I Noëlle, known as Marie-Joséphine

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Marie-Joséphine, a mulatto, daughter of a slave in a plantation in Martinique, wants her relatives to be free and equal with the slave masters. Is she going to make a difference?

It is 1781, on this day of April 17, I was born. My mother, Catherinette, a slave on a sugar cane plantation, gave birth to me in Sainte Marie on the island of Martinique, a French colony. My mother gave me the name Noëlle, but the master had named me "Marie-Joséphine" so I had to keep and respond to this name.

I was a "mulatto", my complexion was lighter earlier. My hair was wavy and like the sun's rays, I had very fine features, earlier European, for a person like me. The colour of my eyes reminded the people around me of a beautiful green forest. My nose was thin earlier, I would say aquiline, even. My lips were beautiful, like a rose. I was about 5 feet and 5 inches tall (about 1 metre and 68 centimetres). I was endowed with an African body, my chest was small, but my shape was well underlined by my buttocks.

From the time I was born until I was 16 years old, I worked with my mother, 37 years old, in the cane field. It was December 17, 1797, a little after noon, and the master, Mr. Olivier-Marie-Robert Léger, 58 years old, was watching us work from his big house. He called Antoinette, my mother's best friend on the plantation, they were born a month apart, they were like sisters. But she was so beautiful, that Monsieur Léger liked to take advantage of some of the advantages he had over us, he had been taking advantage of her since she was 15, he was the master and she was his property, which he owned... She went to put away her cutlass and then left with the master for the tool shed near the Léger family home.

The master was heard to grumble and say "stop moving, nigger, it will do you good but even more so me! "Antoinette shouted! Everyone stopped working to find out what would happen to the poor woman. The commander, Mr Jean Monplaisir, 42 years old, shouted "What are you listening to, you niggers? Get back to work!". He walked in front of me and called out "you mulatto! I raised my head and looked at him, I despised this man, he was vulgar and tried to take advantage of us like the master, whereas we did not belong to him, I answered "yes, Mr. Commander...". "One day I'll do the same things to you that Monsieur Léger does to Antoinette... You'll see, you'll like it, you dirty mulattress!". I looked away, he continued on his way, he was disgusting me more and more...

This man was bald, his face was crudely made, as if the good Lord did not want to finish his face. His eyes were black as coal. He had a nose that looked like a big pear. He was stocky, with a huge belly, like a beer barrel. And above all he was dirty, I don't dare imagine a Negress wanting such a man, let alone a white one!

About 10 minutes later, Antoinette magically appeared again. My mother asked her if she was okay after what the teacher had done to her. She didn't want to talk about it. We heard horses and a carriage arriving, it was Madame Marceline Ambre-Marie Huyot Léger, 49 years old, the master's wife, and therefore the mistress of this place, who was returning from her stay in La Trinité, at the home of her son, Monsieur Ambroise Jean-Luc Léger, 27 years old. The house slaves came to take her things so that she could rest. She shouted everywhere: "Olivier, Olivier, Olivier. Where is he? "She saw Jean, the commander, arrive. "Good morning, Mr. Jean! "Thank you, do you know where my husband is? Suddenly Mr Léger arrived, dressed in his best clothes. "Hello my love, you look very beautiful today! "Hello Olivier, I've been screaming like a hysteric for a while"; "I'm sorry Marceline, I was getting ready to receive you... Let's go inside, please Jean, it's going to be dark soon, bring in the slaves, thank you"; "There's no problem Mr Léger, I'll do it right away".

I said to my mother, "Do you think that one day we will be free? "She said, "Do you think a Negro can be free? That there are free Negro countries? "Maybe there are... "I was interrupted by Monsieur Jean, "Shut up, Negroes! You're mumbling in your language about plots, aren't you? And then I don't want to know! Go and put away your tools, right now" we all answered "yes, Mr. Commander".

The next day, like every day the good Lord does, I work with my mother on the plantation. I heard that a foreign woman was coming to visit Madame Léger. I am tired of this life, working for lazy white people who exploit and beat us. While we were doing our work, we heard screams... It was 27-year-old Firmin. He was a negro newly arrived on our plantation, from what I heard he was married and had children on the old estate where he was staying.

