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In June of 1763, on the tiny French island of Martinique, a daughter was born to the wife of a struggling sugar-planter. Within a week of the baby's birth, the mother wrote to her sister-in‑law, •five thousand miles away in Paris:
Contrary to all our wishes, God has chosen to give me a daughter. My joy has been no less great, since I look upon her as one who redoubles my affection for your brother and for you. Why should we not have a more favourable view of our own sex? I know some who combine so many good qualities that it would seem impossible to find them all in any other person.1
This daughter, baptized Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, and known to history as the Empress Josephine, was the child of her Martinique environment — a warm, indolent, tropical world whose flavour we can still recapture.
In the larger setting of the Antilles the island of Martinique lies towards the lower end of the long chain extending from Puerto Rico to the coast of South America. It is the chief of the Windward Islands, those Îles du Vent whose very name suggests their romantic ocean setting. Europeans first saw Martinique, apparently, when Christopher Columbus landed there in 1502. Nine years earlier, during his first great voyage, he had been told by Caribbean natives about the strange island of Matinino, which they believed to be 'wholly inhabited by women without men', as he noted in his journal. On his homeward voyage in 1493 he had planned, understandably, to visit this remarkable spot, but the promise of favourable winds for Spain had led him to alter his course. Not, therefore, until his fourth and last voyage and after a brisk twenty‑one-day crossing from the Canaries was he able to make his landfall on Martinique.
p15 A century later, in 1635, the green island fell within the French orbit when a Norman adventurer, Pierre Belain, Sieur d'Esnambuc, crossed from near‑by Saint Christopher and took possession. This D'Esnambuc, founder of French power in the Antilles, had a sister, Adrienne, from whom Josephine's paternal grandmother was descended. The island prospered. Sugar and coffee plantations required slave labour, quickly supplied from the Guinea coast of Africa with such consequences that in 1779 when Martinique was estimated to have but eleven thousand whites and three thousand free Negroes and mulattoes, it had some seventy‑one thousand slaves. These were the backbone of the economy. Although the famous Code Noir — the Black Code of 1685 — guaranteed them what was then called humane treatment, they endured many hardships and indignities. Amid these tropical surroundings Josephine's family pursued its fortune.
The family of Tascher de la Pagerie into which Josephine was born belonged to the ancient country gentry of France, the gentils hommes de province, and had originated in the rich countryside of the Loire valley, not far from Blois. Its history shows the typical, the almost inevitable, genealogical details: the Tascher who in 1142 endowed a medieval abbey; the Tascher who in 1190 went crusading; the Taschers who made fortunate marriages, who held administrative posts, who won further lands, all being suitably rewarded by their grateful sovereigns. We come finally to Gaspard-Joseph Tascher de la Pagerie, who in 1726 sailed to Martinique and settled at Carbet, a few miles north of Fort-Royal, the principal island establishment. He seems not to have prospered; he may even have resorted to something not far from menial employment. A son, Joseph-Gaspard, born in 1735, was Josephine's father.
Some reasonably clear picture emerges of this less than spectacular Joseph-Gaspard. Indolent by nature, he was saved by having good connexions in France. An uncle had risen in the Church to become canon of Blois, abbé and viscount of Abbeville, and almoner to the dauphine of France. Through him Joseph-Gaspard and his brother won appointments as p16 pages in the dauphine's household, on the very threshold of the court. Joseph crossed the ocean in 1752 and stayed in France for three years. He would, therefore, have been in attendance at the time of the birth to the dauphine in 1754 of the future Louis XVI. As a stripling in one of the great royal households of France he seems to have learned remarkably little. In any event, when he returned to Martinique he was satisfied to live the life of an obscure sugar-planter and to look for social prestige no further than his commission as sous-lieutenant of dragoons in the local militia. Shortly afterwards, in 1761, he was lucky in marrying Mlle Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois, a daughter of one of the oldest families in the colony, and born, like him, at Carbet. Through his wife he did well: he acquired a plantation at Trois-Îlets, some miles to the south of Fort-Royal, which was to be his home and furnish his livelihood until he died in 1790.
