The Unknown

And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there shalt thou serve other gods.

—Deuteronomy 28:64

Before the specter of enslaved poisoners on Saint-Domingue, before disease and hunger turned Guiana and Môle Saint-Nicolas into charnel houses, a few French thinkers held that the Caribbean was beyond redemption. It was a hard case to make. “Intelligent people,” wrote the pro-colonial economist François Veron de Forbonnais, “acquire lands in climates proper for staples they lack.”1 Voltaire, whose 1757 Candide, or Optimism fired off smirking critiques of imperialism and slavery, drank two gallons of coffee (often laced with sugar and chocolate) per day—a combination of colonial addictions shared by millions of French subjects no longer willing to settle for milk and honey.

The human cost of their consumption, however, was evident on both sides of the Atlantic. The harshness of Caribbean slavery was well known. The philosophe Denis Diderot could only conclude that transporting an ordinary European “beyond the equator” was the equivalent of returning a domesticated tiger to the jungle: “The thirst of blood takes hold of him once more.”2 While some attributed the seeming anarchy on the West African coast to inhabitants with “souls as black as their bodies,” others disagreed: “You yourselves,” one critic told a French audience complicit in the slave trade, “[are the] instigators of their tyranny, which causes so much devastation in those sad countries.”3 In France itself, the rise of an economy of luxury rooted in colonial goods “ceaselessly turn[ed] thousands of cultivators into artisans and valets,” swelling the ranks of city dwellers and sapping the kingdom’s rural heartland.4 Early French imperialism had, it seemed, become a living machine whose gears now ensnared and ground up anyone who approached. “The harm was not done in creating settlements in America,” explained Charles de Brosses in 1756,” but to have done so without rules, without policy, without forethought.”5

Besides being the president of the parlement of Dijon, de Brosses was one of the old régime’s great polymaths, an expert on the archaeology of Herculaneum, fetishism in African religion, the origins of languages, and the history of the Roman Empire. His breadth of learning made him the most articulate midcentury proponent of a risky but remarkably popular approach to French colonialism: starting over. By de Brosses’s lights, the conflict between Great Britain and France had reached a familiar crossroads as the Seven Years’ War began. Like Rome during the Punic Wars, Britain was “aspiring to universal monarchy,” forcing France into a fight from which only one power would emerge.6 De Brosses had a solution. France, he wrote, should imitate the Phoenicians of Tyre, the merchant-mariners who had founded Carthage two millennia earlier. “The solid base of their immortal glory,” he argued, was “to have planted their colonies … from the British Isles to the Cape of Good Hope, perhaps; but at least as far as Senegal.”7 Louis XV, however, would go one step further, undertaking nothing less than “the discovery of Terres australes.”8 In an end run around British commercial might, France would dispatch a fleet to the long-predicted southern continent, there to exploit the last untapped market—a land whose peoples, kept in “useful dependence,” would snap up boatloads of “our colored glass beads, our little textiles, our paper, our eaux de vie, our iron tools, our hardware, our little mirrors at 7 f. per dozen.”9

The British Empire had made the consumer king, but finding a new population at the bottom of the world would allow the French to begin their own cycle of metropolitan manufacturing and colonial consumption on a massive scale, beating the British at their own economic game. Doing the finding, though, presented some thorny problems. But for scientists, explorers, and philosophers across eighteenth-century Europe, the reality of terra australis incognita, or the unknown southern land, was in the air. Back in 1686, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle had jabbed at readers for their lack of curiosity toward “that part of the earth called Terra Australis” and its inhabitants, “for we and they are aboard the same ship; they possess the prow, and we the poop, and yet there is no manner of communication between us.”10 By midcentury, the idea of an imperial presence in the southern seas, complete with the mercantilist exchange of French products for colonial staples, had seeped into the most unlikely corners of popular culture. The protagonist of Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche’s 1761 novel Giphantie reveled in the discovery “very lately made in Terra Australis” of transparent cotton, a textile which “will defend from the weather, and at the same time give us a sight of that admirable bosom, those charming arms, that divine leg.”11

Less prurient French thinkers believed that colonial ventures in the highest latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, shaped by lessons learned over the past two centuries of harsh experience, would resolve a host of moral and practical concerns about empire in an age of enlightenment. With de Brosses at their head, some advocated a sea change in thinking about antiquity, empire, and society. By the 1750s, Frenchmen had come to see their country as “a new Rome,” identifying not with the vast imperium but with the virtuous republic whose “heroic prototypes” became “the stock in trade of a wide spectrum of reformers and enthusiasts.”12 Developing alongside French reverence for Rome was “laconomania,” whose lone symptom was admiration for the republic of Sparta.13Roman “zeal for the common good,” coupled with the strict patriotism and “spirit of community” fostered by Spartan rulers such as Lycurgus, proved inviting models for those weary of arbitrary rule, divisive privilege, and foppish apathy.14 This political analogy allowed no room for the trappings of colonialism. “We cannot flatter ourselves to see Sparta reborn in the midst of commerce and the love of gain,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1751.15 As the abbé Mably explained in that same year, was not the fall of Rome rooted in the turn from self-government and material modesty to “an insatiable drive toward pillage and conquest”? And had not the Spartans’ distaste for “booty and tribute” made expansion a nonstarter until thoughtless reforms ushered in the contagions of “avarice” and empire?16

Perhaps, but a rising chorus in France touted the virtues of classical colonizers—commercial savvy, maritime skill, geographic curiosity, and the intent to “create” allied nations rather than conquer hapless natives. Again, the Phoenicians set the example, having “formed the Greeks, & given rise to the other savages of Europe that the Greeks and Romans succeeded in shaping later on.” “The Europeans of these early centuries,” de Brosses reminded the French, “were hardly more brutish” than the inhabitants of terra australis.17 Casting out toward the teeming land mass to the south (one post–Seven Years’ War booster estimated its population as “probably more than 50 millions”), the French would position themselves to “give law” to other nations while triggering an economic boom attuned to both competition with the British and the demands of the Enlightenment.18

Above all, proponents of these projects hoped to avoid the “exploitation of mines, the thirst for gold, and the false allure of a quick fortune” that had led to the original sins of European settlers in the New World. That meant starting small, with a self-sustaining agricultural colony whose incremental growth would set in motion the exchanges that would ultimately “employ on land and sea an infinite number of [French] men in all that concerns trade and navigation.”19 Much depended on a good group of pioneers. Ideally, this would be a “hardworking and intelligent set of people” accustomed to long winters and dealing with native peoples.20 Like the builders of the Kourou colony and Môle Saint-Nicolas, the proponents of la France australe turned to families such as the Cyrs.

