Saturday, June 2, 2012

Mrs Livingston, I Presume: Louise D'Avezac Livingston, Part 1

So many women of Western history are lost under the title of Mrs. So-and-So. Or “you know, she was the mother of So-and-So.” It is enough to drive young women out of the study of history and into—--say--—computer science.

Well Louise D’Avezac Moreau Livingston is a woman with a history of her own! She was the wife of the rather dashing youngest son of Margaret Beekman Livingston, Edward. As an adult, she was a New Orleans belle, known as a vibrant woman and an engaging story teller, which is probably how we wound up with the Memoir of Mrs. Edward Livingston (published in 1886 by her grand nephew) in existence.

But her childhood and youth make for a harrowing story, and that is the subject of today’s blog.

Many years before her life as a Livingston, Louise was a little girl in the 1780s practicing her dancing steps at a marble estate and plantation in Haiti, then known as St. Domingo. According to the Memoir "“A large veranda surrounded the sides, built around a square court or garden, shaded by stately palms. Delicious sea-breezes blew in freely through the commodious apartments."” Its stepped terraces lead down to the ocean and looked out over an assortment of kitchen buildings, wash houses, store rooms, and quarters for some 800 slaves.

She was the daughter of an extraordinarily wealthy French family, as you might guess from the marble palace and the 800 slaves. She was also extremely bright. She and her elder brother Auguste are said to have played in the library, where she may have taught herself to read (or perhaps had some help from little Auguste).

“"She learned to read no one knew how...One day when her mother was at her toilet-table having her hair dressed and powdered, as was then the fashion, the little girl took up a gilt pomatum jar and read aloud the label on it.”"

Louise was lucky to have been given the benefit of her brothers'’ tutoring as she grew up. In an age of spotty education for women, she read the classics in her father’s library alongside the boys and indulged what was probably a sharp intellect. Sadly, the boys were eventually packed up and sent away to school, their tutors left, and Louise’s formal education ended before she was a teenager. It must have been a loss to her: both the absence of her brothers and her outlet for learning. What was a wealthy Caribbean girl to do?

She got married. At thirteen, Louise settled down with a retired French military officer. This was young for the time so whatever possessed her family to rush things, I don’t know. An eager and precocious child? An anxious father? A lucky chance at a very good marriage? Or did the shaky position of plantation owners in Haiti at that time make it seem safer to send your daughters away early?


At any rate, Louise D'’Avezac became Mrs. Moreau, took up her aging black nurse, and moved to Jamaica (as a side note Edward Philip Livingston, who would eventually marry the Chancellor’s daughter and move to Clermont was growing up in Jamaica at this same time). She must have become pregnant right away because by the age of sixteen she had carried to term and lost three children. Before she could get pregnant again, she lost her husband too, and now at the age of sixteen she was a widow heading back to her father’s house, black nurse in tow.

But Haiti was already embroiled in what the Memoir refers to as “"the horrible tragedy of servile revolt in St. Domingo."” In 1791, Toussaint L’Ouverture had begun what became the most successful slave revolt in the New World, one whose fighting lasted for about ten years.  Caribbean slavery has gone down in history as being particularly brutal, with high death rates necessitating a continual import of fresh African workers. Sugar cane in particular required--in addition to the back-breaking work of agriculture--a refining process that was difficult, smelly, and dangerous. As a result, African and mulatto slaves far outnumbered their masters in Haiti, and they used that strength to their advantage.  In 1803 and 1804, things came to another violent head.

I don'’t know how many of the 800 people in D’'Avezac’s slave village rose up, but Louise and her family were predictably unseated from their marble throne. Two of her brothers were killed (Auguste survived), and her father left for Norfolk, VA, where he would soon die of Yellow Fever. Louise went to New York briefly to escape, but her mother remained behind in Haiti, and Louise felt compelled to return to her.

Very soon, the danger increased beyond the teenager'’s expectations, and the next piece of the story we hear puts Louise hiding by the seaside in a storm with her grandmother, an aunt, two cousins, and her sister “little Anglaé,” all of them looking hopefully out at a British frigate, which had offered its help. They waited out the night there, in “the dense tropical forest...with breathless anxiety for the ship’s boat,” to come out and rescue them.

This little group of women, probably soaking wet, and toting a very young child were huddled in absolute terror in the dark, while angry slaves from both their and the surrounding plantations were out there killing their former masters. And then they heard footsteps and rattling brush coming towards them. I can imagine everyone’s heart stopping as they waited to see. Out of dark bounded a joyful dog and one of their former slaves, bringing food to help them through the night.

The slave waited with them through the night, and even boarded the boat with them to go out to the English frigate. A group of rebel slaves caught site of them, vulnerable in the water, and began shoot then. Both Louise’s grandmother and their enslaved savior were shot and killed. Little Anglaé was shielded from harm by her own grandmother'’s body.

Who was this enslaved man or woman who died alongside the grandmother? The Memoir didn’t even see fit to record this slave'’s name, in spite of the amazing risk they took to save the D’'Avezac women. Perhaps it was a house servant, someone who was personally familiar with the family instead of an agricultural slave who was banished to the heat of the fields or refiniries.

Louise and her aunt and cousins were rowed by the English sailors to the frigate, along with the dead bodies, and hoisted aboard. As the boat picked up speed and sailed for Jamaica, did she turn her back on the destruction of her childhood home? Or did she watch the coastline recede and worry about her mother who still remained there?

The D’'Avezac women were headed, along with a wave of St. Domingo refugees, for Jamaica. The island had been her home for three years of Louise’s life while she was married, and one imagines she would have friends to turn to there. At least she hoped so.

Perched on the deck of the English frigate in the midst of a turquoise Caribbean Sea, Louise had had more life already than many other girls her age. But of course, there was more ahead...

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