Genealogy Library lecture to examine links between St. Barths, St. Thomas


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ST. THOMAS - The Caribbean Genealogy Library on St. Thomas will be offering a free lecture Sunday on the social history of St. Barths and its connection to St. Thomas.

"It's the first lecture that we've done related to the French community at the library," board member Sophia Aubin said.

The speaker is Julianne Maher, a linguist who was first drawn to study St. Barths because of the languages spoken there.

"The island is only 8½ square miles, that's half the size of St. John, and they speak four different dialects of French creole," Aubin said.

Maher wrote a book, "The Survival of People and Languages: Schooners, Goats and Cassava in St. Barthélemy, French West Indies," that explains this rare linguistic anomaly - how a small group of 17th century French settlers came to speak four separate languages. Using historical documents and 18th century eyewitness accounts, Maher reconstructed the tiny island's social ecology to learn why the fragmentation occurred.

She found that poverty, economics, geography and small population size created linguistic barriers on the island for more than 250 years.

In Maher's research on the languages of St. Barths, she became fascinated with the history and culture of the French Caribbean island and its people, Aubin said.

Sunday's lecture is titled, "Reconstructing the Social History of St. Barthelemy." In her talk, Maher will follow the social history of three men - Jacques Gréaux, Pierre Bernier and Jacques Aubin - and their families.

The three names appear on the first census in St. Barthélemy, taken in 1681. These are important families in St. Barths to this day, and families which also exist in St. Thomas, Aubin said.

With few written records available, Maher was able to reconstruct the people's history on St. Barths from birth, death and marriage records in the French archives, the Swedish governors' reports, slave emancipation lists and anthropologists' reports from the 1960s.

The records Maher found attest to the remarkable resilience and fortitude of the St. Barths people who survived wars, pirates, hurricanes, droughts and starvation, according to the library's news release. 

"The connection between St. Barths and St. Thomas is pretty huge, when the St. Barths economy was not doing so well in 1800s, a large number of them came to St. Thomas," Aubin said. "A lot of those people's still live in Frenchtown and on the north side of the island."

Aubin said immigration from St. Barths to St. Thomas started in the mid-1800s.

"Then a second wave when St. Thomas tourism started picking up in the mid-1900s," Aubin said.

While some people in the St. Thomas French community have strong ties to St. Barths, others may have a more distant connection and want to learn more about their ancestry, Aubin said.

When she comes for the lecture, Maher will be donating a copy of her book to the genealogy library so St. Thomas residents with French ancestry can learn more about their family history.

The free lecture, "Reconstructing the Social History of St. Barthelemy," will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Caribbean Genealogy Library, located next to Mango Tango Art Gallery in the Al Cohen's Plaza on Raphune Hill.

Caribbean Genealogy Library houses unique and rare books on Virgin Islands history and culture; funeral booklets, microfilms; and provides access to church records and other documents.

Regular workshops and presentations are held to encourage the community to learn about their family and cultural history.  

For more information about the society, call 714-2136, email caribgenlibrary@gmail.com, or visit www.rootsweb.com/~vicgl/.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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