La Rochelle and the New World

About 10 years ago, I spent a few days with my mother in La Rochelle (litteraly “Little Rock”), a French city by the Atlantic ocean. As a fishing harbour, La Rochelle was first of no commercial interest considering it could not be accessed by a river and therefore offered no possibilities to ship goods from the interior of the country. But due to its strategic location with regard to the ocean and following the technological progress in the naval construction field, La Rohelle quickly emerged as a place of dispute between the English and the French during the Hundred Year’s War, and soon became the largest French harbour of the Atlantic coast for wine, cheese and salt trade (there are lots of salt marshes in the area).

However, if La Rochelle is now internationally famous, it’s mainly for being a harbour highly involved in the triangular trade with the New World for slaves, sugar and fur. Indeed, from the 16th century, France extended its presence in North America, in particular in the West Indies, the Mississipi Delta and what was then known as “Nouvelle France”.

La Rochelle Harbour (unknown date)

La Rochelle slave ship, 18th century

Trapper and Native Americans trading fur

The commercial relations with American colonies engendered a period of prosperity, enabling the city to undergo a massive architectural and cultural change.

After the French Revolution in 1789 which revealed the dramatic state of famine and disease of the population, and as France was losing territories in Canada in favor of Britain, the French government encouraged emigration towards the colonies so as to populate the wide parcels of land and consolidate its presence in North America. La Rochelle became a major departure point for French emigrants, and even today lots of French-speaking Canadians have ancestors from Poitou-Charentes (La Rochelle’s area). Most of the emigrants came from very poor backgrounds and traveled on their own: young men (mostly farm boys), orphans, soldiers, missionaries, former convicts, craftsmen, etc. One can imagine that these men and women, trying to escape their miserable existence in France, did not expect what was waiting for them, especially in Canada! They were indeed confronted to terrible living conditions, ever due to the climate, diseases and, obviously, conflicts with Native Americans and France’s neverending enemies: Britain and Spain.

Leaving for Canada – Stained glass window, Tourouvre Church – Circa 1650

Prostitutes leaving for Louisiana – 1726

Emigration stopped progressively as France lost – or sold – its American colonies. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris put an end to the Anglo-French conflict in Canada, and France’s territories were retroceded to the United Kingdom (except St. Pierre et Miquelon). In addition, some territories in Louisiana were also given to Spain. About 40 years later, with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the United States of America acquired the equivalent of 830,000 square miles from the French – which represents about a third of the actual size of the country! – for the modest price of $219 million in 2011 dollars. Probably not the best business deal made by Napoleon Bonaparte, in my humble opinion!

Anyway, all these events are very well detailed at La Rochelle’s Musée du Nouveau Monde (New World Museum) hosted in an 18th century mansion. There is an amazing collection of paintings, maps, sculptures, lithographs and art objects about the New World, slave trade and indigenous people.

I visited this place only once but it’s definitely one of the most interesting French museums I’ve ever gone considering my interest in American history. On this particular day, I was lucky enough to attend a temporary exhibition on Edward S. Curtis, a famous American photographer of the American West and Native American people. Although I had never heard of him at the time I visited this place, I can still feel the emotional shock that I had when I started to look at the pictures he took of Native Americans. But this will be the subject of another post… 🙂

In case I have American or Canadian readers here, La Rochelle is definitely a place of particular interest for people who want to learn about the commercial and cultural relationships that used to bind the old continent and the new one together. Besides, the region is worth traveling for the beauty of the villages and landscapes, the historical places and, last but not least, the amazing food!