Francis Parkman, “La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West” (1869), or Empire and Its (Internal) Enemies

This map shows the three voyages of Rouen Robert Cavelier de La Salle.  These three treks are recounted in the third volume of Francis Parkman’s history of the French Empire in the New World.  The first of these descended the Ohio River.  The second mapped the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.  The third, which ended in La Salle’s death established a colony in present-day Texas.

La Salle, looking like a rough and rowdy frontiersman.

La Salle, looking like a rough and rowdy frontiersman.

As always, Parkman is in awe of the adventures made empire builders like La Salle (or the Jesuits considered in my last post).  Ultimately, La Salle would play the same role as these others, bringing to the New World the forces of absolutism and Roman Catholicism, which he claims is the root cause of the failure of the French empire in the Americas.  At first glance, La Salle strikes us as different from some of the more aristocratic French empire builders.  He was from a non-noble family, although wealthy.  La Salle had a deep intellectual curiosity which led him to study with the Jesuits.  He did not, however, become a zealot or a Protestant.  He found his passion not in religious ecstasy but in the knowing of the unknown.  He had hoped to discover in the New World, the Northwest passage that would  created a linkage between French holdings in Canada and Asia.  His explorations may have established a French claim throughout much of the Mississippi valley, Louisiana and even Texas but the gains were fragile and plagued with frustrations.

When reading the 300 pages of explorations, fort building, fund-raising, and diplomacy with Indians, any reader will find her ability to skim pushed to their limits.  It takes a special perspective to read such an account closely.  I will admit to missing quite enough of what Parkman has to say, but what I paid attention too is of enormous relevance.  When we think about the fates of empires, the enemies tend to external.  The barbarians at the gates of Rome, Gandhi organizing Indian workers for non-violent resistance, or Pontiaic’s unification of the Indians against he British colonists in North America.  With this perspective it is easy to see the empire buildings as a unified class of exploiters.  While I do not want to forgive the soldiers, workers, and sailors who helped construct empire of their many crimes, it does seem that for every bold act of resistance by the conquered, there are numerous small acts of resistance by untrustworthy but necessary allies of the conqueror.  These internal opponents of empire include deserting sailors, soldiers who refuse to commit atrocities, runaway laborers, mutineers, and a motley crew of working people who find their loyalty to people across the walls of empire stronger than their loyalty to their odious, violent, and criminal bosses.  To Parkman’s credit, he fully integrates these acts into his history.  While La Salle made deals with Indians and remained relatively peaceful with various tribes, he was at war with his own workers.  Even his death, at the hands of mutineers in Texas, suggests the ability of sailors, laborers and soldiers to pose an internal threat to empire.  If France had only a dubious control over the Mississippi Valley, this was due to the resistsance of the working class Frenchmen and French Canadians La Salle recruited to man his canoes and forts.

Take this one examples, in Parkman’s own words and ponder who the most reliable enemies of empire were.

“He had returned to Fort Frontenac, and was on the point of embarking for relief, when a blow fell upon him more disheartening than any that had preceded.  On the twenty-second of July, two voyageurs, Messier and Laurent, came to him with a letter from Tonty, who wrote that soon after La Salle’s departure nearly all the men had deserted, after destroying Fort Crevecoeur, plundering the magazine, and throwing into the river all the arms, goods, and stores which they could not carry off.  The messengers who brought this letter were speedily followed by two of the habitants of Fort Frontenac, who had been trading on the lakes, and who, with a fidelity which the unhappy La Salle rarely knew how to inspire, had traveled day and night to bring him their tidings.  They reported that they had met the deserters, and that, having been reinforced by recruits at Michillimackinac and Niagara, they now numbered twenty man.  They had destroyed the fort on the St. Joseph, seized a quantity of furs belonging to La Salle at Michillimackinac, and plundered the magazine at Niagara.  Here they had separated, eight of them coasting the south side of Lake Ontario to find harborage at Albany, a common refuge at that time of this class of scoundrels; while the remaining twelve, in three canoes, made for Fort Frontenace, along the north shore, intending to kill La Salle, as the surest means to escaping punishment.” (854-855)

Empire builders or rebels?

Empire builders or rebels?



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