Jean-Jacques Cyr, his wife, Marie-Josèphe Hébert, and their eight children were not typical Acadians. They sometimes worked on farms for wages, but mostly they ran a tavern near Pont à Buot on the Missaguash River, serving up hospitality at the friction point between the British and French empires. Robert Hale of Beverly, Massachusetts, washed up at the Cyr place in 1731. After a meal of bonnyclabber (a curdled milk dish akin to yogurt), fish, soup, and bread, he witnessed “some of the Family on their Knees paying their Devotions to the Almighty.” The tavern suddenly became a jumble of religiosity and sociability. Some of the Acadians prayed, but others remained in the room “talking, and Smoaking, etc.” Unlike fair New England women, Hale noted, the Cyr girls’ complexions had been darkened “by living in the Smoak in the summer to defend against Muskettoes, and in the winter against the Cold.”21 It was a habit that would serve them well.

After their expulsion from Ile Saint-Jean in 1758, Jean-Jacques, Marie-Josèphe, and their children ended up in Saint-Malo, on the northern coast of Brittany. Six years later, they found themselves in Port Saint-Louis, France’s outpost on the eastern shore of the Falkland Islands. Intended as a way station for French ships headed for bigger, better lands, Port Saint-Louis was, in its day, the southernmost European settlement on earth. Although the South Atlantic landscape was unlike anything they had known (“a vast silence,” wrote one eighteenth-century visitor, “broken only by the occasional cry of a sea-monster, everywhere a weird and melancholy uniformity”), the Cyrs made lives for themselves there.22 Daughter Marie gave birth to twins in 1767, while twenty-one-year-old Françoise married Frenchman Julien Brard in the settlement’s makeshift chapel in 1769.23

Their presence on East Falkland testifies to the allure of terra australis incognita for French imperialists eager to sap British might. In that sense, the impulse to populate the icy corners of the South Atlantic and the hot, sticky banks of the Kourou River came from the same source: a desire to marry economic efficiency and moral sensibility to the power of empire. Far from fading away in the diplomatic aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, the old régime’s dying empire evolved at breakneck speed into dozens of variants, each of which drew on different strands of political economy, historical interpretation, and previous colonial experience.

For ministers such as Choiseul, it was a fleeting moment of hope. Acadians too had reason to look to the future. Although Port Saint-Louis and the Kourou treated their inhabitants very differently, both colonies taught the refugees the same stinging lesson: whether via the tropics or the poles, all roads led toward the bottom of the labor market undergirding the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.

Snaking in an irregular path between 49 and 55 degrees south latitude, the Antarctic Convergence is one of the most important climatic barriers on the planet. For oceanographers, it marks the frontier where cold polar waters flowing north from Antarctica dive below the warmer, southbound currents of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Just north of the convergence, climates are unpleasant and vegetation minimal. “As to the aboriginal productions,” wrote an early visitor to the Falkland Islands, “it will easily be seen that nature has not been very liberal in bestowing her favors.”24 Lands below the convergence, by contrast, are hostile to all but the hardiest forms of life. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the transition was mysterious. Since 1675, when the French Huguenot mariner Antoine de la Roche was blown over the line and lived to tell the tale, even the most rugged sailors grew reflective at the sight of the great fog banks marking the convergence, beyond which the temperature dropped fast and low.25


Yet by the eighteenth century, this sudden atmospheric change had become more enticing than discouraging for Europeans. As men such as Charles de Brosses knew, the idea of terra australis incognita had captivated the best minds and wildest imaginations of Western civilization for well over two thousand years. Their fascination was rooted in a long-standing series of philosophical speculations and geographical misunderstandings. In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle knew the earth to be spherical, and in the interest of symmetry suggested the existence of antipodes, or landmasses diametrically opposed to the Greeks’ known world. Two centuries later, Ptolemy played on Aristotle’s ideas to come up with what he believed to be the first accurate map of the globe. A bad estimate of the earth’s circumference, however, led him to make the world too small. As a result, Ptolemy pushed Africa toward China, shrank the Pacific, and enclosed the Indian Ocean with a vast southern continent.26

For centuries, no one corrected him. Many early Christians did not care about such matters. Saint Basil, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, summed up their position: “Of what importance is it to know whether the earth is a sphere, a cylinder, a disc, or a concave surface? What is important is to know how I should conduct myself towards myself, towards my fellow man, and towards God.”27 Others, however, saw terra australis as a serious threat. Separated from Adam’s posterity by the impassable torrid zone, inhabitants of the antipodes could not have known original sin, the Messiah’s redemption, or the teachings of the original apostles, making their existence a theological impossibility. Still, the idea of mysterious lands and peoples in the Southern Hemisphere continued to bubble up across medieval Europe.28 Painted onto the ceiling of a cathedral in Burgo de Osma, Spain, one eleventh-century world map features a slice of southern land populated by a lone skiapod, a human endowed with a single, table-sized foot used for shade against a blazing sun.29 Such images remain striking in their absurdity, but even sober men such as Albertus Magnus, mentor to the even more sober Thomas Aquinas, somehow believed the southern continent to be very real.30

Early modern exploration only sharpened European expectations for the discovery of terra australis. The French adventurers Jean and Raoul Parmentier sailed from the English Channel port of Dieppe to Sumatra in 1529. The brothers died there, but their navigator returned to confirm the existence of “Java la Grande,” a land “which extends down near to the Antarctic pole,” and whose northern promontories extended nearly to the equator. Java la Grande appeared on French maps throughout the sixteenth century, influencing the German cartographer Gerard Mercator, whose “Magellanica” became the standard depiction of terra australis for decades.31 For its part, Spain sent ships toward the South Pacific in 1537, 1567, and 1595, reaching the Solomon Islands, the Marquesas, and the Santa Cruz Islands.32 In 1605, Pedro de Quirós led another Spanish voyage that stumbled upon the New Hebrides and declared them outliers of the southern continent. Seeking money from the Council of the Indies to plant a settlement there, a breathless Quirós described terra australis as “twice greater in Kingdoms and Seignories, than all that which at this Day doth acknowledge Subjection and Obedience” to the Spanish king, reveling in the “incredible Multitude of Inhabitants” whose lands and bodies might now serve the crown.33

