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Jean Houzeau in Jamaica

The story of his life to 1868 ...


Jean Charles Houzeau was born in 1820 in Havre a suburb of the city of Mons in western Belgium. He was educated at the college in Mons and attended the University of Brussels for a year in 1837-8. From an early age he had shown a love and aptitude for mathematics and astronomy, and built a small Observatory near his father's home equipping it with what instruments he could afford. In 1840-1 he studied science in Paris and also began his involvement with journalism, contributing scientific articles especially, to a Brussels newspaper. From 1842 he worked as a voluntary assistant at the Brussels Observatory and continued writing papers and articles on astronomical topics such as meteors, asteroids and comets. In 1846 he was appointed assistant astronomer, but during the unsettled period of the 1848 Revolutions he wrote articles supporting the Republican ideas of the time and as a result he lost his job at the Observatory in 1849. After travelling to England and then to other countries on the continent he settled in Paris for the next five years. There he continued his studies and wrote further scientific papers; he worked with Abbadie on astronomical, geodesic and meteorological observations that had been made in Ethiopia. In 1854 he was employed by the Belgian War Department to help with a topographical survey of the country; this employment apparently lasted until May 1857 when he left for a visit to the United States. In 1856 he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium in the section of mathematical and physical sciences; at that time he seems also to have been working as an astronomer at the Brussels Observatory. He published in 1857 an important work on physical geography entitled 'Histoire du sol de l'Europe'. His decision to leave Belgium may have had something to do with his political opinions, or it may have been due to his resentment at the promotion of someone junior to him to a higher position.

Houzeau's visit to the United States extended into a stay of nearly 20 years. At first, having passed through New Orleans, he spent some time in Texas where he was engaged in surveying and scientific exploration. He carried out astronomical and meteorological observations and studied the natural history and biology of the area. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Houzeau, who was known to have abolitionist opinions, helped Union supporters to escape from San Antonio. Subsequently he was forced to flee, disguised as a Mexican labourer, from the attacks of Texas slave owners and found refuge in Mexico. However at the time Mexico was at war with France and Houzeau, with great difficulty made his way back to the United States, settling in New Orleans from 1864 to 1868. There he was the managing editor of the New Orleans 'Tribune', which was published in French and English, and was the first Black daily newspaper in the United States. His writing in the paper clearly showed his radical opinions and support for the Black people of Louisiana; he particularly relished the fact that his dark complexion led many to assume that he was Black himself (possibly he did have African ancestry, considering Belgium's past links with Spain). In 1872 he published a memoir of this period, entitled 'My Passage at the New Orleans Tribune' in which he describes the Black Creole elite, and the failure of Reconstruction in Louisiana. This memoir is due for publication by the Louisiana State University Press in a new edition this year; it has been translated by Gerard F. Denault of Harvard, and is edited and introduced by David C. Rankine of the University of California at Irvine.
And then, Houzeau says, 'anxious at last to live in a quiet country once more, I concluded to come to Jamaica, where I arrived in 1868.'

In Jamaica 1868-76

And after that . . .




written by Joy Lumsden - October-November 2001

The story of his life to 1868 ...

In Jamaica 1868-76

And after that ...

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  joy lumsden 2004