Joseph-Gaspard's life contained little of mark. His three early years as a royal page, a later visit to Paris with Josephine, and an undistinguished participation in the defence of Martinique against the English were the highlights of his career. He did, to be sure, stand his ground for ten hours when his battery came under fire from the English fleet besieging Martinique in 1762, during the Seven Years' War. For this brief encounter he obtained an annual royal pension of 450 livres. His life was beset with ill health, and his business affairs were seldom far from bankruptcy. 'He means well,' his brother once wrote, 'he loves his family, above all, his children — but he must be pushed.'2
Josephine's mother was pictured by her contemporaries as a fine woman of high intelligence who had the characteristic creole unwillingness to give up the life of the islands for any other. 'Creole', we may note, is a term used to designate a person of European origin, French or Spanish, who is born in the islands. Although in later years Madame Tascher exchanged warm letters with her famous daughter, she would never risk the acute discomforts and terrors of the long voyage to visit Josephine in France. When the Empire was proclaimed and a fine house set up for her at Fort-Royal, the seventy‑year‑old p17 widow refused to accept it, preferring instead the familiar circle and the old ways of her modest establishment at Trois-Îlets. She died in 1807, the mother of an empress, and was duly escorted to her grave by a battalion of troops marching to the sound of cannon.
The precise birth date of the first child of Joseph-Gaspard's marriage was 23 June 1763. Martinique had been captured in 1762, the British having attacked, according to their commander, 'with the most irresistable [sic] impetuosity.' As the peace with England had just been signed in February, and Martinique had been restored to the French at the end of March, the future empress was spared by four months the embarrassment of having been born on alien soil. In a curious parallel, Napoleon was to be born on Corsica in 1769 only a year after it had become French. Two sisters, Catherine-Désirée, born in 1764, and Marie-Françoise, born in 1766, gave Josephine the principal companionship of her early childhood. Known affectionately to her family as Yeyette, she customarily signed herself at this time as Marie-Rose. Only later, and at the desire of Napoleon Bonaparte, did she come to use the name of Josephine.
The tropical world of the Antilles made Josephine what she was. Tiny Martinique, •some forty miles long and fifteen miles wide, lies in its ocean setting dominated by the volcanic peak of Mount Pelée; in 1902 the volcano was to erupt, bridging awesome death to forty thousand inhabitants and leading to the proposal that the entire island be for ever abandoned. Fort-Royal, renamed Fort-de‑France, was then, as now, the principal centre of government and trade. Across the bay from it stood the much smaller settlement of Trois-Îlets, with its stone church and its fifty wooden houses. Near here Josephine's family had its home. The West Indian plantations, properly run and with reasonable luck in the perennial battles with storms and pests, richly rewarded their owners. To exploit their wealth many Frenchmen made the long westward voyage.
The unique social pattern arising from the specialized economy of the sugar islands helps to explain the development and character of Josephine. A planter aristocracy, the grands blancs, p18 brought to the island echoes of their French homeland. Younger sons, most of them, and of good family, they included many types: the ambitious, the venturesome, the restless, the elusive, and the impecunious, some doubtless escaping from debtors' prisons and lettres de cachet in France. The grands blancs provided the members of the sovereign council and some of the entourage of the governor-general — a high noble sent out to the colony from France. In this administrative and aristocratic hierarchy Josephine's family had little status: her father and her uncle rose no higher than a captain's rank in the island's militia.
Family life was centred in the plantation, with its fields of sugar cane planted and tilled by slave labour. The grands blancs were managers and directors, perhaps comparable to the white settlers in Kenya in our own time. Life, in its externals, had a certain air of ease and gallantry. Generous hospitality, a richness of dress that on great occasions reflected the latest modes from Europe, a passion for gambling, and a ready resort to duelling were all noted by observers as marks of this island society. The sovereign council at Fort-Royal was once presented with a list of seventeen duellists who had lost their lives in a single year.
The easy tempo of tropical existence and the enormous preponderance of slave labour produced the type of creole society that Josephine herself so well exemplified. Affectionate, indolent, sensitive, usually happy in their surroundings and always hospitable, closely bound by ties of family, the creole women established a way of life far removed from the life of France and in some respects indifferent to it.