Monsieur Jean said, "Come and see, you monkeys, how this nigger is going to be punished, this day", we left our work, in order to see this despicable act, "Hurry up, you cockroaches, to see what this Firmin is going to take! ».

We were all in front of the house, poor Firmin had tried to escape, he was tied to a tree branch hanging by his arms. "Is everyone here for the show? Let's start the act now! "said the commander. Monsieur Jean took a whip with straps as an instrument of torture and put it in his right hand. He raised his hand, the first blow fell, the poor negro howled like an animal that had just been shot by a hunter. The second shot fell, half of us looked down. I, Noëlle, dared to watch how this being could punish another. He was taking sadistic pleasure in scarring the back of that poor negro Firmin. Blood was spurting on the ground like rain on a field, the poor victim could not take it anymore after the 12th blow, he was not athletic because he was a house slave... The commander stopped for about a minute and said "Why are you vermin lowering your heads? Look! The one who doesn't look will be next".

Everyone stared at the body of the unfortunate man, lacerated by the lashings. The bloody spectacle resumed, the blows on the poor negro's back resumed. Monsieur Jean took his pleasure again in martyring the young man, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17... The torturer assiduously counted his blows, he liked to give these punishments to slaves. Firmin did not scream any more, after 25 lashes, he succumbed to the ordeal. "These house slaves are not strong enough, we can't have fun with them... "The commander said to himself. He added, shouting, "Go back to your duties, now! ».

The other slaves took the lifeless body of Firmin, buried it and said a few words in front of the rest of the slaves. "The good Lord has allowed you to go back to him, our brother in the galleys, may your soul rest in peace, dear Firmin. Then everyone went back to his task!

I used to ask my mother, "Why do we let this happen? ». She replied, "Noëlle, what do you want us to do? We are already cursed enough as it is, why add more problems?". I replied, "Mom, but what we are going through is pathetic, we are human beings too! ». While working, we continued our conversation. "Noëlle, listen to me, nothing will change for us, I have been praying to God for years to have a better life and to be free. I hastened to tell her, "Mama, I think that things will change, we should be able to learn to read and write, that's what Mr. Ambroise Jean-Luc Leger told me. He is teaching me to read and write. "What? But he's gone mad, you know what they do to black people who can read and write? They kill them! Do you want to end up like that?". What my mother was saying made me think, and I said to her, "I think that if we are educated, they will be forced to consider us as their equals...".

It was getting dark and we all went to the tool shed to put everything away. Mr Monplaisir shouted "Come on, hurry up, you monkeys and guenons! Night is falling, in 10 minutes those who are outside will be punished like Firmin today!". That evening no one came back late to his wooden house.

December 19, It is five o'clock in the morning, I get up to cut sugar cane. I am a mulatto, if I could, I wouldn't have to work, since I am a mestizo I could own a lot of things, but I wanted to stay with my mother, I couldn't abandon her!

Antoinette was waiting for us in front of the house to go and cut the sugar cane. My mother and I came out of the house. "Hello! Catherinette, how are you? Mademoiselle Marie-Joséphine" said Antoinette smiling. "Hello my friend, thank God I'm fine, and you?" replied my mother. I slipped in a little "Hello, Aunt Antoinette". My mother's friend said, "I'm fine, I wish God would do something for us...".

We left for the field. Mr Jean was already there, he shouted early in the morning "Go to work vermin"! As for me, despite my physique, I could no longer stand how this horrible man treated what was blacker than me. Mr Ambroise Léger had told me that according to the law, the commander could not do anything to me because I was in another category than the negroes... I don't like this way of differentiating between us. I don't like this way of differentiating between us. "Aren't we all human beings?" I said to myself inwardly.

I didn't notice the whole time that Constantin, who was 17, was staring at me, I don't know why, but he continued to stare. I said, "Do you have a problem with me, Constantin?"; "The only problem I have with you is that I find you charming and since you are not married, I...". I stopped him at once, "There will be nothing with you, Constantin, you can start looking at other women...". My mother and Antoinette laughed at the situation. The desperate Constantin shouted at me, "You think you're a superior mulatto? Well, you should know that for the whites you are an anomaly even if you have some of their blood. There is an expression among whites that I like: "You answer the fools with silence" I applied it with this negro.

