By 1789, there are approximately 500,000 people living in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), of which some 450,000 are slaves. The first French people to land on Saint-Domingue were pirates. They arrived not long after Christopher Columbus claimed for Spain the island of Hispaniola in 1492.
The French pirates strengthened their presence on the western portion of the island known as Santo Domingo. In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick was signed which gave the French formal permission to occupy Santo Domingo. Saint-Domingue promptly became the new name for Santo Domingo. Landowners wanted to increase their trade with France and began purchasing slaves from Africa. A person chained and shipped into this life of servitude on Saint-Domingue was called a bossal. A child born with a bossal parent and a white parent was labeled a mulatto.
But it remains the bossals who bear the brunt of the labor on Saint-Domingue, most of which is to grow, harvest, and process coffee, indigo, and sugar. Plantation owners resort to atrocious forms of punishment to force people apart from their families and to work in deathly heat and humidity and fields swarming with mosquitos and other pests and natural threats.
Jean Audubon Acquires Land in America
Such insufferable conditions create an environment that is ripe for revolution. Jean Audubon anticipates uprisings and sells his plantation for $69,000. He uses the small down payment to load a trade ship with wine and sugar. Audubon then sails for New York City and drops anchor in the East River. He returns to Philadelphia and learns from his friends that close by there is 200 acres for sale. The property is called “Mill Grove.” The land is farmed, but its chief value is its potential for mining lead. Also on the property is a two-story, stone house. Marble slabs indicate that Jim Morgan completed the house in 1763.
On April 10, 1789, Henry Augustin Prévost agrees to sell Mill Grove to Audubon for $3,500. Prévost accepts the sugar Audubon has stored on his ship for part of the purchase amount. Audubon returns to his ship in New York and sails back to Philadelphia. Instead of receiving the sugar, Prévost agrees to let Audubon sell the sugar and buy a coach. Aububon then leaves the coach with Prévost as a guarantee for the purchase of Mill Grove and sails back to Saint-Domingue. Audubon navigates through the political tension and turmoil in Saint-Domingue and secures another load of sugar. Audubon returns to America and completes the purchase of Mill Grove. He then rents the farm to a neighboring farmer named William Thomas and departs with Prévost on the Victoire to cross the Atlantic back to France.
Jean Audubon Returns to France
Prévost disembarks at Brittany’s Belle-Île and sails north for England. Audubon remains on board and continues southeast to Nantes, France. Audubon is home with his wife Anne Moynet in time for the French Revolution to ignite. Potentially more explosive for Anne Moynet is Audubon informing her that he is the father of a boy in Saint-Domingue from one mistress and the father of a girl from another. If Anne Moynet forgives Audubon for his adultery, she would not be the first. Sailors, soldiers, and male colonists are notorious for using women of other lands and cultures or à la façon du pays ostensibly to improve trade relations and to gain allies. Long periods away from girlfriends and wives may be an even more obvious reason for children like Audubon’s born out of wedlock.
In June of 1792, Jean Audubon is able to arrange transport for Jean Rabin and his half-sister Rosa from Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue, to Nantes on the Tancrède. Victor Giraudier, a sugar planter from Cavaillon, accompanies Jean Rabin off the ship and lists him as the “white” son of “Monsieur Mouton.”
Whatever it was that filled Anne Moynet’s days, it all changed with the arrival of Jean Rabin and Rosa. She channels all of her energy and devotion to the children. And to improve their safety, Anne Moynet takes Rosa and Jean Rabin to Couëron for the summer with the thought that the quiet village would be an easier adjustment than the cramped housing in Nantes and away from the threatening violence in the city’s streets.
Today, one of France’s most important refuges for birds is just west of Couëron at the Parc Naturel Régional de Brière. Such exposure to natural areas and wildlife has a lifelong effect on Jean Rabin. In the fall, Jean Rabin is enrolled in “The School.” He excels at penmanship, dancing, music, composition, and fencing. He also likes reading, but only the natural history books that his father gives to him.
Discontent Everywhere Else
Civil order keeps slipping in Sainte-Domingue after a slave uprising in 1791. The upheaval and horrible violence in Sainte-Domingue begin to ripple through France. On September 20, 1792, the French National Convention abolishes the monarchy and begins writing the constitution for the First Republic of France. Jean Audubon allies with the citizens of the Republic and becomes a member of the ’s Revolutionary Committee of Nantes.
