watching a TV history program about Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena, I kept thinking
about Liberty County.|
It seems a stretch but there is a connection between
the lower Trinity River and a small, rocky island in the South Atlantic. Can you
say “Gone to Texas” in French?
While their former leader endured his final,
post-Waterloo exile, several soldiers from Napoleon’s old guard created a settlement
in 1818 near the present-day town of Liberty.
The French refugees claimed they wanted to establish a place for the veterans
and their families to cultivate the land and live in freedom far away from the
despised Bourbon regime. They called the settlement Champ d’Asile, meaning “place
helped them, leading the Euro-Texans in small boats across Galveston Bay and up
Trinity River toward Liberty.
This was during the time that Laffite
and his pirates were headquartered in Galveston,
and they were well acquainted with the bay area.
The French built a log
fort on the banks of the Trinity, and in the middle of the fort they set up a
wooden statue of – guess who – Napoleon Bonaparte.
Members of the colony
were divided into three companies – infantry, foot cavalry and artillery. They
spent months in training and marching, sharing stories of the good old days and
singing such hit tunes as “Le Victoire est a Nous.” I wondered if they also belted
out “La Marseillaise” in the dense Texas forest but apparently not. It was not
Napoleon’s favorite song.
No doubt their main topic of discussion was their
beloved Emperor and how to rescue him from the British-ruled St. Helena. Optimistic
soldiers thought they could raise enough money to liberate Napoleon, but they
could hardly support themselves.
The colony’s dream of cultivating vineyards
and olive trees proved to be unrealistic in that locale where it was more practical
for growing cotton and raising cattle.
As farming efforts failed, the colonists
suffered from a shortage of supplies, and as their leaders began to disagree on
who’s in charge, the whole bunch started bickering.
Finally, in the mid-summer
1818, the Texas experiment was abandoned. Laffite,
always the friendly buccaneer, led the French refugees back to Galveston
and from there helped them sail to New Orleans.
However, with friends
like Laffite, they didn’t need
enemies. All the time he was pretending to be their friend, Laffite
(double agent man) was passing information to the Spanish government.
Martinez, the Spanish governor of Mexico, feared the French would use their settlement
as a launching pad for future attacks into Spanish American territory. A large
number of Spanish troops gathered at San
Antonio, destined for Liberty
to expel the refugees, but the French, sad and frustrated, already had left.
word reached Paris of the failed colony, sympathizers rallied to their cause,
and paintings, poems and novels emerged, depicting the soldiers as forgotten heroes.
Vive Champs d’Asile! Vive Liberty,
February 3, 2013 columns
Topics: Baytown | Columns
Texas Town List | People
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