This world, however remote, had some impact upon the jaded society of France in the last years of the ancien régime. The ornate costumes, the hooped petticoats, the rich brocades, and the fantastic coiffures of French fashionable society had then reached their ultimate point of extravagance and impracticality. Just as Marie Antoinette on occasion sought refuge from this stifling atmosphere in the Arcadian pleasures of the Petit-Trianon, so there developed a somewhat corresponding taste among the fashionable of France for the muslins and cottons, the loose gowns, the lightly-woven shawls, the neat p19 fichus, and the simple hair-styles à la créole that were the products or the inspiration of the Indies, West and East.
The plantation where Josephine first lived was •about a mile from Trois-Îlets, in relatively flat land close to the sea but hidden from it. One came to it by a forest road crossing a stone bridge over a small river called La Pagerie. Like a medieval manor, here was a little world of its own. Here were the enfolding fields of sugar-cane, coffee plants, and tobacco; here were the huts and kitchen gardens for the slave families, the barns full of stalks used as fuel, the round mill built on heavy pillars with its red tiled roof, the square, tall, brick chimney of the furnace, the case à farine where the Negroes prepared cassava, the hospital, the lock‑up, and, most important of all, the sucrerie. The sucrerie was a large stone building measuring •120 by 60 feet, with walls •two feet thick within which the stalks were crushed by rollers, the liquid collected, and raw sugar produced. Tamarinds, banana palms, mango, orange, and breadfruit trees brought shade everywhere. Tropical flowers and birds made flashes of colour.
Originally Josephine and her family had lived in a large wooden house that had a courtyard planted with shade trees. The terrible hurricane of 1766, the worst in the history of the island, had swept this house away. Forty-eight ships were sunk off Martinique alone, 440 persons were killed, and even more were injured. Many plantations were destroyed, and others, like that of the Tascher family, were badly damaged. Josephine's father never recovered from this loss. Characteristically he did not attempt to rebuild his house, but moved instead into the sucrerie, remodelling it as a home with a low outside gallery and sleeping chambers upstairs.
The easy life of the islands put little emphasis on intellectual pursuits. Planters had but one preoccupation, to make money; having made it, many of them expected to return to France. Despite the reluctance of their wives, they hoped to enjoy their wealth on ancestral soil and claim the social privileges which their birth assured them. 'Every man hurries to grow rich,' as one contemporary put it bluntly, 'in order to escape for ever from a place where men live without distinction, without p20 honour, and without any form of excitement other than that of commercial interest.3 A royal official gave his opinion that those who sought higher education should go to France for it. The rest should be satisfied with reading, writing, and 'the principles of religion and arithmetic', studies that could easily be handled by the local curés and schoolmasters. In Martinique there was little that could be called true society, nothing that could be called a salon, and no trace of the ferment associated with the Enlightenment. Not a single book, not even a newspaper, was published in the French islands before the middle of the eighteenth century, when at last a printing-house was established in Santo Domingo.
This was the tropical, island world, with its easy tempo, its self-indulgence, its warmth of colour, its strong domestic affections, and its absence of intellectual ferment, that moulded Josephine's early years.
Six years before Josephine's birth there had arrived at Martinique Messire François de Beauharnais, governor and lieutenant general of the Windward Islands of America. Assuming his post in 1757, at the critical moment of the war with England, he nevertheless found time for an affair of the heart with Joseph-Gaspard's sister — an affair whose outcome in due course profoundly affected the life of Josephine. The Beauharnais family belonged to the same province of France as did the Tascher de la Pagerie family. Though less ancient, dating from the fifteenth century, it was more prosperous by far. Many members had served in the administrative nobility of France, many had had distinguished careers at sea. One had served for twenty‑two years as governor of French Canada and had been associated with Verendrye's discovery of the Rocky Mountains. Another had shared with Iberville in the discovery of the Mississippi River.
This François de Beauharnais had a naval career dating from 1729. By following a policy of staying close to the port of Rochefort and rarely going to sea, he had reached the high rank of major des armées navales and had the title of marquis. His governorship of Martinique was uneventful until January p21 1739, when a British fleet threatened the island. It chose, however, to sail to Guadeloupe, where it launched a serious assault. Beauharnais delayed an incredible three months before organizing a relief expedition. He was then unable to do much, partly because he had sent two of his principal warships to inform his superiors in France that he was being attacked, and even more, apparently, because he was distracted by his romantic adventures. Guadeloupe fell to the English, and in the following year the incompetent Beauharnais was removed from command. The governor of Guadeloupe, who was court-martialed and condemned to life imprisonment for the surrender, said later that Beauharnais could not have mismanaged affairs more effectively if he had deliberately tried to lose the island.
