surname Caignet became well known in Cuban and Latin American broadcasting culture. Charlotte and Corinne’s younger brother, Benjamin, was the father of Félix B. Caignet, an Hugo of sorts who wrote El derecho de nacer (1948), a drama produced by Havana’s famed CMQ radio and television network. But that’s a twentieth-century story, along with much of Félix’s pioneering work for the rise of a continental soap opera tradition, “algo así como una especie de integración lagrimal,” in the words of a critic.)
The nineteenth century won’t come to an end. Its digital life is expansive. As weeks and months passed, readers of this blog, including old and newly found cousins, have kept searching for the elusive Adolphe and Charlotte. A gentleman from Barcelona, you may recall, contacted me with childhood pictures of his own grandmother, Juana Amelia Vidaud Caignet, Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s daughter. He also provided me with a copy of the his father’s birth certificate. Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud, as he was called, was born in Havana, where his father commanded the Presidio, in 1893. In the document, Amelia’s parents are said to be living (unlike her father- and mother-in-law, who had died in the province of Girona, where her husband was from). Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s birthplaces are mentioned as well, but their names are now given in Spanish, and Adolphe has even acquired a new first name, which we had never heard of before. The child, Rafael, is said to descend “por línea materna de Don Pedro Adolfo Vidaud, natural de Santiago de Cuba, provincia de ídem; y de Doña Carlota Cagnet, digo Caignet y Herrera, natural de New Orleans, casados y vecinos del mencionado Santiago de Cuba.” Whoever copied the original certificate seems not to have been in top form; not only is Caignet at first misspelled, Carlota’s maternal surname is changed from Hevia to Herrera. Yet one thing appears to be certain. Both Adolphe, or Pedro Adolfo, and Carlota, or Charlotte, were still living in the 1890s. And we now had official confirmation of Adolphe’s Cuban birth.
Besides several pictures of his grandmother, Juana Amelia, both as a child in Santiago de Cuba and a young woman in Havana, the gentleman from Barcelona sent me the photograph of his great-grandparents posted above. I was somewhat troubled by the way in which man and wife appear to be conjoined forever in their cameo-like frames, so I tried to detach them from each other, but my photoediting talents are limited to square and rectangular shapes; what some descendant — possibly Juana Amelia herself in her Catalan exile — joined together in golden circular cages, I was not able to put asunder. Apparently the two frames were contained in a rectangular case, seen here, provided by the photographer, or maybe this image is just the back of another photograph? In any event, one fine day Adolphe and Charlotte could have found themselves in Galería Fotográfica de S.A. Cohner, on calle de O’Reilly in Havana. Had they traveled to the capital for the christening of Juana Amelia’s firstborn son? Can the photo, then, be from the 1890s? My knowledge of fashion is limited — so I can’t really date Charlotte’s coiffure, for instance. But her whole demeanor — the expression under the veils — looks earlier than that to me… In any event, the studios founded in Havana and Paris (where he would get the latest technology) by the American photographer Samuel Alexander Cohner were in business for several decades and into the twentieth century, so many dates are possible with just a little flight of imagination. (The story of Cohner, tragically killed in 1869, is worth its own blog.)
The nineteenth century, living on through the web, can fork into endless paths unless the Blogger — who is dangerously related to Félix B. Caignet, master yarn spinner — can exert a measure of storytelling self-control. Let’s resort then to an old-fashioned narrative, Nunú’s notebook, with its finite number of pages. She was, after all, a grandchild of Adolphe and Charlotte, and has interesting things to say about them. Her description of her grandfather is spot on: “Mi abuelo era un anciano alto con una barba grande, blanca, un aspecto patriarcal.” Sans blague. A family tree crafted and placed by someone else at the beginning of Nunú’s notebook claims that Pedro Adolfo was born in 1820 and María Carlota (she too gains a new name!) in 1830. But, alas, Nunú’s nineteenth century does not fit altogether neatly with what other documents say. For one, her memoirs recount that Adolphe was born outside of Cuba: “Mi abuelo Adolfo Vidaud Gué y un hermano, Adelson, vinieron a Cuba y compraron tierra en las montañas y fomentaron sus cafetales. Yo creo que ellos deben haber venido a Cuba por los años del 30 al 35 del siglo pasado.” Does this mean, then, that François No. 7 and his wife, Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué — who was born in Saint-Domingue and married her first husband in Philadelphia — went to live in France after they were married, supposedly in Santiago de Cuba, and that their two children were born on the other side of the Atlantic? And would it make any sense for a boy younger than fifteen to migrate with his even younger brother to a strange island in the Caribbean? And why, then, would Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud’s birth certificate claim a Cuban birth for “Pedro Adolfo”? What a tangled web we weave even when we do not seek to deceive.
Nunú herself is aware of the difficulties of reconnoitering the past, especially when it comes to the Vidauds and the Caignets, inhabitants of several foreign countries. After telling the straightforward story of her father’s migration from Spain to Cuba, she prefaces the tale of her maternal ancestors with a caveat: “Por parte de mi mamá las cosas se complican.” It is indeed complicated. She starts with the French Revolution, but she has more questions than answers: “La revolución francesa fue a fines del siglo antepasado. Yo no sé si antes o después, ni por qué, muchos jóvenes franceses emigraban, venían a Cuba, a Sto. Domingo, a otros países de América, compraban tierras, fomentaban cafetales.” In her account, Adolphe’s father and mother, the elusive François and Anne-Julienne-Aimée, are absent. This is not surprising. Those two remain the most elusive leaves in our family tree.
