Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Wreck of La Belle and the archaeology of French Texas

Last November I had the good fortune to be in Austin, TX. Although I was there in my guise of IT guy to attend the Tableau conference, I had a little free time to myself got the opportunity to visit The Bullock Texas State History Museum. Should you get the chance, I would heartily recommend a visit. For those who can’t make it (or need some encouragement to go) I offer this brief collection of posts, showcasing some of the exhibits. To my mind, the premier exhibit in this fascinating museum is La Belle: The Ship That Changed History.

The story started in 1684, when Louis XIV sent Robert Cavelier de la Salle off with four ships and 400 people. The plan was to head to North America and establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi. The new colony would become the focus of lucrative trade routes and everyone would get rich … very rich! Well … that was the plan … and things didn’t quite go to plan. To be fair, I’m rather stretching the meaning of the phrase ‘didn’t quite go to plan’ here. Poor Robert accidentally sailed past his destination, lost ships to mishaps and marauders, and was eventually murdered by his own crew … as I say, not quite to plan! In 1686, La Belle, was wrecked in a storm and sank into the mud of Matagorda Bay. What was a disaster in 1686 proved to be a remarkable discovery in 1995 when the ship was located by archaeologists. The lengthy ensuing excavation allowed the recovery of 1.6 million artefacts, along with a sizeable portion of the ship’s hull. The museum provides a wonderful website with some beautiful photography that I urge you to visit (here). From a European perspective, this is a fantastic survival of post-Medieval French maritime history that also provides insights into trade practices and social conditions of the period … it just happens to be located on the other side of the planet …

The Ship
La Belle was a three-masted ship that measured approximately 54ft in length, 15ft wide, had a 7ft draft, and carried around 35 people. It was designed for navigating shallow coastal waters as well as sailing up rivers as part of De la Salle’s programme of exploration. Interestingly, La Belle was never intended to sail across the Atlantic. Instead, she was supposed to have been packed up in the belly of Le Joly, another of his ships, for assembly in the New World. As it turned out, the other ships were already too full with other supplies and La Belle was constructed at Rocheford, in France. As it was a ‘kit ship’, the main timbers were each carved with a combination of letters and Roman numerals to match so it could be reassembled in the correct way. I was particularly taken with the system used – the central reference point was the mainmast and ribs forward of this were numbered IA-XIIA (Avant) while the ribs behind were labelled ID-XVIID (Devant).

Obviously, the lower portion of the hull and side of the ship have survived well, but items of rigging have also been found. The three-holed wooden artefact on the left (above) is a deadeye ‘block’ or pulley used in the adjustment of the ship’s sails. The example on the right is a fiddle block variant. Owing to constant use and wear, these pieces were usually made of durable hardwoods, such as oak or lignum vitae.

This is a single block, the simplest form of block pulley used on board ship.

This 1:12 scale model of La Belle gives a clear indication of what it would have looked like when new and is cut away to reveal the layout of the internal compartments and their contents, based on surviving documents and the archaeological evidence.

Items for daily life in the Colony
One of the points that the exhibit makes very well is that while the individual artefacts all have important and interesting stories, it is the totality of the finds that give us insights into what Europeans thought was necessary to create a sustainable colony in North America. This collection included necessities such as cooking pots, plates, bowls, a surgical kit, a collection of carpentry tools, along with unworked iron to make nails and other necessities.

This collection of brass cooking pots and a colander was found nested inside each other, along with a ladle and a pair of candlesticks. They had been stowed in the ship's hold inside a large chest.

Even in the New World the necessity of grinding grain to make bread remained the same as at home. This rotary quern will be familiar to archaeologists on this side of the Atlantic. For anyone not familiar with the artefact, a upper stone is turned by hand against a stationary lower stone and the grain is ground to flour in action between the two. As this example has no central perforation to introduce grain into the mechanism or a partial hole near the edge to facilitate a wooden handle, I presume that it’s the lower stone.

The excavation found four barrels of axe heads, but no axe handles. The assumption is that the colonists would have made handles once they landed and then used them to create houses and a defensive compound. They would also have been prized trade items, used for exchange with the indigenous population.