Frenchmen likewise pled for the establishment of colonies in the deepest south. During a fleeting break in the wars of religion that bloodied the kingdom at the close of the sixteenth century, a Protestant soldier turned scholar named Lancelot Voisin de la Popelinière proposed a new division of the earth’s lands. The “First World,” he wrote in 1582, consisted of lands known to the ancients and occupied by their descendants; the “Second World” encompassed the Americas, where the Spanish, Portuguese, and English had no intention of making room for French interlopers. The “Third World,” however, was “a southern land … thirty degrees from the equator, of a much greater extent than all of America.” Doubtless intended to spur settlement attempts by his fellow Protestants, Popelinière’s well-received book commanded attention from Catholics as well. In 1586, the Jesuits at the Collège de Lyon (among Popelinière’s worst theological enemies) made their students debate “the necessity of undertaking an expedition to the third Magellanic world.”34

In ways that would have distressed Popelinière, French interest in terra australis was, during the seventeenth century, yoked to the forces of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. The prime mover in this process was an unremarkable monk named Jean Paulmier. In 1654, Paulmier, a canon of the cathedral of Lisieux in Normandy, wrote a short treatise advocating the establishment of Catholic missions in “the Third World, otherwise called Terra Australis.” It was never published. Sometime after finishing the text, however, Paulmier appears to have made a stunning discovery in his family’s papers—a manuscript penned by Binot de Gonneville, a long-dead Norman merchant, relating the explosive details of a failed 1503 voyage to the East Indies.35

Inspired by “great riches in spices and other rarities” offloaded from Portuguese ships in French ports, Gonneville intended to round the Cape of Good Hope and cruise the coasts of India, Southeast Asia, and Sumatra, accumulating profits as he went. He and his companions reached the cape in high spirits, but soon the ship’s pilot died of a seizure and a storm kicked up. Driven by the winds for three weeks, the crew found shelter in a handsome bay on what they believed to be the coast of terra australis. Welcomed by a local “king” named Arosca, the Frenchmen were treated like “angels from heaven.” Promising to teach Arosca’s son Essoméricq about firearms (the equivalent, remarked Gonneville, of promising “gold, silver, jewels, or the secrets of the philosopher’s stone to a Christian”) and return him in twenty months, the Frenchmen took the boy with them upon leaving.36 They limped back to France in 1505. Unable to fund a return voyage, Gonneville adopted Essoméricq, who converted to Catholicism, took the name Binot, and lived out his days in Normandy, marrying and having children of his own. Jean Paulmier was shocked to realize that he was one of Essoméricq’s great-grandsons. Energized by this revelation and, as he put it, “urged by my blood,” the monk began telling his family’s story.37

Too loudly, as it happened. In 1658 royal officials informed Paulmier and his siblings that they were subject to the droit d’aubane, a heavy tax on foreigners and their descendants living within the kingdom. Scrambling to avoid the penalty, he lodged a successful protest on the grounds that Essoméricq had been taken to France against his will. Paulmier hurriedly began work on a book designed to “awaken in France a holy ambition … to seize the glory of the apostleship of this Third World.”38 Beating Islamic Arabs and Protestant heretics to terra australis would, by his lights, conquer “for Jesus Christ not a city, a State, or an Empire, but … a great Continent, a part of the Universe.”39 After rehearsing the standard descriptions of terra australis’s size and wealth, Paulmier pled, as one of Essoméricq’s “posterity,” for the goodwill of the “most Christian Gauls” toward his “southern” kin.40

Published in 1663, Paulmier’s book was no best seller. But plenty of important people read it, including Louis XIV’s chief minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and Vincent de Paul, François Pallu, and Pierre Lambert de la Motte, three clerics who in different ways proved instrumental in founding Paris’s Seminary of Foreign Missions in 1663. For these men, Paulmier’s clear demonstration that terra australis did indeed exist, and that France alone held its right of discovery, set an important precedent. As de Brosses put it in 1756, Gonneville’s feat “easily assures the French nation of the honor of the first discovery of southern lands, 16 years before Magellan’s departure.”41

France’s push to the south proceeded in fits and starts. In 1714, the Compagnie des Indes floated the idea of a “trading settlement” on what is now South Georgia Island, touting its “good climate” and location near the Straits of Magellan, which opened onto the markets of Peru and China.42 Nothing came of the plan, partially because Jean-Baptiste-Charles Bouvet de Lozier, a rising star within the company, worked to turn French attention away from Cape Horn and back toward the Cape of Good Hope, where Gonneville’s adventure had begun. After poring over Paulmier’s mémoire and the transcriptions of Gonneville’s own account, Bouvet sailed from France in the summer of 1738, diving into the cartographic blind spot midway between the southern coasts of South America and Africa. He aimed to sail east in long zigzags until he hit land. Expecting to find a continent on which to “plant the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” Bouvet instead entered the soupy fog of the Antarctic Convergence in November and remained there for several weeks, dodging cathedral-sized icebergs and reassuring his unraveling crew. Finally, on January 1, 1739, he discovered a glacial, mountainous spot of land he christened “Circumcision Cape” before it receded into a dangerous mix of mist and grinding sea ice.43 In the wake of Bouvet’s discovery (not a cape at all, but the island of Bouvetøya), doubts emerged. Helpfully, one official offered up the theory that in 1503 Gonneville had landed not on terra australis but in “the province of Maryland, north of Virginia.”44

