Photo caption- Flore Bois de Gaillard- the heroine we never knew?
With Emancipation Day just a few days ago- the internet was abuzz with Afrocentrism. Quotes from Bob Marley, Mandela, and others ran across my timeline but one stuck with me- a simple but powerful line by the somewhat controversial Marcus Garvey: “A people without a knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
It brought me back to last July, when starting Helen’s Daughters*. Our first event was held at the Fond Doux estate, and one of the presenters remarked that the occasion was significant because this workshop that was organized to empower forty rural women was very near Piton Flore. He asked if we understood the significance but most participants and presenters (like myself) were left stumped. He explained that it was named after Flore Bois de Gaillard, a female rebel-slave, best known for leading a band of free slaves called ‘Armée Française dans les Bois’.
I wondered why I had never heard of Flore Bois de Gaillard or her contributions to our freedom. Furthermore, when researching, I noticed that Flore’s achievements were comparable to those of ex-slaves like Queen Nanny of Jamaica or Harriet Tubman of the U.S. All three were former slave women who led military campaigns against attempts to re-enslave them and, while they were all killed for their efforts; they opened the way to many freed slaves. Far too few women have been immortalized in their country’s history and even less recognition has been rewarded to female slaves who fought against the tyranny and servitude of the Slave Trade. While Queen Nanny and Harriet Tubman have been immortalized, Flore has a mountain named after her but no one knows the name’s significance. In Jamaica when you hear the reference to a Nanny, it refers to the Jamaican $500-dollar bill, which has the leader of the Maroons – Queen Nanny’s – face emboldened upon it. Harriet Tubman’s name has been portrayed in films, inscribed in books and graced hundreds of African-American institutions.
While neighbouring islands have been able to preserve the names of their heroes, we seem to be lacking historical information on our founders (and that goes for all races). In fact, I found more information on Flore Bois de Gaillard on a French historical site than in any other St. Lucian resource. Come to think of it, while many have their idols for Emancipation Day (Jamaica has Queen Nanny, Barbados has Bussa), St. Lucia has, well, no one.
What’s even stranger is that last year, the Venezuelan embassy in St. Lucia celebrated the 200th anniversary of the death of Jean-Baptiste Bideau, a French privateer and free man of colour who was born in St. Lucia. Bideau has become a national figure in Venezuela because he saved the life of Simon Bolivar. Hence the bust of Bolivar in Constitution Park (which was a gift from Venezuela) and a bust of Bideau in Castries. What is surprising is that the commemoration was brought on by Venezuelans and not by St. Lucians, which begs to question our lack of knowledge on the contributions of our ancestors. So what are we truly celebrating on Emancipation Day?
*Helen’s Daughters is a St. Lucian non-profit with a special focus on rural women’s economic development through improved market access, adaptive agricultural techniques, and capacity-building. It was formed in 2016 in a winning proposal for UN Women’s Empower Women Champions for Change Program.
To learn more about the initiative, you can visit:
Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/helensdaughters.slu/),
Instagram page (https://www.instagram.com/helensdaughters.slu/)