Mr. Jean came and shouted "Baboon you will work instead of talking! Remember Firmin...". For all the blacks on the plantation the death of poor Firmin was a great shock. His memory hurt everyone. We all went back to work!

I continued to reflect on the condition of the negroes. By dint of cutting cane, our hands became insensitive to cuts, I also sometimes tied up the sugar cane to facilitate their transport to the factory. With these canes, Mr Léger made sugar in large quantities and at the end of the month, for 10 days, he made rum...

I have heard that on the island of Santo Domingo a negro by the name of Toussaint Breda is a general in the French army and other negroes, about 4000, were in it. Five years ago Toussaint led a revolution on his island. This gives me hope that one day it will happen here in Martinique.

I saw a figure I knew in the distance. On this Tuesday the bursar was coming, as he does every 19th of the month. His name was Pierre-Benoît De La Buse, 34 years old. He is the master's right hand man, he manages the plantation's finances for Mr Olivier-Marie-Robert Léger. He is a free mulatto who masters numbers, writing and reading. My mother looked at me discreetly. She said, "Would you like to be like Pierre-Benoît the bursar?". It took me a few minutes to answer, "No, I don't dream of being like him, Mum, I just wish we all had the same rights. That we live in harmony with the whites without being enslaved like we are now!". "I don't think that will happen for many centuries my daughter, your wish may be rewarded one day..." said my mother.

The commander came and said to us, "You there, the negro and her mulatto, go and tie up the canes so that the other negro, Dominique, the driver, can carry them to the sugar factory!". We both answered "yes, Monsieur Jean...".

It had taken us two hours to tie up all those rods by the end of the day. It was getting dark and Mum and I were on our way home. We were waiting for our next day, God willing...

The next day, we had already been working for 9 hours. At about 2.30 p.m. a two-horse cart arrived near the plantation. A lady with a dark complexion and an accent that no one on the plantation had, got out of the cart. "Good morning," she said. "Is this the Léger plantation?". Mr. Jean, who was there as usual, heard the lady asking questions, and replied, "Good morning ma'am, I am Mr. Monplaisir, the commander of this plantation, who shall I tell Mr. and Mrs. Léger?". The beautiful woman said, "I am Señora Rosa Maria de Cordoba Y Herrera.

The commander went to fetch the masters from the house. He returned with Madame Leger, who for the occasion had dressed in a magnificent satin dress with lace from Paris.

The lady of the house greeted Mrs De Cordoba Y Herrera, 38 years old, "Good morning, Mrs De Cordoba Y Herrera!" The latter replied, "Greetings Señora Leger, what a magnificent plantation you have here!". With an embarrassed look, Mrs. Léger replied, "It's nothing compared to some plantations in the Americas... Let's go in, Rosa Maria; Calixte, take Madame's things and prepare a room for her to live in!". Calixte, 18, the other mulatto on the plantation, came forward and replied to the Mistress, "Yes, Madam, everything will be ready to receive your guest".

This Calixte, the whitest of the mulattoes, she hated her Negro side, yet she forgot that it was a part of her. She did not mix with the negroes. She wanted to belong to another world, that of the whites, who rejected her because she was of a complexion that did not suit them! And to think that I tried to be her friend...

She was a little darker than me, it wasn't so obvious. Her hair was straight like that of pure metropolitan women and black as a raven, it reminded me of darkness. Her eyes were a beautiful blue like the sky on a sunny summer day. She had a rather thin nose, less than mine anyway... She had beautiful full lips, I must admit I envied her for that! She was 5 feet 10 inches tall (about 1 metre 78 centimetres). She had the body of an African woman, luscious, the fantasy of all the men who looked at her, except Mr. Leger. Which I thought was strange, but the rumours were that she was the Master's daughter, so I thought that must be it...

My mother looked at me and said, "Calixte, that one, she will always be alone in thinking herself superior to the negroes...". I replied to my mother, "Perhaps not, if one day she starts to communicate with the other negroes, she will certainly change! "Antoinette laughed and said, "If that little girl changes, that will be the day we are free... Which is not about to happen...".

