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2012 May Book of the Month

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Travelling to Louisiana in 1720

Père Antoine Laval (1664-1728) was the author of Voyage de la Louisiane (Paris, 1728), an account of a scientific exploration of the coast of Louisiana in 1720. Laval was a mathematician, astronomer and hydrographer. From 1702-1718 he had been Director of the Jesuit astronomical observatory at Marseille where he had taught hydrography to officers of the French navy since his appointment as professor in 1696. In 1718 he left to take up the post of Royal Professor of Mathematics at the College of Toulon, and thus was lucky to avoid the plague which hit Marseille in 1720, devastating the city and spelling the end of the observatory there. By 1720, Laval was far away: on the sea voyage which would make him famous, the mapping of the coast of Louisiana and the mouth of the Mississippi river.


Louisiana was an administrative part of New France. Under Louis XIV (1638-1715) and his minister Jean Baptist Colbert (1619-83), French colonial policy had undergone a radical change with the foundation of the Company of the West Indies in 1664, representing a new focus on the colonies as commercial ventures. This was accompanied by further exploration, leading in April 1682 to a massive territorial gain when René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (1643-87) claimed possession of the territory ‘along the River Colbert or Mississippi, from beyond the country of the Sioux all the way to its mouth’ for Louis XIV. The new territory, named Louisiana in honour of Louis XIV, included not only present day Louisiana, but also parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Laval was very conscious that he was not the first French cartographer to map the coast of Louisiana: since 1682 a series of cartographers had created detailed maps of the area, vital for its exploration and conquest. Foremost among these were the maps of a contemporary of Laval’s, Guillaume Delisle (1675-1726), who in 1700 had produced his ‘Map of the World’ and ‘Map of the Continents’, maps which were superseded by his 1718 publication Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi. This latter map, unlike his previous ones, focused on Louisiana alone. This, and the timing of its publication, reflects the fact that Louisiana was fast becoming the focus of official French concern. The Mississippi Company, founded in 1684, had been re-founded by John Law (1671-1729), just one year before, in August 1717 as ‘The Company of the West’, in the process acquiring control of the trading concession of French Louisiana. Crucial to this new endeavour was accurate knowledge of the best ports in the area. It was for this very reason that Père Laval was sent on his journey ‘by order of the King’ and it was for the same reason that he provided his readers with a map of the hitherto little-regarded port of Pensacola on the Florida coastline, a port which, in the fulcrum of French economic and strategic politics, was fast gaining in significance in the period 1718-1720.


Pensacola had been visited by the Spanish as early as 1528 who had later tried, unsuccessfully, to found a settlement there in 1559. For nearly 139 years the area was considered un-inhabitable by Europeans but the drive south of the French reawakened Spanish concerns with the area and in 1698 the first of three praesidios were founded to guard the port from the French threat. Laval’s decision to provide his readers with a map of Pensacola should be viewed in the light of military and political developments in France during the period 1718-1720. The War of the Quadruple Alliance (Spain versus Britain, France, Austria and the Dutch Republic), had broken out in 1718. Pensacola, which hitherto had been ignored by the French, was now deemed a strategic target (presumably because of its proximity to their base at Dauphin Island). In May 1719 the Lemoyne brothers (Joseph Le Moyne de Serigny (1668-1734) and Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville(1680-1767)) took the port for the French. The Company of the West, which had been so assiduously promoting investment in Louisiana generally, now decided to move their headquarters to Pensacola, given its potential as a port.

