By: Dr Roli Degazon-Johnson
First in a series featuring the history and mobility of Families within the vast Creole Diaspora.
“The term ‘Creole’ was first used in the 16th century to identify descendants of French, Spanish or Portuguese settlers living in the West Indies and Latin America”Editor-in-Chief, Kreol Magazine, Issue 25, 2019
St Christopher (called “Kitts”) the larger of the twin-island state of St. Kitts-Nevis is the most northerly of the Lesser Antilles island group that completes the rim of the Caribbean Basin. Smaller than several of its Windward Island neighbours and significantly tinier than Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic or Cuba, this little island carries a fascinating history which captures aspects of what “Creole” represents in Caribbean culture.
Historical fact and legend compete for truth in St. Kitts: Between 1623 and 1625, the English under Sir Thomas Warner and the French led by Pierre d’Esnambuc established the first European colony on the island which at the time was principally populated by Caribs (Kalinago Indians) led by the Carib Chief, Tegremond. Legend tells us that in 1626, Tegremond changed his mind about this arrangement and in concert with the Caribs from other islands planned to attack and rid themselves of the Europeans. But Barbe, a beautiful Arawak (Taino) woman who had been captured in a Carib assault on her community, betrayed the Caribs by warning her European lover of plans to massacre the foreign interlopers. Alerted to the Carib intent, the English and French carried out a surprise attack on the Carib settlement. The “Bloody Point” genocide ensued in which it is said more than1,000 Carib males were murdered, the females being retained as “slave-wives.”
By the late 1800s under the Treaty of Versailles, the island would be governed solely by the British, whilst French settlers and Caribs remained in peaceful co-existence. St. Kitts and Nevis would flourish from the trade in sugar and cotton enabled by African slave labour brought to work on the estates. A Kittitian creole could therefore lay claim to English, French, African and Carib ancestry, and such is the backdrop of the first account of Creole families in Diaspora: The Blanchettes of Basseterre, St Kitts.
Charles and Ada
Charles Blanchette was the ‘natural’ (a gentler term for “Illegitimate”) son of a white Frenchman from the town of Cayon in St. Kitts, who was an apothecary. The identity of Charles’ mother is not known but she was of African or possibly Carib descent. Her son’s birth was registered in Dieppe Bay, a town on the north of the island. In later years, young Charles was sent to study at New York University’s Dental School, from where he would be the first black student to graduate in the late 1800s. Upon graduation, Charles returned to the Caribbean and became a travelling dentist. Practicing as an itinerant professional in several of the Leeward and Windward Islands, St Vincent among them, he would spend a few months at a time providing dental care and services to communities where there was no permanent dentist resident.
While considered to have been quite a “lady’s man” in his early days, when Charles wedded Ada Robinson, a Kittitian lady of 19 years of age, marriage appeared to close that chapter of his early life and put an end to his philandering. Ada, daughter of a respectable Basseterre family, was a devoted Methodist, played the organ for the Methodist church in Basseterre and may well have come to Charles’s notice through her musical performances in the church. Charles not only played the organ but was a local preacher in the Methodist church when residing in St. Kitts. In the early years of their marriage, Ada travelled with Charles as he pursued his travelling dental practice and some of their children were born in other islands. In later years as the family grew Ada remained in St. Kitts running their beautiful home – the “Retreat” – situated in the capital town, Basseterre.
The Retreat in its day was clearly an impressive and well maintained residence for this well-to-do and respected dentist and his large family. Family members heard stories and accounts that this fine residence, the Retreat, was a resplendent two storey home, with servants and nurses who cared for the many children. It had large flower and vegetable gardens and was remembered particularly for the music which could frequently be heard through its doors and windows. Ada matured into a firm disciplinarian but a fine mother.
Gene Lake, son of Beryl Blanchette-Lake and now a resident of Toronto, Canada, recalls hearing a family story that one evening during the First World War, a group of English soldiers temporarily stationed in Basseterre heard lovely music coming from the Retreat as they strolled through the town. They knocked on the door and were invited by Ada to join in and enjoy the singing and music.
