“Everyone is an atheist, I just take my atheism one god further.” – Voltaire
For some time I have had enough of my pink English cheeks, the busy eyebrows, an exposed and embarrassed scalp. Confusing rumors and family documents have indicated I might be French. That would help, I reasoned, since the French ask no one’s pardon, and I could use a little of that here in Mexico, where I am too white. And so I decided to consult the old family papers, long ignored, kept in a nearby bottom drawer. George Edward Dupré, my great-great grandfather was born in Rouen, France in 1798. He captained a fast 50-ton schooner, the kind favored by smugglers and pirates, between Africa and the Caribbean. On his third trip, a hurricane tore off the ship’s two masts, which fell into the water and dragged behind the ship, steadying the hull, like a sea anchor. Still, the schooner plunged forward, before forty-foot swells, toward the white water dead ahead. By luck, there was an opening in the reef, and the stricken ship hurtled through it and into the deep cove of an island that granted protection from the wind.
George Dupré dropped anchor, sent the crew ashore in the longboat – a quarter mile row to a sandy beach, where they said they would spend the night, as a respite from the hardships of the storm. They were three men of questionable character and one sixteen-year-old missing a thole pine or two, and George was glad to be rid of them for a while. Plus, an idea had been fermenting in his barrel, which then turned into a purpose, and then a plan.
Night had fallen, and he lit an oil lamp. With drill punch and hammer, he struck the pins from the grated hatches and opened them, gagging from the smell of vomit, shit, and rotting flesh. Below deck, he walked, stooping, along the narrow passages and, with anvil and hammer and lamp. He struck the shackles from each captive – whether he was dead or alive, or somewhere in between. This task took all night, breaking the shackles and chains, yet not the souls attached to them. His hands blistered and bloody, his back in pain, he returned to the deck and waited as it began to dawn. The winds had dropped. A liquid calm lay across the cove. Slowly, and with great caution, the first head appeared in the forward hatch – the first of a whole Senegal village.
My great-great grandfather George Edward Dupré, like most slave traders, was familiar with discussions about the views of Leibniz, Rousseau, Voltaire, Hume, and Kant – all of whom believed in the inferiority of Africans. And yet on that morning, he was sure that the hurricane was a message from the-God-he-did-not-believe-in that he should not be trading in what might be human beings. And so, with the lantern in one hand, he helped the Africans climb onto the deck. Of the ninety-six captives he had started with, only forty emerged into the soft tropical night, and those, in shock and confusion, showing ribs, and with sunken eyes.
He went to his own bed in the captain’s quarters, with the doors barred and his pistols beside him. He expected to be murdered in his slumber. And so he did not sleep. The new idea had consequences, and among them was the matter of justice. And so, as the sun rose, he stepped out on the deck. The Africans had raided the stores and were eating and drinking. A tall man stood before him, holding a sword. George handed him his pistols and said in French that he would accept the blow he deserved – and he bent his head to receive it.
The blow came in a few seconds and sent him crashing into the wall of the navigation deck. When he opened his eyes, he expected to see himself lying in a pool of blood, but here was no blood. His left shoulder felt broken. He fell in and out of consciousness. During the heat of day, someone had rigged part of a sail over him, so that he lay in shade. The tall African, carrying the pistols, brought him water and biscuits.
He watched as the survivors brought the dead up from the hold. They sang prayers, then pushed the bodies through openings in the gunnels. He heard the bodies hit the water. He listened as the Africans mopped away the body slime and stench, with seawater. He heard them doing the same below decks – for a longer period – adding the traces of their dead companions’ misery to the already fetid bilge. All the while, there were skirmishes as the crew tried to re-take the ship. The Senegals dropped lead ballast through the floor of the longboat, so that it foundered, and dumped the French into the sea, who – cursing – swam back to shore.
The tall African leader conversed with George, who gradually understood that he wanted to repair the ship enough to sail away. Over the next two days, George gave instructions. He could barely walk. His whole upper body was turning blue and green from the blow he had taken. He had been punished but spared, and this idea had the effect of making him pose a theory about a humane and forgiving God, who was none other than mankind itself.
He sewed sails and showed the Africans how to rig a temporary mast. They had been more fishermen than sailors, but they produced lashings and rigging that were both practical and strong. Then, on an offshore breeze and an ebbing tide, they slipped out the cove. The former crew ran along the beach, howling and throwing stones, which fell far short. For a while, they gave chase in the patched longboat, cursing and rowing in disarray. But a fresh southerly snapped out the sails, and the schooner pulled away.
