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14778: Reid: Haitian fencing master, Jean-Louis Michel (fwd)
From: Ralph Reid <email@example.com>
JEAN-LOUIS By Adam Adrian Crown
He was only ten years old and all alone when he journeyed from Haiti to
France in 1795. The boy presented himself at a military school, and
although the colonel in charge doubted the puny child would ever make a
decent soldier, he allowed him to remain. Mistakenly, the colonel
called the boy by his first name only, the name by which he would
forever become known: Jean-Louis.
Jean-Louis Michel was born on Haiti in 1785. At that time, the
population of the island was predominantly black. At the top of the
social pyramid was a relatively small number of Creoles, about 35,000,
who owned the staggeringly lucrative tobacco, sugar cane, and rum
businesses. At the base were their 240,000 African slaves. The Creoles,
taking their pleasures of the slave women, produced a mulatto
population that occupied the precarious middle. These people of mixed
blood had very few civil rights, but oddly enough, they were allowed to
own slaves themselves. They were mostly shop-owners, catering to the
tastes of the Creole gentry.
Of Jean-Louis’s first years we know nothing. But he could not have
survived alone. Perhaps relatives cared for him. Perhaps he was
“adopted” by the community. We can only speculate. But we do know that
Jean-Louis was witness to the only successful slave revolt in history.
In 1796, a slave army led by Toussaint L’Ouverture roundly defeated a
French expeditionary force under the command of General Leclerc. As a
result, a great number of mulattos emigrated to France: some were
hoping to improve their fortunes, while many were military men fearing
reprisals from the black population. Among the emigrants was
His was not a happy lot at the military school. He was subjected to
ridicule for his scare-crow appearance and scorn for his color. But
Jean-Louis faced the taunts with stoic courage, never succumbing to
provocation, and never allowing himself to become discouraged. Instead,
he worked even harder, spending every moment he could in the salle
d’armes (fencing room) watching the Maitre d’Armes (fencing master) and
his prevots (assistants) giving lessons in the art and use of the
sword. Afterward, in private, he would drill himself as best he could,
teaching himself what he had observed.
One day the fencing master, D’Erapes, took notice of Jean-Louis’s
dedicated determination. He was impressed with the lad’s iron
self-control and the keen eye that had enabled him to learn so much all
on his own. So the master began to give Jean-Louis lessons. With expert
guidance and a relentless drive to excel, Jean-Louis soon became one of
the finest blades in the regiment. He was even selected to participate
in a demonstration, which was a very high honor.
Training with the sword completely transformed Jean-Louis. In place of
the puny, awkward child was a strong, poised young man. A few years
later, Jean-Louis took his examination for fencing master, appearing
before a jury that included the best fencing masters and most
experienced duelists in France. His performance won their highest
praises and earned him the coveted title, “Maitre d’Armes.”
He was the youngest candidate ever presented.
But that is not the end of Jean-Louis’s story. He took part in most of
the major military campaigns of the Napoleonic Period, seeing action in
more than thirty battles. He won a reputation for always being in the
forefront, leading the charge, and he was awarded a promotion to
On one occasion, Jean-Louis was practicing with some other fencers in a
salle d’armes. Another gentleman began making disparaging comments
about Jean-Louis’s fencing – tinged with racial disdain, too.
“Oh, he’s perfectly all right with these toys,” said the gentleman,
referring to the blunt foils used in practice, "but that sort of thing
would never work in a real fight.”
Jean-Louis politely pretended not to hear.
“They’re good at this capering around, you know,” the man went on, “but
the sword was not made for the hand of a nigger. They simply have no
heart for it.”
Jean-Louis approached the man and spoke quietly to him.
“Excuse me, sir. I couldn’t help overhearing. Do you mean your remarks
to refer to me?”
“I’ve spoken clearly, I think. I hope my meaning wasn’t obscure.”
“Not at all. Are you trying to provoke me into a duel?”
“I have said what I have said.”
“Very well, then. I will fight you. On one condition.”
“Oh, conditions, is it?”
“Just one. You may, of course, use your sword. I, however, will use
only my foil.”
