THE HONOURABLE FELIX CHOISY
BY; WILL JOHNSON
‘Looka me wuk fo me,’ as the old timers would say. I never knew he was born on St. Barth’s. Such a strong St. Martin identity and occupying a high position in government I always believed that he had been born in Marigot.
I only found out this when I opened the latest DISCOVER magazine and found an article about him.
I knew him and Doctor Petit well. Although I was a young insignificant civil servant I somehow ended up being surrounded by all of the top officials from both the Dutch and the French side. (I don’t use this North and South thing, reminds me too much of places like Vietnam and Korea, whereas the reality is what I state here).
Mr. Choisy was a tall man who always came over as a calm and soft spoken person. He was a sort of philosopher King when it came to his views on not only local but international affairs. He had a distinctive voice. One which I still remember as I write this article.
I have quoted him in the past in articles and in my books on his views of Caribbean race relations. I found the following quote in an interview in a KLM, Holland Herald Magazine which is buried somewhere in my archives and which I could not find back for this article. But here is what he was quoted as saying and which shows his take on us Caribbean people.
It is an important statement. Nowadays on social media you read so many unrealistic statements about race and family, ignoring the reality of how small island Caribbean people evolved. He said:
“I have traced the roots of quite a few island families, and have reached the conclusion that it’s a misconception that black Caribbean’s are descended from African slaves only. My mother had a Spanish name, and my maternal grandmother had German and Flemish blood. On my father’s side, I have ancestors from Scotland, the Balearic Islands, and Portugal. My great grandmother was an Indian who was taken to St. Barthelemy by a sea captain. I think I owe my high cheekbones to her. I believe we Caribbean people are a separate ethnic group, with our own Antillean personality. The colour of our skin is irrelevant. I have seen families change from black to white and vice versa in three or four generations.”
I am at that age now where I can say that I have seen the same thing in many families, a process which is still going on and with a new people evolving out of the mix.
I met Mr. Choisy in the late nineteen fifties. He was pointed out to me as being the Deputy Mayor of the French Side. A concept which was only later cleared up to me as to exactly what that meant. That was done by Mr. Clem Labega with whom I used to pal around, even when I was opposing his party. He taught me how real friendship should be carried out. We would go to Marigot and invariably would end up in the company of Mr. Choisy. The Mayor, Dr. Hubert Petit was too busy running the hospital to participate in the standard politics of the day. Meeting your voters at certain drinking locations (rum
shops as I would call them).
My brother Eric told me once that he had heard an old man on the radio explaining why he was voting for Doctor Petit.
‘The man can mix cement, milk a cow, do anything you and me can do, and above and beyond that he can also operate on you in the hospital which he runs, so I voting for him.’ Good enough reasons in my book I would say.
And so the burden of managing the day to day affairs of the local government was in the hands of Mr. Felix Choisy.
The French side had a different political system. I learned to appreciate the elections on the French side through Captain Austin Hodge and his wife Mrs. Bertha Lawrence both of whom were from Grand Case and could still vote in the French elections. When election season was in the air I can still hear Miss Bertha saying;”Lawd, Austin I hearing that Daniel out to make trouble this election.’ She was referring to Daniel Beauperthuy who was reported to have thrown the ballot box from Grand Case out in the street in a previous election and the people’s votes were scattered all over the place. Where the Lolo’s are now was blanketed with voting ballots flying around. Daniel was with the Flemings of course, as I suspected that the Captain and Miss Bertha were also on their side.
Continuing with Daniel. Transportation was scare in those days. ‘Brother Joe’ Mathew used to deliver telegrams for the Cable office (Landsradio Dienst), and he lived next door to us on the Front Street. One afternoon after work he said to me;” I have to deliver a telegram in Cole Bay and we can take a swing in Marigot to see how the elections are going on.’ Now elections on the French side back then was considered to be very risky. Like going on the front lines in Vietnam to see who was winning the battle. So it was more than with a bit of apprehension that I accepted the invitation. We had hardly passed the area close to the Court House where the elections were being conducted in a school when we saw the crowd start to move. A crowd back then consisted of probably fifty people, but primordial instinct tells you when a crowd starts to move, get out of the way. There have been studies done on crowd movement and the consequences of being
caught up in it.
We started to move along and heard someone screaming out;’Lawd, Daniel shoot dee poor man,’ Now Daniel I knew well too and some of his children and grandchildren I am good friends with. Not trying to bad talk the man. Just giving the story as if I was a reporter, in that Daniel had come to Marigot with as objective to halt the elections by firing a shot at the Doctor. He had left the scene already and Daniel concluded that he should not come from Quartier d’Orleans in vain and so told the man behind the desk ‘since I come here to stop this election I might as well shoot you.’ I don’t think that he actually shot the man but the threat was enough and the shot which was supposed to go around the world in the end did not stop the elections after all as later in the night we heard that Dr. Petit and Felix Choisy had won the elections after all.
