It’s been a year since I shared my contribution piece for Thrive Global on 5 Powerful Ways People Are Celebrating Black History Month. I am of Caribbean descent. My mother and grandmother were from Trinidad and Tobago, but my great-great-grandmother or GG was from the island of Martinique. In honor of Black history month, I set out on a quest to find more information on my maternal great-great-grandmother with copies of photos dating back to the late 1800’s.
I knew this was going to be a huge undertaking because tracing ancestry roots as an African American can be extremely difficult because of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“The legacy of slavery, prejudice and institutional racism mean many records are incomplete or aren’t easily available. As such, discovering information from popular genealogy sites can be difficult, especially before the 1870 U.S. Census. This is because this was the first census to include African Americans by name.”
Wisconsin Historical Society
To call a person by their name is to make a connection with them that they are acknowledged, seen, and heard. However, Africans were not given that respect as slaves. Therefore, my research would only get so far without key pieces of identifying information. Yet, I remained optimistic to find as much information as I could about my lineage.
My family had a copy of a baptism confirmation certificate dating back to May 9, 1885, from the Parish of Rivière-Pilote in Martinique. I would use this identification as clues to start my search. The name subscribed is Louise Alicou from what I could recognize signed by Bishop Monseigneur Carmene. I couldn’t help but notice my oldest son shares the same birthday as GG Louise.
First, I reached out to the Territorial Collectivity of Martinique for assistance and immediately received a reply stating, “A response, whether positive or negative, will be provided to you within a maximum of 2 months, except in exceptional circumstances”.
So, I waited…. But no response.
Still determined to get answers, I connected with the Immaculate Conception Parish of Rivière-Pilote as listed on the baptism confirmation card. Three days later I received a response stating, “We are sorry, but the oldest registers in our possession do not go back beyond the years 1916… Get closer to the Departmental Archives in Tartenson”.
Taking the church’s advice, I reached out to the Departmental Archives in Tartenson, (the Overseas National Archives for France), three times, but my emails kept getting rejected. I’m now at a dead-end.
As we approach a year since writing my contribution piece, I decided to throw a Hail Mary at the Territorial Archives of Martinique to see if I can find out more. As of today, I’m still waiting on their reply.
Not to be discouraged, I took the time to research what it was like in Rivière-Pilote, Martinique in the 1800’s. This was a last-ditch effort to piece together historical facts to recreate my family’s story.
Rivière Pilote was established as a municipality in 1837. It’s rooted in the tradition of independence and a refuge for rebels and escaping slaves (called nèg maron). Carib Indian Chief Pilote settled in the area around 1640 near the river to which he gave his name.
History tells how Chief Pilote was sympathizing and welcoming with the French colonists upon their arrival. Shortly after this historic meet and greet, the Colonizers drove Chief Pilote out of his own community. If only the Chief only knew how his naivety toward the French would lead to colonization and slavery of his people, my people.
Slavery on Martinique was abolished on May 22, 1848, but the lasting effects of colonization continued on the island for years and centuries to come. 15 years prior to GG Louise baptism, Rivière-Pilote was the site of a bloody battle between the maroon Negroes and the colonists in 1870.
As if surviving slavery and figuring out life post slavery wasn’t enough, on May 8th, 1902, Mount Pelée erupted. This was one of the deadliest eruptions in recorded history, destroying the city of St. Pierre, known as the Paris of the Caribbean. Over 30,000 residents died that day, including the governor. Rivière-Pilote is 48 miles from Mount Pelée, but I can only imagine the traumatic impact this had on the people of the island and my family.
As I read more about the history of Martinique, I wondered what my family went through and how they survived. I couldn’t help but think if this is the pivotal moment in time when generational trauma began in my family lineage?
The quest for learning about my family’s history has left me at a dead end with an undecipherable percentage of DNA shared on ancestry site, priceless family photos, and pieces of history tied together for the making a historical drama of the life of my great-great-grandmother. In celebrating Black History month, I will continue to share my stories and memories of my mom and grandmother with my children to keep their memory alive. My mother was my connection to Trinidad and Tobago, and now I feel it’s my duty to pass on her legacy, culture, and history of the island on to my children.