Although Bouvet’s voyage had proven disheartening, and although Dutch ships in the Indian and Pacific Oceans continued to pare down the dimensions of terra australis during the eighteenth century, French hopes proved particularly resilient. Even the fog that so vexed Bouvet, and which we now know to be generated by the unseen collision of powerful north- and south-going currents, became good news. The thick “vapors … that hampered Bouvet’s navigation,” explained de Brosses, could only have been produced by the rapid melting of vast amounts of ice at the onset of the southern summer. And since seawater could not freeze (or so scientists then believed), the ice had necessarily emerged from “lands rising from the sea up to lofty mountains, from which flow great rivers that freeze during the long winters of this climate.” The quantity of fog and mass of Antarctic icebergs admitted only one conclusion: what Bouvet had seen was no “little country.”45

Advances in geodesy suggested the same. Since the time of Aristotle, the concept of balance had guided geographical theorizing about terra australis. It made sense that there should be an area of land in the Southern Hemisphere equal to that in the Northern. The British circumnavigator Woodes Rogers believed it “agreeable to Reason, that there must be a Body of Land about the South Pole, to counterpoise those vast Countries about the North Pole.”46 Revelations about the earth’s shape confirmed this suspicion. Since 1718, when the astronomer Jacques Cassini presented the results of research conducted in the Parisian basin and Brittany, most European scientists held that the earth was in fact an elongated sphere, stretching at the poles and flattening out at the equator. To answer the question once and for all, the Academy of Sciences in Paris sent out two expeditions to measure the length on the ground of one degree of arc. Louis Godin and Charles-Marie de la Condamine headed for the interior of Peru in 1735, while Pierre-Louis-Moreau de Maupertuis trekked through Lapland in 1736. Maupertuis’s arctic arcs measured half a mile longer than an arc measured in France, and longer still than Godin and Condamine’s near the equator. The earth flattened out at the poles and bulged in the middle.47

Plugged into the Newtonian physics of rotating bodies, these new data produced a compelling case for terra australis. Alexander Dalrymple, royal hydrographer of Great Britain during the 1760s and 1770s, explained the theory in layman’s terms:



A vivid depiction of France’s hopes for a vast, exploitable terra australis incognita. Jean-Baptiste Nolin, Le globe terrestre (1714). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


To demonstrate the inhabitability of the southern continent, Nolin locates the antipodes of Madrid, Paris, Vienna, Rome, and Constantinople. Detail of Jean-Baptiste Nolin, Le globe terrestre (1714).

If we then suppose the earth, in its original state, to be a ball covered every where with water, when it was first set in motion, the violent concussion it endured before it attained the spheroidal figure natural to that degree of motion, would throw up the land in irregular bars, and carry the water towards the equatorial parts. This hypothesis, so natural, is entirely warranted by what is known of the globe; for we find within the tropicks the proportion of water to land is as two to one, as far as hitherto discovered, the land increases in a certain ratio towards the pole. … From thence arises a very strong argument for a continent on the S.48

De Brosses found Condamine and Maupertuis’s evidence compelling. The nature of the earth itself virtually guaranteed “some immense continent of solid earth to the south of Asia, capable of holding the globe in equilibrium in its rotation and serving as a counterweight to the mass of northern Asia.”49

At midcentury, the case for terra australis appeared rock solid. Combining the knowledge of ancient philosophers with the observations of modern scientists, de Brosses and Dalrymple had built up methodical, sensible arguments for the continent’s existence. Less rational but equally exciting were European conjectures about native Australians. Expressing a common opinion, Dalrymple declared that the fifty million inhabitants of terra australis were doubtless “white people, of our stature … and cloathed with very fine cloths.”50 Such numerous and “highly polished” peoples were not to be trifled with, lest they enrich another European kingdom.51

During the darkest days of the 1760s, France’s wartime collapse, coupled with the disloyalty of Louis XV’s Caribbean subjects and their slaves, made the mysteries and possibilities of terra australis look promising. Rather than leave imperialism far behind, many post–Seven Years’ War Frenchmen laid plans for its extension into the unknown. Among them were two brothers, Jean-Pierre and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, former students of the renowned mathematician Jean le Ronde d’Alembert and the king’s own cartographers. Their academic training had taught them everything about the scientific basis for the reality of terra australis. But as they saw it, what mattered most was not finding the place but determining how to organize its intercultural relationships. To that question, history provided an answer. Indeed, lessons from the depths of the European past guided the Bougainville brothers toward a truly new imperial age in which France’s benevolent power would wash across the globe. In every age, however, ends demanded human means—a truth that drove these French reformers to seek out the Acadians.

Even when consigned to Guiana and Saint-Domingue, Acadians were hardly slaves. But they were not free either. To be sure, uncaring, uncontrollable, and impersonal forces structured the lives of early modern people everywhere. Markets rose and fell, wars began and ended, and faraway subjects felt the consequences. Unmoored from safeguards such as land, long-standing commercial relationships, and family, Acadians suffered from an acute version of this phenomenon. Obscure, seemingly unrelated factors—the economics of physiocracy and the threat of slave revolt in the tropics, for example—proved more than capable of uprooting the exiles from whatever landing places they managed to find. Although it displaced fewer people than France’s attempts to settle white laborers in the Caribbean, there is no more revealing illustration of this process than the quest, spearheaded by the Bougainville brothers, to reach terra australis incognita. The origins of their obsession with the southern continent, then, make for a story worth telling. For the Bougainvilles’ road to terra australis demonstrates not only the frantic creativity of French imperialism but also the deep powerlessness that would, in time, inspire equally frantic creativity among the Acadians.


Terra australis at midcentury. Philippe Buache, Carte des terres australes (1757). Courtesy of the Princeton University Library.

Although the southern seas were on the old régime’s mind in a general sense, the events that led the Acadians to the Falkland Islands began, bizarrely enough, with a two-man row over theology. Sometime in the 1690s, the cardinal de Polignac, a thinker, statesman, and cleric attached to the court of Louis XIV, made his way to Rotterdam. Once there, he sought out Pierre Bayle, the famous Protestant skeptic. Upon finding him, Polignac asked a simple question: “To which of the sects … in Holland was he particularly attached?” Bayle responded by reciting “some verses of Lucretius,” the ancient Roman champion of Epicureanism. Pressed again, Bayle barked out a second passage of Lucretius, this one “longer and more energetic than the first.” Polignac left unsatisfied. Upon his return to France, he read more of Lucretius’s writings and felt nauseated. “The refutation of his system,” Polignac concluded, “would be of use to religion.”52 He thus devoted the next fifty years of his life to a poem, a twelve-thousand-line war engine of words composed in Latin hexameter, whose purpose was to grind Lucretius, Bayle, and their philosophy into dust.

