An entrepreneur, hunter, woodsman, scientist, and artist — John James Audubon, famous for his epic The Birds of America, is a figure intimately associated with a certain idea of what it means to be American. And like many of the country's icons, he was also an immigrant. Christoph Irmscher reflects on Audubon's complex relationship to his Haitian roots.
March 6, 2019
In the summer of last year major protests erupted in Haiti as the government announced a sharp increase in fuel prices, forced to do so by an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that ended costly subsidies for petroleum products. After the suspension of the price hike and the prime minister’s reluctant resignation, the country has returned to an uneasy calm, as if everyone were waiting for the next match that lights the fuse. For some US Americans, these events have confirmed their view of Haiti as a country engaged in a permanent struggle for survival, and remarks made in the Oval Office, not too long ago, have only exacerbated such generalizations. But, as Michael Harriot has pointed out, in a recent piece published in Root, every bit of the Haitian struggle is related to the legacy of slavery and capitalism, a legacy in the which the United States and its banks are deeply complicit.1 What happened in Haiti never stayed in Haiti. As this island paradise continues to suffer from foreign exploitation, it is worth confronting the continuing cultural and moral debt we owe to Haiti. And few other American cultural icons embody the complexity of that relationship more acutely than John James Audubon (1785-1851), perhaps the greatest American naturalist, brilliant chronicler of avian life in America, and creator of one of the most magnificent and expensive printed books ever made, The Birds of America (1827–1838).
Biographers have typically written about Audubon as if he had been — never mind the accident of his foreign birth — the archetypal American: keen-eyed, quick with his gun, a man at home equally in the forests of the American frontier and at his estate in New York, an efficient killer of birds as well as, when his art demanded it, their fervent advocate, a great artist as well as a canny entrepreneur. “The Making of an American” was the subtitle of the last popular recreation of Audubon’s life.2
John James Audubon was an immigrant, to be sure, but simplified accounts that refer to him merely as French omit a salient detail. Audubon was born Jean Rabin in 1785 in Les Cayes on the southern shore of Haiti, or Saint-Domingue, as that island’s French colony was then called. He was the illegitimate son of the French sea captain and slave trader Jean Audubon and a French chambermaid who died within a year of his birth, Jeanne Rabin. “My father had large properties in Santo Domingo” wrote Audubon later, even as he was trying his best to leave the precise circumstances of his birth unclear — by claiming, for example, that he was actually born during one of his father’s visits to Louisiana.3
Of course, Jean Audubon knew better. In his will, he called his son a “Créole de Saint-Domingue”. And John James himself knew better, too. Earlier this year, I spent some time looking through Audubon’s books at the magnificent Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky. In his personal copy of ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte’s American Ornithology, a supplement to Alexander Wilson’s pioneering work on American birds, I found a note scribbled in the margins of Bonaparte’s essay on the “Great Crow Blackbird” (now better known as the Boat-tailed Grackle). “The very bout de Petun’s note”, Audubon exclaimed next to Bonaparte’s description of the grackle’s song.4 Audubon’s marginal comment refers to the Creole name for the Smooth-billed Ani, a black-plumed tropical bird that had captured the imagination of the early colonists, who thought that its song sounded as if it were saying un petit bout de petun, “a little roll of tobacco”.5 And Audubon was familiar with that name, because, as he stated proudly in the same note, he was “J.J.A. born in Santo Domingue”, with the latter part of the phrase underlined, for good measure.
It is not surprising that Audubon would have limited such a disclosure of his origins to the margin of one of his books. The land of his birth was an unfathomably brutal place. After the Spanish had systematically eradicated the last remaining members of the island’s original population, the French filled the island with slaves from West Africa. The “Pearl of the Antilles”, as Haiti was also called, became the world’s richest exporter of slave-grown goods. An estimated one million slaves died there during French rule — beaten, whipped, burned, raped, mutilated into submission and death. The air was thick with the suffering of people. The planters treated their slaves so badly that a French family, the Vincendières, who relocated to Maryland after the rebellion, repeatedly got in trouble there with the local authorities. Eye witnesses reported seeing, even from a distance, their various instruments of torture: stocks, whipping posts, and wooden horses or chevalets, as the Vincendières would have called them.6
An old French map made the year after the birth of Audubon shows his father’s estate about a half mile south of the southernmost tip of Étang Lachaux, or Lake Lachaux, about eight miles north of the harbor of Les Cayes, wedged in tightly between the parcels of land owned by other planters. The map gives us a depressing sense of what happened to the landscape after the colonists had taken hold of it — sliced by the greed of men into bizarre rectangles and superimposed with the names of slave-owners: a geography of fear and death. Not knowing what they were, the infant John James would have inhaled, with every breath he took, the dismal odors of slavery, the blood, sweat, tears, and fear mixed in with the sickly-sweet smell of sugar coming from the pots where it was boiled and from where clouds would have arisen blotting out whatever beauties the landscape had to offer.
