XXXVII – To Have Paris

Picasso - FacebookSince Friday, 13 November 2015, when bombs exploded in different parts of the city, the world of cyberspace has been crying for Paris. In these three weeks I too have felt a number of emotions, but none perhaps stronger than wonderment. Why is the suffering of Paris such a source of digital tears, while the world remains nonplussed about the terrorized inhabitants of Baghdad or Beirut, and doesn’t appear to care much, if at all, for the passengers of the Russian plane that broke apart over the Sinai Peninsula? Very few people posted the cedars of Lebanon on Facebook or tweeted about the lost citizens of St. Petersburg, but we made the French flag take over the web as if we were all children of Casablanca who would always have, or want to have, Paris. I confess I too posted my own tragic version of the thing: a weeping woman from the Musée Picasso, photographed by me on a cold rainy afternoon last December, now recast urbi et orbi in glorious digital tricolor courtesy of Mr. Zuckerberg & Co. Then it all felt quite indiscreet and charmless — sentimental jamboree — and I took it down in less than twenty-four hours.

Gué - Dame blanche, 2But now, dear reader, I give you this other image — not that it amounts to much either. In my search for my own Paris to mourn, I remembered a long-dead character in the family tree, Julien-Michel Gué, who was the youngest sibling of my fourth great-grandmother, Anne-Julienne Gué. Like his six older brothers and sisters, Julien-Michel was born in Saint-Domingue (in July 1789, no less) but, after the violent death of his father, the boy, along with the rest of the family, “returned” to France and settled in Bordeaux. He was just a child at the time, so I wonder whether as an adult he ever thought of his native island, or whether, like France generally did through much of the nineteenth century, he consigned the old remote colony to oblivion. Three of his brothers visited Saint-Domingue just a few years after their departure, but we have no evidence to suggest Julien-Michel ever did. An artist, as I wrote year in Paris, he studied with David and was a runner-up for the Prix de Rome in 1815. He also traveled quite a bit through other parts of Europe, it seems, accompanying Victor Hugo on an Alpine journey… But on that Friday three weeks ago when bombs exploded throughout Paris, I kept thinking of the image posted here, which I had found months earlier on the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It’s an engraving of the set for the first act of La Dame blanche, the opéra-comique by François-Adrien Boieldieu, which Julien-Michel designed apparently for its premiere at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris in 1825. Based loosely on several works by Sir Walter Scott, the opera centers on a mysterious Scottish castle and features a spectral figure known, the eponymous White Lady… The work was an enormous success for much of the nineteenth century, and there are a couple of modern recordings, including one conducted by Marc Minkowski — but it wouldn’t be farfetched to dismiss the whole thing as silly Romantic stuff. Yet, for me, three weeks ago, viewing Paris from a distance of several thousand miles, the little engraving was my pleasurable link to the wounded city. As it turns out, the work’s libretto was written by Eugène Scribe, who for me, back in the twentieth century when I spent much time in the city, was merely the address — 11, rue Scribe, near the Opéra — of the bustling American Express office, now gone, where I picked up my mail almost every morning… Whoa, such preternatural convergences between Paris and moi…

Such silly romantic reveries, really, this digital transit of mine across the worldwide web and through my fading memories. Julien-Michel Gué, despite his colonial origins and provincial ties, appears to have settled in Paris for good. It was, after all, the capital of the nineteenth century, and there I imagine he imagined he could have the life he wanted. He died on 13 December 1843 and is buried in the city. In fact, I think I saw an online image of his Parisian gravestone just a few weeks ago, but now that too is gone — or maybe I imagined it. There, dear reader, in the realm of imagination, is a key to why many of us were moved by the events of 13 November. We can’t have anything forever; not even Paris is immortal. When terror reigns in the city, we sense the foretelling of our own deaths. Morbidly, we see ourselves mourning own inevitable dispossession.

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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.

