XXXV – What Words Are Worth

A few months ago, my cousins and I discovered a new twig in the family tree. Her name alone was interesting. We had never run into it before in our arboreal excursions, and now its newly found consonants and vowels resounded with prestige and drama: Josephina Arthemisa Hevia. We valued her name because she was our direct ancestor, the mother of Charlotte Caignet, our third great-grandmother, who was in turn the wife of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. For some time, we had been trying to ascertain the true surname of Charlotte’s mother, as we had seen it listed not only as Hevia, but also as Heria, Herrera and, strangely, even Gloria. But now, by means of Charlotte’s baptismal inscription in the Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the elusive name assumed a clearer definition. But what’s in a name, after all? What is it worth? “Hevia” was rather enticing because it suggested a possible link with José Antonio de Hevia, a historic personage who explored the Gulf of Mexico and gave Galveston its name in the late eighteenth century. “Josephina” too interested me for two reasons. Forms thereof reappear in the names of other women in the family, including my grandmother’s aunt, Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié (our legendary Fefa), and Josefina Esteve de Granda, my dear aunt and godmother. The spelling itself was seductively interlingual — neither Josefina nor Joséphine, but some hybrid thing, as would befit a person of Spanish descent in a French city such as New Orleans. Yet the true key to the woman’s personality may well be the outlandish Arthemisa. To name one’s child after a Greek goddess struck me at first as a gesture of enlightened classicism, but was Artemis really such a glorious name? There’s nothing wrong with being the goddess of the hunt or, certainly, the protector of young girls. But when one is reminded of some versions of the Actaeon or Adonis myths in which Artemis violently intervenes, one can willfully read in our ancestor’s middle name a latent sense of cruelty.

Hevia, Arthemise - MarieWe searched for Josephina Arthemisa with passion, hoping unashamedly for a mention somewhere of her father’s name, which in the best of cases would confirm our illusions of conquistador grandeur. But, save for the aforementioned baptismal record, Josephina Arthemisa remained firmly concealed from us. One fine day, though, out of the blue, one of my genealogist cousins in Miami posted a sad find — two ancient-looking documents — on our Facebook group. Both manuscripts were written in French, yet they dated from 1816, when Louisiana was already an American state. The first one was drafted on 14 February in “la ville et paroisse de la Nouvelle Orléans, second district sénatorial dans l’État de la Louisiane.” Before Narcisse Broutin, a notary public, there appeared one Jacques Nadaud Courtier, with the purpose of registering the sale of “une négresse nommée Marie, âgée d’environ treize à quatorze ans.” The buyer’s name was Mlle. Arthémise Hevia, our very own Josephina Arthemisa, later described twice as “la demoiselle acquéreuse.” The purchasing lady, we’re told, could from now on enjoy and dispose of the said slave as her possession: “Laquelle esclave est, dès ce jour, en la possession de la demoiselle acquéreuse, qui le reconnaît et l’accepte, sous les garanties ci-dessus exprimées, pour, par elle, en jouir, faire et disposer comme de chose lui appartenant en toute propriété et jouissance á compter de ce jour au moyen des présentes.” The words underscored the material worth of the child: “comme de chose lui appartenant” — like a thing belonging to her… We don’t know anything else about Marie, except that she had already been sold at least once, in December 1815, to the man who now sold her to our ancestor. Having shed the name of Josephina, Arthémise, a slaveowner, also belied the goddess’ status as the protector of girls.

Hevia, Arthémise - SignatureWe don’t know why, but just over six months later, on 2 September 1816, the enslaved girl was sold yet again. Before Philippe Pedesclaux, notary public, there appeared Demoiselle Arthémise Hévia in order to sell “une négresse nommée Marie, âgée de treize à quatorze ans” to a man named Félix James Grenier. The language concluding the sale is eerie not only because of the terrible deed it records, but also because it mirrors the words used in the previous document and surely in many other similar transactions: “Laquelle esclave est, dès ce moment, en la possession du Sieur acquéreur, qui le reconnaît et l’accepte, sous les garanties ci-dessus exprimées, pour par elle en jouir, faire et disposer comme de chose lui appartenant en toute propriété á compter de ce jour au moyen des présentes.” I’d like to think that Arthémise’s sale of Marie meant that the young woman had come to realize the horror of owing another human being, but that is wishful thinking; if that had been the case, she should have simply freed the girl. Moreover, we also know that Arthémise’s husband, François Caignet, was himself a slaveowner and trader, as evidenced in another New Orleans document from 1815, on his sale of a girl named Rosalie, as well as in the mention of his name in books about slavery in Cuba, to which I shall return. There’s also the San Anselmo de los Tiguabos baptismal record of 1849 for a girl named Cecilia; she and her mother, Victoria Carabalí, were “esclavas de D. Pablo Francisco Caignet.” In any event, the fact remains that, as of now, we have little of Arthémise Hevia except her assertively inscribed signature — with a whimsical A and a sensual H, as seen here — on two documents indissolubly bound to the institution of slavery.

