By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Vignettes of Trinidad and Tobago
"Victor Hugo and His Trinidad Mistress"
April 08, 2002
As the world celebrates the double centenary of Victor Hugo's birth, it is wise to remember that this titan of French letters and an inveterate womanizer possessed a Trinidad mistress in whom he was well pleased. Although the story of this relationship is little known, it needs to be retold at a time when we celebrate Hugo's literary achievements.
In 1885, Marie-Bertrand Cothonay, a French missionary who was evangelizing in Trinidad, related a fascinating story about a black woman, Madame Celine Alvarez Baa, an African woman, who brought him some money to say a mass for Hugo's soul. Amazed by this request, Fr. Cothonay asked why she wanted to say a mass for someone she did not known, or so he thought. Although she could not tell him everything about her relationship with Hugo, her story remains a choice gem of our social history.
While she lived in Barbados, Baa had taken pity on Adele Hugo, Hugo's younger daughter, and given her refuge while she roamed the streets of Bridgetown. Adele who was madly in love with Albert Andrew Pinson, an English officer, ran away from home in 1863 and followed Pinson to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Having turned down Pinson's marriage proposal in 1855, thereafter Pinson refused Adele's later entreaties to marry her. In 1866 when Pinson's company sailed to Barbados, Adele followed him there but the officer was adamant. He was too immersed in a life debauchery and would not marry her. In 1869, he left Barbados and one year later married Catherine Edith Roxbury in England.
Deserted in Barbados, Adele had no one to turn to. Given to bouts of melancholia, she began to walk the streets of Bridgetown in her heavy winter clothes mumbling to herself. After Baa took Adele in, she wrote to Hugo in France (he had returned to Paris in 1870 following the overthrow of Napoleon 111) to tell him of his daughter's condition. In 1872, taking matters into her hands, she took Adele back to her father, nine years after she had deserted her family to follow the prompting of her heart. Yet, her mental condition had so deteriorated that immediately after she arrived in Paris, her father placed her in an asylum.
Although Hugo was happy to see his daughter, he was even happier to see Baa whom he described as "black, nevertheless a lady in the colony." Attracted to Baa, he lost no time in seducing her. Very soon, she was in his bed. At seventy and still very active sexually, Hugo recorded in his diary that Baa was "the first negress of my life." She was equally taken by him.
Baa also returned Adele's jewelry to Hugo. This led him to exclaim, "I have recovered my wife's rings" that Adele had taken with her. In return, Hugo gave Baa "'two gold bracelets, a broach and golden earrings,' as a momento of Adele." While she was in Paris, they visited each other regularly. Hugo reimbursed her for the expenses she incurred in bringing his daughter back to Paris. Other than that, he was not overly generous to her. In March Baa left for Barbados. In a token of her affection, she left him her portrait.
In 1881, Baa visited Adele and Hugo once more taking her lover a bouquet of colored bird feathers. It was the last time they saw each other. In May 1885, when the news reached Trinidad that Hugo had died, Madame Baa revealed Hugo's final words to her: "When you hear that I am dead, would you have three masses said for me?" Reminiscing about her love for him, she uttered: "He was such a generous man, so good. God should give him peace!"
When Baa asked Father Cothonay to say a mass for Hugo, she could not tell him everything. Only the passage of time would reveal the deep bond of sympathy they bore each other. Though a small act of kindness and fidelity to her lover, Baa attached Trinidad to one of the largest literary figures of all time.
© Selwyn R. Cudjoe. This story can be found in Selwyn R. Cudjoe's Beyond Boundaries (2002). Cudjoe's email address is: email@example.com
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