It happened today - February 20, 2016

On this day in history France laid a claim to Texas. Thanks for coming out.

No, really. On February 20 of 1685 one René-Robert Cavelier, more familiar as the “Sieur de La Salle” or “Robert de La Salle”, established Fort St. Louis on Matagorda Bay, on which basis France briefly and ineffectually claimed part of Texas.

Now the obvious objection is that there were already people living there who may unaccountably have considered it theirs. But whatever the merits of such a claim, it didn’t stand in the way of European empires claiming stuff. (And it’s not all one-sided; most of the people living anywhere had acquired it by at least equally dubious and bloody means, killing or chasing off the previous inhabitants. And all the perfidy in keeping agreements was not on the European side. It was primarily a matter of the cultural and technological imbalance being so extreme that Europeans won almost all the fights; on this see Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.)

What did stand in the way of it becoming Le Texas was the ineffectiveness of the French Empire in actually settling things. La Salle and others performed prodigious feats of exploration and there was always this dream of a Francophone nation built on the two great rivers of North America, the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi, pinning in the English settlements on the east coast and creating a superpower. And why not?

I’ll tell you. It’s because the French empire was bureaucratic, overly centralized and intolerant of diversity or private initiative. As a result, it was always a thinly-populated loss-making venture. (The same is true of the Spanish Empire, by the way, a hugely impressive geographical entity that by and large consisted of very small dots of actual settlers controlling huge areas because of the imbalance referred to above.)

The French government actually managed to make settling in new territory less attractive than staying in France where, for all the faults of French government, there seems to have been a robust culture that protected people from the whims of bureaucracy. Venture into the New World, where initiative and enterprise were vital, and some bewigged know-it-all would minutely regulate you.

That the habitants made a success of Quebec despite this problem shows how tough and determined they were. But the fact remains that the white European population of New France was just 55,000 at the end of the Seven Years’ War, as against well over a million British settlers in their North American colonies. French Louisiana had perhaps 5,000 whites and as many black slaves. Meanwhile Spain’s Florida colony had only about 4,000 inhabitants of European derivation more than two centuries after its mid-16th-century founding.

As for French Texas, well, it existed on a map. For three years. Until 1688 when the locals killed the 20 remaining adults and enslaved the five children, by which point La Salle had been killed by one of his own men.

Oh, and in the name of the amusement park Six Flags over Texas and other such promotions. And in some golden fleurs-de-lis on the back of the Texas state seal. Sic transit absentia gloriae mundi.

It happened todayJohn Robson