Friday, October 28, 2016

Voyagers to the East, Part XXIV: Two Iroquois Experiences of France

(For the previous entry in this series, click here. For the index, link here.)

In the 1640s and '50s France's colony in Quebec became a beleaguered and semi-isolated outstation. Iroquois warriors, longtime enemies of the French, gained access to Dutch firearms. They made war on New France and its Indian allies, plundering furs, destroying towns, and taking hundreds of captives. Exports of peltry dropped and Native American travel from Quebec to Europe ceased. 

Normality and security only returned in the 1660s, when Louis XIV royalized New France and sent a regiment to garrison it. In 1666 French troops invaded Iroquoia and forced the Five Nations to sign an armistice. As part of the truce, the Iroquois admitted Jesuit missionaries to their towns, and many Iroquois began visiting the French colony or resettling near it. Apparently, some of these visitors agreed to accompany a French ship across the Atlantic, for in 1668 King Louis hosted a party of Iroquois "gondoliers" at Versailles. These men demonstrated their canoe-handling skills to the court, and by their presence assured the king that his soldiers had pacified his enemies. Doubtless the Iroquois saw their trip differently, as a gesture of amity rather than one of surrender. (Olive Dickason, Myth of the Savage, 212)

Iroquois-French relations soured again in the 1680s, and the next group of Iroquois to travel to France did so under very different circumstances. After several years of skirmishing with the French and their Indian allies, in 1687 the Iroquois sent some of their leaders to Fort Frontenac to negotiate. Governor Jacques-Rene Denonville arrested 51 of the visiting Iroquois chiefs and sent them to France as slaves. Denonville may have seen New France as a potential source of slave labor for France and its plantation colonies; certainly, the English colony of South Carolina was building its economy on the mass enslavement and export of Native Americans. Just as certainly, the deportation of so many Iroquois leaders would impress their kinsmen with French ruthlessness.

So Denonville thought. Certainly the captives were in for rough and ruthless treatment when the French Crown put them to the oar in 1688. Mediterranean galley slaves spent their days in hot, cramped, stinking ships, chained to their benches, "bodies pearled with a bloody sweat" (in Francis Knight's recollection), and succumbing all too quickly to dehydration, illness, hernias, and heart attacks. Some of the enslaved Iroquois probably died during their months at sea. We know, however, that the French Crown abruptly ended their enslavement and sent the survivors home in 1689. The reason was simple: France and England had gone to war, and English-allied Iroquois warriors now threatened France settlements in Quebec. Denonville and his masters wanted the prisoners returned to Quebec for use as diplomatic pawns, redeemable if their return would protect France's outposts. New France certainly did not stop the enslavement of Native Americans, but it (almost) never again exported them from the colony. Governor Denonville's experiment in slave trading became a one-time deal, an experiment that foundered on the rock of New France's vulnerability. (Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 [Anchor Books, 2004], 60; Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France [University of North Carolina Press, 2012], 147-152.)


Image above courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Please Sell Me 200 Guns That Will Blow up in My Face



The early modern period brought few laurels to the American firearms industry. The best guns available in the seventeenth century were Dutch, in the eighteenth century French. Americans fought the Battle of Saratoga with French muskets and won the Battle of Yorktown with French artillery. The most innovative small arm of the Revolutionary War, the Ferguson breech-loading rifle, was a British invention. This of course did not stop Americans from building and experimenting with new kinds of weapons. As Andrew Fagal observes in a recent post on Age of Revolutions, the Atlantic Revolutionary era (ca. 1770-1830) was an age of organized violence, and one in which small or financially stressed nations struggled to maintain effective armed forces. Innovations in firepower could give revolutionary states an inexpensive "force multiplier" that would let them defend their homeland or conquer new territories for less money.

In 1792, Fagal writes, the American Joseph Chambers demonstrated to the U.S. War Department a musket that could fire eight bullets in a row without reloading. Essentially, a gun lock at the front of the barrel ignited the first powder charge, while perforations in the bullets allowed the blowback from each shot to ignite the next. This made Chambers's weapon resemble a shotgun more than a rifle; it is hard to see how one could have aimed it at multiple targets. The gun also had a tendency to burst when fired. Indeed, if one fired the repeater improperly its massive powder charge exploded and (probably) killed the gunman. 