We know that Audubon’s father, a tough man and eventually a very rich one, too, regularly traded fabrics, wine and other European luxury items for coffee, sugar, and cotton, which he transported back to Nantes.7 When exactly he added human beings to his line of goods is less clear, but at least two bills of sale have survived, sometimes listing the names of the people he sold, sometimes only the numbers. Like many whites in Saint-Domingue, Jean Audubon took what he felt was rightfully his, among them the mixed-race woman who ran his household in Les Cayes, Catherine Bouffard, with whom he had several children. It is likely that Audubon would have worried at least occasionally that, no matter what he had been told about his mother, he was “gens de couleur,” too, like his half-sister Rose, Catherine’s daughter, whom he obliterated from his autobiography. At least while he was living in Kentucky, he kept slaves himself, visible proof that he could, after all, act the part of the master, too.8
The 1791 black rebellion against French rule had brought young Audubon’s tropical childhood to a sudden end. His father made sure that he and Rose were whisked off to Nantes, a place that turned out to be hardly safer than Les Cayes. Between November 1793 and February 1794, Jean-Baptiste Carrier had thousands of suspected enemies of the Revolution drowned in the Loire river, the “national bathtub” (la baignoire nationale), as he jokingly called it. Audubon was raised mostly in the countryside, his education overseen by an indulgent stepmother, the childless Anne Moynet. His father wanted to make him a sailor, as he had been, but young Audubon, suffering from mal de mer, proved to be a dismal failure in the naval academy. Birds became a distraction for him early on. He admired, he said later, “the beauty and softness of their plumage”, the seasonal rhythms of their lives, some regularity in a life circumscribed by looming chaos around him.9 Only one drawing from those years in France has survived, a lonely European goldfinch, sitting on a dead branch, pushed all the way on the upper left corner of the sheet — “Le Chardonneret”, as Audubon notes below it.10
One of Audubon’s earliest memories, recorded in a brief autobiographical sketch, involved witnessing the “murder”, as he saw it, of a pet parrot named Polly by an ape the family kept. The incident happened, presumably, at the family’s country estate near Nantes, La Gerbetière. Young Audubon went into hysterics, demanding that the “man of the woods”, as he referred to the ape, be punished, which the black servants, who he said had “followed his father from Santo Domingo”, refused to do. The ape was chained, the parrot buried, and young Audubon had to be “tranquillized.” Before we read this consciously crafted passage as an uncomplicated assertion of Audubon’s identification with birds and rejection of animalistic brutality, we also need to remember that he wrote it at the end of a career during which he, the self-styled American “woodsman,” himself had killed thousands of birds for his art. In a revealing moment, Audubon once called himself a “two-legged monster, armed with a gun.”11 In a sense, Audubon was that ape, too, and if the servants in his memory prefer the ape to the parrot, this reminds us that Audubon—the son of a servant, if not of a black woman—himself struggled with his origins. In this complicated, racially inflected allegory, Audubon is both the fragile parrot (and a mourner of the bird’s demise) and her furry killer, both master and slave, black and white, New World and Old World: Haiti, France, and America all rolled into one.12
In a curious, free-flowing entry he left, even closer to the end of his life, in one of his business ledgers, Audubon imagined a childhood he never had. The note, likely composed in the early stages of the dementia that would eventually kill him, is virtually incomprehensible, a stream of words written down to ensure himself that he still was in command of the English language. But some phrases he repeats, allowing the contours of a story to emerge. “Wipe thyself,” Audubon writes, and then repeats the word and its cognates a number of times: “wipe, wash, clean, bath, pure.” There are corresponding images of contamination: maggots, mites in the cheese, a skull, a corpse, as well as the elements of a narrative that sounds as if it had been taken from a children’s book — references to a house with smoke coming out of a chimney, a silken dress, a high table, a kitchen, a brook, a beech tree, a willow. “Pilfer not,” don’t steal, an unknown voice says, as if a mother were admonishing a child, “that is not nice. Wipe thyself.” It is hard not to suspect a deeper personal significance behind Audubon’s dream of a childhood in which things don’t get stolen, in which the stains of one’s origins can just be washed off.
