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Michel-Jean Cazabon: The Making of a West Indian Artist

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 19, 2013

Lawrence Scott has written an important historical romance, Light Falling on Bamboo that is based on the life of Michel-Jean Cazabon. When the romance opens, Cazabon has returned to Trinidad from Paris to be at his mother's deathbed. What unfolds there from is a kind of Creole commesse, a word that Scott uses often. In Paris, Cazabon, a free mulatto or free colored, had married a white French woman (Louise). He had gone abroad to study leaving Josie, his half-sister (also his lover) at home. To complicate matters, Josie's mother (Ernestine) was the mistress of Francois Cazabon, Michel's father and her slave master who lived together in the same compound. Michel's mother, Madame Debonne, left his father in the South (Corynth) and went to the North (Port of Spain) to live when she discovered Francois's relationship with Ernestine.

To put more pepper into the commesse, Cazabon who is depicted as being bisexual, has to manage his relationships with Josie, Louise, and his other romantic interests, particularly his passing tryst with Augusta Farquhar,the daughter of William Hardin Burnley's mistress, with whom he has a child. Apparently William Burnley, the richest man in Trinidad during the first half of the nineteenth century, was the lover of both Mrs. Farquhar and her daughter.

After settling in Trinidad for a short while, Cazabon brings his French wife Louise into this commesse which was saved (perhaps managed is the better word) through the grace and patience of the long-suffering Josie that allows Cazabon to live with his romantic complications. It is only the strength and good sense of these women of color that keep the society together.

Although Cazabon was depicted as being very irresponsible, his commitment to his art keeps him sane. This commitment is signaled when, on her dying bed, his mother implores: "You have work to do, darling, painting to paint, an island to give to the world, a people whose dignity you must be proud of when you place them in their own world. Don't forget where you've come from. Don't forget the ideas of freedom that have carried us [the free people of color] this far. Don't forget the republic we seek in this corner of the world." The republic of which Madame Cazabon speaks was not a republic of and for all (mulattos, whites, and Africans) but a mulatto republic that it would take more than the fortunes made by sugar to bring into fruition. She also reminded her son: "There is much more to a republic. There is more to liberty than labor in the fields. Ideas . . . beauty, she said now."

Painting represented to Cazabon more than the depiction of the natural beauty of the island or even the dignity of its people. Through his work he wanted to demonstrate the coherence of a world that had as much validity and civility as the world he left behind in Paris. Cazabon's father believed that Lord Harris and Burnley granted him commissions to paint so that they could "boast back home of how they have civilized the niggers and pacified the coloreds."

Cazabon held a different belief. He declared: "I don't paint what Mr. Bridgens painted, that Englishman who used to paint our landscape for them, a parody of itself, our people like savages jumping around, doing a gig or slaving in their sugar fields like their coolies are now doing all over the island." As in so many other aspects of this romance, readers would have a better appreciation for this comparison if they knew who Bridgens was. He was the author of West India Scenery with Illustrations of Negro Character (1837).

Cazabon was relentless. He painted his island as he saw it. The bamboo clumps in his island possessed as much aesthetic beauty as the Gothic arches at Chartres, Paris, considered the finest example of Gothic architecture. Cazabon boasted in his drunken stupor: "Like they think them is the only ones with Gothic arches. They ent know the beauty of bamboo. This is our Chartres." As the narrator acknowledged, "He [Cazabon] knew that there was a connection between what he was doing, what he had been doing all these years and how people lived. It was something that grew out of his mother's ideal of a republic of free people." He only wanted to paint his way to freedom.

And herein lay the beauty of this beguiling romance. Scott depicts Cazabon as the quintessential West Indian artist who wanted his landscapes and his portraits to depict a people's ideal of freedom, a people trying to rehabilitate themselves as they moved from enslavement to freedom. As he comes to the end of his life and photography and impressionism began to supersede the artistic media of his era, he could say with determination: "Let them paint the Seine. You think I playing the arse, I go keep on painting this place no matter what they think, no matter whether they want to buy painting or no painting. Photography! To hell with that.Whether they know where this is or not. You think I joking? I go keep on painting you, doudou!"

Cazabon's ultimate triumph came when he won a gold medal at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition that was held in London in 1886, two of his major pieces being Bamboos at Dry River and Bamboos at St. Anns. It is this aesthetic use of bamboos that accounts for Scott's title of the romance. The narrator exclaims, "He had been trying ever since to see the light falling on bamboos the way that his aunt had meant when she so excitedly pointed out to him when he was a boy of ten. His aunt's seeing was the seeing he wanted his paintings to possess. How to paint that seeing had been his life's task."

It is important for our present generation to understand what Cazabon tried to accomplish. Although Scott does not elaborate upon this connection, it is made evident when he alludes briefly to Coolie Woman and Coolie Group (renamed East Indian Woman and East Indian Group by Geoffrey McLean) two pieces that were sent to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. They were painted around the time that V. S. Naipaul's grandfather came to Trinidad. When Naipaul became famous, he bought East Indian Group, which he used as the cover art when he reissued his father's work, The Adventures of Gurudeva, by Seepersad Naipaul, in 1995.

Cazabon's attempt to capture the consciousness of a people through his landscape painting during the second half of the nineteenth century is important to us. Yet, as I pointed out in another context, Cazabon was unable to break away from a formalism that kept his subjects tethered to an idealized conception that denied them their humanity and their vitality. In this regard, the subjects of much of his art were portraits of the privileged members of the society which tells us little about the life of those at the bottom of the society.

As each group in Trinidad and Tobago supersedes another in the corridors of power—just as photography and impressionism superseded landscape painting—Scott wishes to remind us that unless we embrace our past with all its imperfections it could lead to a lot of commesse in the foreseeable future. Only by embracing the light that plays upon the bamboos can we realize the beauty of our physical landscape and our people's potential. It is only by embracing the totality of our history that we can become one people.

Geoffrey McLean has written that the oneness that Cazabon felt with nature is shown in "the careful and loving attention he paid to details of the natural elements: the movement of clouds, the colors and textures of earth, sea and sky, the fall and form of vegetation." In a similar manner, the loving attention that Scott devotes to detail, sensitivity to light and color, and his determination to capture the many tones of his landscape and people give his romance a translucence and luminosity that is wondrous to behold


We owe him a debt of gratitude for offering us this way of seeing during this period in our history.

Professor Cudjoe is a professor Africana Studies at Wellesley College.