XXVIII – Passports and Revolutions

Díaz Montoro, Roberto - PassportAh, the storytelling power of passports! By means of just a few words and images on pages made from mere mortal trees, those tiny prosaic booklets can not only record  the bearer’s origins and displacements — part biography and part travel narrative — but they can also stand, silently, subtly, as documents of political history. Consider my father’s old passport, seen here, issued by Cuba’s Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores on 20 February 1962. I’m seduced by my dad’s black-and-white picture — so young, yet so solemn, possibly overwhelmed by the prospect of having to leave the country where he had comfortably grown up, enjoying a life of privilege, and where his mother, after his only brother’s death, would remain virtually alone. The passport contains a visa issued on 10 May 1962 at the Embassy of Mexico in Havana on behalf of the Colombian Consulate — or, as the visa itself states, “Embajada de México en Cuba Encargada de los Asuntos de Colombia.” By then, I think, all Latin American countries had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, except for Mexico, which would explain why visas for other parts of the hemisphere had to be processed there. At one point, apparently, we considered going to Colombia, but nowhere in the passport does one find an entry stamp for that country. Call us predictable, but the place we really wanted to go to was the United States — or, more specifically, Puerto Rico, its Spanish-speaking territory, or colony, where my mother’s sister and many of her cousins had already settled. That was the plan when Ana María, my mother, traveled all the way to Havana just five months after our passports’ issuance in order to purchase our one-way airplane tickets for Miami, from where we would then easily reach San Juan. But then politics, our old friend, struck an unimaginable coup de théâtre. When Ana María arrived at the offices of Pan American Airways in the Vedado district, she found a large crowd of people with worried looks on their faces. Oddly, the plane from Miami that was supposed to land that morning in Havana — and then fly back to the U.S., transporting more exiles — had not arrived. No one really knew why. Finally, the manager came out and got up on a desk to make a dramatic announcement: Pan Am had cancelled its flights for the day and, even worse, he suspected Pan Am would no longer fly to Cuba. It was October 1962 and the missile crisis had erupted. Nuclear war did not break out in the Caribbean, but the manager’s prediction turned out to be correct. Pan Am, which had proudly started its operations by flying between Key West and Havana in 1927, never scheduled a flight to Cuba again. As for our own family history, my mother returned to Santiago, where we would remain for yet another year. Circumstances were difficult. My parents had already quit their jobs and we were officially considered gusanos, as the counter-revolutionaries were called.

Díaz Montoro, Roberto - VisasBecause there was no way to fly directly from Cuba to the United States, we went to Spain instead. But making it out of the country wasn’t that easy. Again, my father’s passport tells the next chapter in the story. It holds two visas issued by the Spanish Consulate in Santiago de Cuba, one on 19 April 1963, seen here, and the second one, on 17 October 1963. They are both heavily stamped affairs, reminding me of the Poema del Cid, where documents are said to be “fuertemente sellados.” The first one must have expired before we were able to secure an exit permit form Cuba; the second had to be hastily obtained after the passage of Hurricane Flora through the eastern part of the island. A monster tempest, Flora devastated the province of Oriente, and Fidel Castro decided, as I recounted earlier, that more gusanos needed to leave as soon as possible so that their homes and possessions could go to the hurricane victims. That’s how we ended up leaving Cuba, and that’s how the most remarkable sign in my father’s passport came to appear: a blue oval rubber stamp from the Ministerio del Interior, dated 31 October 1963 at Rancho Boyero, Havana’s airport, proclaiming “Salida.” In my father’s case at least, the stamp sealed his definitive exit from Cuba, as he died in Miami in 1989 without ever going back to Cuba. There are three other stamps in the little bluish-grayish cardboard passport: an entry into Spain at Madrid’s Barajas airport registered by the Comisaría General de Fronteras; an exit from Spain, also at Barajas, several months later; and, finally, an entry into the United States, at San Juan, P.R., sealed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Díaz Esteve, Roberto - Pasaporte CubaA Cuban citizen until 1976, I too once had a passport virtually identical to my father’s, and it bore similar stamps. But I no longer possess that passport, and its absence is yet another sad twist in Cuba’s and the United States’ intertwined political history. It was the mid-1980s and I, a stupidly romantic young man, passionately wanted to return to the stormy Ithaca to which we had said farewell more than twenty years earlier, a forbidden space of which I had no memories, really, to speak of, but which I desired. As a graduate student, collaborating as a researcher and writer for a travel guidebook published by students at my university, I had spent several summers traveling all over Europe and as far east as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. I had written about the museums and parks of London and Paris; slept in hostels and cheap pensions in a score of Italian and Spanish cities; taken trains and ferries to diacritically seductive destinations such as Zürich and Mariánské Lázně and the Åland Islands. If I had done all that, how come I couldn’t go to Cuba as well? Looking at the maps I collected at countless tourist offices, I yearned to learn the maps of Havana and Santiago de Cuba as minutely as I knew those of European cities. In Paris, I had hungrily bought a travel guidebook to Cuba. Such books were virtually non-existent in the U.S. at the time, so I treasured it. The preface was by Alejo Carpentier, who waxed dreamily in French: “L’île de Cuba est, par son étendue, la plus importante des Antilles. […] Tant à La Havane qu’à Santiago, ou à Sancti-Spiritus, ou dans la ravissante petite cité de Trinidad, on plonge dans un passé fastueux, représenté par des vieux palais, des résidences seigneuriales, des églises, des cathédrales, des ouvrages de fortification”… I soon learned that people born in Cuba could travel there. but they had to do so on a Cuban passport, regardless of their present nationality. But there was a rub. In order to obtain a new passport, you needed to forfeit the old expired one. I mailed my application to Cuban Interests Section at the Embassy of Czechoslovakia in Washington, though my mother (but not my father) kept telling me that it was all a terrible idea. As it turned out, Ana María was right. Ronald Reagan had just launched Radio Martí, and an angry Castro, in retaliation, declared that no Cuban-born person living in the U.S. would be allowed to visit Cuba. And so it was that I lost my first passport even as I gained a new one, issued on 1 April 1986 by an unidentified “autoridad” on behalf of the “Gobierno de la República de Cuba.” The thing expired before I could use it to travel anywhere, even Bulgaria, the only country for which it would have been advantageous to have a Cuban passport instead of an American one. And so it is that, for me, Cuba’s sumptuous past remains a thing for the future — except that I’m no longer as interested as I once was in seeing any of those old palaces and cathedrals. Only the decrepit railways, the first built in Latin America, earlier than anything in Spain, exert for me any kind of attraction.