In yet another disquieting repetition, both documents pertaining to the sale of Marie allude to their issuance, in New Orleans, “l’année mille huit cent seize, et la quarantième de l’Indépendance Américaine.” Although Louisiana had been part of the United States for just over a decade and the language of the documents is still French, there appears to be a certain pride in being part of a free republic that had reached its fortieth year of independence. Yet the proclamations of liberty and equality at the heart of those documents did not include the likes of Rosalie or Marie. In Cuba also, where Cecilia was born, slavery would be the law of the land for many more years. To this day in both countries — it goes without saying — discrimination against people of African descent is hardly a thing of the past.

HortensiaWhat can I say about these enslaved girls? Can I say anything? Or is it better that I say nothing? Some readers of this blog may recall the controversy last spring surrounding Ben Affleck, who, as a guest of the PBS show, Finding Your Roots, requested that the producers hid the fact that one of his ancestors had been a slaveowner. In his own defense, the actor claimed he was ashamed. But should one be held responsible for our forbearers’ sins and misdeeds? And, if so, should their merits and accomplishments, such as they may have been, be held as a sign of our own worth? My answer to both questions is an emphatic no. We should feel neither pride nor shame. We are who we are and not who they were. But are we? As I weave Cecilia, Marie and Rosalie into my tales of the Cuban Gauls, I realize the deception of my own words. Who am I to tell their stories, or even mention their names? Am I not engaging in yet another act of exploitation by capitalizing, for the sake of my silly little blog, on their value as figures in a shocking tale of bygone horrors? But are their tales even in the past? Consider the image here. A little boy sits on the hood of an American car in front of a house in the Vista Alegre district of Santiago de Cuba. A woman, possessor of a kind smile, holds the boy the ensure nothing bad happens to him while his father’s camera records the scene. Her name, I’m told, is Hortensia. But why should she be holding the boy and not the camera? Did she have a child of her own? A revolution had taken place in the country, but some things appear not to have changed. Perhaps somewhere in the annals of exiled Cuban families there is a picture taken in the early 1960s of a black boy sustained by a white woman’s arm, but I haven’t seen such a picture yet. Slavery may have been abolished in Cuba in 1886, but its legacy of privilege still reigned through the twentieth century, benefitting the descendants of some families and not others. My hope is these words are worth something in the struggle to reverse all that.

Advertisements

XXXIV – Reading the Leaves

All this — this search so recherché — began eleven months ago with the online vision of a few leaves housed in the Harvard herbarium, sent there from Cuba — specifically, a mythical place called La Reunión — by a Swedish botanist. Since that early-morning apparition on my iPad, the modest specimen has birthed more leaves, veritable folios of the readable paper kind, preserved and transmitted through decades and even centuries. Arboreal excrescences, they are documents of various kinds: lovingly crafted family trees; a marriage certificate from the time of the French Revolution; photographs of children wearing peculiar hats or holding communion candles; ship manifests showing the name of a solitary transatlantic passenger; a newspaper article on the death of a young man; passports bearing mournful stamps; a nonagenarian lady’s memoirs. By means of the web and its real-life ramifications, the lives and times of numerous individuals variously associated with the Vidaud surname — a family of sorts — keep growing and branching out in unsuspected ways. Softly piling upon each other, those old leaves and the stories they tell lead to more old leaves and more stories, and my Vidauds, like any other tribe that ever existed, emerge as manifold twigs on innumerable trees in an endless immeasurable forest.

