Tracking Aimé Césaire’s ancestors
- Aimé Césaire’s birth certificate from his teacher’s file, 1942.
Martinique Archives, Public Education Department collection. 1230W6
- Aimé Césaire’s genealogical tree, drawn up by the Martinique Archives, 2013
Presentation of the documents
This document, from Aimé Césaire’s teacher’s file when he was appointed to the Schœlcher High School as a French teacher, is one of the key documents making it possible to trace Césaire’s family history back to the end of the 18th century by using the Martinique on-line civil status data base on the Martinique Heritage Database site and the French National Overseas Archives.
The family tree of Aimé Ferdinand David Césaire, born on 26th June 1913 in Basse-Pointe, is evidence of the historical particularities of civil status documents in Martinique (parallel civil status records that are not identical, transposition of the first name of freed slaves into the family name and the allocating of a family name by the Registrar of Civil Status to slaves freed in 1848). It also makes it possible to check the family’s history as it has been told in published documents against historical records.
Before 1848, the legal regime governing slavery did not recognize a civil status for slaves, so the civil status office kept separate registers according to the status of the person. In Martinique, the recording of births to slaves only began in 1832, and always in registers that were separate from those for the free population.
In 1848, with the abolition of slavery, the freed slaves were registered as systematically as possible in registers that had been specially opened, called registers of ‘individuality’.
From that period up to today, there are shared registers for civil status records with no discrimination, according to the laws applicable in metropolitan France.
Aimé Césaire came from a family of farmers and smallholders, a social category that was well represented in the region of Lorrain, where the family originated from, and that aspired to upward mobility. His father, Elphège Fernand Césaire (1888-1966) was bookkeeper on a plantation and then a tax inspector. His paternal grandfather was a teacher at the Saint Pierre High School.
Césaire’s fascination with Africa can be explained by the tremendous admiration he had for his paternal grandmother, Marie Eugénie Macni (1867-1944), who represented in his eyes ‘pure’ and ‘perfect’ Africa: Adélaïde Macni (1812-1864), Marie-Eugénie’s grandmother, was born on the African coast.
Aimé Césaire took pleasure in claiming an ancestor who had been condemned to death for having staged the Grand-Anse plot of 21st December 1833 under the reign of Louis-Philippe. In fact, this is a myth, for the first Césaire of the lineage was freed in 1833 and died on 15th October 1861.
Aimé Césaire’s family tree reveals all the complexities of the civil status regime set up under slavery. It also makes it possible to follow the upward social mobility strategies of the descendants of slaves through racial mixing and the trades done by freemen and freed slaves. In conclusion, it helps us to understand the influence of Aimé Césaire's origins on his political and literary commitment.