[Blackstudies-l] Making room for Creole history

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Thu Oct 6 02:31:40 EDT 2016

lisaparavisini posted: " A book review by Simon Lee for
Trinidad's Guardian. Jerry Besson’s latest foray into the not so distant
but largely forgotten past—a fictionalized memoire of Philippe Roume de
Saint Laurent, the man who engineered the 1783 Cedula for Population which
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New post on *Repeating Islands*
<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> Making room for
Creole history
<http://repeatingislands.com/2016/10/05/making-room-for-creole-history/> by
lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>

[image: Gerard Besson.jpg]

A book review by Simon Lee for Trinidad's *Guardian*.

Jerry Besson’s latest foray into the not so distant but largely forgotten
past—a fictionalized memoire of Philippe Roume de Saint Laurent, the man
who engineered the 1783 Cedula for Population which birthed modern
Trinidad—ebulliently mixes genres in a stampede of individual and
historical narratives, exploring aspects of Creole sensibility which have
slipped through the seine of recent Caribbean historiography.

Yet this heavyweight, at close to 500 pages and hugely ambitious in its
scope (tracing the creolization of Enlightenment ideals and centering the
“peripheral” Caribbean at the heart of the ill-fated French and successful
Haitian revolutions) lightly sidesteps the tedium of much historical
fiction. Roume immerses readers intimately in the lives of such
unforgettable imaginary characters as Sarusima the Carib or the demented
white Creole Tante Mam’zelle, along with historical figures like Roume’s
shape-shifting second wife Marianne “Soubise” Rochard, the Grenadian
mulatresse, whose fictional journals both anchor her husband’s narrative of
opportunism and also provide another, insider’s point of view of the events
he engaged in.

A creole cocktail of political thriller, historical romance and dashing
picaresque replete with pirates and lost gold, corrupt financiers,
ravishing coquettes, rabid revolutionaries and future emperors (Dessalines,
Naploeon), Roume invites us to consider modernity in the New World, or what
Besson frequently refers to as “the nightmare nest of slavery”. In dramatic
fashion Roume examines the entanglement of Europe and the Caribbean on the
cusp of the Haitian Revolution, the crossroads where the spirits of
outmoded European feudalism and nascent capitalism, Enlightenment
libertarianism and universalism collided with and contested the magical
realism of an Afro-Creole worldview uneasily yet expediently allied with
the ambitions of the offspring of the entanglement—the conflicted mulattoes.

Although the Haitian Revolution/War of Independence has attracted the
attention of writers across the region from Walcott and Lamming, to
Cesaire, Glissant and Carpentier, only historians like Laurent Dubois have
attempted to chart revolutionary movements throughout the Caribbean at the
end of the 18th century. In fiction it is only Besson who has made the
connection between the Haitian uprising of 1791 and the Fedon uprising in
Grenada of 1795, which like similar uprisings in St Vincent and St Lucia,
challenged the institution of slavery and European hegemony. It is the
figure of Roume, a white Grenadian-born creole, who allows Besson to make
the connection. Roume’s life journey took him on the wings of ambition and
opportunism from Grenada to Trinidad, South America, Europe, Tobago and
twice to Haiti, first as an agent of the French crown and then as High
Commissioner of the French Revolution.

Besson characterizes Roume as Frontier Man and Creole by birth and sometime
conviction, embodying in him the contradictions of the Caribbean white
massa slave-owning class, tainted by the legacy of the nightmare nest of
slavery. When his first European-born wife Fanny recoils from him, still
reeking from his latest sexual encounter on their Grenadian estate, he
dashes her exotic fantasies (“a life of adventure, a sensual mixture of
fecundity and elegance in a place on the frontier of the New World…she saw
herself with him in paradise”) with all the callousness of those who viewed
the slaves as property at worst, or “intelligent animals…without souls” at
best. “You had to cover them, conquer them, breed them,” he rages at her
with plantation pragmatism.

Ironically it is a product of precisely this brutal regime, the mulatresse
Soubise Rochard, who becomes his second wife, soul mate and companion for
life. Born as Marianne Katronice, the illegitimate daughter of an estate
owner and his slave mistress, she crosses the divide erected by the
aristocracy of the skin when freed by her dying father. However, in
pre-Fanon style, for survival purposes, she cultivates a Creole identity as
Soubise, only reverting to Marianne when occasion demands. She is aware of
the common ground which unites her with Roume and which ultimately severs
him from the Old World despite his manoeuvring: “As a Creole, descendant of
Europeans born in these islands, Philippe had an understanding of the land,
climate and the blacks…The salt of the Caribbean Sea ran in his veins…we,
Philippe and I understood things differently—Phillipe’s imagination
contained a great deal of my own.”

Soubise also recognizes Roume’s fluid identity, knowing “he possessed the
actor’s gift of being all things to all men. A born Creole.” His central
belief in free will and choice, allied to his insatiable drive to be an
agent of change, lead him to a major role in the worst excesses of the
French Revolution, when as a “blooded Jacobin” he embraces the period of
The Terror drawing on an internalized legacy of violence: “We of the slave
islands understand how to live without a sense of humanity.”

By positioning Roume at the centre of the revolution in France, Besson
echoes the theory of CLR James and others that the modern world was birthed
in the Caribbean, in Haiti. Some of the best elements of Enlightenment
philosophical theory (equality, liberty) were compromised, betrayed and
eventually reversed by the French, because philosophy makes for bad
economics and the French Revolution depended financially on slavery as much
as the Ancien Régime. As one of the metropolitan characters puts it when
dismissing the slaves’ claims to the Rights of Man: “Rights, human rights
cannot apply to them. Soulless, they have not the faculty of choice. Anyway
that would mean a collapse of the economy. France cannot afford to free her

It took the “soulless creatures” of Haiti to effect the praxis of Liberty
and Equality and fight for them successfully, establishing the world’s
first free black republic at the same time as Napoleon swept aside the
vestiges of the French Revolution to re-establish the old order, in the new
guise of an empire.

Roume’s decline is directly linked to the ascendancy of both Toussaint
l’Ouverture and Napoleon. Sent back to Hispaniola as the Republic’s High
Commissioner in 1799, Soubise recognizes the dilemma he faces: “You must
make up your mind, are you of the Caribbean, or do you belong on the other
side, the Atlantic.” Although Roume has by now arrived at a common
understanding with Toussaint whom he reveres (“both believed that a
Caribbean interpretation of the republican ideal could be arrived at. This
belief had at its centre the certainty shared by them that the African…was
a complete human being”), he elects to put down his bucket with Napoleon,
rejecting Toussaint’s offer: “Stay and this nation will honour you…You will
stand, an equal, with the men who have liberated the New World.” Roume’s
hestitation can be read as symptomatic of the Creole malaise of failing to
fully embrace first liberty and much later independence, the same
psychopathology Fanon and Naipaul highlighted, which is still with us in
the postmodern Caribbean.

Roume can stand alone as a viscerally entertaining text, dramatizing the
genesis of the modern Caribbean. Viewed in the context of Besson’s prolific
oeuvre, both historical and fictional, we can also read it as the
continuing expression of a minority or sidelined narrative in the
post-independence history of the Caribbean— the Afro/French-Creole story.
Political correctness, politically manipulated Afrocentrism and some of the
worst aspects of globalization and (under) development have obscured or
obliterated this narrative, which we must all be grateful to Besson for
retrieving, in the interest of better understanding who we are now and how
we got here.
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* |
October 5, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/?cat=103> | URL: http://wp.me/psnTa-rfI

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