In the last few weeks, four interesting leaves of paper have come my way via email or through Vidaud Reunion, our secret Facebook group. One of my genealogist cousins in Miami received from Cuba typewritten — yes, typewritten! — copies of two baptism certificates registered in the 1860s at the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, or Tiguabos, a village located somewhere near Guantánamo. And just a few weeks earlier, a cousin’s cousin — also a fine genealogist who, fortunately, has taken an interest in the Vidauds — kindly sent me two other typewritten copies of church documents — a marriage certificate from 1856, and a baptism certificate from 1849 — archived at the same parish of San Anselmo. Surely not coincidentally, all four copies are signed by Father Jean González Romero, of Santa Catalina de Ricci (Guantánamo’s cathedral), and dated April, May or July of this year. I have the impression that the old parish doesn’t exist anymore; perhaps not even the village itself does. But, in the mid-nineteenth century, San Anselmo de los Tiguabos merited an entry in Jacobo de la Pezuela’s Diccionario geográfico, estadístico, histórico de la isla de Cuba, published in Madrid in 1866. We learn that the village boasted “un templo de modesta fábrica, pero con todo lo necesario para el culto,” and that in 1857 it had a population of 155 individuals “de toda clase, edad y sexo.” It must have been near this little village that the brothers Adelson and Adolphe Vidaud de Boischadaigne started their coffee plantation, adjacent to which Paul François Caignet — arguably one the scariest ghosts in our family tree — started one of his own. In her notebook, Nunú writes that Adelson and Adolphe must have arrived in Cuba around 1830 to 1835, while Francisco Caignet, as he is also known, took a more circuitous route. In Santo Domingo — as she calls what I believe must have been Haiti, which then ruled over what is now the Dominican Republic — Francisco had “un cafetal muy bueno, muy grande.” But a slave revolt in 1841 — a questionable date, given that slavery had been abolished on all of Hispaniola — forced him to flee to Louisiana, whence he ended up migrating to Cuba after the death of his wife. He had five children, including Charlotte and Corinne, the oldest sisters, who ended up marrying Adolphe and Adelson. We have found documents that amplify and arguably correct Nunú’s version of Francisco’s migrations and labors; the Louisiana Slave Records show, for instance, that he was in New Orleans as early as 1815, where he sold a twenty-four-year-old woman named Rosalie for 500 dollars.

Vidaud Caignet, Matilde - BaptismAs interesting as it is to have those little papers from Guantánamo, they complicate the story of the children of Adolphe, also known as Pedro Adolfo, and Charlotte, referred to as Carlota María. The baptism certificate seen here belongs to their daughter Matilde Juana Cecilia, born on 27 June 1860. In time, that little newborn girl would become the mother of María Magdalena Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud, also known as Nunú, whose splendid narrative, written toward the end of her long life in Miami, I just quoted. Matilde was the youngest of the seven Vidaud Caignet siblings, the oldest of whom, Albert or Alberto, was my second great-grandfather. Because I have recounted parts of that old story a few times before, it has acquired the dusty feel of ancient history, but new and contradictory details have now emerged. For one, we always thought that Charlotte was a native of New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba, while a birth certificate — that of Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud, registered in Havana in 1893 — states that Adolphe, in his turn, was born in Santiago de Cuba, not France… As for Matilde’s paternal grandparents, we always knew that “Francisco” — the elusive François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, Nº 7, the first of our Cuban Gauls — was French-born, but we have every reason to believe that “Dª Juliana” — Anne-Julienne Gué — was not born in France, but Cap-Français, present-day Cap-Haïtien… Confusion also reigns regarding Matilde’s maternal grandparents; we think that “D. Pablo Francisco Caignet” was born in Saint-Domingue (in Port-au-Prince, according to the family tree in Nunú’s notebook), not France, while “Dª María Paulina Hevia” — also identified as María Carlota or Josephina Arthemisia Caignet! — was supposedly born (and died) in New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba… Perhaps by “natural de Francia” the priest at San Anselmo de los Tiguabos meant that those persons were French citizens, not natives of France, but, even so, questions would still remain. If all of this sounds unreadable, blame the little sheets of paper, not my über-careful analysis of these matters.

