Iberville’s Gulf Journals

I haven’t yet gotten into my reading hard core, but for the past few nights, I’ve been reading Iberville’s journals as I fall asleep. It’s been slow going—and successfully sleep inducing—mostly records of latitude and longitude, updates on corrected courses and which island Iberville’s now using as a meridian, and “dead reckonings,” a lovely phrase for calculating a current position based on a previous position. The entry for January 8, 1699 is typical: “At noon I find that during these twenty-four hours I have sailed west 18 leagues, by my reckoning, which gives me by dead reckoning latitude 19˚37′ and longitude 296˚35′.” And so forth.

While there’s something lovely about this—the noontime entries, the remarks on the water and the fishing, and details about the progress of the sailors sick with plague—there is a sameness to it. But about thirty pages in (the 27th of January), Iberville and his boats make it to Pensacola, where the Spanish offer them supplies of wood and water but refuse them entrance into their port, which Iberville describes as “no more fortification than a square palisade the height of a man.” Four pages and five days later, they spend the night on an island that Iberville will name Massacre Island on February 3 and that his brother Bienville will rename Dauphine in 1711. This island I’ve known all my life as Dauphin Island, the island that shelters Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico.

As the winds were heavy and Iberville and his men could not make it back to their boats immediately, they surveyed the island and its wildlife:

I found all kinds of trees, oak, elm, ash, pines, and other trees I do not know, many creepers, sweet-smelling violets, and other yellow flowers, horse-beans like those in St. Domingue, hickories of a very thin bark, birch (the high ground not being subject to flooding), traces of Indians and some huts, from which they had moved on no more than six days before. I fired several musket shots to make myself known, and I made pictures on the trees, of a man shown carrying a calumet of peace and having three ships, just as I had come there.

Iberville’s encounters with the Indians are much more peaceful and respectful than DeSoto’s. Following Indians in canoes who eventually escape into the woods, he talks “by means of signs” with the old man they’d left behind who was too sick to keep up. Iberville offered him tobacco and food and made a fire for the old man and placed him near it along with “bags of Indian corn” the others had left behind. When Iberville’s men capture an Indian woman, Iberville takes her to the old man “after giving her several presents and some tobacco to take to her men and have them smoke.” Eventually a handful of Indian men and women come to “sing the calumet of peace” to Iberville, and after the old man dies, the Indians “made a sagamité of Indian corn (recipe) to feast us,” and Iberville sends to his boats for something to feast them in return and “gave them presents of axes, knives, shirts, tobacco, pipes, tenderboxes, and glass beads.”

The French, like all the other European explorers and settlers, held their own well being above that of their slaves, which by the 1720s included both Indians and Africans, though it should be noted that Iberville himself initially opposed the use of slaves. After the Natchez and Fort Rosalie Massacres in 1729, the French would force the African slaves to attack the Indians in order to prevent the Indians and Africans from plotting together against the French. And yet Iberville’s initial willingness to learn and take part in Indian customs and his seemingly respectful approach to the Indians at least indicates that he saw them as human whereas the Spanish from the start seemed to treat them like pests to be eradicated. It’s not unlikely that the Indians met Iberville with reservation based on their encounters with the Spanish.

I don’t know where the poem is in this, and I admit I’m daunted. I’ve always had the tendency to want to read too much before starting a research paper, but now it feels like something of a duty—a duty beyond my time and means. There’s enough here to make a history dissertation, but I’m no historian. Yet, I don’t want to just write an impressionistic poem—Iberville’s already offered up colorful details, but I’m not confident that I could, at this point, contextualize his role in the issues that will come to prominence in my book (maybe *the* issue that will come to prominence: race, which everything seems to come back to in my mulling).

I’m also torn between a sequential structure like Crane’s “The Bridge” and something more thematic, perhaps like Lowell’s Life Studies. I wish I knew more about musical composition and theme and variation, like Eliot’s five-part structure in The Waste Land and Four Quartets. I might just start with something arbitrary and tweak it as it comes, say Exploration, Colonization, Civil War, 20th Century and let each section made of subsections, like the sections of “The Bridge.” The big things I’m drawn to so far are DeSoto (vs.) | Iberville | The Clotilde | Michael Donald, but there’s so much. For instance, one of the trails I’m planning on skating is (I think) a legacy of the trails taken by American colonists in the westward expansion—back when Alabama was the West. Pioneer trail became railroad became rails-to-trails multi-use recreational path. It’s enough to make a girl dizzy.

I’m not writing. I’m reading only piecemeal. But I am mulling.

This project is like a book in a dream. Sometimes I get a whiff of its shape before it shifts back into the ether of the yet-unmade. I like to think that there is an idea willing itself into being as I ready myself.

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