Recalled to France in 1761, Beauharnais suffered no further censure. Following a pattern that was all to typical of the ancien régime, he was given the higher rank of fleet commander, secured a fat yearly pension of 12,000 livres (which compared most favourably with the niggling 450 livres obtained by Josephine's father for his services in the same campaign), and was confirmed in the title of Marquis de la Ferté-Beauharnais. Few have gained more for doing less.
Though the fortunes of war had been inauspicious, those of Venus had prospered. A connexion grew up at Martinique between the Beauharnais and Tascher families. To be sure, the social distance between the all‑powerful governor general and the impoverished, unambitious sugar-planter who wore the uniform of a lieutenant was at first great. It was reduced when Beauharnais made the acquaintance of the tall blonde, twenty-year‑old Marie-Euphémie-Désirée, sister of Joseph-Gaspard Tascher. Doubtless because of this acquaintance the governor took an active part in arranging her brother's marriage in 1761 to a member of one of the oldest families in the colony. What began as friendship (Marie-Euphémie was godmother to Beauharnais's son Alexander, born in Martinique) soon turned, despite Beauharnais's age, his military responsibilities, and the presence of his wife, to infatuation.
His infatuation first took the typically Gallic form of finding the young woman a wealthy husband among the junior officers p22 of his own staff. His choice was decidedly curious, for Alexis Renaudin had recently returned from four years' imprisonment in France, under a lettre de cachet, suspected of having tried to poison his own father. Soon after Renaudin's wedding to Mademoiselle Tascher took place, the young bride accused her husband of trying to poison her. Understandably, a marriage of this sort soon fell apart; Renaudin returned to France and entered at Paris a legal plea for separation, which his wife most earnestly supported. Thus Madame Renaudin was freed from her transient commitment to a preposterous husband. When eventually she learned that the Marquis de Beauharnais was to be recalled to France, she made the long Atlantic crossing before him, awaiting in Paris the opportunity to win him completely away from his wife.
On Martinique, meanwhile, the Marquise de Beauharnais had become the mother on 28 May 1760, of a son, Alexandre-François-Marie. Since this infant was considered too young to accompany his parents when they sailed to France in the following year, he was left at Trois-Îlets in the care of the Tascher family. He remained for over five years. Josephine's birth at Trois-Îlets followed by three years that of Alexander. Thus they were infants together in a tropical setting reminiscent of the island paradise in the Indian Ocean on which the novelist, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, was to place those saccharine, star-crossed lovers, the hurricane-racked Paul and Virginie.
Sentimental historians have had no difficulty in painting a romantic picture of Josephine's youth. They have pictured her sharing in the storytelling, the songs, and the dances of the Negro servants. They have associated her with the weird witchcraft and prophecies of the tropics. They have had her, with her sisters, climbing the green mountains of Martinique and contemplating her white limbs as she bathed naked in forest pools. All this is possible. Her early life, real or fancied, exuded romanticism to the generations that turned the pages of Rousseau, wept over Paul et Virginie, read of the Noble Savage, and pictured those idylls as blossoming in corners of the world far removed from the false glitter of France.
At the distance of nearly two centuries we can still catch p23 occasional vivid glimpses of the simple pattern of Josephine's girlhood. She saw much more of the Negro women slaves than of the rare visitors to the estate, or of the relatives and friends whom the family in turn visited. From her earliest days she was attended by a nurse, a mulatto slave named Marion, for whom she always kept an affectionate regard. Years later Josephine arranged for Marion's freedom, and in 1807 secured an official warrant from the imperial treasury in Paris conferring upon 'demoiselle Marion, free mulatto of Martinique' an annual income of twelve hundred francs.
