After the predations of Frontenac and Cadillac, New France could be forgiven for looking for an honest man; in Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville et d’Ardillères it almost found one. In career characterized by ruthlessness and fleeing Englishmen, Iberville’s military success in the Hudson Bay, New York, Newfoundland, Louisiana, and the West Indies covered a multitude of crimes; even as he was dying in the West Indies, his reputation was collapsing in an embezzlement scandal whose scope ranged as far as his victories and beyond. Also collapsing was New France, which, hardly helped by its custodians, was entering its endgame. Increasingly encircled by England and its colonies, in the 1690s French policy shifted from consolidation to the expansion which sent Iberville across the eastern expanse of America. The hope was to keep England south of the St Lawrence and east of the Appalachians. With the hindsight of three hundred years his career seems bloody and pointless; to Iberville it was merely bloody.
Born in Ville-Marie in 1661, one of the thirteen children, Catherine Thierry bore Charles Le Moyne, sieur de Longueuil, Iberville was a true son of New France. Confirmed in 1669 by by Bishop Laval, he was groomed for a seafaring career on the St Lawrence and later entrusted with dispatches to France on behalf of the governor, all predictable activities for the third son of the wealthiest man of the colony. Perhaps equally predictable, at the age of twenty-five, just as he was about to meet the incursions of the English in the Hudson Bay, he was presented with a daughter and a paternity suit. Given the age, the aggrieved Jeanne-Geneviève Picoté de Belestre rightly insisted on marriage for herself and legitimacy for her daughter. She didn’t get the marriage, and Iberville would later marry Marie-Thérèse Pollet in 1693, but she was awarded Iberville’s financial support until the daughter turned fifteen.
With this legal entanglement resolved, Iberville headed north to begin his first campaign in the Hudson Bay. At the time France and England were actually attempting to negotiate a settlement of the Hudson Bay, but the late arrival of the news and the misalignment of the interests of New France and Versailles, the expedition was allowed to continue. In any case this was something of a family affair. After being ignored in New France and Versailles, Pierre-Espirit Radisson and his bother-in-law 1670 had persuaded the newly restored English monarchy of Charles II to establish the Hudson Bay Company. Realizing the threat to the colony the French formed the Compagnie du Nord in 1682, ironically with the help of Radisson and Grosselliers. With Charles Le Moyne a substantial investor in the Compagnie du Nord, it is hardly surprising that he sent Iberville and his brothers, Jacques and Paul, to defend interests as much as his own as of New France. Over the course of the next three years captured all but one of the English stations, in the process gaining a reputation for a ruthlessness bordering on cruelty as he forced the English to capitulate in the face of scurvy and dwindling supplies.
With war declared between France and Britain in 1689 and the Hudson Bay back in French control, Iberville returned south. In what was to be the most enduring of his victories, he was sent with Jacques Testard de Montigny and his brother Ste-Hélène as commander to avenge the devastating English-inspired attack on Lachine with an attack Corlaer, modern Schenectady, New York. Unguarded, the sleeping inhabitants were slaughtered. Survivors fled naked into the snow while the less fortunate were taken as prisoner back to Montreal. Many died en route as Iberville his brothers and compatriots, inspired by the ruthlessness of the Iroquois, killed those too weak to walk or left them to die in the snow until the complacent victors were themselves attacked by a Mohawk party.
By the summer of 1690 Iberville’s victories in the Hudson Bay were evaporating and he was once again ordered north. This time he was hampered by the general war effort and the necessity of his vessels to ferry supplies across the Atlantic and generally harass the English seaboard. So frustrating was this that it appeared Iberville was becoming indifferent to his task. This changed in 1694, when Iberville negotiated all the booty for his men and a three year monopoly on the Bay for himself. Within a year, the Hudson Bay was back in French hands and the Compagnie du Nord fuming.
Following this success, Iberville’s military and commercial interests turned east to the fisheries of the Grand Banks in the Atlantic and ordered to attack English settlements from Fort William Henry (Pemaquid, Maine) to St John’s, Newfoundland. Despite confusion over the command, Iberville was as successful and as ruthless as ever. St John’s was burned and the English fisheries almost totally destroyed in a forest war led by de Montigny. By the end the English held only Bonavista and Carbonear. That would be sufficient for them to re-establish themselves once the French troops left. In the meantime though, Iberville left for France with the around nine thousand tonnes that European staple: Newfoundland cod.
