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The Spirit of Mardi Gras: The Legend of Ti-Sainte

Updated: Aug 23, 2023



THE SPIRIT OF MARDI GRAS: THE LEGEND OF TI-SAINTE

by RUFUS PEMBROKE, (ca. 1823)


(Annotations, contextual notes and addenda by Clark Taylor)

NOTE FROM CLARK TAYLOR: I will be releasing subsequent verses of this epic poem through the remainder of the year. This work is in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans as the capital of Louisiana, which in 1723 included much of what is now the United States. (All copyrights reserved. Images herein are generated by Midjourney and only serve as placeholders for eventual artwork and images.)

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS


Herein I seek to relate the story of Ti-Sainte, the Spirit of Mardi Gras, known to the French Creoles as "Petite Sainte," and the Haitian Creoles as "Ti Sen"


I have drawn from collected stories of Choctaw, Chitimacha and Natchez elders, journals and documents found in archives of the City of New Orleans, current African slave narratives, songs and lore, neglected or secretive stories told among the creole and mixed-race free people arriving and living in the city as well as Songs and Stories from refugees of the recent slave rebellion on San Domingue.


I have traveled extensively throughout the West Indies, new France, New England and the Gulf Coast regions — as well as up and down the Mississippi river and tributaries. I have spent many years studying a variety of languages and dialects in order to better understand various cultures, some of which are in danger of being lost forever. Indeed, many already have.


I have chosen to write of Ti-Sainte (“Little Saint”) in the form of an epic poem as he deserves an art form commensurate with the subject. The poem is made up of stanzas of eleven lines made to resemble the French rondelle form. As Ti-Sainte was born Jean Baptiste in 1699 to and in a French world, it seems appropriate.


Much of the story focuses as well on his mother, Marie (Lanme’a) Sauvole, (c. 1685-1743) whose exploits as a widowed woman of African Creole descent provide a window into the social structures of colonial France and Spain during this period, but also help to understand the development of the unique culture of Louisiana and New Orleans.


Ti-Sainte lived 88 years before passing into legend. These years (1699-1788) circumscribe the era of the discovery and building of French New Orleans, as well as the city of Mobile and the communities of Biloxi and others so important to the settling of the waterways of the Gulf of Mexico, major locales during the seminal years of colonial America and the early years of American independence.


While the legend of Ti-Sainte continues to live on in the hearts of adults and children alike during the wonderful and mysterious period between Twelvth Night and Ash Wednesday, known variously as ‘Carnivale,’ or the season of Mardi Gras, I think it important to relate this foundational story and clarify once and for all, the life of this now mythical character.


As we know, this very religious holiday season comes to us through the pre-Christian days when pagans celebrated the winter solstice as well as looking toward pre-spring fasting due to the lack of stores from the previous harvest. Nonetheless, the spirit of Ti-Sainte shines with a heavenly, Godly light and brings not just the promise of plenty to come, but of celebrating the true virtues of Christ and the wider values of an inclusive world


And so I give you the legend of Ti-Sainte. may your Mardi Gras season be the grandest and your tables laden with good things. To Ti-Sainte and the joy of freedom!

Rufus Pembroke. Mardi Gras Day, 1823



Prologue

Some say Ti-Sainte was born long ago,

Before the time of worry and woe

When humans were free from rulers and kings

And cared not for riches, or owning of things

Before there was money, soldiers and slaves

Before people paid debts by digging their graves

When all of God’s Children danced by the fires

And worshipped the Heavens through natural spires

When joy followed sadness as dawn does the night

And life a parade of boundless delight

When Freedom was a given and natural right.


The ages since then were metered by Time

Counting the days by the clock’s ringing chime

Empires rose and fell by the score

Never learning from those that came just before

The coins of kings dug from the mines

Paid for their captives and wars of all kinds

Borders were drawn and re-drawn again

As if to hold people beholden within

Forced into tribes all competing for life

Creating a world of anger and strife

Reaping the red harvest of Death’s swinging scythe


The New World, so called, was so much older

Than nations of Europe who acted much bolder

Planting their flags to claim ancient lands

Lived-in and cared for by traditional hands

The tribes they encountered held uncounted mysteries

And kept in their minds incredible histories

Shared with the Earth and Nature’s own time

Rose with the sun which moved so sublime

Arcing across to set spinning the skies

They named the heavens, with different eyes

Calling their legends with dancing and cries.


And herein we see even more ancient folks

Brought out of Africa wearing slave yokes

Forced to do labor under new suns

Dying to enrich the greedier ones

Bringing with them all of their ghosts

Spirits released by pillory and posts

Chanting and songs all saving graces

Helping them survive in horrible places

Relying on stories of their queens and kings

Remembering a time of much better things

Hoping for freedom that only God brings


And to this world came all those seeking better

Lives for the future from the pasts ruled by letter

Conscripted to journeys which took them away

From everyone known, where they couldn't stay

Shiploads of migrants, settlers and convicts

Pirates and traders, priests and heretics

Crossing the oceans and floating down rivers

Living on luck and rich promise givers

Many were soldiers and sailors with orders

To keep watchful eyes on the wealth of the horders

Fortify and fight for newly mapped borders.

These stories unwritten use rhythms and rhymes

Seeking a meaning to good and bad times

What we call myths, they called the real

Animal gods with human appeal

Helped every people to yet understand

Their place in the cosmos, in this land

Everyday was another time on this earth

That sacredly honored each death and each birth

So it came to be that on the New World’s old shore

We find the tribes who gathered galore

And brought us this origin story of yore.


It took the colors of human experience

To paint the One who created deliverance

From the cold Winter, the quickening night

The crack of a whip, the gathering fright

Marrying ancient ways with others thought best

Finding new riches in life's treasure chest

By knowing the shadows as ephemeral evidence

A reminder of one’s own physical presence

Ti-Sainte was given form on this Earth

To bring about joy where there’s a dearth

And so we come now to his sacred birth.


THE LEGEND OF TI-SAINTE

by Rufus Pembroke, (ca. 1822)


The story, the myth, the legend I write

Begins on an almost forgotten night

A few Indians knew what planets aligned

The third night of March, sixteen ninety-nine.

Ti-Jean Baptiste, under a crescent moon

Born not too late, nor a moment too soon

His mother Lanme'a ran heavy with child

And hid in the bayou cane, eyes looking wild

Torches came after her, searching the shore

To catch her up and the infant she bore

She'd been a slave and her son, one more.

The searchers were led by Benjamin Long

Who’d made himself rich doing things wrong

He wanted the woman and her unborn

He claimed as his property, she was forsworn

Her husband had promised to be home soon

Leagues away though beneath the same moon

Long saw his chance, imagine her fright

As he sought to capture her this very night

Her tracks disappeared then into a thicket

The men surrounded her like a picket

She was trapped, only sound was a cricket

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