As I worked, I wondered who this woman was who seemed to come from a very distant place! I asked Antoinette, "Aunt Antoinette, you know a lot about what is happening on this plantation. Do you know who this lady is who came to see the Master and Mistress?" She replied, "You are very observant and very curious... That's a good thing! Her name is Mrs. Rosa Maria de Cordoba Y Herrera, and according to the house negroes, she comes from a country called Argentina...".

I thanked Antoinette and wrote down the name of the country in a corner of my head so that when Mr. Ambroise Jean-Luc Léger came, I could ask him where it was on his map of the world.

Another day working for lazy people, I found it more and more painful to see them giving us orders and them doing nothing... It was getting dark, we all went to put away our tools and went home to prepare for tomorrow, God willing.

21st December 1797, I got up for the umpteenth time to go cane cutting with my mother... It was ten minutes to six and I saw a white figure coming towards us, it was Madame De Cordoba Y Herrera.

She stood in front of me and asked, "What is your first name, mulattress?" I replied, "My first name is Marie-Joséphine, Madame. She thought about it and asked me another question, "I suppose that's the name your masters gave you, but what is your real name?"; I hastened to answer her, "The name my mother gave me is Noëlle..."; "My name is Rosa Maria, don't take too long to get back to work, because I have the impression that the Commander enjoys torturing you...". She left to see the other Negroes in order to question them...

Constantine passed by me and said, "Are you still not ready to marry the mulattress?" I replied instantly, "If it's to be with you, I'd rather Monsieur Jean whipped me for a whole day." Constantin got angry and said to me "you dirty mulattress, I will make you pay one day!". My mother, having heard what this beardless young man was saying, intervened and told him to calm down and go to work.

"He's the only nigger I'd like to gouge out his eyes and cut out his tongue..." I said aloud. After this self-reflection, I went back to work. The work was very hard, to think that several generations before me had to do this...

While I was doing my chores, I was thinking about my next interview in secret with Ambroise Jean-Luc Léger, he is different from the other white people I have seen since I was little. He treats his slaves well, he has even educated them so that they can do their jobs without taking orders.

I turned to Antoinette, and asked her, "Aunt, you who know everything, do you know when Ambroise, the master's son, will come?" My mother replied, "It's Monsieur Ambroise for you, my daughter! If the masters or Monsieur Jean hear you, you could be whipped... "Antoinette said, "We are among ourselves and no one can hear us, Catherinette! To answer you, Noëlle, according to what the house slaves say, the Léger's child will be here in two days, does that suit you?".

After a little reflection, I replied, "I hope he will have new things to teach me. For if I am legal of the whites, he should recognize me as such..."; "My daughter, you are possessed by the evil one... You are going to ruin yourself with this sweet dream of freedom..." My mother said to me.

On the other hand, she was not wrong, for in these times, a negro who can read is usually killed... Afterwards, I won't boast about it as the late Victorine did, she was three years older than me. She was a very beautiful Negress, a chabine, a light-skinned Negress. Ambroise Jean-Luc Léger had also taught her, as he had taught me, to read and write. She had sold herself to his acquaintance, which was to be her strength, became her guide to death...

They say she was the most beautiful of us all, despite being a chabine. She was slender, the beauty of her face shone like the sun's rays on a summer afternoon. She was as fair-skinned as I am, even though I am a mulatto. She had, it is said of her, eyes of a very clear blue-grey, that it frightened the masters... Her nose had no defects, it was perfect! Her lips were neither too thin nor too thick, perfection incarnate! Men dreamed of stripping this pretty young Negress!

On top of that she was smart and a very quick and good learner.

I didn't associate with her, because of my young age. But I heard that she had trouble holding her tongue in front of all the other niggers, which led to her downfall. She felt superior to the rest of the negroes, not suspecting that one day Monsieur Jean might hear her words and have her put to death...

Having reflected on my mother's words, I felt out of place among the blacks and the bekés... I had to force myself to know what I wanted to represent on this earth.

The next day I took part in the farm activities as I always had with my mother and Auntie Antoinette. I was thinking more and more...

We set off for our daily task. My mother and my aunt talked about everything and nothing... The questions in my being were beginning to knock too much on the door of my intellect. "Why is there so much misunderstanding between us all? So many differences related to our complexion?" I said to myself deep inside...

