Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, Born a Slave in Santo Domingo
Hannah F. Lee
In this reprint of the classic 1854 story of the remarkable man saluted as one of the most respected persons in New York City when he died in 1853, we learn about the true nature of heroic virtue and devotion to the goodness of charity.
PIERRE TOUSSAINT was born on the island of St. Domingo, in the town of St. Mark, on the Plantation de Latibonite, which belonged to Monsieur Bérard. The grandmother of Toussaint, Zenobe Julien, was a slave in the family, and selected as a wet-nurse for the oldest son. This maternal office she also performed for his sister.
It was customary in the West Indies for people of fortune to send their children abroad, to secure to them better influences than they could obtain on a plantation. Sometimes, at the age of four and five years, sons and daughters were separated from tender parents, with a degree of heroic sacrifice for which nothing but the importance of the measure could give their parents resolution.
M. Bérard early decided to send his son to Paris to be educated and to supply, as far as possible, the tenderness of a mother, Zenobe Julien was selected to accompany him, and to remain with him several months. This proof of the father’s confidence in the bond-woman sufficiently demonstrates the reliance which both parents placed on her. When she returned to St. Domingo, it was to conduct the two daughters to Paris, who were to be placed at a boarding-school.
On leaving them there, she again returned to St. Mark and resumed her attendance on her mistress. The parents so fully estimated the worth of this faithful domestic, that, as a reward for her fidelity and a proof of their entire confidence, they gave her freedom. They well knew that her attachment to them formed the strongest bonds. John Bérard constantly wrote to her from Paris, sending her presents, and retaining his early affection.
Zenobe had a daughter whom she called Ursule. As the little girl increased in years, she became more and more useful to Madame Bérard, and was finally adopted as her waiting-maid and femme de chambre.
The subject of our memoir, Pierre Toussaint, was the son of Ursule, and became the pet of the plantation, winning all hearts by his playfulness and gentleness. His grandmother, Zenobe, was particularly attached to him; yet when Monsieur and Madame Bérard concluded to rejoin their children in France, and called on Zenobe to accompany them, she did not hesitate for a moment, but gave them her free obedience, and cheerfully acceded to their wishes; for they no longer had the right to command. For the fifth time the faithful attendant crossed the ocean--a more adventurous and lengthened voyage than now--and after seeing her master and mistress settled in Paris--returned again to St. Mark. Here she had the happiness of passing the evening of her life in the service of her nursling, John Bérard, who came back to reside on his father’s plantation after he had completed his studies, leaving his two sisters with his parents.
Pierre Toussaint was born before the elder Bérard quitted the country, and Aurora, his youngest daughter, stood godmother to the infant slave. She was a mere child, and he could have no recollection of the ceremony; but as he grew older, he became more and more devoted to his little godmother, following her footsteps, gathering for her the choicest fruits and flowers, and weaving arbors of palms and magnolias. Toussaint’s happiness was much increased by the birth of a sister, who was called Rosalie.
We can scarcely imagine a more beautiful family picture; it was a bond of trust and kindness. Slavery with them was but a name.
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