Gué, Pierre - PassportA side of me still mourns the voluntary loss of my first passport. But God, by which I mean the omniscient Web, bestowed on me something far richer than my own lost little booklet. A few weeks ago, one of my genealogist cousins in Miami found not one, but three passports belonging to the sons of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect from Cap-Français killed by a slave in 1794. As patient readers of this blog will recall, Jean-Baptiste was also the father of Anne-Julienne Gué, who at some point after the turn of the nineteenth century married François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, my third great-grandfather, who in turn had migrated from France to Saint-Domingue, along with four of his brothers, at the height of the Revolution’s Reign of Terror… We still don’t know when or where Anne-Julienne and François met, but we know that she was in Philadelphia in 1795, and we also think that her siblings must have left for Bordeaux, perhaps via a port city in the United States, around the same time. Pierre, the first-born son, penned an account of his father’s murder — though, it must be said, the more I think about it, the more I’m persuaded the “Tragique histoire de Jean Baptiste Gué, architecte du Cap Français, par son Fils Pierre Gué” is probably an apocryphal text… In any event, Pierre’s “Passe-port à l’Étranger,” an early example of the genre, is all too real, a lovely document crafted under the signs of Liberté and Égalité, if not Fraternité. With a little effort, one can read that it was issued in Bordeaux “le vingt trois fructidor de l’an neuf de la République, une et indivisible.” That would be 10 September 1801. We also learn that Pierre is twenty-two years old and one meter and seven-hundred-eight millimeters tall, that he has chestnut hair and gray eyes and an ordinary mouth… We also learn, not without a measure of surprise, that he is traveling back across the Atlantic to Cap-Français, “dans sa propriété,” and that he is doing so in connection with the Ministre de la marine et des colonies. But several questions emerge. Why are Pierre and his brothers, Jean-François-Marie and Pierre-Julien, returning to their birthplace, apparently on their own volition? What property could they still possess over there? Had they not relinquished what they owned once the family left Saint-Domingue? Were they not afraid to return to the land where their father had been murdered? Or am I projecting onto the history of Haiti, as the colony would soon be known, the experience of exile and dispossession I associate with the Cuban Revolution? How long will they stay there? We know that Pierre, if perhaps not his brothers, would return to live permanently in France. On at least one genealogical site I have seen, he is listed as the Directeur des Diligences nationales in Bordeaux. My cousin has even found a second passport issued to him, on 9 September 1828, to travel to Amsterdam, via Paris, pour “affaires de commerce.” He is described as a négociant and is accompanied by his nineteen-year-old démoiselle, who we presume is his daughter. Almost three decades after the earlier passport, his eyes are now described as blue and his hair as gray; a bourgeois paterfamilias in his late forties, he now also sports a beard.

