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A French Creole Saga
« on: April 06, 2017, 09:08:39 AM »
A French Creole saga
By Bridget Brereton, Express.

I’ve said before that Fr Anthony de Verteuil is a national treasure. His many books have researched and documented so many aspects of Trinidad’s history. He’s written about every sector of the society, but he is above all the chronicler of the French Creoles, who played such an important part in the island’s past.

Fr Anthony’s latest book, co-authored with Adrian Camps-Campins, is a lavishly illustrated family history, Thank God for Trinidad: The Agostinis. It’s the story of one immigrant who arrived in Trinidad in the 1800s, and the family and businesses he founded.

Of course, François Agostini wasn’t just any immigrant. As Fr Anthony says, “he had five things in his favour. He was white, he was educated, he knew the language (French), he was Catholic, and he was young, strong and ambitious”. Few of the people who arrived in Trinidad after the end of slavery enjoyed any of these advantages, let alone all five.

Agostini arrived here from his native Corsica, part of France, in 1855, to join relatives already established in Trinidad—what we call “chain migration”. Only 17 years old, he quickly got a job as an overseer and then a manager of a sugar estate in the deep South. From this start, he was able to acquire land in several different parts of the island, and to accumulate great wealth.

By the time he died in 1921, Agostini owned a large coconut plantation in Icacos, Constance, with a copra factory and an estate house; several cocoa plantations in Central Trinidad (Montserrat) with an elaborate Great House; and a mansion on Henry Street, Port of Spain.

The book gives us a vivid sense of how this privileged and wealthy French Creole family lived in the early 1900s. “Great House life” at Constance and at San Juan (Montserrat) is described in detail, partly through the many fascinating photographs, partly from family tradition shared with the author, and partly from an unpublished memoir by one of Agostini’s granddaughters. So too is the lavish lifestyle at Castiglione, the town house named for a place in Corsica.

This is a success story, of course, but Fr Anthony—who is largely responsible for what I’ve called the French Creole narrative of Trinidad’s history—is not uncritical of his subjects. François Agostini is described as a “mean” employer, and his brother Henri as a “brutal” one (both employed indentured and free Indian labour, as well as Afro-Trinidadians, as estate workers and domestic servants).

One interesting aspect of the story is that the Agostinis, perhaps untypically of the island’s French Creoles, always remained essentially French. The tradition of sending the children (girls and boys) to schools in France, not England, was carried on well into the 20th century. The family went on holiday to France every year, and nearly all the girls, of several generations, married Frenchmen. Agostini boys fought (and died) with the French army in World War I. François twice refused a seat in the Legislative Council because of his “imperfect English”—a man who’d lived in Trinidad since he was 17.

There’s much more to learn from this book: about Hosay in Cedros and in Montserrat; about the horse races held on the beach at Cedros; about how the upper class celebrated Carnival in the early 1900s; and about the lively (and exclusive) French Creole social life in Montserrat, based on the cocoa estates there during the heyday of the “Golden Bean”.

The photographs, mostly from Camps-Campins’ collection, add a rich dimension to the book; as Fr Anthony says, the text was written around them. It’s a family history, but you don’t need to be an Agostini, or a French Creole, to appreciate this window into the island’s past.

Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of History at The UWI, St Augustine.
« Last Edit: April 06, 2017, 09:10:35 AM by asylumseeker »
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