Once again though the absence of a significant force had left the north vulnerable and his victories there unravelling and in 1697 he was again ordered to revive French fortunes. As before he was victorious, but presumably exhausted by the back and forth of an indefensible position, France and England agreed to settle; the Bottom of the Bay would be French while the English would hold the far north.
Settlement also saw a shift in French policy, and after years of consolidation of the tiny colony in the St Lawrence Valley, a new more expansionary policy was adopted with the aim of keeping the English east of the Appalachians. With Cadillac’s proposal to the establish a settlement at Detroit accepted, the development of Louisiana, claimed by LaSalle in 1682, would give France control of Lakes and the Mississippi.
In 1698, following a period of illness, Iberville set out from Brest with four vessels and his brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville for the Gulf coast. Having confirmed with inhabitants who remembered LaSalle that he was in Louisiana, Iberville established Fort Maurepas, modern Ocean Springs, Mississippi. On his return to France, he recommended the immediate colonization of Louisiana. Yet for all its military ambitions, France was in no position to do any such thing. A decade of war with the English and the question of the succession in Spain meant France lacked both the finances and the political room to develop a colony with no obvious economic advantage. Despite the weakness of the Spanish base at Pensacola and the succession of Louis XIV’s grandson, Louis-Philippe d’Anjou, to the Spanish crown, there was no Franco-Spanish alliance or solid investment in the colony. Iberville was authorized only construct a second station, Fort Mississippi, forty miles upstream from Fort Maurepas. In these circumstances Iberville did as much as he could to develop the colony. As a son of an interpreter in New France, he understood the importance of the friendship of the local popuplation and, assisted by LaSalle’s old lieutenant, Tonty, he helped shape an anti-British alliance. In 1700 he left Biloxi for France, offloading 9,000 beaver pelts in New York. These had been caught by the trappers in the north, who rather than return to Montreal had with official encouragement brought them south to Iberville. In 1701, Fort Saint Louis, modern Mobile, was established. By the time he left Louisiana in 1702 with his health deteriorating, Iberville’s hopes for the colony had become increasingly fanciful in view of the limitations of French naval and political power.
In 1705, at the age of forty-four, Iberville was fit enough to lead another attack on the English. It would be his last and this time took him to the West Indies. Commanding a squadron of twelve vessels, his attack on the island of Nevis was delayed by another commander who in his impatience had attacked the neighbouring Saint Christopher alerting the British to the impending attack. When it came though it was merciless. The English detachment of 250 soldiers fled, leaving 7,500 men, women and children, 6000 of them slaves, to be taken prisoner. By the time Iberville and his men were done, the once fertile island was desolate and panic had spread up the English-held Atlantic coast as far as Newfoundland. Further attacks were precisely Iberville’s plan but in the 1706 the unknown illness that had plagued him since Louisiana caught up with him and he died suddenly, probably in Havana.
Also catching up with him were suspicions about the colossal wealth he had gathered during his short and violent career. Throughout his career Iberville held extensive financial interests, including the monopoly on furs from the Hudson Bay, making a fortune in fish from the Grand Banks, and owning a cocoa plantation in the West Indies. Even the commercially minded Frontenac said that he “has his interests and his trade much more in view than the king’s service”. In French law at least, this was legitimate, but as he was crossing the Atlantic questions were being asked about the outfitting of the twelve vessels he was commanding. Partially due to his sudden death, the records were in disarray, but it was clear that large quantities of food and other merchandize had been sold by Iberville and his brother, Sevigny. It took thirty years for the affair to be resolved, a situation which we may presume suited Iberville’s wife, Marie-Thérese, just fine. Since her marriage she had lived in France, and despite his travels, had five children by Iberville. Following his death she vigourously resisted restitution in the Nevis affair – the sum demanded outstripped Iberville’s legitimate profits. In 1708 she married Louis, Comte de Béthune, a naval captain and knight of the order of Saint-Louis. Used to a certain degree of comfort, he, “being demented” died a few years before Marie-Thérèse, by which time the entire Iberville fortune had been consumed in high-living and eventual settlement of Iberville’s debts.
By that time Iberville’s military sucesses were being steadily eroded. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht would give Britain the Hudson Bay and Nova Scotia, and by 1763 all of New France be in British control. French control of Louisiana would be lost in the same year and the colony divided between Britain and Spain. Looked at from the present day, his most enduring achievement was at Schenectady in 1690, a victory which kept New France out of British hands until 1763, thirteen years before the British themselves lost Schenectady itself along with the newly declared United States.
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