Magazine article The New Crisis

John Audubon: Roots in Haiti

Magazine article The New Crisis

John Audubon: Roots in Haiti

Article excerpt

How often do we question the legacies of great historical figures? How much do we truly know about the lives of our leaders and intellectuals?

Much attention has focused recently on the family trees of some of America's most notable people. For example, many of Thomas Jefferson's descendants are now known to be of African-American ancestry, adding a new page to the history of black Americans. Another legacy worth examining is that of John James Audubon.

John Audubon (1785-18-11) is best remembered as a revered ornithologist and painter. Well known to scientists, art historians and bird lovers, Audubon's research of American birds is still valued today. in a recent essay, one writer concluded that Audubon's "legacy is secure." Even though his scientific and artistic achievements are unquestioned, a discovery of records in France in the early 20th century created much controversy over the identity of his birth and his past. Some questions remain: Was Audubon's mother a Haitian slave? Did his father have an affair with Audubon's unidentified mother? Who were his birth parents?

According to his birth records, John Audubon was born jean Rabine on a plantation in Les Cayes, Haiti, in 1785. These facts are now considered to be undisputed. But many historians find interest in Audubon's own fictitious claims about his birth. Audubon told two different stories. The most incredible was his insistence that he was born in New Orleans. He also sometimes asserted that he was the lost Dauphin - the son of King Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette, The Dauphin was born in the same year as Audubon but disappeared sometime during the French Revolution.

There are conflicting stories regarding his mother's identity. Audubon's was named after his mother, Jeanne Rabine, who died a few months after his birth. Some insist that Jeanne was a French maid living on the Les Cayes plantation, but others doubt that story. Skeptical historians feel it is highly unlikely that a French maid would be brought to Haiti when there already were local slaves to do housework. Thus, some believe that Audubon's birth mother was a Haitian slave.

There is also conflicting evidence regardbig the identity of his father. Some believe Audubon's father was an unidentified French naval captain, merchant, planter, and slave owner. Others insist Captain Audubon was his father, but many believe the two were the same man. Captain Audubon may have had an affair with a woman of uncertain origin, possibly a Haitian slave.

An explanation of jean Rabine's mysterious origins was apparently created when, at the age of three, he was taken to France where Captain Audubon and his legitimate wife legally adopted him. At this point, Rabine's name was legally changed to John James Audubon.

Audubon's career as a nature lover emerged when he was sent to an estate in Pennsylvania in 1803. His father had purchased the estate so his son could five in America and avoid conscription into Napoleon's army. Only 18 years old at the time, Audubon set out to paint natural scenes in the Pennsylvania countryside. During this idyllic period he met Lucy Blackwell, whom he married in 1803. The couple had two sons, Victor and John, who later helped Audubon compile his famous paintings of birds. Audubon noted in his journal that "hunting and fishing and drawing occupied my every moment. Cares I knew not."

In the following years, Audubon pursued his artistic and scientific passions, but he had difficulty making ends meet. He participated in several financial misadventures and failed business enterprises. He held several odd jobs to support his family. Along with several other eclectic endeavors, Audubon tried his hand at taxidermy, became a violin and French instructor, and managed a lead mine. He was known to pay his family's transportation costs by painting portraits of the steamers on which they traveled. Despite his efforts to earn a living, Audubon declared bankruptcy in 1819 and was jailed for a day for unpaid debts. …

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