J’Adore Les Francais

I just finished Bonapartists in the Borderlands; French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835 by Rafe Blaufarb.

I know what you’re thinking…”Quoi?  There were supporters of Napoleon on the Gulf Coast of the U.S.?  These people weren’t from New Orleans?  Sacrebleu, je ne savais pas!”  I didn’t either, and that’s why I picked it up.  I also clearly have a soft spot for French culture and dabble in the language.  Spanish, however, I simply can’t pick up much to the frustration of DH.  But I digress…

Blaufarb examines a small group of French exiles and refugees who received a land grant in what is now Alabama to plant grape vines and olive trees in the early nineteenth century.  I had never heard of this colony before–because it was short-lived, failed miserably, and arguably never really got started.  Most of the members had very little interest in ever staying and being farmers, and the experiment was a disaster and financial ruin for most involved.  Who knew that grapes and olives wouldn’t grow in the South as well as cotton?  The ex-soldiers also had ulterior motives that involved fighting for Spain…or whomever would take them…and clearing acres of land to plant very expensive seedlings from Europe didn’t factor into their plans very well.  Surprisingly, they didn’t associate with the French in New Orleans to a significant degree opting instead to congregate in Philadelphia.  The Bonapartists came and went fairly quietly, just as they intended. 

Exhaustive does not even begin to describe Blaufarb’s research on this topic.  I don’t doubt that he talked to every archivist in France and Spain.  The appendices for the text are lengthy and thorough.  He even includes a bibliographic sketch of every person associated with the colony.  This project was clearly  near to Blaufarb’s heart.

But the same details that make Blaufarb’s research so extensive and were obviously meticulously gathered and organized tend to swallow the significance of why this group of French citizens mattered.  It wasn’t until the last paragraph of the regular text that it is clearly and directly stated.  The book tends to read more like an economic or business history more than anything else.  That left me a little lost and wanting more.  I was in it for the military connection since the French soldiers who fought with Napoleon, disgraced and turned away from their homeland, saw opportunity in the Spanish-U.S. friction along their Western borders.  I think Blaufarb over stressed the Bonapartist connection, or perhaps he was simply trying to correct a common assumption, but he spends a significant amount of time stressing that many of the members were French from the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue and had no connection to Napoleon at all.

Bad land, bad plan, bad farmers, bad luck…no Napoleon.

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