I have always been intrigued about the culture of New Orleans before the Civil War and Saint-Domingue before the slave revolt. Perhaps this interest is because it is the story of my family, my people, my history.
This part of history is often glossed over or completely missing in history books. History taught in school that reaches beyond the United States is often more about Europe and the feudal lords and ladies, royalty, and the explorers than it is about any people of color. Rarely, even, are the native people, customs, or languages taught.
It is with this backdrop of my curious family history - Napoleon sent one of our ancestors to the Caribbean island to "rule" it. They were the grands blancs and many of our ancestors had to flea for Cuba and New Orleans during the slave revolts and my foremother was born in Santo Domingo - the neighbor to the west - and was kidnapped by one of those trading merchant ships in the times before the revolt. She was of "exotic" beauty and I suspect a mixture of the milky white quadroon with Taino and African ancestry from Senegal or Madagascar (as family history has traced). She had hair to her bottom and a daughter, just as milky white with slight touches of African, the gen de coeulr libre as they were called in New Orleans, Creole, a different strata of the three tier system.
I brought pieces of myself to the story. Memories of learning that my family has two branches, the French white and the Creole black, united by the union of plaçage, a concept covered in the book. Jules, was the first man of color in the Guyol de Guiran family. The same family that boasted of having an artist who painted a mural that was in Saint Louis Cathedral, the same family that had "servants" who spoke Spanish, and sent their sons to France to be educated and educated their daughters at home. They were affranchise in Saint-Domingue, old school Creole families like Hortense Guzot’s, without the hatred. It all seemed like a fairy tale until I encountered Isabel Allende's carefully researched and meticulously crafted story centered on one mulatta slave and her journey against the backdrop against one of the most important revolutions of our collective history.
The protagonist is Zarité, or Tété. She enters our consciousness as a child and we see her progress to being a grandmother. She is the property of a confused and lustful master, Toulouse Valmorain, who was sent to run the family dynasty in Saint-Domingue for what was supposed to be a short period of time before returning to more civilized France. He returned for a visit, but never to live. His destiny was sealed on the plantations of that island filled with mosquitoes, humidity, and mysteries beyond understanding. She was both his ear and the place he dumped his passion, giving her children her body wasn’t ready to receive, she, relying on her beloved Erzulie, the loa to comfort and guide her.
The story opens with Zarité Sedella (was Zarite deSaint-Lazare) reflecting on her life, as women often do once they reach the age of forty. The mere fact that she reached this age is to be noted. The story that unfolds is her recounting the events of her life. The story closes with Zarité musing about the possibilities of the future and her longing to have all her descendants in one place. It is like hearing the voice of that generation of women that are often the sideline in any book written about the origins of this country, the slave trade, or the events up to Civil War.
Part One is from 1770-1793 and takes place on Saint-Domingue. The story develops slowly as Allende creates the character as living beings in the minds of the readers. She allows us to step into their lives and feel their emotions, listen in on their conversations, and get angry either at them or for them.
Part Two is from 1793-1810 and takes place in New Orleans. It is that magical period before and after Louisiana was purchased by Thomas Jefferson. It gives a glimpse into what makes New Orleans the fluid place full of culture, history, custom, and class. This was a place where the Creole people, almost all were Gens de Coeulr Libre from families that dated back to the early 1700s in this French territory. French was the primary language, it was accustomed that Creole families sent their men to France to be educated and acculturated their women to be refined and marry within their own culture. Until the period of plaçage became the norm, giving white Frenchmen the freedom to have two families and giving the Creole, quadroon free women the protection against unwanted sexual advances from American men. These women were exotic, refined, cultured, and just short of being white. It was their descendants that would be the generations of people who “passed” to live free in an increasingly confusing country.
Tété’s story intrigued me because then, like now, women are often the bearer of bad decisions by men. Her’s began when her mother, captured from Guinea, died and the child was left alone, eventually sold to the young Toulouse Valmorain and subsequently raped by him when she was only 11. She was too young to know what happened to her but knew that her soul was no longer her own and no matter how much she consulted with the Erzulia, it did not change her youth as the property and receiver of another man’s anger. Perhaps what saved her was her exotic beauty which kept her in the house and not out in the sugar cane fields that made slavery in that humid Caribbean island synonymous with excessive cruelty like the kind administered by the overseer, Cambray.
The book should be required reading for any high school history class. The author gave such a riveting account of the emotion and humanity behind the lives of each of the characters. She took us into the fear of the white people who watched their slaves, once just property to be used and brutalized at the hands of their black overseers, rose up, en masse and confronted their collective power. It was the first successful slave revolt in the history of the world. It shamed them, how dare these dark, uneducated people, rise up against the French crown? Against the aristocracy and demand their rights to humanity?
Over the years since the revolt, Haíti, as she became named, paid a heavy price for her step to freedom. When the story opens, fully one-third of France’s wealth was concentrated in that tiny island. The sugar, coffee, tobacco, indigo, and cocoa came from the island. It was ceded to the French by the Spanish at the end of 1600s, thus forming two nations from the same imported slaves and conquered indigenous peoples.
The entire Western Hemisphere and the neighboring islands in the Caribbean was the product of slave trade, of imperial rule, of colonalization. The English and the fledging place called “America” also had interests in keeping this revolt from reaching their shores. Cuba had already outlawed slavery and ironically, so had France, it was just in this hot, steaming island then lush with promise of coffee and sugar plantations, brutal work that no grand blanc or affranchi would ever dare to do, color being the thing that relegated their position, a caste system.
In more modern times, even as recent as the hurricane that destroyed the already delicate infrastructure, it is important to read about the history of this island. How is it so destroyed and destitute compared to her more lush, affluent, and Spanish sister to the west? How is that place, with the shared ancestry and shared native indigenous blood, able to be green and attractive and a tourist attraction? How did the hurricane not destroy it? Was the demand for repayment to the French more than the blacks, the only ones left after the revolution, able to bear? Is that why they destroyed the trees that were their refuge? The sugar canes were set on fire in retaliation, but in effect, left them destitute. What happened?
I felt a range of emotion as I read. I at times had to stop and think about this history, even here in Saint Louis, this city with clear French roots and a direct tie to New Orleans, as part of the shaping of this country. If it hadn’t been for the black slaves revolting, the French never would have sold that magical place called Louisiana to the Americans. The western expansion never would have happened and this country would be half its size. We would be a French territory speaking that melodic language, much like the elders in Saint Genevieve still speak today.
This is an important book, a necessary book, and Isabel Allende was the one to bring this epic story to life.