the rambling boy
July 13th, 2017 under West Texas Talk Highlight
Vive la French Bastille Day
By LONN TAYLOR
Tomorrow, July 14, is Bastille Day, a holiday that is not normally celebrated in the United States except in French restaurants. It commemorates the seizure of the Bastille, a 14th-century fortress that once protected the eastern approaches to Paris, by a revolutionary mob on July 14, 1789. By then the Bastille had ceased to have military value and was being used as a royal prison, a place where the kings of France detained people deemed to be enemies of the state indefinitely without trial. The mob that attacked it was not trying to liberate prisoners of despotism (there were only seven people incarcerated there at the time, four forgers and three aristocrats whose families had requested that the king lock them up) but was after the 250 barrels of gunpowder that were stored there. A few months after the building was stormed, the revolutionary committee that was running Paris ordered it demolished. It was pulled down, and pieces of it were exhibited all over France as symbols of liberty, in much the same way that chunks of the Berlin Wall were exhibited in the 1990s. A cottage industry produced models of the Bastille carved from its stones, and Lafayette presented one to George Washington, along with a key to the building’s front door. Both can be seen at Mount Vernon today.
I was lucky enough to be in Marseilles on Bastille Day, 1955, and I vividly remember the French shields draped with tricolors that were affixed to the lampposts; the military parade that featured a unit of the Foreign Legion; and men and women literally dancing in the streets to the music of brass bands. It was every 15-year-old boy’s idea of what France should be.
During the years Dedie and I lived in Washington we celebrated Bastille Day with lunch at a French restaurant on Capitol Hill called the Brasserie, whose owners erected a 30-foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower made out of bamboo and papier-mâché in the courtyard every July. I have a memory almost as vivid as my Marseilles memory of sitting at a corner window table on the second floor of the Brasserie watching that Eiffel Tower dissolve in a Bastille Day thunderstorm whose winds bent it until the top was touching the ground while rain beat on the windows by our table. If it had rained like that at the Bastille in 1789 the mob would never have formed, much less stormed the building.
When I lived in Santa Fe in the early 1980s I worked at the Museum of International Folk Art, whose director was a formidable Frenchwoman named Yvonne Longe. Longe’s family had left France during the revolution and gone to the Caribbean island of Martinique, and from there had migrated to the British colony of Trinidad and Tobago, where they had become sugar planters, but Longe was pure French. The first Bastille Day that I was at the museum I stuck my head in her office and cheerily called, “Happy Bastille Day, Yvonne!” She looked up from her desk and replied, “Those bastards cut my ancestors’ heads off. We don’t celebrate Bastille Day in my family.”
It was from Longe that I learned how strong colonial identity was in the West Indies. She had worked there as a journalist in the 1950s, and had once covered the return of a shipload of Trinidadian workers who had gone to the French island of Guadeloupe seeking employment. They had been turned back at the dock by an angry mob of French-speaking Guadeloupeans who resented immigrants from a British colony. Longe asked one of the Trinidadians what had happened and he said, “They were terrible. They shouted awful things at us.” “What did they shout?” Longe asked. “They shouted, ‘Anglais, Anglais, you killed Joan of Arc!’” the man replied. Of course both sides in the fracas were made up of black West Indians whose enslaved ancestors had been brought from Africa by the colonial powers.
Although the French flag is one of the six that flew over Texas, France had very little influence on the region’s development. The French claim derives from a settlement established in October 1685 by Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, on the banks of Garcitas Creek in Victoria County. La Salle and his 180 colonists had intended to settle at the mouth of the Mississippi River but had gotten lost. The short-lived settlement was wiped out by Karankawa Indians three years later; only five survivors ever made it back to France.
French traders penetrated into East Texas from Louisiana in the 1700s, much to the annoyance of the Spanish, and in 1759 Spanish troops fought a four-hour battle on the banks of the Red River in present-day Montague County against Indians who reportedly had French officers with them and were flying a French flag before retreating and leaving their baggage and two cannons behind them, but that was 30 years before the first Bastille Day.
Bastille Day might well have been celebrated during the next French incursion into Texas, which took place in 1818 and still has an air of mystery about it. Two of Napoleon’s former generals, Charles Lallemand and Baron Antoine Rigaud, led a group of 150 former Napoleonic army officers to a place they named Champ d’Asile (Field of Asylum) on the Trinity River near the present town of Liberty, Texas. Lallemand put it out that they were going to establish an agricultural colony there and grow grapes and olives, but the men spent most of their time digging trenches and building fortifications, and the rumors were that they were planning to rescue Napoleon from his exile on the island of St. Helena and bring him to Texas. Texas was still Spanish in 1818, and these rumors made the Spanish government very nervous. Troops were dispatched from San Antonio to expel the Frenchmen, and Lallemand abandoned the settlement and withdrew his men to Galveston Island, where Jean Lafitte and his pirates ferried them to New Orleans. All that is left of Champ d’Asile is a set of romantic engravings showing gorgeously uniformed French officers cutting logs and building cabins in a distinctly un-Texan tropical landscape, complete with mountains and palm trees, and a wistful song called “The Laurel Grows at Champ d’Asile.”
At least there were decent French restaurants in New Orleans where the exiles could celebrate Bastille Day in style. I wish there were one in Marfa.
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Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.