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Audubon's Haiti

I had a fantastic time last weekend at the magnificent Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky, as the invited speaker for the celebration of John James Audubon's 233rd birthday. It never felt more relevant to remind people that Audubon was born in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue), and that Haiti shaped his art and his thinking in ways that still remain to be discovered. Looking through Audubon's books art the museum, I found a marginal note in his copy of ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte's works, where Audubon refers to himself proudly as "J.A. born in Santo Domingue." And he underlines it, too. A very moving moment.

The beginning of the note--"The very bout de Petun's Note"--refers to the Creole name for the Smooth-billed Ani, still common in Haiti, whose song Audubon here compares to Bonaparte's description of the "Great Crow Blackbird," likely the Great-tailed Grackle. An earlier marginal note confirms that he had derived this information from his reading of Buffon but the later comments directly relates this knowledge to his early years in Haiti, whether he actually remembers the bird or merely feels he can claim special authority for himself as actually coming from the same place as that bird. Amusingly, Audubon also rejects the illustration Bonaparte provides, denying that it's by him, as Bonaparte had claimed: "My Drawing has been So Shamefuly cannibalized by an unknown Individual that to See My Name at the corner of the Plate might make me wish to abandon the great Labours I have been at to represent Nature as it is." Well, he didn't abandon those labors. What still remains to be discovered is the extent to which Audubon's Caribbean origins (about which he consistently lied, with the exception of the comment I found) had helped him to persist in his quest.

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