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Senate Helps Honor French Heritage Week


July 13, 2005 — Taking a break from grueling Senate sessions, the Legislature's doors opened on Wednesday to host a Bastille Day Forum as part of the district's French Heritage Week Celebration.
The event was a first for St. Thomas, boasting the theme, "Sustaining a Rendezvous of Victory — Two Centuries of French Democracy."
The event featured panelists such as retired UVI Professor Dr. Arnold Highfield, who discussed the history of French settlements in the Virgin Islands and how they contributed to a gradual "Creolization" of Caribbean culture.
Highfield said that the first settlement was created in St. Croix around 1650 by French pirates and buccaneers set on attacking Spanish ships. "They looked for places to make camps, build canoes, and lead expeditions—they came to settle in the Dutch West Indies."
While in St. Croix, the French were responsible for the establishment of Catholicism as an influential religion. "They brought with them the French Catholic movement after leaving the religious revolutions in France. And, they also came into contact with Indian peoples, like the Caribs, who helped to form basic Creole culture…the two began to assimilate, blending traditions, language, food, etc.," Highfield said.
But this first movement was short lived, as the Spanish eventually forced the French to recolonize around 1687 in locations like Haiti. "They took with them many slaves from islands like St. Croix…that is why we have such a connection to Haiti."
From the territory, the French diaspora also extended to islands such as Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique, St. Lucia, and Dominica.
The French then reëstablished their presence in the islands with a second movement of settlers from St. Barths in the 1860s. At that time, the island was divided between the French and the Swedish—residents who were Afro-Creole lived on the side called Au Vent, and those who were closer to their European roots lived on the side called Sous de Vent.
After the Franco-Prussian War in the 19th century, France's ties with island colonies began to weaken, the Europeans on St. Barths migrated to St. Thomas when trade was encouraged between France and the Danish West Indies.
"Trade occurred on St. Thomas at a port called Carenage…or Frenchtown," Highfield said. "And, when settlers from St. Barths began to colonize, they represented the division by either living in Frenchtown, or up in the hills on the Northside."
Highfield said that the French in Frenchtown were more inclined to become fishermen for the colonies, while those on the Northside became farmers.
Highfield added that a third, more continuous French movement into the territory started in the 1700s and continues today. "These are people who may not be of French descent, and they come from islands such as Haiti, Dominica, and St. Lucia."
"Africans from around the Senegal River, who were also brought as slaves to places like St. Croix, assimilated into Creole culture and added their own bit to the language," Highfield said.
Highfield added that this last movement is ongoing, and still contributes greatly to the territory's Creole culture. "Those immigrants from St. Lucia, Dominica, Santo Domingo…they are from islands with a French past. They bring their traditions, food, energy, and have integrated…helping to rapidly change patterns of 'Creolization' in the territory. They are a mirror of the past…something that we might have been if French presence had been continuous here."
Dr. Aimery Caron, professor emeritus, added to Highfield's speech with his own presentation on the creation of French settlements in the Danish West Indies.
Spurred by France's own revolution, and America's Civil War, French colonies in the Antilles became politically agitated and opened themselves up to their own civil wars, trying to break free from English, Spanish and Danish ties.
The most famous of these revolutions occurred in Haiti, with Toussaint L'Ouverture gaining independence for his country in 1804. After this, over 10,000 Haitian refugees immigrated to islands all over the Caribbean—including St. Thomas and St. Croix.
"These French citizens were important to us, and sustained their influence here in many ways," Caron said. Economically, for example, French Creole immigrants gave impetus to our economy, mass producing coffee for places like Columbia, Cuba, and Puerto Rico…and sugar for places like Trinidad and Louisiana."
These individuals developed the territory's language and culture by influencing our food, music, clothing, and dance.
"Their traditions were instilled here…they brought schools, theaters, newspapers, Catholicism, architectural style, and expressions…they brought and developed things like jazz and introduced us to pepper sauce, stuffed crab, kallaloo," Caron said.
Former Sen. Cain Magras was also a panelist and gave testimony to the enduring elements of French influence in today's V.I. culture—starting with his own memories of growing up in St. Thomas.
"I can tell you that growing up in Frenchtown in the 1950s and 1960s, people of French descent were labeled as white, poor, and poorly educated—they called us Cha Cha's," Magras said, indicating that the nickname was inclined to be an insult from other residents.
"But during the 1970s, 'Frenchies' were going to the Catholic school, were receiving good educations, held top positions in banks, stores, and other businesses. We held positions of trust, and there developed the saying, 'always trust a Frenchie.'"
"We went to college, we returned home, we served in the armed forces, and we became entrepreneurs," Magras said, indicating that many businesses in Frenchtown, such as La Belle Creole, were formed from that intent.
Magras also said that Frenchies became known as creative toward the 1980s, drawing on rich traditions such as Mardi Gras to help out with Carnival in St. Thomas. Magras himself, as well as many Frenchtown residents, designed floats and costumes for 25 years.
"Through this, we've become a part of this culture, and helped to preserve our own," Magras said.
The forum, hosted by Sen. Lorraine L. Berry, also featured presentations from Madame Odile de Lyrot, Honorary Consul of France for the Virgin Islands and Professor Evelyn Lallemand, who spoke on the "Haitian Quest for Democracy and Economic Development."
Dr. Malik Sekou and Jean P. Greaux were the Masters of Ceremonies for the event, and Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste provided closing remarks.
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