One hundred and seventy years and the ocean lie between the French and the Cuban Revolutions, and, as Borges would have it, the story of my father and that of Pierre Gué are now irrecoverable. Yet residues remain. Many years after his death, staying with an old friend of his in Madrid, after several glasses of scotch late into the night, I learned all about my father — but those secrets must be reserved for a Henry James-inflected novella. Even the life and times of Pierre Gué are retrievable, in some fashion, by means of the folios that recorded the milestones of his journey on earth. Indeed, in both my father’s and my their great-granduncle’s cases, republics, weak or strong, created civil codes that allow citizens to live on in the realm of graphic everlastingness. Compare that to the lives of those other transatlantic migrants, the millions of human beings transported from Africa to Cuba or Saint-Domingue without benefit of passports, on whose labor the wealth of nations was built, and who remain for the most part anonymous and unknown to their descendants.

XXII – To Reconnoiter

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.

Vidaud du D. de B., Adolphe & Charlotte CaignetAnd 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.

Vidaud - CohnerBesides 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.

Caignet, François RobertOne 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.

XVI – The Migration of Souls

So on the night of 31 October 1963, after passengers had had their tomato soup and shed some tears over impossible firetrucks, the Cubana de Aviación Bristol Britannia took off from Gander to complete the last leg of its long intercontinental journey. My father and I slept, but my mother spent the night imagining the dangers that lay ahead. More than half a century later, comforted by the soft light of my laptop, I can imagine the dark ocean, invisible and fearsome, over which we flew… It was All Saints Day, when we finally landed in Madrid, a cold and gray city virtually shut down on account of the religious holiday. With the help of an acquaintance that we miraculously ran into at Barajas, we made it to calle Jacometrezo, where the International Rescue Committee was headquartered. They gave us some pesetas, and we, newly minted political refugees, went to the pensión on plaza de la Marina Española where we would live for several months. The next day was All Souls Day, the first full day of our lives as exiles in Franco’s Spain, a nation far more Christian — far less modern — that its former colony in the Caribbean. It was also not a rich country, and we were less rich than most everyone else — but that sad tale of an icy room and garbanzos everyday for lunch is, for now, another story.

1962 - Vista Alegre - 1 - CMy parents had never set foot outside of Cuba, yet they belonged to families whose members had crossed the Atlantic many times. My mother’s paternal grandfather was born in Barcelona, and one of her maternal great-grandfathers hailed from Oviedo — not to mention the tribes of Cuban Gauls and their multiple ports of call. The most recent of those European migrants was María Montoro Céspedes, my paternal grandmother. She was born in Marbella, back then a small Andalusian town from which, on clear days, one could see the coast of Africa. Her father, an artist, migrated to Cuba with his three young daughters sometime in the early twentieth century in search of new seascapes to paint. Indeed, Maruja (as she was known) proudly displayed many of her father’s marinas in her house in Santiago de Cuba. Here is a picture of Maruja taken in 1962, in the elaborate living room of that house, not quite surrounded by the soon-to-be migrants. Her last years — she died in 1965 — must have been difficult and lonely. Her husband, a magistrate, had died over a decade ago, and her other son besides my father, a doctor in Havana, had also passed away prematurely. His three children, my cousins, remained in the faraway capital with their mother, while Maruja’s own two sisters lived in Pinar del Río, as far from Oriente as one could go without leaving Cuba. I’m told she loved her tchotchkes — she was a bit of a hoarder — and her garden. A sensitive soul, she used to take long baths that started well before sunset and ended after night had fallen, as she found the twilight to be overly melancholy. Maruja never returned to Spain, the country where her son, daughter-in-law and grandson were now political refugees, desperately wanting to return to their old New World.

