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Adventure on Butterfly Island - Gaudeloupe - Part 2

Books and Travel. If you have ever fallen in love with adventure and travel, there's one truth that always stands out. It's the power of the written word to inspire and paint a picture with words that lets you step right into a story, a moment in time, a literary scene of people being people. The book “Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow " by Gabriel Banat was that book for me - painting a picture, an intriguing mysterious picture I just didn't understand...

Life's Little Mysteries

Gabriel Banat’s ambitious story of the life and times of Joseph de Bologne inspired me to take a trip to the island of Gaudeloupe, to find out - Was this truth or fiction or somewhere in between? Who were these people living in Gaudeloupe? Mr. Banat simply lumped them together and said the black "slaves." Joseph de Bologne was half African..with a slave mother and half French. It's so easy in today's culture and with today's movies and popular history media to make suppositions of who French people and African people were or weren't 300 years ago. It's easy to just see things in black and white. But is that the truth? I found the book lacking in terms of the higher standard the truth requires. The book I found was really just suppositions about what Mr. Banat thought Joseph de Bologne’s life was like based on the experiences of other people and this narrowly defined "African slave" and "French plantation master" whatever or whoever that was.

What’s interesting is that Joseph de Bologne’s diaries and writings were confiscated by French authorities who wanted to wipe him out of French history. What was it about this black Frenchman that after he died...his memory needed to be wiped out?There are no portraits of his mother or father that are in public view. In fact, when Joseph de Bologne's story was touched upon in French movies for example, he was portrayed as a white European, any and all of his black blood subdued and erased. I was intrigued why this larger-than-life figure was shunned now…Was it just due to racism, colonialism? It didn’t make sense. There are stories like this: Joseph de Bologne was friends with Mozart. Mozart actually lived in his house but then writers of today will say that Joseph de Bologne and Mozart didn’t know each other. Huh!!

Check out the French movie cover from French documentary film "The Legendary Chevalier de Saint George," 2011. Original Soundtrack - Music for Queen Marie-Antoinette. The portrait right next to the movie cover is the real Joseph de Bologne painted in 1788.

Wanting to get to the bottom of this mystery…I decided to focus on Mr. Banat’s information on Joseph de Bologne’s music. He wrote that the “African slaves” in Gaudeloupe loved music and had developed a unique style of music, today called Gwoka. The light went on in my head. Africa is the most musical continent on this planet. Mr. Banat said that Gwoka had influenced Joseph de Bologne’s Classical Music Compositions from complex rhythms that were evident in his music to beautiful, haunting lullabies Joseph heard on the sugar plantations and from his mother of course. I wanted to know about Gwoka and I wanted to know about Guadeloupe. Who were these “African slaves” Who created this music? Who gave birth to Joseph de Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint George and what were they like? Were they soft-spoken, smart? What kind of food did they eat? Where in Africa did they come from?

Cudgelling match between English and French Negroes on the Caribbean island of Dominica by Italian artist Agostino Brunias, published in 1779.

As a 1st generation American with parents from Zimbabwe, I knew that Africa’s rich cultures, especially Africa’s rich musical traditions were amazing. I searched Mr. Banat’s book trying to find out information about Joseph de Bologne’s mother – Anne – “the African slave.” But alas, Anne was just "the African slave."

From my own family I knew something that Mr. Banat would never have thought to look into and I decided to research France's first relationships with Africa's empires.I knew about the Monomotapa Empire whose headquarters were in Zimbabwe, the southern most parts of the Ethiopian Empire up north. The Monomotapa Empire is an ancient Empire that extends beyond the 14th century as taught today to the Ancient Kingdoms of Saba and Axum. And it was many of the Monomotapa kings of Zimbabwe and Ethiopia who established the first relationships with the French kings before the en masse enslavement of black African peoples in North America and the Caribbean. What could the Monomotapa Empire tell me that Mr. Banat never could?

Portrait of The Great King of Monomotapa by French artist Francois Jollain from 1680

The first Europeans to Africa were the notable Portuguese, whose peoples had many roots and connections to East and Southern Africa. For 800 years, Spain and Portugal were ruled by people from East Africa and the Middle East. This period of Spanish and Portuguese history is referred to as the time of The Moors. After the Christian Portuguese kicked out their Islamic rulers, there were still many people of African descent – Christians/Jews living in Portugal and Spain who remained.

It was the Monomotapa Empire that was gifted with the first European Coat of Arms from Portuguese King Dom Sebastian in 1569. Below you see the portrait of Dom Sebastian and Ethiopian Emperor Sarsa Dengel. The Monomotapa Ethiopian kings were concerned about the negative impact the Arab and Turkish Islamic Muslim rulers were having on East and Southern Africa with human trafficking and ethnic cleansing of their peoples and sought military and cultural alliances with Portugal.

The French came to Africa about 200 years after the Portuguese presence and competed with the Portuguese for the resources and lucrative trade routes formerly controlled by the Monomotapa and Ethiopian emperors.

The Ethiopian Monomotapa kings allowed the French to build a fortress on the island of Madagascar at a place called the Bay of Tolanaro. It was named Fort Dauphin in 1643 by the French East India Company and it was completed by 1648. It's basically right across the sea from Great Zimbabwe, the capital city of the ancient Monomotapa Empire.

The French were regulars in the Ethiopian royal courts during that time. Many French artists painted portraits of the most prominent Ethiopian and Monomotapa Emperors of the 17th century.

All of this history and culture made me determined to get to Gaudeloupe and check out these “African slaves.” I was sure there was a connection between Zimbabwe’s Monomotapa Empire, France and little Gaudeloupe, especially because of the music.

That was the beginning of my adventure to Gaudeloupe – The Butterfly Island.

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