La Belle contained a large collection of combs, many of which were probably intended as trade goods. However, this pair of combs preserved together in a wallet were most likely the personal property of a sailor or colonist. In particular, the fine comb on the left is thought to have been for checking for lice.

As well as the stamped decoration on the handle, this shallow bowl or porringer has the name ‘C. Barange’ inscribed on its side, possibly the name of one of the sailors.

Trade items
While some artefacts may be seen both as useful to the colonists and as trade items, much of La Belle’s cargo, and that of the other ships in his fleet, would have been intended only for trade. The largest portion of these trade goods would have been glass beads, but they also brought bells, knives, finger rings, mirrors, combs, and vermilion dye. De la Salle traded these for food, horses, guides, along with furs and hides that he intended to send back to France.

During an earlier mission through Canada, De la Salle learned that the Native population liked and valued glass beads, so he ensured that his expedition to the Mississippi carried them in their hundreds of thousands.

Over 500 knives were recovered during the excavation, many of which were intended for trade purposes. These included straight knives, carefully wrapped in paper, and folding-clasp knives.

On the left is a sample of the 1600 brass hawk bells recovered during the course of the excavation. While designed to be worn by trained birds of prey in Europe, they were traded to the Native population to be sewn on to clothing. On the right is a selection of the 1603 brass finger rings, also for trading, recovered from the wreck. These are known as ‘Jesuit rings’ owing to their religious iconography.

Attack and defence
De la Salle and his colonists knew that they were going to an environment that was hostile to them, so the expedition was well stocked with weapons. Bronze and iron cannon were carried in the hold of the La Belle. These were intended to protect the fledgling colony, while a number of deck cannon and swivel guns protected the ship. Smaller weapons (for both hunting and defence) included two different types of firearms, supplied with a number of different forms of shot and ammunition. As the industrial capabilities necessary to produce projectiles and powder did not exist where they were going, and could not be independently manufactured by the colonists, they brought as much as they could with them. It is interesting to reflect that of the 86 barrels retrieved during the excavation, 33 contained shot, while a further 16 were filled with gunpowder.

On the left is a brass powder flask for pouring measured amounts of gunpowder into a firearm. To the right are a selection of three surviving gunpowder cartridges, each originally holding a pre-measured charge of gunpowder.

The guns on board were flintlocks, which required a gunflint as part of the mechanism to create a spark and expel the projectile. This image shows a collection of rather lovely examples. Even after all these years in archaeology, it still strikes me as so strange, seeing this most quintessential of prehistoric technologies still used until (relatively) recently. I put it down to having spent too long among the prehistorians. 

Two of the flintlock muskets recovered from the wreck.

This firepot is a remarkable survival, not simply that the ceramic vessel is intact, but that the wooden lid and fuse holder are also preserved. If this example had been used, a grenade would have been placed inside the pot with the fuse sticking out of the top. When thrown, the pot and grenade would have exploded upon impact.

The colony at Fort Saint Louis faced difficulties from the outset and by 1688 La Salle and most of the settlers were dead and the settlement was in ruins. The remains of the site were discovered by the Spanish officer Alonso de León the following year. De León ordered the burial of the cannon and burnt the surviving buildings. Eventually the location of Fort Saint Louis was lost and the eight iron cannon (one pictured above) that defended the settlement remained buried until accidentally discovered by a ranch foreman in 1996.

This is one of three bronze cannon found in the hull of La Belle. All three have dolphin-shaped lifting handles and bear the crest of the Admiral of the French Navy.

The story of La Belle is part of the much larger history of the French colonisation of Texas. It’s a remarkable tale and is much less well known than it should be (or at least it was to me ... again, I blame it on consorting with the prehistorians). I’m not going to attempt to give even an outline, but instead direct the interested reader to the Wikipedia page [here]. I’ve tried to present some of the highlights of this wonderful exhibition, but there is much more to see here and in the museum as a whole – if you get the opportunity to visit in person don’t let it pass you by!

In a lot of my posts I add the suggestion that if you like my writing, I’d be grateful for a donation. Nothing too extravagant – just the price of a pint or a coffee (but I’ll probably just spend it on books). In this case, I’d also add that if you were so inclined, you could consider throwing a few of whatever your local currency is in the direction of the museum: here.