Thursday, July 14, 2011

People: Bastille Day Far from Home

Jean Joseph Amable Humbert was born in Saint-Nabord, France on August 22, 1755. The details of his family are sketchy but it is reasonable to assume, given that Humbert grew up to be both a soldier and a passionate Republican, that they were squarely bourgeois. It was only later in life, after joining the army at Lyon and rising to the rank of Brigadier General in 1794, that Humbert would become entangled with those famous French/Americans Pierre and Jean Laffite.

Humbert took part in France’s ambitious invasion of Ireland lead by General Hoche in 1796. Despite early success, he was captured by the British. Because of his efforts to establish a republic there, a monument still stands to his memory in Ballina, County Mayo.

The General was paroled and later sent to put down the bloody revolt in the future island nation of Haiti. Though Humbert did his duty, his Republican leanings found him sympathizing more and more with the rebels. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Humbert broke with his mother country permanently. He headed out to find glory in the liberation of Spain’s provinces in the New World. In 1808, at the age of 53, General Humbert arrived in Philadelphia.

By this time in his life Humbert was used to being in charge and he had a confident way about him. Tall and lean, the days when he could be called handsome were certainly behind him. He wore his hair long and had a full beard. All of his swagger and charm was unfortunately overshadowed by both imprudence and an addiction to alcohol; never a good combination.

The General began soliciting potential backers for his scheme to liberate first Texas and then Mexico. Many well known men of Spanish origin were already involved in the endeavor but none of them had known much success. Humbert, with his characteristic confidence, was sure he would triumph where others had failed; all he needed was money, arms and men. After the almost hilarious blunder of propositioning the Spanish ambassador, Onis, to join the cause, Humbert headed out to Louisiana in the summer of 1813.

Here a group of investors that included some of the most well connected men in New Orleans was funding, for potential profit, the Mexican junta against Spain. Attorneys John Randolph Grymes and Edward Livingston, Commodore Daniel Tod Patterson of the U.S. Naval Station, and wealthy merchants Auguste Davezac and Joseph Sauvinet were just a few of the names on the list. Transporting the arms and specie supplied by this loose group of “associates”, as they called themselves, were men like Dominique Youx, Renato Beluche, Vicente Gambi and William Mitchell all under the auspices of associate members Pierre and Jean Laffite. The entire set up was a shady – and potentially illegal – business. General Humbert was welcomed, and at first seemed to fit right in.

By the following year, the General was quite cozy with the Laffites. Stories have circulated that Humbert was already acquainted with Dominique Youx from their mutual time defending French holdings in the Caribbean, including Haiti and Guadeloupe. If that was the case, Humbert’s entrée into Barataria was virtually assured. In the spring of 1814, he appears to have been enjoying Jean’s hospitality on Grande Terre.

In early summer of the same year, Humbert set out aboard a felucca captained by Youx and headed for the Mexican port of Nautla. Humbert would act as delegate, pretending to be sent by the U.S. in the hope of meeting with and perhaps acquiring funds for arms from the local insurgents. Infighting among two rival factions of the insurgency made Humbert’s mission almost impossible. Bickering between the two leaders, Anaya and Rayon, meant the General needed to take sides. He chose Anaya, who did manage to pay over $5,000 for the gunpowder Youx had stowed in his felucca’s hold. As was usual with Humbert, his choice proved short-sighted. Rayon took control of the junta in August. Youx sailed for Barataria with Humbert and Anaya aboard him; they arrived in early September.

The shadow of both the war with Britain and the hostility of the U.S. against the Laffites were now far more pressing than any revolution in Mexico. Like so many other Frenchmen in America, Humbert joined with General Jackson to make a stand on Rodriguez Canal. According to both William C. Davis and A.J. Langguth, Humbert joined Jean Laffite on the west bank of the Mississippi during the Battle of New Orleans, leading the French and Creole speaking men in that battalion.

Though General Humbert, like all those who took part in the defeat of the British in January of 1815, was feted and embraced his star was already waning. His alcoholic binges, and accompanying raging temper, had become legendary. Though he would briefly join the Laffites at Galveston and continue to hunt for glory in local uprisings, he would not know success. He was found dead in a rented room in New Orleans on January 2, 1823.

Humbert was vilified by the Spanish after his death but, in sharp contrast, he is remembered fondly in and around New Orleans. The most repeated story of the famous General, told by both Lyle Saxon in Lafitte the Pirate and Robert Tallant in The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans, surrounds a dinner party held in the city. Though many storytellers, including Tallant, mark the occasion as Humbert’s birthday it is more probable, as both Davis and Jane Lucas de Grummond note, that the celebration was for Bastille Day. All the usual suspects are gathered; the Laffites, Youx, Beluche, Gambi, Sauvinet, Livingston, Davezac and so on. Eventually, Humbert was several drinks ahead of the others and, in his cups, he looked around the table. His jovial face turned stern; he rose, swaying slightly under the weight of his imbibing, and looked pointedly at the Laffites.

“Why am I here,” he demanded. “I should not be among these rogues. A General of France does not consort with pirates!”

Of course such a choice of words was a challenge to those assembled – Gambi, perhaps, excepted – and the men around the table jumped up in protest. Tallant goes so far as to have Renato Beluche brandish a knife with the unfortunate outburst of: “I kill!”

In all the tellings of this story, it is always Jean Laffite who comes between the angry sailors and the unfortunate General. At which point, breaking down in tears, Humbert embraces Jean and sobs: “Of course, I did not mean you.”

The story is almost certainly apocryphal but many of us can sympathize with the old soldier celebrating a dear tradition so very far from home.

Happy Bastille Day one and all. Vive la Liberté!

Header: Engraving thought to be of Jean Joseph Amable Humbert via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That's a pretty amusing story. One man's pirate is another man's privateer, no? I really had to laugh at Beluche's alleged outburst, but hey, it's always more fun to re-tell a story by making it more dramatic, right?

Happy Bastille Day!

Pauline said...

And bon fete de Bastille to you as well.

As you are aware, Tallant wrote his book in the '50s for what would now be called a "YA audience" so that kind of dialogue adds drama and character. That said, I'm pretty sure my family, even in that era, was a bit more articulate in English. And probably more than French beyond that as well. NOLA was, after all, the first great melting pot in the U.S.