L’Anti-Lucrèce attacked on two fronts. First, Polignac laid out the “fundamental principles of religion” in contrast to what he deemed Bayle’s “atheism.” More subtly, the poem defended the Cartesian distinction between the worlds of mind and matter against Epicurean atomism, which admitted “no distinction, as to the essence, between the soul and the body.”53 Polignac wrote during carriage rides and lulls in conversation, slipping bits of the swelling manuscript to Newton, Pope Clement II, and Voltaire. The author delayed publication for years, struggling to keep up with new philosophies.54 In 1741, time ran out. On his deathbed, Polignac gave L’Anti-Lucrèce to Charles d’Orléans-Rothelin, abbé de Cormeilles, a fellow member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, the old régime’s great literary think tank. Eager to find a translator to render Polignac’s flowery Latin into French, Rothelin squired the manuscript throughout Paris, finally settling on Jean-Pierre de Bougainville, a young man possessing classical erudition and a debilitating case of asthma.

Born in 1722, Jean-Pierre had been raised by his father, a notary, and, after the death of his mother in 1734, his aunt. The family enjoyed connections at Versailles thanks to Jean-Pierre’s maternal uncle, Jean Potentien d’Arboulin (the royal mistress Madame de Pompadour referred to d’Arboulin, whose position as postmaster allowed him to intercept her rivals’ mail, as “Bou-bou”).55 As Jean-Pierre began to plow through Polignac’s poem in 1742, he did so with d’Arboulin’s blessing and the help of Rothelin’s circle of friends. Like intellectuals across Europe, these men bounced from topic to topic, holding forth on everything from politics to biology. The recent Maupertuis and Godin-Condamine expeditions, however, had triggered a craze for geography and geodesy among thesavants. Particularly taken was Rothelin’s colleague Nicolas Fréret. An obsessive student of cartography (at his death, friends would find 1,357 hand-drawn maps among his effects) and ancient history, Fréret took a keen interest in Jean-Pierre’s translation of Polignac’s poem.

In their research, the two men were fascinated by one section of Lucretius’s De rerum natura that Polignac, in his zeal to defend the faith, had never addressed. Directed at Lucretius’s patron, Memmius, it had to do with terra australis:

In this connection, Memmius, give a wide berth to the belief of those who … suppose that all heavy objects in the antipodes press upward and rest on the earth in a reversed position, like the reflections of things we observe in the water. Similarly they argue that animals roam upside down and cannot drop off the earth into the regions of the sky any more than our bodies can of their own accord shoot up into the celestial precincts; that inhabitants of the antipodes see the sun when we are looking at the stars of the night; that they share the seasons with us alternately, and that their nights correspond to our days.56

Polignac had surely read the passage but likely dismissed it as one of the Roman’s lesser mistakes. For Jean-Pierre, however, Lucretius’s wrongheaded approach to the antipodes became an obsession.

L’Anti-Lucrèce was published in 1749, by which time Jean-Pierre and Fréret had turned from poetry to the practical side of French intervention in the deep south. In 1745, Jean-Pierre submitted a prize-winning dissertation lauding ancient Greek colonization in the Mediterranean. “Sometimes,” he reminded readers, “curiosity alone removed them from their native land,” where they founded provinces with “natural alliances” to older city-states.57 The next year, he turned to the most curious Greek he knew, reading before the Académie his “Explanations of the Life and Voyages of Pytheas of Marseille.” An inhabitant of the Greek colony of Massalia (present-day Marseille, France), Pytheas had written an account in 320 BC of a voyage beyond the known world. On the Ocean, which survived only as fragments in the works of other authors, detailed a journey to the coasts of France, Britain, the Orkneys, and a frigid island the author called Ultima Thule. Critics including the Roman geographer Strabo and the loathsome Pierre Bayle himself derided Pytheas as a liar. Jean-Pierre, however, believed, as most modern scholars do, that the Greek seafarer had in fact discovered the British Isles, perhaps traveling as far north as the Shetlands.58

More important than Pytheas’s route, however, were the lessons he could teach the old régime and its adventurers. Where others cast Pytheas as a rogue, Jean-Pierre styled him a commercial envoy of the Massalian republic, a forward-looking polity eager to “found a number of colonies … less in view of pushing its borders outward than extending and protecting its trade.” These goals could best be accomplished by “the discovery of lands whose goods commanded the markets of one’s trading partners.”59 Pytheas, Jean-Pierre insisted, had done just that. Bouncing from estuary to estuary and eventually into the open ocean, the Massalian located rich sources of tin, an important component of bronze, and amber, valued across the Mediterranean as jewelry.60 “Love of country,” Jean-Pierre concluded, had spurred Pytheas on far enough to come tantalizingly close to what would have been the greatest discovery in ancient history. Tacking to the northwest, he was stopped short of Iceland, Greenland, and the Americas by what he mysteriously described as “marine lung,” a Dantean elemental union in which sea ice and freezing fog met at the horizon and enveloped the ship in one undulating, suff ocating mass.61 As all of Paris would have known, Pytheas’s about-face was a perfect analog to the frigid endgame of Bouvet’s southern voyage only years before. Breaking through such climatic barriers, Jean-Pierre argued, would have done both Massalia and France a world of good.

Who was up to the challenge? Although Bouvet would go on to the governorship of Ile-de-France in the Indian Ocean during the 1750s and 1760s, he concluded that the coasts of terra australis were too close to the pole to serve any useful function. Neither he nor anyone else from the Compagnie des Indes sailed into the southern seas again.62 For his part, the Lapland explorer Maupertuis had long expressed enthusiasm for a frigid terra australis. “Savage, furry men with tails, a species midway between monkeys and us,” would live there, he predicted in 1752, exclaiming that he “would prefer one hour of conversation with them than with the greatest mind of Europe.” But he had helped found the Berlin Academy of Sciences and Belles-Lettres in the 1740s and was now consumed by obscure disputes in theoretical mathematics; he was also getting old, and age had not improved his bad seamanship.63 Jean-Pierre surely wanted to go. His asthma, however, prevented him from attending lectures at the Parisian academies, much less voyaging to the Southern Hemisphere. Still, with Britain’s trade expanding and its arms dominating the War of the Austrian Succession, time was short. Seeing no Frenchmen with the right stuff for so crucial a mission, Jean-Pierre resolved to create one himself.

