Jean-Louis Michel

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Jean-Louis Michel

In 1785 the tiny nation of Haiti produced one of the world’s greatest swordsmen Jean-Louis Michel. As a young boy Jean-Louis witnessed Toussaint L’Ouverture lead the Haitian army against the French in the Haitian Revolution. Because of the revolution many mulatto Haitian’s migrated to France; at the age of ten Jean-Louis immigrated to France along with a number of others. There we would enroll into Military School which would help change his life. He was not welcomed well by the other students because of his appearance and especially his dark hue. His peers taunted him daily but his will was too strong to be broken, he used the insults as motivation to become as great as he could be. He learned to channel his anger by taking up the sport of fencing.

Jean-Louis spent hours memorizing the fencing techniques the schools Fencing Master taught other students. After classes he would practice each technique until he mastered each move. His skill and determination was eventually noticed by the Fencing Master which would lead to Jean-Louis becoming one of the master’s students. Because of the guidance of the Fencing Master Jean-Louis quickly became the top fencing student in the class. Later he would appear in front of a board of Fencing Masters who would grade him as he took his examination to become a fencing master. He passed his examination with flying colors and became the youngest person ever to gain the title of Fencing Master. The legend of Jean-Louis would grow as he spent time in Napoleon’s Army, he was known for leading the charge against their enemies. Over the course of 30 battles Jean-Louis helped the French army secure victories, because of his efforts he was promoted to “Tambour Major.”

One day Jean-Louis was practicing his fencing with his fellow soldiers a jealous soldiers insulted, undermined and discounted Jean-Louis’ fencing skills. The soldier even went as far as calling Jean-Louis racial slurs in an attempt to provoke a dual.  Jean-Louis accepted the challenge but only used his practice sword because he did not want to kill the arrogant soldier. Jean-Louis toyed with the man as he attempted to attack him, the soldier eventually wore himself out then Jean-Louis ended the dual with a quick strike across the soldiers face. News of the dual spread and Jean-Louis’ opponent was forced to enter into the public with the mark of defeat upon his face. The French Army was in Spain on a mission and they continuously battled with the Italian soldiers who they were in aligned with. To settle the battles 15 of the best Fencing Masters were forced to duel to settle the quarrels and to earn bragging rights. Jean-Louis was first up to duel with Giacomo Ferrari an Italian soldier. Jean-Louis quickly ended the duel with a thrust to the shoulder and a thrust to the heart. He then defeated 13 other opponents with only 27 strokes of his sword making him the victor of the tournament. Because of his victory the French and the Italian soldiers stopped their quarrels and began to work together again.

Jean-Louis was only 29 years old but he was regarded as the greatest swordsman in the land. He was awarded the “Medaille de St. Helene,” a medal Napoleon only gave to his best and most loyal soldiers.  He would eventually retire from fencing and take up referring fencing matches to help mend broken relationships between combatants. In 1830 he would open one of the most respected and sought after fencing academies in Montpellier, France.  Early in 1865 Jaen-Louis became blind because of cataracts and his wife also died. Later in November of 1865 Jean-Louis passed away leaving a tremendous legacy no man could ever match. Fencing is not something we think of when we think about people of African descent, but as we dig further into our past we learn that fencing is just another thing black people have mastered. Jean-Louis Michel, we proudly stand on your shoulders.

J.A. Ward.

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