When he was eighteen, Audubon fled once again. Seeking to avoid service in Napoleon’s army, he took refuge at Mill Pond, a property his father had acquired in Pennsylvania. He became an American citizen in 1812, but his Caribbean beginnings stayed with him, the haunting beauty of the landscape as well as the unspeakable violence in which his father had been complicit. Some of Audubon’s most enduring compositions seem infused with latent memories of where he had come from — the twisted bodies of his most magnificent birds, which seem so alive only because he had killed them first, as well as the lush, water-filled landscapes he or his assistants created as backgrounds. In his bird essays, published as Ornithological Biography between 1831 and 1839, Audubon would often include the Creole names of birds he had studied — papebleu for the Indigo Bunting; ortolan for the Ground Dove; cache for the American Snipe; clou-clou for the Tell-tale Godwit; cap-cap for the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.
His drawing of two yellow-crowns perched on a rotting tree entwined with smilax, done in 1831, is an especially vivid example of Audubon’s ability to make the dead come alive again. The adult male, in full spring plumage, craning his neck toward the young bird levitating above, is the epitome of excessive avian splendor. Its beak is open, as if it had just called out to its offspring. In the original watercolor, the three white plumes of the adult are pieces of thin white paper Audubon pasted in separately — an extra effort that goes well with the bird’s penchant for showiness. But the world belongs to the young: the balletic pose of the immature bird on top signals almost royal indifference to the cares of those not just born yesterday.
The landscape added by Audubon’s printer Havell — a blue-gray ocean thinly streaked with white and the contours of an island in the back — serves as the appropriate backdrop for the young bird’s nonchalance: this is the larger, freer, boundless world into which he will soon escape. Maria Martin, Audubon’s go-to artist for splendid botanicals, drew the plant wrapped around the dead branches, Smilax pseudochina, also known as False China Root or Bamboo vine, a coastal climber belonging to a large group of tropical and subtropical plants that is also well represented in Haiti — a genus Linnaeus had once named in honor of the nymph Smilax, who was turned into a brambly vine after falling in love with a mere mortal.13 Praised for its medicinal properties (among other things, the root of the Bamboo vine was supposed to cure syphilis) and its flavor, the smilax in Audubon’s composition, with its heart-shaped, inwardly curled leaves, winds its way only in the lower areas of the composition, precisely where the adult sits, leaving the young upstart rising high above the realm where things grow, bound for greater things.
If this plate tells a story about liberating oneself from one’s roots, in Audubon’s representation of another Caribbean bird we can perhaps read of a desire for a return to them. It is yet another island fantasy, but here comedy has given way to wistfulness. The American Flamingo must have imprinted itself early on Audubon’s infant memory. Ironically, it kept eluding his gun. Audubon drew his birds from specimens he had observed and then obtained himself, settling for skins procured by others only in emergencies. In the essay from Ornithological Biography accompanying the plate, Audubon speaks of his anxiety to procure flamingos and claims he saw a flock of them for the first time on May 7, 1832. Note the precise date he provides — this was, we would say today, a red-letter day for Audubon. He is so affected by the sight that he gives us one of these passages of lyrical excess that led Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — no innocent in the purple poetry department either — to call him a “miserable writer”.14 But Audubon’s attempt at fine writing suggests how deeply these birds affected him, as dim memories of his island birth came flooding back:
It was on the afternoon of one of those sultry days, which, in that portion of the country, exhibit towards evening the most glorious effulgence that can be conceived. The sun, now far advanced toward the horizon, still shone with full splendour, the ocean around glittered in its quiet beauty, and the light fleecy clouds that here and there spotted the heavens, seemed flakes of snow margined with gold. Our bark was propelled almost as if by magic, for scarcely was a ripple raised by her bows as we moved in silence.
