Praying to the King
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A single paragraph in recapitulation.
In 1699, France, by the hand of her gallant sailor, D’Iberville, founded the province of Louisiana. In 1718, his brother, Bienville, laid out the little parallelogram of streets and ditches, and palisaded lots which formed New Orleans. Here, amid the willow-jungles of the Mississippi’s low banks, under the glaring sunshine of bayou clearings, in the dark shadows of the Delta’s wet forests, the Louisiana Creoles came into existence valorous, unlettered, and unrestrained, as military outpost life in such a land might make them. In sentiment they were loyal to their king; in principle, to themselves and their soil. Sixty-three years had passed, with floods and famines and Indian wars, corrupt misgovernment and its resultant distresses, when in 1762 it suited the schemes of an unprincipled court secretly to convey the unprofitable colony land arid people, all and singular to the King of Spain. In the early summer of 1764, before the news of this unfeeling barter had startled the ears of the colonists, a certain class in New Orleans had begun to make formal complaint of a condition of affairs in their sorry little town (commercial and financial rather than political) that seemed to them no longer bearable. There had been commercial development; but, in the light of their grievances, this only showed through what a debris of public disorder the commerce of a country or town may make a certain progress.
These petitioners were the merchants of New Orleans. Their voice was now heard for the first time. The private material interests of the town and the oppressions of two corrupt governments were soon to come to an open struggle. It was to end, for the Creoles, in ignominy arid disaster. But in better years further on there was a time in store when arms should no longer overawe; but when commerce, instead, was to rule the destinies, not of a French or Spanish military post, but of the great southern sea-port of a nation yet to be. Meanwhile the spirit of independence was stirring within the inhabitants. They scarcely half recognized it themselves (there is a certain unconsciousness in truth and right); but their director-general’s zeal for royalty was chafed.
“As I was finishing this letter,” wrote M. d’Abbadie, “the merchants of New Orleans presented me with a petition, a copy of which I have the honor to forward. You will find in it those characteristic features of sedition and insubordination of which I complain.”
A few months later came word of the cession to Spain. The people refused to believe it. It was nothing that the king’s letter directly stated the fact. It was nothing that official instructions to M. d’Abbadie as to the manner of evacuating and surrendering the province were full and precise. It was nothing that copies of the treaty and of Spain’s letter of acceptance were spread out in the council chamber, where the humblest white man could go and read them. Such perfidy was simply incredible. The transfer must be a make-believe, or they were doomed to bankruptcy–not figuratively only, but, as we shall presently see, literally also.
So, when doubt could stay no longer, hope took its place–the hope that a prayer to their sovereign might avert the consummation of the treats-, which had already been so inexplicably delayed. On a certain day, therefore, early in 1765, there was an imposing gathering on that Place d’Armes already the place of romantic reminiscences. The voice of the people was to be heard in advocacy of their rights. Nearly all the notables of the town were present; planters, too, from all the nearer parts of the Delta, with some of the superior council and other officials-an odd motley of lace and flannel, powdered wigs, buckskin, dress-swords, French leather, and cow-hide. One Jean Milhet was there. He was the wealthiest merchant in the town. He had signed the petition of the previous June, with its “features of sedition and insubordination.” And he was now sent to France with this new prayer that the king would arrange with Spain to nullify the act of cession.
Milhet, in Paris, sought out Bienville. But the ex-governor of the province and unsuccessful campaigner against its Indian foes, in his eighty-sixth year, was fated to fail once more in his effort to serve Louisiana. They sought together the royal audience. But the minister, the Due de Choiseul (the transfer had been part of his policy) adroitly barred the way. They never saw the king, and their mission was brought to naught with courteous despatch. Such was the word Milhet sent back. But a hope without foundations is not to be undermined. The Creoles, in 1766, heard his illtidings without despair, and fed their delusion on his continued stay in France and on the non-display of the Spanish authority.
By another treaty Great Britain had received, as already mentioned, a vast territory on the eastern side of the Mississippi. This transfer was easier to understand. The English had gone promptly into possession, and, much to the mental distress of the acting-governor of Louisiana, M. Aubry (M. d’Abbadie having died in 1765), were making the harbor of New Orleans a highway for their men-of-war and transports, while without ships, ammunition, or money, and with only a few soldiers, and they entitled to their discharge, he awaited Spain’s languid receipt of the gift which had been made her only to keep it from these very English.
But, at length, Spain moved, or seemed about to move. Late in the summer a letter came to the superior council from Havana, addressed to it by Don Antonio de Ulloa, a commodore in the Spanish navy, a scientific scholar and author of renown, and now revealed as the royally commissioned governor of Louisiana. This letter announced that Don Antonio would soon arrive in New Orleans.
Here was another seed of cruel delusion. For month after month went by, the year closed, January and February, 1766, came and passed, and the new governor had not made his appearance. Surely, it seemed, this was all a mere diplomatic maneuvers. But, when the delay had done as much harm as it could, on the 5th of March 1766, Ulloa landed in New Orleans. He brought with him only two companies of Spanish infantry, his Government having taken the assurance of France that more troops would not be needed.