The War Department expressed little interest in the unreliable and potentially suicidal weapon. The newer and more innovative Navy Department, however, during the War of 1812 ordered several hundred of Chambers's repeating muskets and 50 seven-barreled swivel guns. Fagal isn’t sure if the Navy ever used any of Chambers’s weapons, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. More noteworthy is the great interest that other nations showed in the new repeaters: French and Spanish diplomats and British and Dutch officers all either inquired about Chambers’ design, studied captured models, or bought a war-surplus Chambers gun or three for testing. None could effectively copy or debug the weapon, and Euro-Americans all lost interest in it by 1820. But no-one dismissed it as a useless toy developed by a backwoods dreamer, either, even if that's all it proved to be. 

Perhaps this episode helps explain why radical technological change often begins in the military sphere: the stakes are so high, and the benefits of even marginal improvement in efficiency so potentially great, that officials and inventors are much more willing to risk financial loss, humiliation or injury than civilians. 

Image of British Brown Bess musket (ca. 1720-1840) courtesy of Antique Military Rifles and Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Voyagers to the East, Part XXIII

For the previous entry in this series, click here. For the index, link here. 

For much of the seventeenth century, according to Alden Vaughan, few Native American travelers crossed the Atlantic Ocean to England. Such was also the case in France and Spain, two of the other principal colonial powers in the Americas. France had in the sixteenth century received Carijo princes, Guarani archers, Huron chiefs’ sons, and bewildered Miq'maqs, but in the 1600s Indian visitors fell off. Perhaps this overall decline resulted from the changing dynamics of European colonization. Once English and French adventurers had established relatively stable settlements in the Americas, they no longer needed to transport Indians as living promotional displays for colonial projects. Translators they could now train in America, either by bringing Native children to European outposts or placing European children with Indian families. And while Europeans would always want Indian slaves, they could now more profitably employ them on New World plantations, rather than pay to bring them into western Europe’s oversupplied labor market.

Granted, none of these rules held hard and fast. One of the first Indians to visit France in the seventeenth century, a Huron named Savignon, sailed to Honfleur to become a translator. Samuel de Champlain wanted him trained in the French language for the benefit of New France. The visit did not leave Savignon well-disposed toward his patrons. After his return home in 1611 he reportedly told his kinsmen that he had found Europeans’ practice of capital punishment and their maltreatment of beggars appalling. Meanwhile, Champlain had taken a preliminary step toward making such dangerous (for the Indians) oceanic transits unnecessary: he sent a French boy, probably future trader Etienne Brule, to live with a Huron family. Subsequently trade and intermarriage would make formal language training increasingly unnecessary for Quebec’s Indian neighbors. (Harald Prins, "To the Land of the Mistigoches," 187; Denys Delage, Bitter Feast: Amerindians and Europeans in Northeastern North America [UBC Press, 1995], 126.) 

Traders did not constitute the only European interest group in New France, and one of the colony’s more well-connected groups of newcomers, Catholic missionaries, shipped additional Native travelers to France later in the century. In the 1620s the Church sent over Huron Louis Amontacha and Montagnais Pierre-Antoine Pastedechouan, and from 1635 to 1637 the Society of Jesus transported another seven Huron and Iroquois boys and girls for religious training. The Indian students would advertise the success of missionaries' efforts in New France and bolster Church and royal support for the mission. What the converts* thought of Europe is hard to determine, but most probably found it a crowded, hungry land full of sicknesses and strange smells. One girl either hated France or fell homesick, and demanded return passage to Canada. Her father insisted that she sail back to France and finish her education. Another student, Louise, decided to settle permanently with the Hospitalieres Religieuses in Dieppe. Not everyone was as disenchanted with the Old World as Savignon.(Olive Dickason, Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism, 218-20).

(Above image of the Chateau de Dieppe, in Louise's European hometown, courtesy of the French Ministry of Culture and Wikimedia Commons.)


* Given their Christian names, I assume the travelers had at least been baptized.