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Audubon and His Birds – The Haitian Connection

Birds flying through the flowers, by Louiceus Antelus

While in Haiti with Casey a few weeks ago, she and I looked for new designs to introduce at the winter wholesale and retail shows.  Particularly, we were interested in garden and springtime pieces and did we ever find them! Flowers, trees, bees and butterflies, farmers in their fields, trees budding with fruit, and birds.   Oh the birds!  Nesting, winging, swooping, soaring, lovebirds, song birds, flamingos, swans, and more. An endless avian menagerie in the workshops of Croix-des-Bouquet.

Real-live flesh and feather birds are having quite the struggle for survival, given the heavy toll that deforestation has taken on their habitats.  Yet this is the land where John James Audubon, the great American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter was born.

Yes, you read that right.  John James Audubon, born in Les Cayes, in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue on April 26, 1785.  And though not all of the story is clear, it is intriguing, to say the least.  Of his own origins, Audubon wrote, “The precise period of my birth is yet an enigma to me.” There is considerable weight to the theory that it was not so much an enigma to him as it was a hesitation to disclose, what with legitimacy and claims to inheritance hanging in the balance.  The family as a whole was evasive on the subject. Long after he was gone, his own granddaughter wrote that Audubon was, in her belief, possessed of royal Bourbon characteristics and, “in fact, the Dauphine of France, child of the martyred Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who mysteriously disappeared during the French Revolution.” He was also said to have been born in Louisiana, son of a French Naval officer and creole mother, who took ill on a Mississippi River flatboat moored at Nine Mile Point and died in childbirth. The city of New Orleans was only too happy to claim him as their native son and erected a bronze statue of him to emphasize the point.

It was not until 1917, a full 66 years after Audubon’s death that legal documents were brought forth by Audubon biographer, Francis Hobart Herrick.  These documents established that Audubon was born the son of the swash-buckling Captain Jean Audubon – a sometime gentleman planter and sometime privateer in the service of the French navy – and his creole mistress, Jeanne Rabine in their home in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue. At birth, he was given the name Jean Rabine. His mother died a few months later under unclear circumstances and Jean went to live with another of Captain Audubon’s island mistresses and his half-sister, Muget Bouffard.  At the age of four, Captain Audubon became wary of the clouds of slave unrest gathering over Saint Domingue and fled with his two young children to his French homeland and legal wife of seven years.  Madame Audubon greeted the three with love and grace at the family estate near Nantes, France and raised the children as her own henceforward. When Jean Rabine was eight years old, his parents sought to secure his legitimacy and rightful inheritance by adopting him and changing his name to Jean Jacques Forgere Audubon.  Thereby, his status as a bastard child of Haitian origins were buried and remained so for the rest of his life.

From there, Jean Audubon’s story becomes well known, though

Portrait of John James Audubon by John Syme

Audubon himself was prone to embellishment.  He

claims to have been a student of art under the tutelage of court portraitist, Jacques Louis David, where he refined his artistic eye.  However, bemoaning the “boring nature” of his subject matter, that being still-lifes and backgrounds, he left David’s atelier after a few months.  In 1789, with his father’s encouragement and blessings, Audubon sailed for the United States to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army.  After a few fits and starts, the handsome French dandy, Jean Jacques Audubon became John James Audubon, American woodsman, distinguished naturalist, and internationally acclaimed artist.  His magnum opus, “Birds of America” to this day remains a landmark work of art and ornithology.

Okay.  So maybe this is more information about Audubon and birds than you were looking for in one sitting.  But it could win you a round in Trivial Pursuit.  Enjoy your victory, with my compliments!

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

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