While we were cutting sugar cane, I tried to imagine us in a better world... I imagined myself running in a field in the mainland, in Normandy for example. Like in the book that Ambroise made me read so that I could learn... I imagined this region filled with fields and greenery, with lots of pretty flowers. Breathing the air of nature, feeling the wind of the Normandy coast caressing my face!

I wanted to be everywhere and here at the same time, to be free in all my movements, without any person judging the other on his physical or other characteristics.

I had other aspirations, crazy desires for freedom for all these negroes... Did they want to stop being enslaved? To try to be free like our brothers and sisters on the island of Santo Domingo did...

A world, where all would be free, equal...

My thoughts were disturbed by the conversation of Mrs De Cordoba Y Herrera and the master... We could hear their conversation, they were walking around the property. "Señor Olivier-Marie-Robert Léger, have you noticed that with the " o" your nation has been able to recover the Austrian Netherlands from the Holy Roman Empire? "asked the Argentine. The master replied, "I think that dear Napoleon Bonaparte had already planned this peace with the Austrians, they could not face this genius who knew how to lead them where he wanted!".

The master and Señora De Cordoba Y Herrera continued their walk while discussing the news fresh from the old world.


 

I could see out of the corner of my eye how the commander looked at this beautiful woman with the master. He looked like an animal in rut, filled with a strong desire to have coitus with this lady. I think in fact that if he could he would do it with anyone on this island... More and more this man repulsed me, you could read in his eyes what he wanted to do to her...

I thought about the future coming of the son Leger, he had shown me some verses of Voltaire, as well as of Johann Nikolaus Götz, I thought I could learn more in this exercise. While working, I wrote and memorised small pieces of poem to recite to the master's son. I really wanted to develop my mind so that I could sharpen it and be a woman who could defend her fellow human beings and other negroes!

"Look at me, it's Marie-Joséphine who thinks she's a field nigger!" Calixte said to me. I hadn't seen her coming at all, she was disturbing my thinking...

"Oh, but it is our dear white lady, whiter than the lady of the house, Calixte... "I said to her. "What honour is there in your stooping to try to communicate with negroes?" I asked this lost girl...

She stared at me and started to blush with anger and said, "I just wanted to warn you that I will do anything to make the master's son take me as his wife, it is with me that he will go and to me that he will make children. Your negro side will lose you, you stupid girl, good luck in the field with your mother...".

Deep down, I felt sorry for the situation with Calixte. She had too many ideas rooted in the past... Poor mulattress...

The end of the day, at last we will be able to breathe a little with mum.

It was Saturday, December 23, 1797, and I heard the rooster crow early in the morning. I was getting ready to do this hard work, always in the company of other slaves...

I washed quickly, combed my hair and went to wait for my mother in front of the hut in order to repeat, mechanically and as every day, the cutting of the sugar cane. Thousands of negroes cutting cane day after day... Our task was anchored in a mechanism that the owners had put in place.

Some cut the cane, others harvested it and transported it to a mill and then other negroes crushed the cane to extract a juice. This makes it possible to make sugar and rum too... This is what Ambroise explained to me during one of our interviews for my literacy training.

"Are you out already, my daughter? "my mother said to me. I took a moment to think about it because I was in my thoughts, "Hello mum, yes, I can't wait for this day to be over, and tomorrow too because it's New Year's Eve... "I know you love this time of year my daughter" my mother said smiling.

We started walking towards the cane field. Auntie Antoinette called out to us on the way, "Greetings sisters! Well, Marie-Joséphine, you look good!". I smiled at Antoinette and said, "Hello Auntie, I'm excited, it's Christmas Eve tomorrow! "Antoinette, you already know her fascination for this time of year... "my mother said.

Aunt Antoinette did not have time to answer, the commander appeared from nowhere and shouted "HEY COCKROACHES, ACTIVATE, STOP TALKING!".

We began to walk faster so as not to receive a beating from the Commander John, for he would take great pleasure in torturing us and more... The more time passes, the more I find this living being contemptuous, and I am only 16 years old...

When we arrived at the field, we started to work hard. Our hands were badly damaged by the cane. A few hours passed and I was a little tired, as were my mother and the other slaves.

