The Inspiration for Apricots
I first came across Saint Domingue and its fascinating history while reading the Christian Miltenberger Papers, a collection of family papers from a noted New Orleans physician who died in 1829, held at UNC Chapel Hill. Christian began his career in Saint Domingue and married the daughter of a plantation owner there. The papers from his wife's family - letters, official papers, inventories and wills, birth and death certificates - form a fascinating chronology of life in the Grand'Anse (the remote region of Saint Domingue where Apricots takes place) between the years 1740 - 1802. In 1803, the family left with thousands of other whites from the Grand’Anse to spend six years in Cuba then onward to New Orleans where they eventually settled.
Many of the documents, especially wills and inventories done in the wake of deaths, contain information about the family's slaves. It was very unsettling and very direct to handle the very documents slave "owners" had created and signed, and to read the inventories that listed names, ages, places of origin and occasional small tidbits about the person in question (for example: blind; riddled with yaws; played the piano well), as well as, of course, their price. Estimates of worth ranged from 3,000 livres for a healthy 25-year-old man all the way down to 5 livres for a crippled, senile 70-year-old woman, obviously barely alive. I think that one hurt the most - what would it be like to be trapped in so evil a system that HAD to assign a worth to every human being that was a slave?
One set of papers I really enjoyed were the efforts by Julienne Fongravier, the matriarch of the family, to gather evidence of the birth of her 12 living children; if she could do so, she was eligible for a pension from the French government. Even as revolutions in both Haiti and France raged on in the 1790s, Julienne was writing around the island collecting birth certificates for her 12 living children from 2 different marriages to qualify for that pension. I find it incredible that the administrative system was functioning sufficiently in that decade in either country, but apparently they were as Julienne is eventually listed in the newspaper Affiches Americans as having achieved her goal.
The papers document daily life up to the 1790s, and showed that even as the world around them was unravelling, daily life went on and often took precedence over larger, more abstract events that are covered in the history books. That focus on small matters amidst historic sweeping changes got me thinking about what life would have been like in that society, built on hate and slavery, at that particular time when it was starting to crumble and change. From that, the inspiration for Apricots was born.
I chose the lens of a single day to tell the story of Apricots because I believe it is in the minutiae of daily life that the past comes most alive, and I chose a broad selection of plantation inhabitants - the owner, her children, the manager, the slaves - both house and field - and slave overseers, as well as outside visitors - all with different histories and stories, all living through one seminal day, to try to answer the question: What would it actually have been like to live through that sort of upheaval?