The radiant sun, the shimmering ocean, clouds like snowflakes — Audubon is pulling out all the stops. Overwritten as this passage may seem it serves a distinct purpose, which is to set the scene for the arrival of the flamingoes, who, when they do come, move with the coordination of robots: “Far away to seaward we spied a flock of Flamingoes advancing in ‘Indian line,’ with well-spread wings, outstretched necks, and long legs directed backwards.” But if the reader expects that such precise observations might in turn set the scene for the successful capture of one of these birds, this is not what Audubon provides. “I followed them with my eyes, watching as it were every beat of their wings,” writes Audubon. “The birds were now, as I thought, within a hundred and fifty yards; when suddenly, to our extreme disappointment, their chief veered away, and was of course followed by the rest.” Audubon and his men wait for the flamingoes to go around the Key and then circle back to them. Again, they are frustrated:
alas! the Flamingoes were all, as I suppose, very old and experienced birds, … for on turning round the lower end of the Key, they spied our boat again, sailed away without flapping their wings, and alighted about four hundred yards from us, and upwards of one hundred from the shore, … where neither boat nor man could approach them. I however watched their motions until dusk, when we reluctantly left the spot….15
Audubon’s intense desire for ownership over these birds (“Flamingoes in the flesh!” as he exclaimed longingly) as well as his abject frustration at failing to get them led to some irritable passages in his correspondence with his normally reliable supplier, Dr. John Bachman: “Indeed it will prove a curiosity to the World of Science”, wrote Audubon, “when that world will Know that John Bachman D D himself … and about one half of a hundred persons besides have not been able to send me even a Stuffed Specimen in time for my Publication — So it is however and I drop the subject.”16 Eventually, a correspondent in Cuba sent Audubon skins he was able to use. By that time, his engraver Havell was nearly done with the over four hundred plates that comprise The Birds of America.
The American Flamingo is a large bird — up to five feet tall — a fact not lost on Audubon, who was a tall man himself, at least by the standards of his time. He had wanted to portray all his American birds life-sized, but the flamingo is so huge that he had to portray it bending over so that it would fit the enormous, two-by-three feet sheets he used. In the plate made from Audubon’s drawing—one of the most coveted and expensive in the canon — he shows the central bird standing on what seems like a miniature island (likely a mudflat), complete with rugged little cliffs descending into a dark blue sea. The bird appears to be both solid and ethereal. Its feathers are packed so tight, the result of many layers of pink pigment, that its body seems resilient, sturdy, and strong, an effective contrast with the fragility of the long, spindly legs.
Audubon’s watercolor had featured only that one bird, against a white background, with merely a hint of a shadow drawn in to reflect the animal’s right leg. But when it came to engraving the plate, Audubon and Havell went to town, adding several other flamingoes in the background, feeding or lounging in exactly the kind of lagoon Audubon’s Cuban correspondent had described to him.17 Adding more birds to the plate made scientific sense, of course: social to a fault, flamingos live in flocks with dozens of other individuals, and their breeding colonies may number in the tens of thousands. But their inclusion — the way they recede into that indistinct, milky-white distance — perhaps also speaks of something more.
Audubon had come to Florida “in a great measure for the purpose of studying these lovely birds in their own beautiful islands”.18 His search took him to the southernmost tip of the Keys, where the air was, as he wrote in an ecstatic essay, “darkened by whistling wings”.19 In all that vast country where he had lived since the age of eighteen, whose birds he had devoted his life to recording, this was the place which lay closest to that first home he had ever known. Les Cayes was a little more than 600 nautical miles away, both remote and achingly close — just like the flamingoes he had been able to catch only in his art and not with his gun. Despite the immediate pull of the resplendent bird in the foreground, painted from a skin obtained in the Caribbean, it is this distance that still resonates, the fading figures in the back leading our gaze over the flats and out, across the ocean to where it all began, Haiti.
Christoph Irmscher is Provost Professor of English at Indiana University and the George F. Getz Jr. Professor and the Class of 1942 Professor in Indiana University's Wells Scholars Program, which he also directs. His many books include, most recently, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science (Houghton Mifflin, 2013) and Max Eastman: A Life (Yale, 2017). He writes frequently for national publications such as The Wall Street Journal and is also the editor of the Library of America edition of Audubon's Writings and Drawings. Visit his website for more links to recent work.