Such stable characters, those migrants like María Montoro who bravely traversed the ocean yet stayed put in one place! By contrast, my second great-granduncle, Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, also known just as Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait and described in various documents as a “négociant français,” was a shipowner, it seems, who lived in Santiago de Cuba and Bordeaux and appears to have spent much of his life happily on board a merchant vessel. No one in my immediate family has told me anything about him, but his digital afterlife — unlike that of Maruja, nonexistent until now — allows one to construct a rich and venturesome biography. He was the oldest son of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon, No. 10 in Vallantin Dulac’s genealogy, who had been born at the Château de la Dourville in 1767 and migrated to Saint-Domingue with four of his brothers during the Reign of Terror. Like his brother François Vidaud du Dognon No. 11, the priest, Pierre No. 10 eventually returned to France. He had six children, and at least two of them had children of their own — two rich and strong branches whose many leafy twigs, now branches of their own, keep blooming in France and the Americas. In Port-au-Prince, Pierre No. 10 married Marie Henriette Petit, a native of that city. The wedding took place on 22 nivôse VII (though I’m sure it didn’t snow that day in the Caribbean). Pierre returned to France with his wife sometime before 1805, the year when Luce Eugénie Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, their second child, was born. He lived until 1839 and his widow until 1854. The French Revolution must have been a real trial for Pierre, but whatever may have been lost appears to have been recovered. Both husband and wife died at the Château de Laurenzane, in Gradignan, near Bordeaux. How they ended up in that distinguished dwelling is a mystery to me, but it is interesting to read about the place’s “activités viticoles” and learn that a greenhouse designed by Gustave Eiffel was built in the premises.

Our Pierre, the French man of commerce, was born in Port-au-Prince, like his mother, in 1802. His five sisters were born in France, and it is altogether plausible to assume that he spent his childhood in those places where his parents appear to have settled: Aubeville, Pommeret, and Angoulême. But by his early twenties he is back in Saint-Domingue, where, Vallantin Dulac tells us, he married Anne-Joséphine Tardy, the daughter of Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué and her first husband, Julien Tardy. Why Pierre returned to the Caribbean is yet another mystery. How Anne-Joséphine, born in Santiago de Cuba around 1800, also ended up in Saint-Domingue, which her mother appears to have fled after the murder of her own father, the architect Jean-Baptiste Gué — that too is a mystery. In any event, the young couple would not stay put for long. Their first child — Pierre Paul, who would later become the comte Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, was born in Bordeaux in 1826. But their second and third children were born in Santiago de Cuba, and the fourth in Gradignan; the rest of their nine children were all born in Cuba. One of them, Étienne, migrated to Brooklyn. Most of them eventually settled in France, including Marie Anne Méloë, who married an American and, like Étienne, moved to the United States. Only one child, Émile, was married in Santiago de Cuba and appears to have remained on the island for good.

Vidaud de Pomerait, Henriette - Birth certificateOne of my cousins in Miami has combed the superb digital records of the French Consulate in Santiago de Cuba and found several apparitions of our Pierre. His florid signature is inscribed as that of a witness on various birth and death certificates. Stendhal would famously recommend  reading “une page du Code civil chaque jour, avant de commencer à écrire, pour obtenir le degré de sécheresse convenable et se prémunir contre les fausses élégances du beau style romantique” — yet I find much that is inherently romantic in the truly elegant, if dry, pages of those records of the État civil I have read. Consider, for instance, this brief phrase on a birth certificate, following Pierre’s name: “négociant Français, établi à Santiago de Cuba, qui a dit avoir assisté aux derniers moments du défunt”… But my favorite record, seen here, is the birth certificate of Henriette Jeanne Vidaud de Pomerait, Pierre and Anne Joséphine’s fifth child, which I transcribe: “Acte de naissance de Henriette Jeanne, née le dix sept octobre mil huit cent trente quatre, à une heure du matin, fille de Pierre Videau de Pomerait fils, négociant demeurant ci devant à Bordeaux, Département de la Gironde, et de Dame Anne Joséphine Tardy, sa légitime Épouse”… It reads like a little novel in the making — a birth in the middle of the night, a father’s former residence in a city an ocean away, a mother’s legitimate status… And lest there could be any doubt, this: “Le Sexe de l’Enfant a été reconnu être féminin.” Vallantin Dulac tells us Henriette married one Émile Schmitt and would die childless — a twig’s end — in Pau. No year is given for her death.

