JOSEPH VILLERÉ AND THE LOUISIANA REVOLT OF 1768
Shane Lief – Tulane University
By the end of the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War) in 1763, Louisiana had become more of a liability to France than an asset. Though some still held that the colony had great potential, on balance, Louisiana was a financial burden and was more valuable as an offering to Spain in the wake of France’s defeat. Land west of the Mississippi River, along with New Orleans, was ceded to Spain. The Spanish Crown was only too eager to create a territorial buffer between New Spain and the increasingly powerful British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America. Rather than a glittering prize of war, however, Louisiana was more like a bonus strip of territory that could help protect Spanish silver against the rapacious grasp of the British.
Of course, to many of the habitants of Louisiana, especially the Creole planters and merchants, this changing of the guard was none too welcome. As ramshackle as it was, colonial settlers and traders enjoyed the looseness of Louisiana, namely, the ability to carry on illegal trade, smuggling commercial goods to French colonies in the Caribbean and other interested parties. Without too much exaggeration, we could say that many of the merchants operating out of New Orleans were part-pirate. The idea of Spain taking over and imposing new regulations on their lucrative trade deals was anathema to the Creole population who had gotten accustomed to their relative freedom, courtesy of neglect by European powers. They had created their own ways of life without being told what to do.
As noted by Daniel Usner, this informal system constituted a “Frontier Exchange Economy,” which accurately describes how the social and economic arrangements along the Lower Mississippi had developed organically, without strict government interventions. Even when colonial powers wanted to do so, they couldn’t stop people from carrying on as they had been doing for several generations—at least they couldn’t stop them overnight. The historian Shannon Lee Dawdy has also captured this notion of wayward Louisiana in the term “rogue colonialism”. But there were many social and political forces that were inspiring people to go “rogue,” and from the middle of the 18th century through the first decades of the 19th century, Louisiana represented a chaotic state of affairs. We might think of Louisiana as being the turbulence both between and within empires. For many decades, France, Spain, and Britain were struggling over portions of North America, with Louisiana playing a key role in these colonial conflicts.
At the same time, indigenous and enslaved populations of African ancestry were fighting empire from within. The complete destruction of Fort Rosalie in 1729 showed that the Natchez meant business. Through “fire and blood,” they thoroughly rejected French encroachments. Through a series of vengeful, brutal wars, the French colonial regime decimated the Natchez. Many of the surviving Natchez were sold into slavery in the West Indies, while others sought refuge within other indigenous groups beyond colonial reach. Enslaved Native Americans and Africans periodically fought against captivity and colonial control, ranging from acts of petit marronage to coordinated revolts and rebellions. Many of these events will remain unknown to us, either because records of these episodes were annihilated or written documents were never created in the first place. We happen to know about the Revolt of 1768 because some letters and manuscripts were kept. But even in this case, many of the pamphlets and written statements of the Creole rebels were destroyed by Spanish authorities, who sought to crush any further resistance or similar ambitions in other parts of the Spanish Empire.
About three decades after the bloody conflict between the Natchez and the French, a fierce resistance was starting to build among the French Creole population of Louisiana against the new Spanish regime. The denizens of Louisiana were outraged to discover that they, along with the land, had been given over to the Spanish Crown in the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762.
The new Spanish governor, Don Antonio de Ulloa was also a scientist, and had just served as provincial administrator in the viceroyalty of Peru, where he took extensive notes on local flora and fauna, but also described indigenous cultural traditions and remarked on the way that the corrupt Spanish regime mistreated the native populations. He was renowned in Europe for his scientific work, having participated in a major geographical expedition in his youth, then later conducting his own experiments in electricity and magnetism.
Yet the tenure of this brilliant and humane naval officer and high-ranking government official was doomed by a series of delays. One of the most critical delays involved getting enough military troops to enforce Spanish rule. Years went by before the Spanish authorities could muster enough of a battalion to make the transfer feasible. At the beginning, there was an idea that Ulloa could simply recruit the soldiers serving under the French Governor Aubry. There were about 300 such French soldiers, but most were tired of being soldiers, were often insubordinate and prone to excessive drinking, and they all wanted to just go back to France since most of them had already served at least a decade in Louisiana.
So getting the troops ready for the transfer to Spanish rule was a problem. Another delay happened because Ulloa was waiting for the proper gifts to give to the various Native groups in Louisiana. Throughout the French and Spanish colonial periods, large native populations such as the Choctaw as well as smaller groups of indigenous people, or the petites nations, served a critical role in the economy of Louisiana and were often essential military allies against other colonial powers. In order to be successful, the Spanish regime had to emulate the diplomacy of previous French officials, which included specific trade goods offered as gifts to the Native Americans.
By the summer of 1768, Ulloa was still not ready to take proper control of Louisiana. Already, in the eyes of the Creoles who wanted to oust him, Ulloa had never been a legitimate authority, since he had never participated in a formal ceremony in la Place D’Armes, in New Orleans.
At nine o’clock in the morning on the fateful day of October 29, 1768, the rebels convened in the house of commissary Denis-Nicolas Foucault. Although Governor Aubry had warned against such actions, the members of the Superior Council, including Joseph Villeré, had drawn up a series of documents, including their politically charged Manifesto, and crossed their own Louisiana rubicon in the process. Ulloa was made to leave New Orleans in ignominy. The eloquent Lafrenière was the most prominent leader, arguing their legal cause, while others stirred up the Acadian and German populations with promises of paying debts long overdue from the Spanish government. Hundreds of armed men swarmed in the streets, rallying each other with cries of “Vive le bon vin de Bordeaux!” Alas, many of them had drunk too much of the delicious wine and had not anticipated the arrival of General Alejandro O’Reilly, erstwhile Irish soldier of fortune and now a celebrated Spanish military commander who was at that time speeding towards New Orleans with reinforcements for the beleaguered Spanish government of Louisiana.
The revolt was quickly suppressed. Six men were condemned to death, while other leaders were given substantial prison sentences. Joseph Villeré, in fact, was the first person to die in this political struggle. He died under mysterious circumstances while under arrest by Spanish authorities. One account has it that he was bayoneted while resisting arrest. The leaders of the Creole revolt were given a sentence of execution, including Villeré, though he had died a year earlier. He was tried in absentia and found guilty along with the others.
As with all such rebellions and revolts, there was a mixture of economic and political motives. The Creole merchants and planters certainly resented the imposition of Spanish regulations on their livelihoods. On the other hand, individuals such as Pierre Marquis, who likely had a hand in writing the Manifesto, expressed republican ideals which anticipated those of the American Revolution, which would begin less than a decade later. This Spanish translation of the French original captures some of the spirit of their invocation of natural law, and in the phrase “el derecho sagradao e inviolable”—the sacred and inviolable right—we have an anticipation of the well-known concept of “inalienable rights”. Nonetheless, most of the Creoles of Louisiana wanted to use their reversion to natural law in order to return to the French Crown.
In any case, this Revolt of 1768 still echoes through the history of the United States. In New Orleans, the street named “Frenchmen”—the world-famous epicenter of live music in the city—commemorates the six Creole men in Louisiana, including Joseph Villeré, who rebelled against Spanish rule.