Friday, January 19, 2018

The French Creole narrative

Fr Anthony de Verteuil, educator and historian, is one of our national treasures. Quite apart from his lifetime of teaching at St Mary's College, where he was also a long-serving principal, he has published 29—yes, 29—books on Trinidad's history.

His books have dealt with a wide range of topics, but many of them are about the island's French Creole community, to which he belongs by birth. In my view, he is the most influential author of what I call the "French Creole narrative" of Trinidad's past.

The latest, the 29th, which de Verteuil says might be the last, chronicles the life of Charles Le Cadre (1828-1888), who was something of a "black sheep" within his family and community.

One of the great strengths de Verteuil brings to his historical work is precisely that he is an insider, a respected member of the ethnic/cultural community. He can tap into, obtain and use the records of these families in a way that outsiders would find difficult.

As this book exemplifies, de Verteuil bases his accounts on family-held, unpublished materials, especially letters, poems, diaries, autobiographies and memoirs, legal and genealogical documents, family notebooks and so on. Our French Creole families, who tend to have a sense of history and pride in their ancestors, often keep such records.

They include visual or pictorial records: photographs, paintings, drawings. Like so many of de Verteuil's books, this one is illustrated with many such visual "documents". Indeed, between pages 242 and 280, he reproduces pen and ink sketches or cartoons of local sights and people done by Elisa de Verteuil, Le Cadre's sister. These provide a lens into the world of a talented and witty lady in the Trinidad of a hundred years ago.

Oral history—interviewing persons about their memories—and oral traditions, passed on down the generations within a family, are also important sources for de Verteuil's historical accounts. Again, his insider status gives him unique access to these oral records.

Of course, de Verteuil also used more conventional documentary sources, such as the Index to Spanish Protocols (1787-1814), which documents the buying and selling of real estate and other property (including enslaved people); and some of the documents generated by the colonial government, which are available in the National Archives of this country, and/or those of Britain.

De Verteuil's biography of Charles Le Cadre is based mainly on the family documents referred to above and on oral sources. The author knows these sources intimately and is very close to them. The good side of this is that he enters fully into the world of the men and women he writes about. He understands them, he knows them—even though they have been dead for a century or two.

The not-so-good side is that the author's historical narrative can, at times, reflect the worldview, the prejudices and the ideologies of these people of the past. The historian may write almost as if he belonged to the world which he is describing. And this is what I mean when I wrote earlier of a "French Creole narrative" of Trinidad's past: it can be written almost as if the narrator lived in the 1800s.

To illustrate my point with a couple of examples from de Verteuil's biography of Le Cadre: He writes "Peace and order were restored to Martinique only in 1794 when the British occupied the island and remained in charge till 1802". This is exactly how a 19th-century French Creole would have seen it. But a historian writing in 2012 should probably point out that "peace and order" meant the maintenance of slavery during the time (1794-1802) when the revolutionary French government had abolished it everywhere in their colonies. The enslaved people of Martinique didn't benefit from this radical measure because the British came in and restored "peace and order" in the island.

Another example is de Verteuil's attempt to soften the brutalities of the "Maroon hunts" which were a routine feature of the slave period in Trinidad (and elsewhere). Parties of slave-owners went on "expeditions" to the forested or hilly areas where runaway slaves sought refuge, hunted them down, and returned any captives to their estates for severe punishment.

The men who took part in them no doubt saw them as both necessary (to get their property back) and good fun (like a modern hunting trip). It's unlikely that the hunted saw it in the same light, and nor should a modern historian.

If the historian gets too close to his sources, and enters too fully into the minds of his subjects, he may risk writing in a way that reflects the prejudices and ideologies of the past, rather than of his own era. Perhaps de Verteuil does this, occasionally, in some of his writings about the French Creoles of the 19th century.

Yet he has made an enormous contribution to our understanding of the evolution of Trinidad society and, especially, the role of the French Creoles. For a lifetime of patient research and writing, we owe Fr Anthony a great debt. Let's hope the 29th book is not, in fact, the last…