Almanach de CommerceAround the time of Henriette’s birth, the Almanach du Commerce de Paris, des Départemens de la France et des Principales Villes du Monde, which my cousin has also found online, describes the port of Santiago de Cuba as one of the most beautiful in the Americas, making it clear that its white population is a minority, and listing several “négocians français et étrangers” in the city, including “Videau de Pomeraite.” But that’s not all. In recent times, our Pierre has reappeared in historiographical works about the French community of Santiago de Cuba. A passport of his, issued in Bordeaux in 1825, is discussed in Paul Butel’s “Relations commerciales entre la France et Cuba sous la Restauration: l’example de Bordeaux,” while Agnès Renault, a historian at the Université du Havre, devotes a long footnote to him in D’une île rebelle à une île fidèle: les Français de Santiago de Cuba (1791-1825). Renault’s note is particularly vexing, for some information therein appears to contradict what we think we know of François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, No. 7, our direct ancestor and Pierre’s uncle, so I will return to it in due time. In any event, as my cousin puts it, these are all “small traces” of Pierre, yet they allow us to imagine who he must have been.

Vidaud de Pomerait, PierreBut who was he really, this merchant — this, dare I say it, patriarch? What was he like? Although I have no personal memories of María Montoro Céspedes, stories of Maruja are still relatively abundant, and one can have a glimpse of her soul (if such a thing exists) from those narrative capsules about a childhood in Marbella and the melancholy sunsets of Santiago de Cuba. But digital Pierre remains virtually unfathomable. Yet he was a contemporary of Balzac, and one may perhaps be allowed to indulge, at least briefly, in the novelist’s art of physiognomy to build a picture of the man’s character. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, you were born in Port-au-Prince, went to live in France as a child, returned to the Caribbean as a young man, married a lady of French descent also born in those parts, had nine children, witnessed several births and deaths, owned ships, crossed the Atlantic many times, achieved what appears to be a measure of prosperity, and then you died in the city of Bordeaux in 1872. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, your coat looks so nice and warm, your top hat is most elegant, and your cane — well, sometimes a cane is just a cane. And now, Pierre, your face, your face, that window to your soul. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, your face denotes seriousness, solidity, solemnity, but in truth, Pierre, there is only silence. I’m afraid I cannot read you, Pierre, that I can only hope for some letters, perhaps a journal hidden somewhere recounting the reasons why, at some point in your life, you must have cried. Through those inscribed pages, if they exist, we may perhaps begin really to reach you. And even then, I suspect you will remain nothing but an elusive ghost staring at the blue or gray or black waves in the middle of the ocean.

XII – The Blogger in Paris

Place des Vosges - FadedIt’s December in Paris, and the temperature is 0º C., and there are leaden skies. Our windows on the rue Saint-Paul overlook other residences, and it’s very tempting to stay inside in this warm and well-lit place. But there’s much to see and do if one ventures into the overcast metropolis. Just a few blocks from here is the Place des Vosges, where at No. 6 you can find the house where Victor Hugo lived from 1832 to 1846. Don’t worry, Victor Hugo is not a Vidaud (as far as we know), but he was a collaborator of sorts, perhaps even a friend, of Julien-Michel Gué, who was in turn one of the siblings of Anne-Julienne Tardy, our founding Cuban Gaul. As the faithful reader may recall, the young woman found herself in Philadelphia after the violent death of her father the architect, and there she married her first husband, Anthony Tardet de Larochell, also known as (we think) Julien Tardy. By 1800 they were — or at least she was — in Santiago de Cuba, where their daughter, Anne-Joséphine Tardy, was born. We don’t know when or where, but Anne-Julienne, presumably now a widow, eventually married François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, No. 7, and one of their children, Adolphe, is the man from whom we descend… As for Anne-Joséphine, she will marry another Vidaud — Pierre, son of Pierre, No. 10, and one of their children will be Étienne Vidaud of Brooklyn — but that’s another story.

The sky is gray, but it may well the Blogger prefers it that way. Melancholy days are perfect for invoking the past. It’s 1795 once again and Anne-Julienne is in Philadelphia, but her siblings, who have presumably escaped Saint-Domingue with her after the upheavals, are not staying in the Americas for long. I imagine them saying good-bye to their sister, as they’re about to cross the Atlantic for the first time; born in the colony, they’re “returning” to France. Records show most of them settled in Bordeaux. The oldest of the eight children is Pierre Gué and by the turn of the nineteenth century, in the relative safety of a French provincial city, he will draft an account of his father’s death in far-away Saint-Domingue. He will eventually become Directeur des Diligences nationales in Bordeaux. For lovers of locomotion like me, the image of the nineteenth-century stagecoach is altogether romantic; think of Emma Bovary and her various transports…