In search of a model, he pushed deeper into the classical past to a figure whose exploits had inspired Pytheas himself. As Jean-Pierre would report to a September 7, 1754, session at the Académie des Inscriptions, an “admiral” named Hanno had sailed from the North African city of Carthage around 570 BC with “sixty ships, which carried a multitude of passengers.”64 Armed with maritime knowledge (including, Jean-Pierre believed, descriptions of the Cape of Good Hope) passed down from his Phoenician ancestors, Hanno intended to “pass beyond the straits [of Gibraltar], and seize the west coast of Africa, by scattering a series of colonies to serve as trading posts.”65 He did so, planting settlements while bartering with nomads in present-day Morocco, gawking at a volcanic eruption along the Ivory Coast, and hunting down the strange creatures his men called “gorillas.”66 After thirty-eight days of sailing, Hanno’s fleet turned back toward Carthage, where they were received as heroes; the admiral placed the skins of the female “gorillas” his men had killed in the temple of Juno and his own account of the expedition, known as a periplus, in the temple of Saturn.67

Hanno’s colonies helped fuel an economic boom. In 340 BCE, the Greek historian Pseudo-Scylax reported a vibrant trade between “Ethiopians” and Carthaginians on the African coast. Hanno’s descendants “brought earthen vases, tiles, Egyptian perfumes, and some jewels of little value for the women,” receiving in return ivory, lion and panther skins, and leather “for armor and shields.”68 Wealth flooded the metropolis, yielding “fields thick with plowmen, prairies covered with flocks,… superb houses surrounded by avenues,” and an “infinite number of workshops.”69 Unfortunately, the Roman destruction of Hanno’s Carthage had, Jean-Pierre believed, deprived the world of “an infinite number of facts.”70 While their enemies focused on war or philosophical gamesmanship, the Carthaginians had discovered the proper balance of agricultural development, trade, and politics. “Rich but frugal, they were cultivators because they were statesmen and merchants,” Jean-Pierre wrote, pushing back against the farming-obsessed physiocrats.71This Gordian knot had been retied long ago; academics and prime ministers had worked their hands and minds sore in the interim, but none had cut quite so well as Hanno.

Could Carthaginian history be repeated in eighteenth-century France? Jean-Pierre thought so, but only if the French reached for lands as new as the African coast, with its nomads, “gorillas,” and “Ethiopians,” had been to Hanno.72 While such activities were best undertaken by “sovereigns, or companies formed under their auspices,” men had to execute them. That challenge, wrote Jean Pierre,

demanded a man who was at once pilot, merchant, soldier, general and legislator; a wise adventurer … with a sure eye to distinguish between the difficult and the impossible, he must have a mind clear enough to prefer the solid to the dazzling, remembering, while loving glory, that glory was neither the sole, nor even the principal object of his enterprise.73

To the relief of a man whose lungs seemed in perpetual revolt, Jean-Pierre’s search for a French equivalent began and ended close to home.

Like other boys of his social rank, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville learned Latin, Greek, and ancient history at the Collège de Beauvais in Paris during the 1740s. Seven years older than Louis-Antoine and far more accomplished than their father, Jean-Pierre started using his growing list of connections to shape his younger brother’s upbringing. He convinced the mathematician Alexis Clairaut, a veteran of Maupertuis’s 1736 Lapland expedition, to tutor Louis-Antoine in calculus; the philosophe d’Alembert, a few years removed from fame as an editor of the Encyclopédie, pitched in as well, helping shape the boy into a mathematical prodigy. In the mid-1740s, when Louis-Antoine was still a teenager, the two brothers used breaks in study to pore over the papers and maps of the deceased Nicolas Fréret, including material from Bouvet’s abortive 1739 voyage to terra australis.74 Calculus had awakened Louis-Antoine’s faculties; geography focused them, as he would later write, on sailing the “French flag … to the extremities of a new world.”75

For all his mind’s ambition, Jean-Pierre’s steadily weakening body could not lead Louis-Antoine everywhere. So, at twenty-one, Louis-Antoine joined the mousquetaires noirs, the personal army of the French king and a launching pad for ambitious men of the minor gentry. Even after his departure for France’s northeastern frontier, he continued to study mathematics, publishing his Traité de calcul intégrale, which would later earn him membership in the British Royal Society, in 1753. After a stint in London negotiating over French and British claims to the Ohio Valley, twenty-five-year-old Louis-Antoine was appointed aide-de-camp to Louis-Joseph, marquis de Montcalm, commander of Louis XV’s armies in North America. He sailed for the Canadian theater on the Licorne in March 1756. In a letter that doubtless pleased Jean-Pierre, he wrote that the ship’s captain, “an officer of the highest distinction” named the chevalier de la Rigaudière, had “promised to teach me as much of sailing as possible during the crossing.”76 To be sure, Jean-Pierre had not orchestrated every aspect of his younger brother’s early life. Still, one can scarcely imagine a set of experiences (many of which Jean-Pierre had arranged) more conducive to molding Hanno’s heir than those of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.77

As Louis-Antoine tracked across Canada with Montcalm, hunting the British and marveling at the French-Canadian-Indian infighting that crippled the French war effort, Jean-Pierre’s classical world was never far from his mind. He loathed the marquis de Vaudreuil, New France’s American-born governor-general, complaining that he treated Frenchmen “the way the Lacedaemonians treated the Helots.” François Bigot, intendant of New France, resembled Verres, the corrupt governor of the ancient Roman colony on Sicily. Only Virgil (“Ah! Flee the cruel lands, flee the cruel shore!”) had the words to express Louis-Antoine’s shock after France’s Algonquian allies killed dozens of British prisoners at Fort William Henry in 1757.78 Less metaphorically, Louis-Antoine’s 1758 proposal to evacuate thousands of French troops from Canada to Louisiana before capitulation was culled from Xenophon. The Athenian philosopher’s account, detailing the 401 BC retreat of ten thousand Greek mercenaries from Persia through hostile Armenian and Kurdish territory, seemed to suggest how France might hold on to some part of North America: “The French are worthy to do what the Greeks did,” he wrote, “and the retreat of the ten thousand is one of the strokes that has most immortalized Greece.”79 Never so openly pro-Carthage as Jean-Pierre, Louis-Antoine scoured all of antiquity to make sense of his imperial present.

