City of St. Augustine Remembers Jorge Biassou

Haitian champion remembered
Historical figure who lived interesting life could attract tourists to Nation’s Oldest City
By ANTHONY DeMATTEO  |   More by this reporter  |  anthony.dematteo@staugustine.com  |   Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2009 ; Updated: 11:33 PM on Sunday, August 30, 2009

St. Augustine officials hope the legend of a man who helped lead history’s bloodiest slave revolt will forge another path for visitors to the Oldest City.

Raymond Joseph, the United States Ambassador to Haiti, toured Tolomato Cemetery Saturday morning as part of a weekend visit celebrating Jorge Biassou, the slave-turned-Haitian Revolution general who lived in St. Augustine from 1796 until his 1801 death.

Biassou commanded a force as large as 40,000 in Haiti in the fight for independence from France that led to the formation of the Republic of Haiti. He is buried among Old City heritage natives in the Tolomato Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery from 1784 to 1884 on Cordova Street.

“I think this is going to stimulate a lot of interest in not only Haitian Americans, African Americans, but all Americans,” said St. Augustine City Commissioner and Vice Mayor Errol Jones in a ceremony at Tolomato. “I think it’s going to stimulate tourism. It’s very exciting.”

St. Johns County Commissioner Ken Bryan also accompanied the delegation to a Friday reception at Fort Mose State Park. Bryan said county and city commissioners, and State Sen. Tony Hill, Jacksonville, are collaborating on increasing the number of area tourists by heightening awareness of historical figures such as Biassou.

“It’s a whole new move toward tourism,” Bryan said.

In 1796, Biassou arrived in St. Augustine with nearly 30 followers and family members. Florida’s only black militant political leader, Biassou lived in the old Salcedo House on St. George Street now occupied by Whetstone Chocolates.

The local economy was bad, and Biassou often complained to Spanish Florida Governor Juan Nepomuceno de Quesada about his salary. But history notes Biassou’s success leading a regiment of free black soldiers at Fort Matanzas sometimes charged with defending the bulwark against hostile Native Americans.

Biassou’s funeral in the St. Augustine Catholic Church — now the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine — included an elaborate St. George Street precession leading to his resting place.

Nearly 1,000 dead occupy Tolomato. About 100 of the graves are marked.

Menorcan Cultural Society President Carol Lopez Bradshaw said a recent study using ground penetrating radar revealed hundreds of unmarked graves, but the location of Biassou’s remains is unknown.

Inside Tolomato Cemetery’s austere mortuary chapel, its walls adorned with a crucifix and water stains, Hill said Biassou should be recognized with a grave marker.

“It’s time for us to give honor where honor is due,” Hill said.

Joseph and Haitian delegates from Miami, Haiti and New York City, encircled Hill and the marble memorial of Cuban priest Father Felix Verala, whose remains alone occupied the chapel for years until the death of the first Catholic bishop of Florida, Augustin Verot.

“They needed a fitting place to bury the bishop, so they came and dug Father Verala up, put his remains in a pillowcase and put him to the side,” Bradshaw said.

In 1911, Cuba petitioned for the return of Verala’s remains, which now reside at the University of Havana Chapel as Verala is beatified, a step in the canonization process of the Catholic Church.

Jean Claude Exulien, vice president of Haitian American Historical Society, said Biassou’s legacy carries importance beyond encouraging tourism.

“We have what we call a crisis of identity,” Exulien said. “Our young Haitians refuse, sometimes, to identify themselves as Haitians because of what they read in the newspapers. But we adults know what Haitians did during the 19th Century.”

Joseph, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who later owned a newspaper with his brother, said Biassou and his revolutionary brother, Jean Francois Biassou, are well known in Haiti.

“This is one of the most enjoyable trips I’ve had to Florida,” said Joseph, who returned to Washington D.C. Saturday. “I see the connections of Haiti to northern Florida, we know of the connections in South Florida, but I see the Haitian connection is being marked here, too.”

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WHO WAS JORGE BIASSOU?

Jorge Biassou was a general in the Haitian revolution that led to independence from France. Biassou lived in St. Augustine from 1796 until his death in 1801.

He led a free black regiment at Fort Matanzas, sometimes defending the fort from hostile Native Americans. Buried in an unmarked grave in Tolomato Cemetery on Cordova Street.

City and county officials hope illustrating Biassou’s local history leads to greater tourism.

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