Vidaud Caignet, Mª Fca. Cirila - BaptismAnd then there is the case of the second baptism certificate. Surprisingly, it belongs to a younger girl, born on 9 July 1864, who, to confound us even further, is named María Francisca Cirila, recalling an older sister also named María. The first María eventually moved to Barcelona, where she appears to have had a full and rich life until her death in 1944; as for the second María, we know only that she was born and christened. Yet another mystery are the little girl’s godparents, registered as “D. Francisco Alberto y Dª María Josefa Vidaud.” Who are they? Could they be my second great-grandparents? Alberto Vidaud Caignet appears as José Alberto in the family tree in Nunú’s notebook, but Francisco Alberto is not a name combination I have seen before. As for María Josefa, that name too is difficult to place. Alberto’s wife is named Felicia Trutié, but one of their daughters is Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, our Fefa. But she could not have been born yet, let alone be old enough to be anyone’s godmother in 1864. Then again, perhaps Felicia Trutié’s complete name was also Josefa Felicia, like her daughter? But did women adopt their husband’s surnames in colonial Cuba? Or perhaps — and this is what strikes my cousin in Miami and me as most probable — this María Josefa is an altogether different character: Josefa Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, one of Adelson’s daughters and the future wife of Carlos Lecumberri — that is, the lady inscribed as Madame Carlos de Lecumberri on the faire-part of Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, comte du Dugnon, who died in Pau in 1907. And now that I think about it, could this Francisco Alberto be Adelson, Adolphe’s elusive brother? Could it be that the original manuscript, probably hard to decipher after more than 150 years of heat and humidity, really reads Francisco Adelson, and that the strange middle name was mistakenly transcribed by the modern copyist, Padre González Romero, when he (or an assistant?) typed this particular little leaf just over a month ago, on 2 July 2015? (I would not fault the good father for any of these minor transcription errors, as he appears to have far more important matters to attend to, such as assisting people in prison and reporting cases of cholera in Guantánamo.) Be that as it may, little María Francisca Cirila, the mystery child, vanishes forever.

Vidaud, Adelson - MarriageOur theory of Adelson’s accidental metamorphosis into Alberto is arguably — though certainly not conclusively — buttressed by the third little paper, which is the marriage certificate of “D. Francisco Adelson Videau” and “Dª María Juliana Caignet.” The wedding took place on 26 May 1856, not at San Anselmo del Tiguabo, but at Santa Catalina de Ricci itself, the cathedral in Guantánamo. As befits what must have been regarded as a more prestigious setting and solemn occasion, the marriage certificate deploys a more ornate lexicon and syntax than the rural baptism records; there is mention of a most illustrious, excellent and reverend archbishop and of the Holy Council of Trent, and there is also a discreet little phrase in Latin. Again, contradictions arise. Both groom are bride are said to be natives of Santiago de Cuba, which may well be the case, except that we thought Adelson’s wife, like her sister, had been born in New Orleans. More importantly, we always knew that her name was Corinne, or Corina Marie Justine, as the family tree in Nunú’s notebook has it, or a variant thereof. Could it be that the original document really reads “María Justina” and that Padre González Romero was a little confused, given that the names of the groom’s and bride’s parents are all mentioned below, and that Adelson’s mother is Juliana — Anne-Julienne, really — Gué? In any event, the fact that Adelson is not simply Adelson, but Francisco Adelson, persuades me to consider that the man listed as Francisco Alberto in María Francisca Cirila Vidaud’s baptism certificate was really named Francisco Adelson…

Cecilia Carabalí - BaptismIf I could speak to my spectral Cuban Gauls, I think I would adopt a histrionic and reproachful tone for the occasion. What a sorry séance that would be. Ah, my ancestors, what a tangled web we weave when we conceive of you as figures that can somehow be regained and understood. You are ciphers, and, in fact, there is much about your ilk that calls for permanent relegation to the the ash heap of history. Who cares about your twisted stories, your labyrinthine nomenclatures, when it appears you lacked the grace to see how blind you were? Read, if you can, this other document. On August 22 of the Year of Our Lord 1849, it reads, the priest in charge of the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, Don Luis Francisco Pérez, anointed with oil and chrism a two-year old girl whom he named Cecilia. We know so little about her. We know that she was born on 19 March 1847 and that her godparents were “D. Alberto Videau” (Adelson, perhaps?) and “Dª Justina Caignet” (Corinne, I presume). Her father’s name is missing, but we know her mother is Victoria Carabalí, an appellation that invokes an origin on the other side of the Atlantic, in West Africa, perhaps present-day Nigeria. We also know that both mother and child were enslaved to one man — “esclavas de D. Pablo Francisco Caignet.” And that, I’m afraid, is all we know. No photographs, no passports, no passenger manifests — nothing much, really, to retrieve the little girl from the reticent surface of a yellowish leaf of paper. If I could speak with you, Cecilia, I don’t know what I would say, except that I feel close to your ghost and that I’m fortunate to have read your one and precious leaf.

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.

VIII – The Triangle

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?

Vidaud Caignet, MaríaFor 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.

Llopart i Vidaud, Rafael - 2My 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?

VII – The Architect

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.

Malepart de Beaucourt - Portrait of an ArchitectYesterday 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.