If chronology and motifs are hard to pin down, at least there are some other “facts” pertaining to the Cuban Gauls. Nunú’s tale of the Caignets starts with her second great-grandfather, Francisco, or François, who settled in Santo Domingo — by which I think she means Saint-Domingue or, more accurately, Haiti — where he is the owner of “un cafetal muy grande, muy bueno.” She then writes about a slave revolt in 1841, which forced owners to leave their coffee plantations and “the island” itself. The date is perplexing, as slavery had been abolished on Hispaniola by then, even on the western side of the island, Santo Domingo, occupied by Haiti from 1822 to 1844. (Ah, my readers, I confess I’ve learned History by surfing the web.) Nunú cites “mi tía” as the source of this story, and I assume she means Magdalena Vidaud Caignet, Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s sixth child, a remarkable woman whom she later credits as her only teacher. In any case, much earlier than 1841 (perhaps 1814?), François Caignet, a widower, moves to Louisiana with his son, also named François. In New Orleans, the younger François marries “una señorita de padre español de apellido Hevia,” and this young lady’s mother, Nunú goes on, was “una americana.” They had five children: Carlota, Corina, Benjamín, and the twins Luisa y Cecilia. The family tree at the start of Nunú’s notebook identifies the mother of these five children as María Carlota Hevie, or Hevia, who was born and died in New Orleans. But, again, it’s all rather confusing. María Carlota’s husband is referred to as Pablo Francisco Caignet, born in Puerto Príncipe, RD — the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, improbably located in the Dominican Republic.
Be that as it may, Nunú proceeds to mention the death of María Carlota Hevia (whom she does’t mention by name) upon the birth of her twins, and François’ subsequent decision to migrate to Cuba with his five children. In a fortuitous turn of events, François ends up purchasing land adjacent to the property where the two Vidaud brothers had settled. The rest is a story of friendship and love: “Naturalmente hicieron amistad y poco después se casaron los dos hermanos Vidaud con las dos hermanas Caignet: Adolfo con Carlota, mis abuelos, y Corina con Adelson.” Nunú paints an idyllic picture of life on the numerous coffee plantations owned by these people of French descent in the cool mountains of Oriente: “La vida en los cafetales era agradable. Eran muchos vecinos amigos. Tenían sus fiestas, almuerzos, comidas. Tenían esclavos.” Like other writers before her, Nunú treats slavery not without a measure of ambivalence; even as she decries and describes the horrendous cruelty of some slaveowners, she underscores the benevolent nature of her — our — own ancestors. Not without authorial trepidation, I shall return to this subject in the future.
One of my genealogist cousins in Miami has skillfully traced the presence of four generations of Caignets in Saint-Domingue, from their arrival in the colony from Bordeaux (perhaps) to their migration to Louisiana and Cuba sometime after the establishment of the Haitian republic. As he observes, the Caignet family runs deeper in Saint-Domingue than the Vidauds, who only arrived after the French Revolution and didn’t stay long afterwards. Paul François Caignet — the Pablo Francisco of the family tree in Nunú’s notebook, François Caignet’s father — was born in the colony in 1791. Paul François’ father, Joseph Pierre Caignet, was born in Jacmel, on the island’s southern coast, in 1739, while his mother, Charlotte Marguerite Baudoin-Desmarattes, was also born in Jacmel, though much later, in 1763. Charlotte Marguerite is the first, as far as we can tell, of several women named Charlotte and/or Carlota in our family tree. Joseph Pierre’s father was François Robert Caignet, born perhaps in Bordeaux and buried in the parish of Sainte-Rose-de-Lima, in Léogâne — an ancient church, incidentally, destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and currently being rebuilt. François Robert is also the author of a 1752 document titled “Mémoires de mes services depuis que je suis à Saint-Domingue,” available in digital form on the website of the Archives nationales d’outre-mer, in which he identifies himself as “garde-magasin général du Roi à Saint-Domingue” and “conseiller du Conseil supérieur de Léogâne.” I have not read this document yet; his penmanship is a bit of a challenge. Most interesting for me, a renegade Catholic, is Charlotte Marguerite’s Protestant line. Her father, Joseph Jean-Baptiste Baudouin-Desmarattes, was born in La Rochelle circa 1716, and his great-grandfather was the Sieur Solon Baudoin des Marattes, whose father, in turn, was one Jacques Beaudoin, who was seneschal of the Seigneurie of the Île de Ré and who married one Anne Collard at the Temple Calviniste of La Rochelle around 1610…
Dear reader, if you’re a little confused amid so many old branches and twigs, so am I. The art of reconnoitering the past takes you into a forest as thick the ancient vegetation of Hispaniola — a landscape now virtually vanished on the Haitian side, but once upon a time, I imagine, full of trees and ferns and orchids and many-colored birds. After all, this is the island Columbus called “la más hermosa cosa del mundo” — though, of course, he famously described several other “discoveries” in equally glowing terms. Speaking about these men who served the various monarchs of Castile and Spain, we’re about to embark on an a voyage of exploration far more Historical than anything we’ve previously seen in this silly little blog. My readers, we’re about to discover an actual reconnoiterer, a man named José Antonio de Evia, or Hevia, whom we believe to be the grandfather of Charlotte Caignet. From 1785 to 1786, Hevia explored and charted the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas. But those things are in the future.