Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Voyagers to the East, Part VIII

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

A noteworthy feature of 16th-century French political culture was the ceremonial entry of a new king into each of the principal cities of his realm. These "joyeuses entrees" were festive events marked by parades, pageants, feasts, public addresses, and (usually) the city's presentation of a large gift to the king. The festival of entry satisfied the king's need for homage from his subjects, but it also served two important purposes for the local citizens: it allowed them to re-affirm their special corporate identity as city-dwellers, and it gave them the opportunity to express their community's aspirations. (Frederic Baumgartner, Henry II: King of France, 1547-1559 [Duke University Press, 1988], 92-93.)

In October 1550 the city fathers of Rouen, a maritime community on the Seine estuary, organized an unusual entry festival for King Henri II and Catherine de Medici, one intended to promote royal interest in overseas colonization. In a field outside of the city walls the inhabitants prepared a simulated Brazilian forest and village, complete with fake brazilwood trees, imported parrots and monkeys, log huts with thatched roofs, hammocks, and dugout canoes. The tableau included over three hundred "Brazilians," who paraded before the monarchs and conducted a mock battle with bows and clubs for Henri's entertainment.

Fifty of these tribesmen were actual Brazilians, probably Tupi-Guarani kidnapped by Portuguese slavers and sold to sailors involved in the lumber trade. (Brazil's primary export in the early 16th century was brazilwood, which Europeans used as a dyestuff.) Some of the other 250 participants were French sailors familiar with the Brazilian coast, its inhabitants, and their language, but most were ordinary young French men and women dressed, or rather undressed, as Indians, wearing little more than a coating of red dye. (This must have been chilly in early October). The pageant thus represents one of the earliest recorded examples of a cultural activity that would, in time, become quite popular in British America: "playing Indian."

Rouen's merchants and sailors hoped that the pageant would build political support for trade with the Indies and colonization in America, and their hopes were soon realized. In 1555 Henri II commissioned a party of adventurers to establish a French colony in southern Brazil, near the site of present-day Rio de Janeiro. The settlement of "France Antarctique" survived for twelve years, and descriptions of its Native American neighbors inspired Michel de Montaigne to write his essay "Of Cannibals," an early exploration of the theme of the "noble savage" (parts of which found their way into Act II, Scene 1 of The Tempest). It seems possible that some of the kidnapped Tupi-Guaranis who participated in the 1550 pageant were brought to the new colony as guides and translators, though there is no certain documentary proof of their fate.

A contemporary description of the Brazilian pageant, titled La deduction du sumpteux order plaisantz spectacles et magnifiques theatres dresses ... par les citoiens de Rouen ... a la sacrée maieste du treschristian roy de France, Henry seco[n]d ... et à tresillustre dame, ma dame Katharine de Medicis [Rouen, 1551], p. 67, can be found here on the British Library Website. A 2006 book on the pageant, Michael Wintroub's A Savage Mirror, is available from Stanford University Press.)

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Shocked, I Say

Occasionally, I come across a newspaper story so entertaining that it merits retelling without comment. The June 9th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education carried such a story (page A25), from which comes the following excerpt: "The University of Missouri at Columbia is having a difficult time making use of a $1.1 million donation that Kenneth L. Lay gave in 1999 to establish the Kenneth L. Lay Chair in Economics." According to the story the university offered the job to three different professors between 2000 and 2003, and all of them declined.

I will afford myself one small comment: a $1.1 million endowment would support a professorship whose annual salary would be around $60,000-70,000, plus benefits. This is only 1/3 to 1/2 of what a senior economics professor normally earns at a flagship research university. It's therefore entirely possible that Missouri can't fill the Lay Chair because its benefactor was too cheap, not because he's infamous. If Mr. Lay had instead donated $11 million, that chair would not have remained vacant for long.

[Update, July 6th: I guess it's now the Kenneth L. Lay Memorial Chair in Economics.]

Friday, June 09, 2006

Pine Trees and Sovereignty

June 10th marks the anniversary of the issuance of the Pine Tree Shilling (1652), the first coin minted by English-speaking settlers in North America. Those who might regard this as mere numismatic trivia are invited to read Mark Peterson's fascinating essay in the April 2006 issue of Common Place, "Big Money Comes to Boston." In it, Peterson notes the difference between what he calls "big money" (gold and silver coins issued by sovereign states) and "little money" (informal currencies like cowrie shells or copper farthings) in the 17th-century Atlantic world, and identifies the minting of the Pine Tree Shilling as the moment when Bostonians formally shifted to a big-money economy. He also explains how Bostonians' efforts to establish first a little-money economy, based on wampum, and then a big-money economy based on precious metals reflected the colony's ambitious territorial and commercial aspirations, linking its coinage to the fur trade, the Pequot War, the silver mines of Potosi and the West Indies. Finally, he describes the amusing -- and, for a long time, successful -- efforts of colonial officials to convince Charles II that they had not usurped his royal prerogative. (I particularly liked Sir Thomas Temple's insistence that the pine tree engraving was actually the Royal Oak, in which Charles II had hidden after losing the Battle of Worcester [1651] to Parliamentary forces, and that the coin was therefore a hidden tribute to the exiled king.) Charles' brother James was not taken in by such arguments and put an end to the new coinage when he became king, but this was merely a temporary setback for New England officials, who in the eighteenth century found a new way to produce money: by printing it.