In 1760, a year after Montcalm’s defeat on the Plains of Abraham, Louis-Antoine surrendered to the British outside of Montreal. Shipped to France as a prisoner of war, he received a warm welcome at the Department of the Marine. Louis-Antoine read for the first time Charles de Brosses’s work on terra australis, published during his years in North America. De Brosses confirmed what Jean-Pierre had taught—that the southern continent did indeed exist, and that its colonization would constitute “the greatest, most noble, and perhaps most useful enterprise that a sovereign can undertake.” Such an expedition demanded “an intrepid, faithful leader, with brains to match his courage.” As if speaking directly to Louis-Antoine, de Brosses compared this leader’s impact on the natives of terra australis to that of Romulus, Sisyphus, and Cadmus on the “savages” of the ancient Mediterranean.80

Even before the French Empire was pulled apart in 1763, Louis-Antoine’s course was set. Choiseul offered him the governorship of Cayenne, but he refused, keeping his eyes on weightier matters. “Seeing that the North was closed to us, I thought of giving to my country in the Southern Hemisphere what she no longer possesses in the Northern,” he later recalled. “I searched and found the Malouine Islands,” the French name for the Falklands, given in reference to intrepid sailors from Saint-Malo, on whose ventures Louis XV’s claim rested.81 That city in Brittany was also home to more than a thousand Acadian refugees.

Louis-Antoine proposed a settlement on the Falkland Islands in November 1762. Although terra australis had always generated outsized enthusiasm, the Falklands had a bad reputation. They were a “morsel of rock … somewhere at the bottom of America,” a frigid outpost “almost at the last confines of this hemisphere,” and as useful as the “Dog Star and the Great Bear.”82 Encompassing two large islands and hundreds of smaller ones, the archipelago attracted the attention of an English captain named John Davis in 1592. In search of a passage to Cathay, Davis took shelter on the islands during a storm, but he was too scared to name them. The Englishman Sir Richard Hawkins, the Dutchman Sebald de Weert, John Strong (an opportunist who named the islands for William of Orange’s treasurer of the navy), and various French whalers followed. These probes were contested by Spain, which claimed all of South America, save Portuguese Brazil, through the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas.83 Louis-Antoine, though, ignored this legal tangle, relying on the principle that settlement alone conferred sovereignty.84 Instead of changing the color of the Falklands on some European map, he intended to change the islands themselves—by introducing their first permanent human inhabitants.

Initial plans called for Bougainville to sail east after establishing France’s claim to the Falklands, “seeking to discover lands in this location and to reach … Circumcision Cape, reconnoitered in 1739 by M. Bouvet.” If he succeeded, Louis-Antoine would plant a colony “equally advantageous to [France’s] navy, her commerce, and her glory.” If he failed, he intended to return to the Falklands for supplies, swing around Cape Horn, and “make a settlement to the north of California.” Unable to resist, Bougainville quoted Virgil again: “And another shall replace Typhis [navigator for the Greek hero Jason], and there will be another Argo to carry the chosen heroes.”85

As negotiators finalized the Treaty of Paris late in 1762, Louis-Antoine knew that time was of the essence. The British had their sights set on the Falkland Islands as well. Their interest had been common knowledge for well over a decade—since 1748, when the clumsily titled A Voyage Round the World in the Years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV had become an international best seller. The book related the adventures of George Anson and his crew as they circumnavigated the globe. There were plenty of adventures to write about, including shipwrecks, encounters with exotic Pacific islanders, and, most of all, the capture of the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga as it sailed between Acapulco and Guam. In all, the Spanish galley contained 1,313,843 pieces of eight and thirty thousand ounces of silver.86 Along with the quarter of his men who had survived the journey, Anson hauled his treasure on a triumphal parade through London in 1744. Medals were struck, celebratory poems were composed, and Anson became a very rich national hero. The numerous editions and translations of Voyage Round the World also gained Anson fame across Europe.

Britain’s designs on the Falklands were right there in the book’s pages. Anson had passed the islands by without stopping in 1741. The rest of his journey, however, showed him their “great consequence to this Nation.” From “Falkland’s Isles,” ships could reach the western coast of Chile in just over a month, opening “facilities of passing into the Pacifick Ocean.” Such ease of movement off the heart of Spain’s Empire could “in time of war … make us masters of those seas.” Better still, the Falklands offered the key to New Spain itself. When conquistadors first began hauling gold out of the Aztec and Inca empires, Anson reasoned, Indians in Chile had caught on and concealed the best mines. If the British, from an outpost on the Falklands, made contact with the native Chileans, they would trade for arms, “for then their gold, instead of proving the means of enslaving them, would procure them weapons to assert their liberty.” Britain would then receive “that wealth, which … has been most mischievously lavished in the pursuit of universal Monarchy.”87 Anson’s readers, then, knew precisely what the British were likely to do, once they got the chance. As early as 1750, Louis XV’s colonial minister remarked to France’s ambassador to Spain that British plans had been “well known for a long time; but especially since the publication of Anson’s voyage.”88

Louis-Antoine, then, was in a race. He proposed a flotilla reminiscent of Hanno’s expedition down the African coast. He hoped for 450 sailors and 250 soldiers, 60 “workers of diverse professions,” and 20 or 30 women who might “unite, by marriage, with some men in these budding colonies,” both on the Falklands and on terra australis. The crown was willing, but its funds were lacking. Weighed down with postwar debt (and with so much dedicated to the new colony on the Kourou River), Choiseul could supply only two ships and some artillery. He did, however, hint that the crown would support a private company’s efforts in the South Atlantic. Scrambling, Louis-Antoine and Jean-Pierre (whose asthma had worsened dramatically) started building one early in 1763. Louis-Antoine contacted his rich uncle d’Arboulin and his equally rich cousin Michel-François Nerville de Bougainville. Together, they cobbled together 200,000 livres to create the Compagnie des Malouïnes, dedicating the money to provisions and improvements to the ships. Reluctantly, Louis-Antoine determined that the search for terra australis would have to wait until a second voyage. But as always, he retained the drive to “seek out southern lands, which [we] hope to discover about 3 or 400 miles from the Falkland Islands.”89

