History is the study of the past. Often it is defined as the study of the past as recorded in writing. This is a reasonable definition, but it also limits the the scope of what we can learn from history.
The Old House in French Quarter has a history. A version of it was compiled by Henri and Denise Parisis in 1989. In their research they drew from a variety of archives such as census records and legal documents. These are the things that were written back then, and these are the things that survive.
As one can imagine, some of the history is quite dry. We learn the size of a plot of land each time it was sold. We have some family histories that are a series of distant dates and faceless names. We can see the price of a plantation.
Does the data of commerce and bureaucracy tell us anything about what life was really like back then? In fact, it does. There are quite a few details that can help us imagine the scene at the time of the 1772 census. We know the crops that were grown, and they were varied. There were fields of cotton, potatoes, cassava and even grain. There were 1,000 banana trees and 2,000 coffee plants. There were 25 cattle, three horses, 100 sheep and 50 goats.
We can also trace changes over time. By 1793, the property had a working sugar mill. In 1816 85% of the cropland was growing sugar cane. By the 1840s, sugar production had declined and cotton was being grown again. With this data, you could sit on the porch and imagine the changes sweeping through the land. Combine it with data from dozens of other plantations and it tells us how the whole island shifted in the service of the global economy.
These records also tell us some human stories that tell us about connections within the Caribbean during the colonial era. Alexis Bernié was from St Barths. Brothers Arthur, John, Benjamin and Thomas Hodge were from Anguilla. Pierre-Daniel Beauperthuy was from Guadeloupe. All came from other islands, and all were owners of this property. They remind us that St. Martin has always been a land of immigrants and a Caribbean melting pot.
What is sadly missing is information about the vast majority of people who lived on the plantation during these years. The number of enslaved people was recorded alongside property and livestock: 49 in 1772, 47 in 1793, 77 in 1816, 44 in 1843. Their houses and gardens are mentioned, but we don’t know their names or their stories.
On St. Martin, much of history is a hollow shell. Beyond the owners and rulers is a great emptiness. The people who built the island are largely unnamed and unknown. What do you wish we could know about them? Write to The Daily Herald or email [email protected].