A Sitting in St. James - Rita Williams-Garcia
Patience. There is no story without history.
BEFORE THE SPREAD OF SMALLPOX AND INFLUENZA, before the land was claimed in the name of a French king, before the land and its abundant rivers passed from French to Spanish to French hands, the land, the boot of the territory, thrived with Native peoples as diverse as its soil, trees, vegetation, waterways, and creatures. The people who populated the land thrived! The Caddo to the west, the Tunica-Biloxi to the northeast, the Natchez at its heart, the Atakapa and the Chitimacha to the south, and the Muskogee, the Choctaw, and the Houma to the east. And throughout the land, the Alibamu, the Apalachee, the Bayogoula, the Chickasaw, the Coushatta, the Ouachita, the Quapaw, the Quinipissa, the Yatasi, the Yazoo, and many more. This fertile land, with its wide southern mouth, surging rivers, still lagoons, bayous, swamps, and marshes couldn’t be kept to itself, for to follow the great river called Messipi by the Anishinabe people was to find the land and its wealth. So the French, the Acadians, then the Spaniards came by the hundreds, and then thousands. Like the river that carried them, they couldn’t be stopped. They learned the land from its diverse people, exchanged gifts, and negotiated the ownership. Yes. Some native to the land remained and brought their cultures into a rapid mixing of French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean people. But many were pushed into the shadows, the marshes, and the piney woods, and many were ultimately removed from the land.
While the land changed hands, finally, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Thomas Jefferson, one Bayard Guilbert, who had fled the Haitian Revolution with his wife, had secured a narrow tract of land to begin his life yet again. Although the land was granted to him, it didn’t hurt that he offered a bit of gold to the governor’s clerk for his administrative trouble. The land grant was about twelve hundred acres, wedged between wealthier planters. Those acres were not as much as he had owned in the former Saint-Domingue, but they were enough to grow and rotate sugarcane, a decent plot of cotton, some timber, and tobacco near the river’s banks. Here, he gave himself and his generations the greatest gift he could afford: he made himself anew in this country, la Louisiane. Like a pig rooting in the dirt for turnips, he could sniff his fortune in the soil without having to till or clear the fields. Before enslaved people, mules, horses, cattle, wagons, plows, and cast iron kettles were purchased, or a house facing the river was erected, “Vié Pè,” as the Black Creoles called him, or “Ol’ Pap,” as the Africans called him, tasted the promise of cane juice, hogsheads of molasses, and golden-brown crystal in his clay-rich soil. Although he might have been no more than a yeoman farmer in France, his birthplace, Bayard Guilbert would make himself a lord on this moist earth, as he had done in Saint-Domingue—the land his former slaves and now the emancipated Black men and women call “Ayiti.” Long after Bayard Guilbert was gone, the grandchildren of the Africans, Caribbeans, and coloreds on the Louisiana plantation called their children inside after darkness fell, saying the old planter still walked barefoot, stepping on the little things in the way of his big feet. “Run quick! Run quick! Ol’ Pap walk de earth!” or “Galopé, piti! Galopé! Vié Pè apé maché la tè! Vié Pè apé maché la tè! Be ware!”
As a young man in France, he couldn’t marry his love, the daughter of a vineyard owner, for he was a nobody, young and hardworking. But through time in Saint-Domingue, his brown crystals by the hogshead gained him substantial prosperity.
Bayard Guilbert had plans to return triumphantly to France and claim the object of his affection. Through associates, he learned that the daughter of the vineyard owner had married, given birth to a girl, and then, eight years later, had died. Bayard Guilbert wouldn’t be stopped by death. If he couldn’t have the woman, he would have her daughter. Kidnap the girl, if necessary. Time. Distance. Impossibility. These things didn’t matter to Bayard. He worked each day with the daughter of his love in mind. He bided his time. The girl was now thirteen. He braved seafaring pirates and returned to France to take his prize. Through careful inquiries he learned that in the wake of the French Revolution, the girl had become a discarded remnant of the queen’s court. She was within