This is the first blog in a special series I am doing for the Halloween season, once a week, with the last blog being on Friday, November 13th. Each blog will be based around one of the illustrations I drew for The Serpents of Bienville Collection, telling the story behind the illustration, and including some ideas to ponder on. I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I enjoyed researching and writing them.
“Alabama has many ghosts. Stop in almost any town in the state and if you inquire around, the chances are that you will find a ghost story. Old residents will point out a dilapidated structure known locally as a haunted house or will give you directions to a run-down decaying mansion or to the overgrown site where once stood ‘the grandest plantation house in the county’-a real haunted house.”
Kathryn Tucker Windham, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey
Sweat glistened from the explorers’ brows. The heavy salts were constantly dripping into their eyes, and with the intense glare coming off the glassy waters from which their canoes were floating, their vision was completely obscured. They would have no time to prepare for the force that was approaching. As they would row, wiping their salt crusted brows to gain back perception, the travelers detected a dark and distinct movement in the distance. A mass of ghosts were coming directly toward them. It seemed the haints were slowly gliding their way, but almost as if they were going to go through, and past them. Suddenly, all movement ceases. The men are haunted by complete stillness, complete silence. Both parties are frozen—the explorers watching in fear, the ghosts staring emotionless. From the clear reflection of the bay, one canoe glides to the front of the idle fleet. A man in uniform rode forward, his canoe parting the waters. As he glided across, his uniform fell off his skin and shattered the glass of the bay. What arose from his flesh was a body of serpents, intertwined and becoming one. The explorer was covered, from head to toe, in the marks of serpents, tattoos wrapping around his body, down his arms, guiding this canoe, guiding him toward the native ghosts that lie in the distance. The explorer made the choice to become one with the ghosts, become lost in the mist, to disappear forever. Bienville and his serpents sealed their fate with the sacred oath forged in flesh, ink and blood. From the initial prick of his skin, he swore to share their future, to have their remains forever lost and deprived honor and recognition, to fall and disappear into obscurity in flames and ashes. These were the Serpents of Bienville.
The le Moyne brothers were of French Canadian descent with the elder, Iberville, already earning a name as a sea-fighter in the French wars with England. His younger brother Bienville, a boy of twelve years, had been officer of a battery on board the ship which Iberville commanded. Once the wars ended, the brothers were sent into the gulf of the Americas to continue further conquest for France. Bienville was just sixteen years old when he saw the ominous mountain of bones, glistening on the slick, misty water, that would be darkly dubbed “Massacre Island”, present day Dauphin Island.
After exploring and founding settlements all along the Gulf Coast, Bienville eventually decided to stay in the New World to handle the affairs of the fledgeling areas for France, and his brother Iberville returned to Paris as a voice for the colony. This now left Bienville as the leading Le Moyne in the colonizing of French Louisiana, having already founded Mobile in 1702 and continuing expansion to establish New Orleans in 1718.
In becoming the founder of Mobile, New Orleans, and other surrounding cities, Bienville became an icon in history. He became the subject of hero mythology and folklore, though some truth definitely could be found in these stories. “Bienville had the reputation of knowing the Indians well. Mastering the lingua franca of the lower Mississippi, called mobilien, he was without doubt the only governor of a colony in New France to speak to the Indians without an interpreter. He pushed indianization so far as to tattoo himself with a serpent, which wrapped around his body.”1
The explorer Bertet de la Clue noted how the southern Amerindians “have their skins covered with figures of snakes which they make with the point of a needle. Mr. de Bienville who is the general of the country has all of his body covered in this way and when he is obliged to march to war with them he makes himself nude like them. They like him very much but they also fear him.”2
According to several historic sources, Bienville had gotten heavily tattooed by a local tribe. Some believe it to be the legendary lost Mauville Indians, in order to become closer with the Indian population and earn their valuable trust. Fellow explorer Henri de Tonti went so far as to say, “An officer (Bienville), a man of breeding whose name you would recognize, who, as well as an image of the Virgin and the baby Jesus, a large cross on his stomach with the miraculous words which appeared to Constantine and an endless number of marks in the savage style, had a snake which passed around his body and whose tongue pointed toward an extremity which I will leave you to guess.”3
Henri de Tonti went on to give descriptions of these tattooing practices.