“I know my own strength, sir,” Jean-Louis explained. “And I believe I
can speculate as to yours. I have no wish to be accused of murder. Now
will you, or will you not, draw your sword?”
The man was trapped. All eyes were on him. He could not refuse.
And so Jean-Louis and the rude gentleman faced each other, the latter
with a lethally sharp sword, the former with only a blunt practice
foil. The man attacked furiously. But Jean-Louis parried each attack
with apparent effortlessness. After a short time, the man had expended
his energy and was red-faced and breathing heavily. Jean-Louis parried
his last attack and as a riposte (an answering thrust), dealt the man a
vicious swipe across the face. Even without sharp edges, it was
sufficient to raise an enormous welt and painful enough for the man to
Word spread rapidly about this unusual “duel.” It was a long time
before the man visited a fencing club again and he carried the mark of
Jean-Louis’s riposte on his face even longer.
On another occasion, during the Spanish campaign, morale in Jean
Louis’s 32nd Regiment was running low. Tensions were also high between
soldiers from Italian 1st Regiment and those from France, with
arguments and quarrels among the soldiers leading to duels. The unrest
grew. Duels became more and more frequent. The two regiments became
embroiled in a dispute that nearly ended in an all-out battle. The
general in command decided that, to settle things once and for all,
fifteen fencing masters and prevots from each regiment would fight
duels. These men were not only the best swordsmen in their regiments;
they faced death routinely and were determined to uphold their
regiment's honour with their lives.
Ten-thousand men assembled at a field just outside Madrid to witness
the duels. The first French fencing master to take the ground was
Jean-Louis. His opponent was a formidable Italian master named Giacomo
In the first phrase, Jean-Louis fended off Ferrari’s aggressive attack
and wounded him on the shoulder with a riposte. But the courageous
Italian insisted on continuing. Unfortunately, for him, Jean-Louis’s
next riposte ran him through the heart, killing him on the spot.
Jean-Louis then returned to his place on the field to await the next
opponent – for in a grim version of “king of the hill,” the general had
decreed that each man would remain on the ground, crossing blades with
successive opponents, until he himself was killed or incapacitated.
In the course of the next forty minutes, offering only twenty-seven
strokes, Jean-Louis killed or disabled thirteen opponents, one after
another. The commanding general then called a halt to the proceedings.
Jean-Louis lay down his sword and, offering his hand to the two
remaining prevots, led the reconciliation between the two regiments.
Jean-Louis was only twenty-eight, but his reputation soared. He was
offered a promotion, but declined it – he preferred being a fencing
master to an officer. At twenty-nine, he was awarded France’s highest
decoration, the “Legion of Honour” medal. Later he received the
“Medaille de St. Helene,” which Napoleon, in exile, bestowed upon his
most loyal soldiers.
Jean-Louis's skill with the sword, his experience in dueling, and his
impeccable integrity made him highly desirable as a judge or referee in
fencing matches and duels. As a referee, he directed some of the most
noteworthy fencing matches of the time, including the spectacular 1816
match between Comte de Bondy and the great fencing master, Lafaugere.
But he never agreed to oversee a duel without first trying to reconcile
the opponents. He was so highly respected that he often succeeded in
sparing them a potentially lethal encounter.
About 1830, Jean-Louis opened his own fencing academy in Montpelier,
making it one of the most important fencing centers in all of France.
In 1849, at the age of sixty-five, Jean-Louis was called upon once more
to settle a dispute between two regiments. He arranged a fencing
competition between their best fencers and personally directed each of
the bouts, offering good-natured comments that opened the door to a
In 1865, cataracts in both eyes caused Jean-Louis to go blind.
Nevertheless, he still gave fencing lessons, sometimes from a chair,
using his tremendous feel for the blade. In that year, his beloved
wife, Josephine Montes, died. He assured his friends he would be
reunited with her before the year was over. True to his word, he died
in November, 1865, at the age of eighty-five.
Jean-Louis personified the ideals of fencing: determination, courage,
integrity, and benevolence. We have not seen his equal.
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