At the age of ten, after recovering from a slight attack of smallpox, Josephine was sent with her younger sister, Catherine-Désirée, to be educated at the circumvent school of the Dames de la Providence in Fort-Royal. Such a school gave Josephine a modest education. She learned to read, to write, to sing, to dance, and to embroider. Few women of her time could have been expected to learn much more. Then, after four years, on the death of Catherine-Désirée by malignant fever, Josephine returned to Trois-Îlets to be with her mother. By October of 1777, when she was fourteen years old, her formal schooling was completed.
No story of Josephine is more famous than that of the aged negress of Martinique who prophesied to her youthful listener that after an unhappy marriage and widowhood she would some day wear a crown and become 'more than a queen'. The story, now firmly a part of the island tradition, actually appeared in a royalist newspaper in Paris, Le Thé, as early as May 1797, when at least part of the prophecy still awaited fulfilment. Josephine liked to tell the tale after becoming empress. Its obvious significance is that it conveys the pervasive quality of 'magic' and 'prophecy' in the primitive Negro environment of her childhood.
Some later narratives shed light on the Martinique period. A certain Count Montgaillard, for example, an officer in the regiment of Auxerrois, visited Martinique in November of 1777, and afterwards when he assembled his Souvenirs, recalled the youthful Mademoiselle Tascher. He pictured her as "graceful, more fascinating than beautiful, already noteworthy for p24 the suppleness and elegance of her bearing, dancing like a fairy, and amorous as a dove'. She was, he adds, 'of a frivolity, a coquettishness, to say no more, that was astonishing, even in the colonies — capricious and extravagant'. She was, we may remind ourselves, fourteen and had just left the convent.4
A General Tercier, who as a young officer served in the Martinique regiment from 1772 to 1782, has left in his memoirs a tantalizingly brief note about Josephine: 'I made the acquaintance,' he wrote, 'of Mlle Tascher de la Pagerie, the celebrated Empress Josephine. I was closely linked with all her family. I often spent several days at the establishment of Madame her mother. She was young then; I was also . . .'5 At this vital point the memoirs fade out in a row of asterisks, by means of which Tercier can imply and his readers can infer as much or as little as they choose. Some, knowing Josephine's later life, have inferred a great deal.
The even more shadowy figure of a young Englishman appears fleetingly in the memoirs of Mademoiselle Cochelet as 'Mr Williams', and equally imprecisely in those of Mademoiselle Lenormand as 'Mr William de K . . . ., neveu de Lord Lova [Lovat?]'.6 According to these sources, this William, or Williams, climbed Mount Pelée with Josephine on a May day in 1779, flirted innocently with her for a few hours, and then disappeared for thirty-five years. In the spring of 1814, a veteran soldier, he reappeared most belatedly at Malmaison and asked for an audience, only to be told in truly romantic fashion that the Empress was on her death‑bed. Whereupon Mr Williams folded his tent like the Arab and, for a second time, silently stole away from the record of history.
A tradition tells of Josephine's youthful association on Martinique with a distant cousin, Aimé du Buc de Rivery, whose life has evoked some fantastic stories. Her father had a plantation a few miles away at the settlement of Robert. Sent to France for her education, Aimée was returning to Martinique in 1784 when her ship disappeared. The story has grown up that she was captured by Barbary corsairs and taken to Algiers. She was then supposed to have been sent by the Bey of Algiers as a gift to the Sultan Selim III in Constantinople, to have p25 entered his harem, and to have become the mother of Mahmud II. Known as 'la Sultane Validée', she is said to have acquired considerable influence, with no desire to abandon the fantastic position to which fate had brought her.
In contrast to this chronicle of speculation and fiction are the few solid facts concerning Josephine's betrothal and marriage. With them her life now entered a strikingly different phase.
1 Pichevin, p64.
2 Ibid., p44.
3 J. B. T. de Chanvallon, Voyage à la Martinique (Paris, 1763), p38.
4 J. G. M. de Montgaillard, Souvenirs (Paris, 1895), p277.
5 C. A. de Tercier, Mémoires politiques et militaires (Paris, 1891), p15.
6 L. Cochelet, Mémoires sur la reine Hortense (Paris, 1836‑8), I.374‑6; M. A. Lenormand, Mémoires historiques et secrets (Paris, 1818‑22), I.56.
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