To Speak Their Names

When people ask me what I hope to learn from my family history research there are two things I usually say are particularly important to me. First, like most members of the diaspora, I yearn to know where in Africa my ancestors originated.  For at least one ancestor I want to know what tribe they belonged to, the language they spoke, the name they answered to, the exact piece of earth they slept and worked on, and so on. Following from that, I’d also like to know the stories of their descendents that endured slavery. I want to know the details of their lives as if they sat down next to me and told me about it all themselves. How did they end up on one of those dreadful ships, and how did they have the strength and will to survive the trip? How did they endure the seasoning process, the stripping of their culture and identity, the disregard for their humanity and free will? Since I’m a nerd that minored in linguistics, I also want to ask them if they know that the languages they spoke were not just bad English or broken French. I want to tell them that I know that I am made up of millions of tiny of pieces of them, so not only did they survive all they went through then, but they are still alive now and are not and will not be forgotten.

After centuries of silence, I want to hear their voices and I want to speak their names. Today I get to do that for the first time, so here goes. My great-great-great-grandfather Augustin Cadignan was born into slavery in the late 1830s in Francois, Martinique and was emancipated around the time he reached early adolescence.  By the time he reached his 50s he owned property, a farm. He died a free man.


So how do I know this? At the end of my last post, where we walked through almost every line of my great-grandmother Adele’s birth record, I hinted that I have information that could take us a few generations further back.  This is possible because of some other records I found online over a year ago.  As you may remember, in July of 2011 I came across documents called actes d’individualité. These actes, recorded in 1848 and 1849 after the abolition of slavery in Martinique, listed 15 Cadignans residing in Francois. I was sure that these were my Cadignans, but at the time I didn’t have any way of knowing which one I had descended from.  So close yet so far.

The Republic of France definitively abolished slavery in all of its territories, including Martinique, 164 years ago in May 1848.
The Republic of France abolished slavery in all of its territories, including Martinique, 164 years ago in May 1848.

Now let’s fast forward some 15 months later to the present and cross reference the Cadignan actes d’individualité with the name Augustin, who was listed as Joseph’s father and Adele’s grandfather in her birth record.  We have a hit! There was an acte d’individualite dated 15 January 1849 for a 12 year old Augustin, allowing us to estimate that Augustin was born around 1837.  This leaves us with a slightly different conclusion than Adele’s birth record, which suggests Augustin was born circa 1839.  However, this is close enough where I can feel comfortable positing that the Augustin mentioned in the 1849 acte and the 1893 birth record are one and the same.

But that’s not all, the dominos keep falling. The family relationships recorded in the actes d’individualité indicate that Hortense, age 31, was Augustin’s mother. Hortense’s mother, Marie Catherine, was the oldest of all the Cadignans in the register, having reported being 54 years old. So here we have two more generations and two more estimated birthyears: 1818 for my 4th great-grandmother Hortense and 1795 for her mother Marie Catherine.  Marie Catherine’s mother is listed as Marie Louise, but there is not sufficient information to estimate her year of birth. Unfortunately, no information on any of their fathers was given.  Of course more research will be needed to confirm or disprove the inferences made here, but it’s really starting to feel like we’re getting somewhere!


2 thoughts on “To Speak Their Names

  1. I loved reading about your family discovery in Martinique. I mentioned in your other post that my great grandfather is also from Martinique, 1850. His father was French, and sent him to France to study languages. He and his brothers migrated to Louisiana. I do know his life after Louisiana but not before! How did you go about finding your family info in Martinique? I would like to know the parents of my great grandfather, Firmin Francois Fortier. Thank you for your reply.

    • Hi Linda! Thanks so much for visiting my little blog. I’m glad you found it interesting and hope it can provide some starting points for your own research. Since your ancestors were from France I’m not sure if the sorts of sources I’ve been using, which focused on enslaved Martinicans and their descendants, would be as useful to you. Nonetheless, there do seem to be a lot of Martinique records online, so you never know what else might be out there! Here are the best sources I’ve come across so far:

      If you’re like me and you know little to no French, it’s a line of research in itself just to figure out where to find records and what they say when you get to them. I’ve been using a combination of online translation tools, my knowledge of another Latin language, Spanish, and (most importantly) a French friend to wade through everything. Most recently I’ve been in contact with two extremely helpful genealogists who have more knowledge and experience with Martinique records. I’ll check with them to see if they can offer any advice and then I’ll get back to you. Happy hunting and good luck!

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