And to give us courage, Michel, 65 years old, one of the oldest cane cutters on the plantation, started to sing so that we could continue our work without thinking about the suffering. We started to sing with him! The commander didn't like us singing in Creole because he was born in France and didn't understand much, but the master let us do it because we kept up the rhythm of the work.

I was really looking forward to tomorrow to go to midnight mass and practice the "Chanté Nwel", it is done from All Saints' Day to Christmas, but I prefer to sing the day before this feast! I wanted to sing "Michaud veillait"... And what's more, we could share a meal together...

"Psst, Marie-Joséphine, come here!" I heard, but I couldn't see who was calling me... "Marie-Joséphine, come this way!" This voice started again... My mother said to me, "That female voice sounds familiar Nono, I can't remember who it belongs to..." ...

I also wondered, because I didn't understand...

Mr. Monplaisir asked, "Who dares to call out to the mulatto before the work is done?". Everyone looked at each other because no one knew...

I replied to the commander, "Mr. Jean, we don't know who could have called me, it's a voice that is unknown to us...".

For once, the commander didn't threaten us, he simply said, "The day is over, put away your tools! Hurry up!".

We complied. It was finally the end...

New Year's Eve, the day I've been waiting for. But I thought of that voice that had called out to me yesterday at the end of the day... I decided to silence these internal reflections and we left for work with Aunt Antoinette and Mom. Today we are working until noon because tomorrow is Christmas!

After seven hours of very hard work, we can go home to get ready to celebrate the day that has something to do with my real name.

I ran back to get to the river first so that no one could see me naked. Some negroes wanted to see the body of a mulatto, but they were not the only ones, some masters and commanders were also looking for an eyeful...

I went to the river, washed quickly, I was not very comfortable. I went back to our hut to get ready and dressed.

I saw that Constantin was coming, he went to open his mouth... But I took the lead, "Hello Constantin, this is not the time, I'm busy... ». He was so shocked that he could not answer...

When I got to the hut, I put on my best dress, it was all white, an immaculate white straight from the metropolis, from Paris. It was made of silk and lace, and a silk scarf that went with my dress. A little gift that Ambroise gave me, he was really the opposite of his father, kindness incarnate. He did as much good as he could for his slaves and some of his father's plantation.

Aunt Antoinette arrived and saw me, she exclaimed "Sweet Jesus, this little mulattress is like an angel from heaven, she is so beautiful! ». I replied to my aunt, "Thank you auntie, but isn't it too white?" and she hastened to tell me, "One might think that you are the mistress of the house...".

After a short silence we began to laugh. After this I began to sing my favourite hymn:

Michaud veillait

Michaud veillait
La nuit dans sa chaumière
Près du hameau

Près du hameau
En gardant son troupeau
Le ciel brillait

Le ciel brillait
D'une vive lumière

Il se mit à chanter
Je vois, je vois, je vois
L'étoile du berger
Je vois, je vois, je vois
L'étoile du ber...


 

(Michaud was watching

Michaud kept watch
at night in his thatched cottage
near the hamlet

Near the hamlet
As he tended his flock
The sky shone

The sky shone
with a bright light

He began to sing
I see, I see, I see
The shepherd's star
I see, I see, I see
The shepherd...)


 

I was interrupted by my mother who said, "We know you know this song, my daughter, go and sing it with the others. And Aunt Antoinette added, "Try to get along with the other mulattoes on the plantation...".

I sighed and argued, "Mama, Auntie, the other mulattoes think they're better than the niggers... That's not the way I see it... There are some Negroes who think that by marrying a mulatto their descendants will be saved...". My mother said, "Noëlle, if you, a mulatto, think differently, perhaps they will do the same, doudou.".

I thought about it and smiled at them, and they understood that I would make an effort. I joined the teenagers of my age. We went around the property singing hymns to the glory of our Lord.

We spent the whole afternoon and early evening doing this.

In the evening I went to join my mother and aunt to get ready for midnight mass.

It was dark, I was alone, I was walking back. I heard footsteps behind me, I turned around, there was nobody there... I was a little relieved...

Suddenly I felt myself leaving, I received a blow to the head, I lost consciousness...

I woke up, a long time later, locked in a wooden box, I couldn't scream my mouth was blocked...

Am I going to die here and then... I didn't know it...


Submitted: May 23, 2021

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