Rochefort and La Rochelle: Model Ships, Moules, and Merchants

The port of La Rochelle. Photo C. Davis

The port of La Rochelle. Photo C. Davis

Jean Baptiste Colbert, Musée nationale de la Marine. Photo C. Davis

Jean Baptiste Colbert, Musée nationale de la Marine. Photo C. Davis

At the customs museum in Bordeaux there was of course a bust of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance. Colbert was responsible for large scale mercantilist economic reform including new regulations in textile manufacturing. The quality of textiles was important because controlling markets could, according to economic theory at the time, attract the limited amount of gold and silver in the world away from rival nations. Therefore economic supremacy was also military supremacy, in that success in business could finance the best navies and armies in Europe while depriving other nations of the wealth necessary to match these forces. I was therefore unsurprised to once again see Colbert waiting for me at the Musée nationale de la Marine in Rochefort.

La Corderie Royale at Rochefort. Photo C. Davis

La Corderie Royale at Rochefort. Photo C. Davis

Colbert chose Rochefort in 1665 to be the central base of the French navy and commissioned master military architect and engineer Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban to fortify the mouth and banks of Charente River leading to Rochefort. The arsenal included La Corderie Royale, an expansive building where rope was made to outfit the many ships built there, and was a busy loading point for military provisions and munitions, including some of the goods furnished by the Mariettes at the request of colonial administrators.

Merchants examining textiles, Detail of a copy of Vue du port de Rochefort, prise du magasin des Colonies, Joseph Vernet (1759). Photo C. Davis

Merchants examining textiles, Detail of a copy of Vue du port de Rochefort, prise du magasin des Colonies, Joseph Vernet (1759).  Musée nationale de la Marine. Photo C. Davis

I had high hopes to see an original painting of the port of Rochefort by Claude Joseph Vernet in the museum, but unfortunately had to settle for a still helpful copy of the original, which I learned was housed in the branch of the Musée nationale de la Marine in Paris. Vernet was given a royal commission in 1753 to record the state of each port in the country in full military preparedness for the king’s reference as tensions increased leading up to the Seven Years’ War (known to us Americans as the French and Indian War). His port scenes show goods being packaged, moved, and prepared for transport. The size of the trade bales in these scenes seems to lend support to the idea that goods absolutely needed to be repackaged before shipment to inland destinations. I plan to eventually see the originals in Paris in hopes that I may be able to determine more specifically how seals attached to bales. Luckily I was able to make out some details on the copy and appreciate the amazing 18th century model ships on display, one of which was built for the instruction of Louis XVI’s father the dauphin (son of Louis XV, who never ascended the throne). Another much larger model was once used to train officers at the arsenal.

Back of a model named "Le Dauphin Royal" constructed for the dauphin, 1751. Musée nationale de la Marine. Photo C. Davis

Back of a model ship, “Le Dauphin Royal,” constructed for the son of Louis XV, 1751. Musée nationale de la Marine. Photo C. Davis

Vue du Port de La Rochelle, prise de la petite Rive, Joseph Vernet (1762). Wikimedia Commons.

Vue du Port de La Rochelle, prise de la petite Rive, Joseph Vernet (1762). Wikimedia Commons. Compare with my photo of the harbor in 2019 at the head of this post.

Le Grosse-Horloge, La Rochelle. Photo C. Davis

Le Grosse-Horloge, La Rochelle. Photo C. Davis

After my one day in Rochefort, I took the train to my final destination- La Rochelle. If you ask any expert on New France or early Canada where most of the goods in the colony came from, they would more than likely answer with “La Rochelle.” La Rochelle is still celebrated and remembered for its connections to Québec, and on many days one can see the Québec provincial flag flying from one of the towers in La Rochelle harbor. Recently a Québecois miniseries, La Grande Traversée (2017), had modern day participants recreate a seventeenth-century transatlantic crossing from La Rochelle to Québec City. La Rochelle was an important center of southern Protestantism, like Montauban, and was also besieged by Louis XIII in 1627 and 1628. Nevertheless, the merchants of La Rochelle remained protestant and kept connections with merchants in Montauban and elsewhere in France, sharing their products with colonial consumers.

Temple Protestant de La Rochelle. Photo C. Davis

Temple Protestant de La Rochelle (1706). Photo C. Davis

With only a few short hours to explore La Rochelle, I sought out the Musée Protestant de La Rochelle, only to find it closed until peak tourist season. I still took time to visit the port and see the Le Grosse-Horloge, one of the sights recorded in Vernet’s painting of the port of La Rochelle. I also expanded my palate and tried a local favorite, moules-frites, which consists of a large pot of steamed mussels and French fries on the side. As I walked around port I found many restaurants serving it and thought that if there was ever a time to try mussels, it was then. I decided to live dangerously and try to eat a giant pot of mussels before my flight the next day. No regrets! Admittedly though, my new favorite dish is escargot, which I was finally able to try in Bordeaux after lots of encouragement from my director.

Detail of the Hôtel de la Bourse, La Rochelle. Photo C. Davis.

Detail of the Hôtel de la Bourse, La Rochelle. Photo C. Davis.

After my giant pot of mussels, I went to see the old Hôtel de la Bourse (the stock exchange), constructed between 1760 and 1785. Here, on the marble floor surrounded by intricate stone carvings, merchants met to make business deals and exchange information on the market. After a quick trip to a very windy beach to finally view the Atlantic from a new perspective, I wandered past the medieval towers guarding the port and back to my hotel to rest before my over 24 hour voyage home to Detroit. La Rochelle was full of promise, and the archives and museums there will need to be explored more thoroughly in the future as my study progresses.

 

-Cathrine

Speak Your Mind

*