So many stories were told about election rigging and stuffed ballot boxes that it made the French side seem like a very sinful place and to be avoided at all costs especially on election day. But as so much from that period in my life I loved the excitement caused by elections over there. There was also a constant war of words between Joseph H. Lake Jr. in his ‘Windward Islands Opinion’ and the Petit/Choisy faction that Dr. Petit declared him ‘Persona non grata’ on the French side, something to be taken quite seriously. Good thing Mr. Lake was on the same side of the political stomping grounds as was Daniel, or else he might have been fair game for anyone in the mood to prove a point.
But back to Deputy Mayor Felix Choisy I want to quote what is written about him in the DISCOVER MAGAZINE.
‘Felix Choisy was born into a prominent family in Saint-Barthelemy on October 30, 1915. The Choisy family enjoyed a reputation as excellent sea fishermen but Emile, Felix’s father distinguished himself from the others by achieving his academic success (As my friend Fred Tren would have said ‘Boy dem Choisy’s is a bunch of ‘brainsers’, me son.’) The French administration promoted him to school principal first in Saint Barth, then in St. Martin. He was a patriot and a man of honour (as his son would be later, as we shall see). For these reasons, when Marshall Petain ordered all French civil servants to collaborate with Germany, he refused and found himself obliged to accept a premature and forced retirement. No longer allowed to teach, he bought a plot of land at La Savane and raised cattle. This episode must have made a profound impression on the young Felix.
After studying at the Lysee Carnot in Guadeloupe where he was taught law and philosophy, Felix Choisy narrowly escaped military conscription and so avoided the horrors of war. When he returned to St. Martin the economy was sluggish and it was difficult to find a job corresponding to his level of education. Determined to work and highly resourceful, he became a self -taught marine diesel mechanic and was put in charge of cargo on the ‘Mary Stella’, a ship that sailed throughout the Caribbean. But his sea faring adventures were destined not to last. Soon he would meet his future wife, Angele Petit. Married in 1947, their union produced 7 children. As he was now a “family man”, Felix decided to give up the dangers of a life at sea and to begin a career in construction. It was a wise decision! He built the first villas in the Terre-Basses as well as the first hotels on the French side. It was at this time that he began to get involved in politics. Being a young novice in the election campaign, he failed to beat the incumbent Mayor (Elie Fleming) of the time, but he made a strong impression on the young Doctor Hubert Petit, just back from completing his studies in France. In 1959 they joined forces to present a common front and won the following elections. Felix Choisy was appointed first deputy to the Mayor. It is for this role that he will always be remembered, as he became one of the most respected and popular politicians Saint Martin has ever known. The fact was, Doctor Petit had far too much work to do with his patients to also efficiently run municipal affairs. Placing his entire confidence in Felix Choisy, he delegated that role to his deputy. It was an alliance that surprised many. Doctor Petit was a confirmed Republican, Felix Choisy a diehard socialist. However, they worked
successfully as a team for close to 20 years.
Felix Choisy remained close to the people. Everyone knew him and he was very well-liked. Ambitious with a fighting spirit, he was a man of convictions who never used political double speak. He knew what he wanted and everything he got was obtained for the benefit of the people of Saint Martin. He believed probably rightfully (in the context of that era) that France administered this tiny overseas territory more than 7000 km away, as a colony, with no thought for special local reality. And so he developed his entire life to helping and advising his fellow citizens all the while respecting their fundamental rights. Deeply humanitarian, he was also a Freemason (he founded the Concorde-Perrinon lodge). But his actions were felt far beyond the scope of the Town Hall and its institutions. People would seek his help at all hours of the day and night to deal with a problem or settle a family dispute. His word was law, he acted as a trusted mediator. When a hurricane threatened, he was the last to take shelter and the first out to help. As a building contractor, he could be seen for hours on end, hammer in hand, nailing up boards to protect the homes of the poorest citizens and making sure everyone respected the confinement order. He was the very embodiment of the expression “help thy neighbour’. In 1971 he was made Chevalier of the Ordre du Merite Nacional.
Felix Choisy fought on many fronts. He was appointed President of the hospital in Marigot and Conseiller General de Guadeloupe (1973-1979). At the end of the 1970’s, he withdrew from politics, leaving an unforgettable impression in the heart of the people he had governed. He also quietly retired, although he still did some building for pleasure. Felix was a true Saint. Martiner but he believed first and foremost in a Caribbean identity. He died on November 18th, 1989, a few days after Saint Martin’s Day, a festival he had founded along with Clem Labega and Claude Wathey. His funeral will be remembered as one of the grandest ever seen on the island, as the whole population turned out to pay him their respects.
I must mention this. In later years I was going through a tough election on Saba. I was on St. Maarten trying to get some donations for my campaign. At one particular stop I got a dressing down from a merchant as to why I would think that he should donate to my campaign on Saba. I thanked him and left. I must have looked upset as Mr. Choisy was passing by, stopped to say hello and then invited me to go with him to have a cup of coffee. He told me that he could see I was upset. After relating the story to him he advised me as follows: “Will if after you have done so much for Saba you have to come to St. Maarten and get insulted trying to get donations to win an election, my advice is to go back to Saba and let whatever has to happen take place. If you lose this one there will be others to come in the future. Perhaps you are destined to lose this one in order to gain strength for the future.” He was right of course. I did lose that one and came back to win many more.