One of the Clements Library’s objectives for its blog is to create additional ways for scholars to take notice of collections relevant to their research. We describe acquisitions, archives, resources, highlights, and out-of-the-ordinary items to draw attention to materials that might not otherwise be found through our finding aids and catalog records.
Scholars frequently have a knowledge base that helps us better understand the collections that we care for, and in some cases, we connect with those researchers through the writing on our blog. To our good fortune, one of these instances occurred when Professor Bernard Camier of the Université des Antilles took notice of our February 21, 2019, entry: A U.S. Government Official’s Description of a Mixed-Race Lead Actress on the Baltimore Stage, 1796.
Dr. Bernard Camier is a Guadeloupean musicologist at the Université des Antilles, Pointe-à-Pitre, with a particular focus on colonization in the French West-Indian colonies (especially Saint-Domingue). He graciously provided the Clements Library with arguments supporting the identification of the formerly unidentified mixed-race actress as Minette, the premier opera singer from Port-au-Prince in the late 18th century. Dr. Camier authored a detailed study of Minette in his “‘A Free Artist of Color’ in Late-Eighteenth-Century Saint-Domingue : the Life and Times of Minette” in International Journal for Music and Musical Performance no. 1 (2019): 1-26, 90.
—Introduction by Cheney J. Schopieray, Curator of Manuscripts
The following is Dr. Bernard Camier’s considerations on the Alexander J. Dallas letter from 1796 Baltimore, found in the Richard and Agnes Irwin Correspondence, William L. Clements Library.
Alexander J. Dallas’s letter to an unidentified recipient, [likely May 29, 1796], in which he describes attending the Comedians of the French Theatre’s performance of Antoine-Jean Damaniant’s Ruse Contre Ruse, or The Midnight Hour. Richard B. and Agnes Irwin Family Correspondence, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.
About Minette in Baltimore
Dr. Bernard Camier, Université des Antilles, Pointe-à-Pitre
Information about Minette’s life and career are consistent with her presence in Baltimore in spring 1796. First of all, only two mixed-race French actresses/singers are known on the colonial stage of Saint-Domingue, but her half-sister Lise had a much thinner role in the theatrical life and, as far as we know, was not cheered like Minette was. However, more precise details are interesting to note.
1. Date and place
We know that Minette was in Baltimore in 1794, where she gave birth to a boy, Charles. She was in Philadelphia in September 1796 where she gave birth to a girl, Charlotte. In between, it is plausible that she was acting in Baltimore, and it is especially noteworthy that on the 16th of April the public was aware that: “The Comedians of the French Theatre, respectfully inform the Public, that the unexpected indisposition of one of the Players, has obliged them to postpone the entertainment for a few days”. This information is consistent with Minette’s fourth month of pregnancy, at that time.
Minette was in the acting company of Port-au-Prince when it played the Midnight Hour. We have no indications about who played the different roles, and we do not know if she even had a role in that play. Nevertheless, it is interesting to remark that the role of Lisette in that play had a musical part at the end. Minette was a great singer. So it seems quite possible that she played the role of Lisette, and made a great impression on the public, as the letter shows.
4. Skin color
The letter tells us of the “dingy”** skin color of the actress. This is also consistent with the only presumptive description of Minette in 1785, by French traveller Alfred de Laujon who was in the Port-au-Prince theater one night and spoke of a “yellow mistress” on stage. He also emphasized that the players and singers were good and that he spent a pleasant time. What we know about the actors/singers at that time makes clear that he was speaking of Minette.
5. Skill of the actress
What we know about Minette’s career is a confirmation of what the letter says about the quality of the actress’ abilities. In Saint-Domingue’s Affiches Américaines there are plenty of proofs (critics or small texts) that she was a great player. In this respect it is also noticeable that a French professional singer like Durand, coming from the “Académie Royale de Musique” and one of the creators of Iphigénie en Aulide from Gluck, did sing with her in duet.
—Guest Contribution from Dr. Bernard Camier
 Registres d’état-civil, Port-au-Prince, 1799, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM)/ Overseas Archives of France, fo 49: 20-21.
 Robert David Ritchey, A History of the Baltimore Stage in the Eighteenth Century. Louisiana State University, 1971: 218.
 Affiches Américaines (Hereafter AA), Port-au-Prince, 21 Février 1788.
 Antoine-Jean Bourlin dit Dumaniant, Guerre ouverte ou Ruse contre Ruse. Paris: Brunet: 64.
 Alexander J. Dallas, “Letter to Maria [Arabella Maria Dallas]”, Richard B. and Agnes Irwin Family Correspondence, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
 Robert David Ritchey, op. cit. p. 239.
 See for instance AA, Port-au-Prince, 13 Novembre 1784.
 Alexander J. Dallas op. cit.
 Alfred de Laujon, Souvenirs et Voyages. Paris: Verret, 1835: 166.
**Word changed from “dusty” to “dingy” Thank you to Julia Prest, University of St Andrews UK for the information.