Linda Bascombe-Blanchette, wife of Rupert, currently the eldest living male Blanchette family member, recounts how in keeping with the Blanchette tradition of musicality, Ralph, her father-in-law, often played “In the Mood” on the saxophone. To this day this remains one of her husband’s favourite jazz pieces.
In February 1917 quite unexpectedly, Charles died after a brief illness from Tuberculosis. Charles and Ada’s union had produced 11 children: six sons – Arthur; Cecil; Carl, Edmund; Vincent and Ralph – and five daughters – Flora, Beryl, Eulalie, Bernardine and Dorothy. However, Bernardine lived only a few years before dying from a thyroid-related illness. Their last child, Dorothy was born 7 months after her father’s death.
The Wheel of Fortune turns…..
The untimely death of Charles Blanchette in 1917, would dramatically change the lives of Ada and her children. The family had been solely dependent on the income from Charles’ itinerant practice, so Ada had to turn for support to her older children - many still in their teens. Cecil, Arthur, Vincent, Eulalie and Flora were dispatched to relatives in North America who made efforts to find work for these youngsters, some of whom had not even finished school, so that they could in turn support the younger children.
Arthur whose passion was to study Law, was in his Freshman year at Howard University in Washington D.C. when his father died. Unable to afford the tuition to complete his studies, he moved to Winnipeg in Canada where he secured work as a sleeping car porter with the Canadian Pacific Railroad helped by an uncle working in the same field. Edmund moved to the West Coast where he and his sons, Horace and Bernard, served in the US military. Cecil turned to mechanics as he was known to be able to fix anything, and Vincent became a New York taxi driver. Their sisters, Eulalie and Flora, were both employed as governesses with wealthy New York families and would send home for their younger siblings, clothing that their employer’s children had outgrown.
Carl, Beryl, Ralph and Dorothy remained with their mother in St Kitts, Carl working with the firm of Delisle Walwyn until his retirement, when his eldest daughter, Lenore Blanchette-Berman, sponsored her parents to migrate to Vancouver, Canada. Beryl became ‘in loco parentis’ bringing up Dorothy, as Ada, the grieving widow, found it very difficult to care for her last child following Charles’s death. Beryl would teach nursery school and give music lessons until she married Jim Lake, a customs official, moving to live in St Lucia where she taught music and started a nursery school. Their union produced four children, three of whom migrated to the United Kingdom, Trinidad and Canada.
The Blanchette’s in Diaspora: (SEE MAP)
By the late 1950s, the fortunes of the Blanchette family would see much transformation due to their own grit, determination and drive to succeed. Considering the desolation which widow Blanchette and her children must have experienced on Charles’ death, it is nothing short of amazing to see what many of the 10 made of their lives:
Arthur who had found work as a sleeping car porter in Winnipeg, would so impress Philip Randolph, the Chief Executive and leader of the Union ( Brotherhood) of Sleeping Car Porters that he was appointed to head the union in all of Canada. Today, Arthur’s son, Professor Howard Blanchette, who practiced gynaecology and obstetrics in California before moving to Florida, refers with pride of his father’s contribution to the labour movement in Canada: “Dad was responsible for working with the Canadian government to form the Fair Employment Practice Act which was created to prevent employers from discriminating against minorities and other ethnic groups in the hiring of employees.”
Flora, starting out as a governess in New York would pursue studies in nursing, returning to the Caribbean to practice her profession in the British Virgin Islands. She became the first black woman to be President of the Caribbean Nurses Federation.
Establishing Lakes Nursery School in La Vigie, St Lucia, Beryl earned herself the reputation as one of the island’s finest kindergarten and music teachers. She also played the organ for the Methodist Church. Today, her daughter Barbara, a Methodist Minister and former school principal returned to live in St. Kitts- Nevis, her grandparent’s country, on her retirement. Her sister Jeanette, now a retired nurse who studied in England rose to senior positions in Child Health at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and now lives in Salisbury where she is a senior steward in the Methodist Church. She recounts that on the afternoon of Beryl’s funeral in Castries, St. Lucia’s capital, the number of former students and Methodist congregation members who turned out to pay their respects to her late mother created a major traffic conundrum for the local police.
Eulalie, considered the greatest musician of them all for her capacity to play anything by ear, would lead a life as itinerant as her late father, moving back and forth between the Caribbean and North America before settling in Yonkers, New York, where she spent her final years.
