Coming to You From France

| August 25, 2023

I shall be writing from the southern French city of Biarritz for several weeks because of Jeanne Renée Charlotte de MONDION. More accurately, I am here because of a letter she wrote on the first of March 1815. Jeanne (which I shall call her) is my fourth great-grandmother. In her letter she described refugee life in America after the French and Haitian Revolutions. While seeking aid for her two daughters, Antoinette and Caroline, she explained “I had the misfortune of losing their father in Baltimore after the burning of Cap Français. Stripped of all resources, I married Monsieur Darracq, hoping to give support to my children. Victim of his devotion to my family, he had his throat slit during the evacuation of General Rochambeau. He went to Saint-Domingue in the hope of saving some scraps of my fortune and of his.” She recounted that “little by little I have sold the jewelry that I saved.”

Her letter inspired in me a profound fascination with this courageous ancestor of mine. I have since sought to learn what I could about her life and how she and her two daughters became destitute in America. My research led me to the Port of Bordeaux, where on July 20, 1791, she fled the French Revolution with her two daughters and her son Jean-Paul on the ship the Bouillant, bound for Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. The day after their arrival on the 22nd of August, the only successful revolution by slaves against European colonialists began. Thus, Jeanne and her family found themselves part of the first great refugee crisis in American history.

Jean-Paul wrote a 390-page autobiographical manuscript titled Mon Odyssée, which disappeared for more than a century. In the 1950s, the manuscript was discovered as part of an estate in New Orleans where a partial version was translated into English and published in 1959 by a woman who mistakenly believed that the history told of her family. Instead, it is a history of mine. The first three words are “to my mother” and much of what I think that I know about her is through the eyes of her devoted son. In a letter written on the first of June 1826, he asks how “anyone can believe that my mother, the most beautiful women in Saint-Domingue and 14 years old, from a noble family, was given to my fifty-year-old father.” It is clear from his writing that Jean-Paul lamented that his mother was “given” to a a man of little education and even less manners because he had made a fortune in the New World. Looking back on his life he recounts that “we were six: two girls and a boy Chabert, a boy Manesça [my ancestor], a girl and a boy Pillet; a seventh Ferdinand Chabert, was killed by pirates three year ago.”

I owe an immense debt to Bernadette Rossignol and her late husband Philippe, who are responsible for the website Généalogie et Histoire de la Caraïbe, the source of these letters. I am also indebted to Professor Jeremy D. Popkin of the University of Kentucky and Anja Bandau, who transcribed and annotated Mon Odyssée, which the professor describes as “a new genre of autobiographical writing, without equivalent during that time on either side of the Atlantic.” [My translation]

Pillet, Jean-Paul. Mon Odyssée: L’Époée D’un Colon de Saint Domingue, transcrit, présenté et annoté par Anja Bandau et Jeremy D. Popkin. (Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle, 2015).