Gué - Death of PatroclusThe youngest of the Gué children is Julien-Michel. Born in 1789, ten years after Anne-Julienne and Pierre, he boasts a richer digital afterlife than any of his siblings. He became a painter of some renown, if not superb talent, and one can find online images of his works — oil paintings, watercolors, prints — housed in various French museums and, from time to time, up for auction in various European cities. A student of David, he went to Italy as a young man and won the Second Prix de Rome in 1815 for his very classical, though not charmless, depiction of The Death of Patroclus, seen here and now housed at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. I don’t know how he met Victor Hugo, but, as it turns out, the young author asked the artist to travel with him to the Swiss Alps in the summer of 1825. The project was intended as a collaboration between Hugo and three other writers, with images by Julien-Michel and other artists, to be titled “Voyage poétique et pittoresque au Mont Blanc et à la vallée de Chamouny.” Alphonse de Lamartine, for one, withdrew from the project, and it took various other forms. But Julien-Michel remained in touch with Hugo at least through 1840. In a letter dated 6 October 1840, Léopoldine Hugo, the daughter who would tragically drown three years later, writes a letter to her “cher petit papa” in which she mentions in passing that “Mr Gué est parti hier avec sa famille.” Were the Gués on friendly terms with the Hugos? What a small capital, Paris in the nineteenth century! The artist is a distant relative — my fourth great-grand-uncle? — but I like the idea that Julien-Michel Gué, by then a Romantic, would drop by 6 Place des Vosges — or was Léopoldine’s letter written somewhere else? — apparently to visit the great Hugo.

I will return to Julien-Michel — to his career as a set designer in Paris, and to his artistic relatives, other spectral ancestors of sorts. But let’s travel “back” to the Caribbean island where the Gué siblings were born, and let’s do so by venturing into the French capital. As it happens, the Grand Palais, just a few Métro stops away, is currently presenting a fabulous show on two-hundred years of Haitian art — incredibly, the first of its kind in Paris, ever. Also at the Grand Palais is a Hokusai show, and the lines to get into that wing of the building are long; the Japanese master is indeed a great artist, and his exoticism is arguably gentle and kind. By contrast, you can buy tickets to the Haiti show without any waiting in line (and even buy two tickets for the price of one since last Saturday), but there you’ll be exposed to a visual culture far less pretty than any of the thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji. Bernard Séjourné’s delicate La Missive depicts a young girl reading a letter — an image as lovely as anything by a Dutch old master — but Dubreus Lherisson’s Sans titre, crâne humain is indeed made of a sequin-covered human skull — the real thing. In his outstanding study of France and the triangular slave trade, Christopher L. Miller discusses the French oblivion of their old prosperous colony of Saint-Domingue after it became Haiti, the first black republic. Unlike Liverpool, the French ports of Bordeaux and Nantes have been slow to acknowledge that much of their prosperity stemmed from the inhuman practice of slavery. Is that attitude still at work in the relative lack of interest in the show? It must be said (“il faut le dire,” “hay que decirlo”) that there were plenty of French people from various ethnicities wandering through the galleries, and the gift shop contained a fabulous selection of Haitian literature — yet nothing approaching the Hokusai fever next door.

Gué - Romantic LandscapeBut what about Julien-Michel Gué himself, a French subject and painter, a recipient of the Légion d’honneur? Did he remember Saint-Domingue at all, or had he completely put everything related to the country now named Haiti out of mind? Did he preserve any visual images of the land in his mind? A far better artist than Gué, Camille Pissaro, also born in the Caribbean — in Charlotte-Amalie, St. Thomas, when the U.S. Virgin Islands were still the Danish West Indies — left an œuvre in which Europe, especially Paris, prevails; only his very earliest works depict his own tropical part of the world. And Gué, unlike Pissarro, was just a child when his family left for Bordeaux. It’s really no surprise, then, that his eyes should have been full of classical images or romantic scenes, like the little watercolor shown here, auctioned not long ago, I think, in Hannover, Germany. They sold it under the title “Romantische Landschaft,” but I, using my Cuban and/or American eyes, would simply have called it a European landscape, a sweet misty scene such as I will perhaps dream of when I’m back “home” in Los Angeles tomorrow. Did Gué miss his native island as he toiled in the grandeur that was Rome and climbed the sublime Alps with Victor Hugo? Maybe; and maybe we’ll found out more if we keep searching.

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.