Dorothy, the last child who never knew her father, won a British Council scholarship to study music at the Guildhall School of Music in London, England in the 1940’s. After one year of study, she was awarded a special gold medal by the Guildhall for outstanding performance in her examinations. During her year in England, she met Denis Degazon, a St Lucian surgeon and ophthalmologist whom she married, moving to live in Belize (then British Honduras) before returning to the Caribbean to reside in Jamaica and contribute to the classical music scene there. Her daughter Dr. Daphne Hobson, an architect and historical preservationist has fond memories of her mother performing on piano with an orchestra at concerts in Jamaica: “Our home was filled with music. Mummy practised for hours each day, playing piano duets regularly with a friend, accompanying singers or with chamber music groups.”
Family Reunions – Purpose and Significance
The acceleration in migration of entire communities into diaspora over the last century in particular, has not been unique to the Caribbean and has led to family reunions becoming a growing phenomenon. Reunions can in fact counter the trend in mass society that leads to a sense of isolation, social alienation and a loss of identity by bringing families back together, reminding them of their origins and reasserting their roots. Bringing together of families and relatives of the same ancestry for special occasions such as baptisms, weddings - and sadly - funerals too, is for many people a singular and unique moment in their lives. They recall and reflect on whom they met and recognised and what the significance of the “reunion” was to them personally.
Sometime in the late 1990s at a small gathering of Blanchette family members in Toronto, Canada, it was acknowledged that Blanchette descendants were becoming so plentiful that – given name changes as people marry – some descendants could be in the same college, university or workplace as each other and not realise they were related. The idea of a family reunion that would seek to bring together as many branches of the Blanchettes as possible, was born.
Fast forward to August 2019, the Blanchette family in diaspora held its fourth family reunion in 20 years in Toronto, Canada. Prior reunions have been in St Kitts (2001), Jamaica (2011) and Washington, D.C, USA (2016) each bringing together more family members from every generation. The last of the 10 children of Ada and Charles, Dorothy, attended the 2001 reunion in St Kitts dying in 2009 at 93 years of age. Reunion 2019 had 60 participants and some family branches have still to arrive.
Not everyone welcomes a reunion particularly when life’s failures, problems and sorrows – broken marriages; deaths of loved ones; legal and financial challenges – are experienced by family members. The focus and spot-light that reunions bring to family successes and achievements can also cause embarrassment and upset for those who may feel that they have failed to live up to family values and expectations. Nevertheless for the Blanchettes, the benefits of a family reunion outweigh any disadvantages:
“I am blessed to be a Blanchette as we laugh a lot and would do anything for each other!” says Carol Blanchette Warner, Carl’s youngest daughter, a legal secretary and resident of Vancouver, Canada. Her eldest brother Desmond Blanchette, an airline pilot who trained flight crews for Saudi Arabian Airways, was acknowledged across the family for his constant efforts to keep in touch with his cousins and their families. He attended only two reunions before passing away after a very short illness whilst on a trip to Antigua in 2012. Blanchette Reunion 2019 was organized by the daughters of Desmond, Carl’s son and Gene Lake, Beryl’s son.
Of the Blanchette family reunions Gene feels that “we could constitute a small nation, spread over the globe and living varied lifestyles”. Retired banker from New York, Rupert Blanchette, son of Ralph, has not missed a reunion since his first in 2011 which he attended with his wife Linda, a lecturer at City University of New York. Their family of 6 children and 13 grandchildren add to the spirit of family, fun and fellowship which characterise families reuniting. Lenore Blanchette Berman who migrated to Vancouver, Canada says “deeper relationships grow as more reunions recur. I see a wider family connection as a result”.
Family reunions are a pure delight for Professor Howard Blanchette, who adds: “My extended family is full of love, energy, humour, compassion and devotion.” Garrett Evans, the grandson of Cecil, says he “reconnects with relatives at reunions. The Caribbean is in our blood and we are proud of our heritage”.
IF YOU HAVE A FAMILY REUNION STORY TO SHARE WHICH YOU WOULD LIKE KREOL MAGAZINE TO FEATURE, WRITE TO US AT