In January of 1793, Louis XVI is executed. The royalists counter the gory deed by beheading citizen Maximilien Robespierre on July 28, 1794. The Committee of Public Safety then regains the upper hand with the Reign of Terror. Jean Audubon joins the Republic’s National Guard and is named the commissioner of the “civil, moral, and political state” of the Nantes commune.
Audubon recruits and organizes fellow citizens to enforce Republican edicts. Violence and mass killings occur in Nantes. Over the winter, 9,000 people die from fighting or disease in Nantes. In addition to fighting the royalists, the Republicans and its Directory of the Department remain committed to wars against England, the Netherlands, and Spain.
A New Name for Jean Rabin
On March 7, 1794, Jean Audubon and Anne Moynet adopt Jean Rabin and Rosa. Jean Rabin’s mother is unnamed and is described only as “a woman living in America but deceased about eight years.” Jean Rabin’s last name is also changed to “Fougère.” There is no mention of the fictitious father “Monsieur Mouton.”
Audubon is re-assigned to the sea to help fight wars that France has declared on Great Britain (February 1, 1793) and Spain (March 7, 1793). He is put in command of the lugger Cerbère in the Bay of Biscay. Their job is to help protect grain imports from the United States. In May of 1794, England begins its assault on the Bay of Biscay. Among the numerous skirmishes and clashes is the Brilliant attacking Cerbère. Audubon and his fellow sailors repel Brilliant but not without Audubon being wounded and then hospitalized in La Rochelle. Audubon recovers and continues serving the Republic until his retirement as a lieutenant-commander on January 1, 1801.
The Baptism of Jean Fougère
Also under fire in France is the Catholic Church. Close ties to the French monarchy was the first strike against the Church. The other more troublesome issues were corruption and the higher clergy’s profligate displays of wealth. In addition to beheading Louis XVI and bringing an end to a Catholic monarchy in France, the Committee of Public Safety worked to suppress the Church, nationalized Church property, killed hundreds of priests, and exiled thousands more.
Yet faiths and traditions die hard. Anne Moynet insists on a Catholic baptism for Jean Fougère and takes the boy to the one functioning Catholic church in Nantes. Abbé Hyacinthe Tardiveau agrees to baptize Jean Fougère at St. Similien. Although on October 23, 1800, the abbot names him not Jean Fougère but “Jean-Jacques-Fougère, adopted son of Jean Audubon and Anne Moynet his spouse.”
When Jean-Jacques-Fougère turns 12, Jean Audubon enrolls his son at the naval base at Rochefort-sur-Mer. His favorite pursuits remain fencing, dancing, and playing the flute and violin while developing little desire to be a seaman. Jean-Jacques-Fougère spends one year at Rochefort before returning to live with his family in Couëron. The more time Jean-Jacque-Fougère spends in the village next to the Loire, the more apparent it becomes that the classroom he favors most is the outdoors. His room gradually turns into a museum for displaying the specimens he collects. And in order to improve his drawings of birds, Jean-Jacques-Fougère learns to fire a shotgun to fell the birds and develop ways to shape them into still-lifes.
France loses Saint-Domingue
On January 1, 1804, Saint-Domingue becomes the Republic of Hayit (present-day Haiti). During the ten years of fighting for independence, over 400,000 lives are lost, of which approximately 350,000 are Haitian. With nothing left in Haiti, practically all of Jean Audubon’s estate is tied up in Mill Grove.
Audubon contacts François DaCosta to discuss his interest in traveling to America as a partner in Mill Grove. DaCosta has experience in mineralogy and is Audubon’s best candidate for assessing the potential of mining lead at Mill Grove. DaCosta agrees to Audubon’s terms for his stay at Mill Grove. Included in their agreement is Dacosta taking Jean-Jacques-Fougère to manage the farm operations.
Sending Jean-Jacques-Fougère to America also prevents his conscription into the French army that Napoleon Bonaparte is building for his conquests since becoming the First Consul of the Republic in November of 1799. Jean Audubon puts to good use his extensive time in English speaking prisons to write detailed letters stating the purpose for DaCosta’s and Jean-Jacques-Fougère’s passage to America and for William Thomas a description of the business arrangement between DaCosta and Jean-Jacques-Fougère at Mill Grove. Jean Audubon also gives his son the new name of John James Audubon.