“These ornaments or marks of honor are not printed without pain; for a start they draw the pattern on the skin; then, with a needle or a small well-sharpened bone, they prick to blood, following the pattern; after which, they rub on the pricked place with a powder of the color asked by the one who gets that mark.” 4
Captain Bossu wrote of his experience as an explorer getting tattooed around the same time as Bienville, offering some insight to the experience Bienville may have had. Captain Bossu recounted,
“I sat on a wildcat skin while an Indian burned some straw. He put the ashes in water and used this simple mixture to draw the deer. He then traced the drawing with big needles, pricking me until I bled. The blood mixed with the ashes of the straw formed a tattoo which can never be removed. After that I smoked a pipe and walked on white skins which were spread under my feet. They danced for me and shouted with joy. They then told me that if I traveled among the tribes allied to them, all that I had to do to receive a warm welcome was to smoke a peace pipe and show my tattoo. They also said that I was their brother and that if I were killed they would avenge my death. . . . I cannot tell you how much I suffered and how great an effort I made to remain impassive. I even joked with the Arkansas women who were present. The spectators, surprised by my stoicism, cried out with joy, danced, and told me that I was a real man. I was truly in great pain and ran a fever for almost a week. You would never believe how attached to me these people have become since then.” 5
Years passed, colonies were established, and alliances were made. Bienville and his armies fought in war after war, allying with native tribes against the English. The English made alliances with other native tribes as well, causing a warring between natives that had never happened in such a way before, permanently mutating that native landscape. When the warring subsided, Bienville was left tired, worn, and alone.
Going back to 1702, England and France were at war, the War of Spanish Succession. Some say that D'Iberville had contracted malaria while on the Gulf coast, others say it was yellow fever, and both his health and judgment were deteriorating quickly. Early in 1706, he left France in command of twelve vessels that then devastated the island of Nevis, taking the entire island population prisoner. He was working Havana, where he was planning to halt English colony settlement in Carolina, when he died suddenly in July of 1706. Most claim he passed due to yellow fever. After his death, questions began to arise about his estate, many rumoring D'Iberville had acquired a large fortune by uncertain means. The accounts of the West Indian expedition were hopelessly disorganized, furthered by accusations of embezzlement. His widow, Marie Thérèse Pollet was forced to pay back a large portion of his estate bestowed to her upon his passing. Due to these claims an actions, France had lost trust in the younger LeMoyne brother. Bienville was broken and forlorn. By 1740, Bienville’s health declined, and he begged his ministers for leave to France, which was granted in 1742. Bienville had made political enemies with other administrators in Mobile, creating animosity amongst the Louisiana colonies. Years of unreliable troops, faulty timing, and mishaps in planning had taken it’s toll over the past four decades on Bienville. When looking back on his life, Bienville exhaustedly reflected, “a sort of fatality [has been] set for sometime upon wrecking most of my best-planned projects.”6 Bienville never became the head of a new nation, the trophy he always craved. He lived to see his Louisiana pass under Spanish rule in 1766 despite petitions to Versailles by its French inhabitants.
Bienville died in 1767 in Paris, at the age of 88. Records of his funeral and burial were lost through pillage and fire, thus depriving his mortal remains of honoured recognition to this day.
We are brought back to the bay, back to the standoff between the men he arrived with and the spirits with whom he is bound to return. A lonely, isolated explorer, gliding across the glassy waters of the bay, heads towards the ghosts that forged sacred marks on his flesh, scars that would connect him to them, by promise or by curse. The damned explorer proceeds with haste, consigned to his fate. In his sight are roaring flames, growing and engulfing the ghosts that the men so feared, until finally our explorer too disappears, immersed in a blinding blaze. This fate is shared by an entire nation native to that beautiful land, to fall and fadeaway in the inferno, with nothing but embers left where a strong people once lie.
1.”France in America: Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienvillehttp://international.loc.gov/intldl/fiahtml/fiatheme2c4.html 2.Jean-François Bertet de la Clue Sabran, A Voyage to Dauphin Island in 1720: The Journal of Bertet de la Clue, trans. and ed. Francis Escoffier and Jay Higginbotham (Mobile, AL: Museum of the City of Mobile, 1974), 63–64. 3.https://virtudesigns.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/louisiana-history-portrait-1-jean-baptiste-lemoyne-sieur-de-bienville/ 4.Balvay Tattooing essay, [Henri de Tonti], “Relation de la Louisianne ou Mississipi Ecrite à une Dame par un Officier de Marine,” in Jean-Frédéric Bernard, Recueil des voyages au Nord contenant divers mémoires très utiles au commerce et à la navigation, tome 5, Relation de la Louisiane et du Mississippi (Amsterdam, 1724), 12. 5.Balvay tattooing essay, Bossu, Nouveaux voyages aux Indes, 122–224. 6.http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_moyne_de_bienville_jean_baptiste_3E.html