Monday, December 30, 2013

A Volcano, a Man, a Typo?

A Volcano

Researching Martinique, I have come across many different events in history including the tragedy of the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902. Saint Pierre, located to the north of Martinique, suffered a terrible eruption which would completely wipe out the town and most of its 28,000 inhabitants (higher estimates say that over 30,000 people perished from the volcano's eruption).

Remains of St. Pierre after the eruption []

What I found interesting was that only two people survived (some say three) the eruption on the night of May 8th, 1902. The two main survivors of this event known as the worst volcanic event in 20th century were Léon Compère dit Léandre and Louis-Auguste Cyparis. Some say that the third survivor was a young girl named Havivra Da Ifrile- but I want to focus mainly on Louis-Auguste Cyparis because of his story.

A Man

Louis-August Cyparis []

During the eruption of Mount Pelée, it was Louis-Auguste's drunken stay in a jail cell that is credited for saving his life. Some reports say that he was put in the solitary cell after a drunken fight with a friend whom he attempted to stab. The cell he was placed in was "a single-cell, partially underground, bomb-proof magazine with stone walls. His cell was without windows, ventilated only through a narrow grating in the door facing away from the volcano. His prison was the most sheltered building in the city, and it was this fact that saved his life. The cell in which he survived still stands today" (Wikipedia). After surviving four days in the cell, he was finally rescued and despite being burned Louis-Auguste was able to survive the eruption. You can read more in the Wiki article or research more about him and how he survived, he apparently urinated his shirt and wrapped it around his face to prevent himself from breathing in much of the ashes. Interestingly enough, he later joined the Barnum & Baily Circus as Ludger Sylbaris retelling the tale of his survival. Here is a picture of his jail cell:

Cachot de Cyparis [Wikipedia]
A Typo?

I became really interested in this man and his life, I thought "wow, had he not been drunk and gotten into that fight, he probably wouldn't have survived the eruption!". I wanted to learn more about this man; he was said to be about 28 years old during the eruption and in a letter written in 1902 from Fort-de-France, Martinique it describes a little bit more about Louis-Auguste. The letter states: "Louis Cyparis (dit Souson) était un travailleur du Prêcheur, tantôt marin, tantôt cultivateur". This tells us that he was a worker originally from Le Prêcheur, a bordering town to the north of Saint-Pierre. Also, he sometimes worked as a sailor and sometimes as a farmer. Knowing his age, we know that he was born about 1874-5 when the volcano erupted and his life changed forever. The question now became: Could I find Louis-Auguste Cyparis' birth record in Le Prêcheur and learn more about him?

1902 letter mentioning Louis Cyparis []

Searching through the birth indexes of Le Prêcheur in the 1870s I didn't come across any "Cyparis" or even Ciparis but interestingly I did come across the birth of two "Cypriani" children in the late 1870s. Both were the children of a Marie Etiennette Cypriani, who lived in Saint Pierre and was working as a "marchande" or a trades woman, however no father is listed for the children. The first child was born in 1878 and was named Louis Marie Alphonse Cypriani, and their first and last names no doubt have a resemblance! I even checked in the Saint-Pierre 1870s birth indexes but didn't find any name closely resembling "Louis-Auguste Cyparis". There is however also the slight possibility that he was born as Louis-August and later picked up "Cyparis" as a last name but being that former slaves had already acquired last names by 1848 I don't know how likely this option is.

Louis Marie Alphonse Cypriani- Birth Record 

Louis Marie Alphonse Cypriani- Birth Record 

I do wonder if this is the same man, Cyparis and Cypriani are very close in spelling and there were no other last names that could be clumped with "Cypriani" as a possibility from what I have seen. We do know he went to jail once, so could he have changed his last name slightly to avoid the law? Or did they simply write his name wrong by mistake? I can't find anywhere an actual birthdate or year for him, all of them seem to be estimates, so it could be because there is no actual "Cyparis" but this was his birth record? Or maybe he was born in another town altogether and just said he was born in Le Prêcheur because he spent most of his time there? As we can see there are a lot of questions surrounding Louis-Auguste Cyparis before the eruption!

Until more information is found I can't tell whether these two men are one and the same. It's interesting when you try and tie together history and genealogy, especially with those who are both famous/infamous in history! Hopefully more will come of this man!

A Change in the Past, A Change for the Future

I haven't blogged in a while and with the holidays being both a busy yet relaxing time, I've decided to write a post!

Recently, a day passed in December that wouldn't have meant anything special to me until recently. December 21st would have been any other day for me this year; it was a Saturday, the first official day of vacation for me and a marker that Christmas was only four short days away. Yet, this year it meant much more to me. It was the day my 4th and 5th great grandmothers were officially recognized as French citizens (or people for that matter) after receiving the surname Lautin and being freed from slavery. This year marked 165 years of freedom between my 5th and 4th grandmothers and myself.

Anse Cafard Slave Memorial - []

Slavery's end came to the island of Martinique in 1848 in various stages. A decree is signed on April 27th but was only publicly announced on the 3rd of June, about a month and a half later. Guadeloupe also at this time was becoming an island free of slavery, thanks to it being a territory of France as well. Emancipation Day is celebrated on both islands in late May (the 22nd and 27th).

As the slaves became free, they were to receive last names- something which many didn't previously have since they were to work fields rather than be identified in high ranking positions. Each person was to report to registrars which had been set up in their towns in order to document the "new" people. These documents are known as Les Actes D'Individualités.

Luckily for me these documents have been placed online and I have blogged before about using these records to discover my 4th great grandmother who immigrated to Puerto Rico and her mother who was originally from Africa and brought over to Martinique as a slave. My 5th great grandmother appeared before Charles Fouchet to register herself and her two daughters, Julienne Malvina and Pauline - the former my 4th great grandmother and the latter my 4th great grand-aunt who sadly passed away in 1855. Their acts were taken on the 21st of December 1848, where they all received the last name "Lautin" most likely from Charles Fouchet himself. The previous slave owners were not surnamed Lautin but this was the surname they received for whatever reason.

Here are their Actes D'Individualités again:

Eglantine Lautin- 5th Great Grandmother

Julienne Malvina Lautin- 4th Great Grandmother

Pauline Lautin- 4th Great Grand-Aunt

I wonder a lot about my ancestors, their thoughts, their moods, their aspirations. I wonder what was running through my 5th great grandmother's mind the morning of 21st December 1848.

I imagine her raising early at the crack of dawn from having to work the fields so early after so many years. She stretches by the door of her home as she stares out onto the plantation has worked on for many years. She would take a deep breath and muster in her best French: Aujourd'hui nous sommes françaises. (Today we are French!) She would wake her daughters from their slumber, today they longer would be considered slaves but free people. Would Eglantine remember a past life in Africa when she was free and went by another name? Would she dream of returning to that land or would she look forward to her daughters' futures? Would she find this a joyous occasion or one of hard ship as she would have to look for work elsewhere now?

I am blessed to have a strong ancestress who physically and mentally prepared herself each day for the work that was to come, not knowing when it would end. This single event in history changed the future of her family and ultimately mine as well; who knows what sort of freedom Julienne would have been allowed if she would have to had live the rest of her life as a slave rather than a free woman. She probably would have never taken the journey to Puerto Rico.

Always remember those that came before you and their stories, their struggles and their lives for one day you shall join that chain of ancestors.