At the same time, a new conglomeration was born: the amalgamation of the Company of the West, the Company of the Indies and the Company of China to create The Perpetual Company of the Indies. The name itself reflects the enormous confidence the French had in their new colonial venture. Indeed, so effective were John Law’s efforts in promoting investment in Louisiana that 1719 witnessed the high point of speculation in the colonial frontier. As Antoin Murphy (1997) points out, ‘in the space of three years, between 1717 and 1720, John Law raised the market capitalization of the Company from around 34 million livres to over 5 billion livres’, with a series of issues of shares, predominantly in the period May 1719 to October 1719 – just when Laval was leaving for his voyage. It is likely that Laval’s mission was in response to the huge interest generated in the territory of Louisiana by the mania of this Mississippi bubble, a bubble which burst at the end of 1720 with massive consequences for the French Banque Royale. Economic catastrophe was accompanied by an inability to hold Pensacola. In August 1719, just as Laval was preparing for his voyage, the Spanish retook the port, only to lose it again to the French commander Champmeslin in September 1719. By August 1721 the port had again changed hands and was back under Spanish control. However, when Laval was carefully drawing its environs, Pensacola had represented the French dream of Louisiana.

Laval says nothing about all this because his interests lay elsewhere – neither politics nor social commentary are very evident here. As he explains in his preface, the journal of his voyage was, by its very nature, very different from an account of a land exploration. His focus was on wind, sea and stars, and he therefore gives us little information about the inhabitants and the customs of the various First Peoples whom the French encountered in their territorial expansion: the Choctaw, the Natchez.  Instead he gives us vital information about the sea route taken in 1720 – which we can see depicted here.


But if economic and geo-political considerations hovered in the background, Laval’s epistle dedicatory to the members of the Académie Royale des Sciences, made it clear to his fellow members that the motivation guiding him was the glorification of science. His Voyage de la Louisiane certainly reflected the colonial concerns of the French state but his work also fitted in neatly with the scientific pre-occupations of the Académie des Sciences. Indeed, both the Académie and the government were at one on the need for greater precision in map-making, not only as an end in itself but also as a means to an end. Laval contributed to the contemporary debate by criticising the precision of Delisle’s 1718 map. Basing his critique on his own first-hand experience he argued that Delisle’s reading of the latitude of Dauphin Island, Alabama was incorrect.


Delisle responded with an attack on Laval’s calculations in 1723, causing an ensuing debate within the Académie which was onlyresolved in 1731. Despite the fact that Delisle (like many other contemporary cartographers) had not ventured into the field but had devised his system by a scholarly reading of ancient and contemporary accounts and manuscript maps, his map was found to be correct. As Petto (2007) reminds us, the reason for this was that Delisle’s accuracy rested on the range of his sources: these included information from René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and his brother Jean, together with accounts of Cavelier’s 1684 expedition from people who had taken part in it: M. de Beaujeu, M. d’Amanville and Henri Joutel. Later on, Delisle benefited from the mémoires of Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, Père François Le Maire and a French office named Soupart. Laval did not live to see this 1731 revision of his calculations. The Voyage de la Louisiane was printed in the year of his death, 1728. It was devoted to his life’s work: the 1720 Louisiana voyage; his observations on refraction, his corrections to the cartography of a coast much nearer home: the coast of Provence; and, finally, his remarks on Newton’s Principia.



Baillon, Jean François Baillon, (1994), ‘Aspects de l’impact culturel et idéologique de déscouvertes de Newton, Bulletin de la société d’études Anglo-Américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (38), 73-83.

Faye, Stanley (1946), ‘The Contest for Pensacola Bay and Other Gulf Ports 1698-1722’, The Florida Historical Quarterly 24 no. 4, pp 302-28.

Macdonald, R. R. (ed.) (1984), The Sun King: Louis XIV and the New World. Studies in Louisiana Culture vol III (Louisiana Museum Foundation).

Murphy, A. E. (1997), John Law. Economic Theorist and Policy Maker (Clarendon).

Petto, C. M. (2007), When France was King of Cartography. The Patronage and Production of Maps in Early Modern France (Lexington).

Vallina, Agustín Udías (2003) Searching the Heavens and the Earth:The History of Jesuit Observatories (Dordrecht).

Woods, P. D. (1979). French-Indian Relations on the Southern Frontier 1699-1762 UMI Research Press.

Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian, The Edward Worth Library.

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