27 November 2008

Le Premier Thanksgiving

At first, I was disinclined to believe an op-ed article in The New York Times this week. The writer, Kenneth C. Davis, claims that, long before Jamestown and Plymouth, the French settled in what is now the United States. A band of Hugenots founded Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, in 1564, Prof. Davis says; there they promptly celebrated the real first Thanksgiving. The French thrived in their little fort, until the Spanish massacred them a year later. Though Prof. Davis made all his data seem plausible, there remained a significant obstacle to my acceptance of his claim as fact: namely, that no French person ever lorded it over me.

Yet upon further research and study, I am driven to the inescapable conclusion that Prof. Davis is right, and that my friends the French have squandered innumerable opportunities to remind me of their superiority. This must not endure, and to help them in future conversations, I lay out now the fruits of my scholarship. For Fort Caroline was truly a wondrous place.

Upon landing, the French immediately set to work, building a barricade and cottages, and laying out many narrow, winding streets. These were quickly choked with traffic jams of horses and small donkey-carts known for their exceptionally high speeds, though they never went anywhere; there was no parking available. Ingeniously, the Caroliniens attached live geese to their carts, in order to honk at other drivers.

Having completed these initial tasks, the Caroliniens immediately went on strike, and no further construction work was done for the remainder of the colony’s existence. Though the drinking of coffee in the 16th century was still primarily limited to the Ottoman Empire and had yet to permeate French culture, the Caroliniens were ready to take up the habit; they spent many hours at small tables each day sipping cups of hot mud while looking off into space and scowling. Production levels for criticism, the colony’s principal export, quickly rose to rival those of major urban centers in the motherland, such as Rouen and Bordeaux, though still falling far behind Paris.

Then as now, the French charged reasonable admission fees to those who wished to visit their monuments.

The lack of Anglo-Saxons in the surrounding area was at first a source of consternation for the Caroliniens, since there was no one to feel contempt toward. The local Timucuan natives might have proved a convenient target, but they showed distressingly civilized tendencies already, such as topless bathing and the eager consumption of offal and hummingbirds (which are not ortolans but close enough). The unrequited need to sneer was almost overwhelming, though the Caroliniens’ prayers seemed to be answered, when a rosy-cheeked, blond sailor was shipwrecked near the Fort. However, he turned out to be German. The Caroliniens promptly surrendered to him and went about their business.

Quickly, the Caroliniens adapted their traditional cuisine to the foods at hand. Documents survive with detailed recipes for alligator bordelaise, daube d’alligator, pâté d’alligator en croûte, and rôti de manatee en sauce moûtarde avec ses échalotes sur un lit de palmetto sauté. Attempts to perfect the omelette aux oeufs d’alligator proved unsuccessful, however, when the eggs kept hatching; in such cases, the foods at hand ate hand. French-fried mosquitoes proved quite popular, though baguettes made with palmetto flour appear to have been a taste acquired only under duress.

For entertainment, the Caroliniens turned to traditional French sports, such as pétanque and giving wrong directions to tourists. Although cinema would not be invented for another 330 years, the colonists borrowed a sail from their ship, the Dédaigneux, against which they performed shadow plays in the evenings; following such a performance, it was customary for each member of the audience to write a 50-page monograph on what he’d seen. The ongoing labor unrest, with its concomitant rallies and protest demonstrations, provided further diversion.

It all came to an end when Phillip II ordered the Spanish commander, Admiral Pedro Menéndez, to attack the Fort, in August 1565. The Caroliniens considered this highly inconvenient, since they were just about to leave for a month’s vacation. Had Menéndez arrived only a few days later, he would have found the Fort completely deserted.

Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny had the brilliant idea of founding Fort Caroline, but of course he never set foot there. How can you even suggest such a thing?


Girl From Texas said...

very witty ! nice illustrations

William V. Madison said...

The three big pictures are all from Wikipedia — and insofar as that source can be trusted, they’re all pertinent, authentic, etc. — that really is a picture of Timucuans at Fort Caroline. Apparently, they worshipped all traces of the French. Since I do so, as well, I consider this a virtue on their part.