When they passed through the break in the reef, George Dupré saw that it had been the only break for miles in either direction. The God that didn’t exist, in the great storm, had guided him to that one gut – further proof, in his mind, that freeing slaves had been the right thing to do. At that moment, the one phrase he knew from Voltaire occurred to him: If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
He sailed the ship, and taught navigation and seamanship. But it was soon apparent that the Africans already understood the principals of sailing and already knew other forms of navigation. They read the flotsam, the fierce stars, the birds, and the angle of the sun and moon. At times, he laughed with the tall leader. He was confused by the comradeship he felt
Eventually, they arrived at Saint-Domingue, a French colony, today known as Haiti, where, without saying good-bye, he let himself down a rope and swam to shore, and after another year arrived back in Rouen, France. There is no record of what he did during that year of soft Caribbean evenings.
In France, he avoided his creditors by slipping off to Scotland, to a spot where the Atlantic Drift, also known as the Bermuda Current, passes close to shore at the harbor town of Gairloch. He took up oils – we know this from one preserved letter – and persistent inquiries to various curators have shown that a painting by one G. E. Dupré was recently culled from a minor collection at the Frick and sold to an anonymous private collector in St. Louis.
It was called “Painting At Night” and, according to an old catalog, showed an artist sitting on a beach painting a schooner that lies at anchor in a quiet cove. “A full moon hangs just above the sea’s horizon, “ the text reads, “so that the ship, a little to the left, is a dark outline. Just to the right of the ship, a shimmering path of moonlight comes straight at the beach, and at us the viewer. An artist sits with his back to us on a diagonal with the moon, in the lower left, with his easel propped in front of him. On the left, on the far side of the cove, we see the dark outline of mountains falling from left to right, ending at the cove’s entrance. We see the lights of a fishing village. Two longboats have set out from the ship and are pulling toward the village. It is not clear what their intention is –recreation or mayhem. In front of us, center foreground, we see a woman lying on a blanket, mostly naked and turned toward the painter, watching him with the same intensity as he watches the ship. The moonlight throws highlights on her upper hip and shoulder. Slowly, we realize that her skin is black. The top of her head is close to us, and so we feel we are involved in her life, and therefore in his. We want him to turn his attention away from the ship – ghostly and dark – and toward her, who seems warm and inviting, and of greater promise.”
For those of you who suffer from any measure of skepticism, let me release you straight out, and offer you an apology. I wrote everything you have just heard before actually going to the bottom drawer that held the neglected family papers. But I did eventually consult a text that was written by my grandfather Frances Dupré Bennett, who was the grandson of the man who gave me my French blood, George Edward Dupré. George was born in Rouen, France in 1798 and settled in Kentucky. He did not shipwreck in the Caribbean with a load of dying Senegals. Nor did he strike the shackles off his captives – both dead and alive – fight off his own crew, nor bring the liberated Senegals to Haiti. He did own fifty slaves. This is accepted family history. He did, starting from Louisville, float flat boats down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, with loads of hardware, beads, and calicos. In New Orleans, he chartered schooners and traded his goods in the Caribbean for tree crotches of sandal wood and mahogany for ship’s knees, which were in great demand, as braces, by ship builders everywhere. But on his third voyage, in 1838, his ship, ravaged by a great storm, broke its back against a reef on the coast of Florida. While most of the crew drowned, he and his idiot cabin boy clung to wreckage and drifted ashore – where they were finished off by Seminole Indians who had already lost enough of their sons and daughters to various slavers and weren’t taking any chances.
One crewmember survived and eventually conveyed the news to George’s widow. She was my great-great grandmother Eleanor Bentley Greer. Her half French daughter was my great-grandmother Sarah. Three years later, Eleanor married one George Donaldson, who gambled away the plantation and slaves before dying of cholera in the St. Louis epidemic of 1847. The funeral was attended by various mustached shipbuilders, riverboat men, freebooters, and Cologne-scented gamblers who were interested in Eleanor’s hand and her remaining wealth.
One of the mourners, my grandfather Frances writes, was an attractive black Haitian woman who arrived in a fine carriage drawn by cream-colored horses. She was a free person of obvious means and education, whose English flowed in currents of French, Caribbean, and – some said – Scottish lowland accents. She lingered at the coffin for some time, moving her lips, perhaps mistaking the person inside – the gambler George Donaldson – for the other man the Seminole Indians had made into a pin cushion for arrows, i.e. my great great-grandfather George Dupré, who – it is possible – may have added his French blood to her line, just as he did to mine.
My great-great grandmother Eleanor was so relieved to be rid of her second husband, the gambler Donaldson, that she overcame a paralyzing jealousy and invited the woman to come home to eat with family and friends. Throughout the entire evening, she never asked the woman who she was or why she had come to the funeral. Instead, they each drank too much, laughed and wept, and held each other like dearly beloved cousins, before the Haitian woman brushed a gloved hand along the withers of one of her cream colored horses, stepped unsteadily up into her fine carriage, and was driven away by one of her own slaves, a small foreign looking man dressed smartly in coachman’s tails, a top hat, and jodhpurs. In the course of the evening, Eleanor’s two remaining servants had chatted with this man and reported that he claimed to have grown up in a small Senegal fishing village called Nbour, on the west coast of Africa, on a latitude a little south of Haiti, and like Haiti, a French colony.