In the spring of 1763, Louis-Antoine went to Saint-Malo to oversee the outfitting of his ships, named Aigle and, in a nod to the mission’s secretive nature, Sphinx. He focused on picking skilled sailors for the voyage and tight-lipped carpenters (lest British spies catch on) for the docks. He also reacquainted himself with the Acadians. From his days in New France, Louis-Antoine knew of their endurance. In 1757, after hearing rumors of starvation and disease among Acadian refugees in the wilderness west of Nova Scotia and on Ile Saint-Jean, he saw it firsthand. Two groups totaling three hundred arrived in Québec, one by boat from Miramichi, the other driven “out of the woods” west of Nova Scotia by hunger.90 If, as de Brosses suggested, colonies in the South Atlantic were to “cultivate the natural productions of the land,” who better to deal with tricky soils and uncertain harvests than those who had already proved their physical resilience and their “strong and faithful attachment” to France?91 In any case, Louis-Antoine believed that the raw weather of the Falklands might actually be a draw for the Acadians. Unlike recruiters for the Kourou colony (who were, at that very moment, twisting Acadian arms in Saint-Malo), he could tout a climate “more or less the same as that of Acadia, their old home.”92

That white lie notwithstanding, Louis-Antoine gathered up some recruits. Among them were Augustin Benoit, a twenty-three-year-old Acadian baker, his wife, Françoise Thériot, and their two-year-old son, Nicolas-Jean-Sébastien. Françoise’s unmarried sister Geneviève, then fifteen, also signed on, as did eighteen-year-old Joseph Taillebot, a sailor from Ile Saint-Jean. Guillaume Mervin and his wife, Anne Bourneuf, onetime French inhabitants of Louisbourg, brought along their two little children and Anne’s two sisters, twenty-year-old Jeanne and sixteen-year-old Sophie. In addition to another family consisting of a man known only as Boucher, his wife, brother, two sisters-in-law, and two children, there were likely a few unnamed Acadians who signed on as well.93 A motley crew, to be sure, but one that Louis-Antoine expected to build on, convinced as he was that Acadians “who had made the journey [would] convince their compatriots to settle in the South.”94

In September 1763, they all boarded the Aigle and the Sphinx. Louis-Antoine did so grieving, for Jean-Pierre’s lungs had finally given out in June, only weeks before the beginning of an adventure shaped, in the most profound way, by the elder Bougainville’s lifelong wrestling match with antiquity. At one minute past midnight on the ninth, the two ships weighed anchor in Saint-Malo’s harbor. Contrary winds and rough seas delayed their departure for several days—long enough for Louis-Antoine to deposit one Acadian colonist, along with his “ill-tempered wife” and luckless father, on shore at nearby Saint-Cast, punishment for the young man’s refusal to help as the crew struggled to haul down the Aigle’s topmasts during a squall.95

For the remaining settlers, the next months passed in a blur of shipboard routine broken only by the crew’s antics and dramatic shifts in the weather. In October, Louis-Antoine ran across a British merchant vessel off the coast of North Africa. In a breach of maritime etiquette made grave by the threat of Barbary pirates, the British captain failed to hoist his kingdom’s flag promptly. Pulling close enough to see his face, a bilingual French mariner aboard the Aigle barked out his hope, “seasoned … with the energetic terms of sailors,” that the ship might soon “sink to the bottom.”96 By November, hard rains (strong enough to force the Aigle’s pilot to cover his hammock “four or five times a day”) alternated with “stifling heat” that made sleep impossible belowdecks.97

Crossing the equator, Louis-Antoine and the Acadians endured an initiation by “Bonnehomme de la Ligne,” a sailor turned gaudily dressed demigod who welcomed newcomers to the South Seas with a mock baptism. After a riotous round of hazing directed at the ship’s officers, Bonnehomme turned to two of the unmarried Acadian girls. He asked if they were virgins; over the shrieks of Augustin Benoit’s terrified little son, they said yes. Bonnehomme then marked their faces with mysterious black powder and poured water on their heads, eliciting promises not to “break the bonds of conjugal faith, if you marry a sailor.”98 By December, the convoy reached the island of Santa Catarina, off southern Brazil. Portuguese officials welcomed Louis-Antoine with “much politeness” and a gift of ten sides of beef. While the Acadian women did the officers’ laundry on shore, three men deserted.99 A free African healer cured Augustin Benoit of stomach pains and his sister-in-law Geneviève of swollen ankles using little more than herbs and guava seeds.100 As the group moved south into the antipodal autumn, low skies and high seas came but rarely went.

The journey ended on February 17, 1764. Louis-Antoine and his crew offloaded passengers, supplies, and animals at Port Saint-Louis on East Falkland, not far from present-day Stanley. The colonists set to work at the base of a moss-covered hill, building a barracks, some huts for the families, and the rudiments of an earthen fort capable of holding fourteen cannon. Between jobs, they took the measure of their home. Privately, Louis-Antoine had no illusions. East Falkland was, he wrote, “a country lifeless for want of inhabitants; neither pasture-lands nor forests for the encouragement of those who are destined to become the first colonists.”101 There were no “traces of any inhabitants,” and there was no wood.102 The ground, as a visiting priest put it a few years later, was “so low and boggy, that after a shower of rain it is impossible to stir out, without sinking up to the knees in mire.”103 In search of something to burn, sailors hacked several blocks of peat out of the earth—otherworldly versions of the marsh grass gazons the Acadians had used to construct their aboiteaux back in Nova Scotia. After getting used to their monstrous appearance, some of the Acadian girls took a liking to sea lions, tossing rocks into their mouths “which they swallowed as we would a strawberry.”104More pragmatically, one Acadian killed and skinned three of the giants, leaving the blubbery carcasses facedown in the mire after checking for meat and oil. Port Saint-Louis was certainly alien. But in some ways it was familiar enough.

On April 5, Louis-Antoine dedicated an obelisk in the heart of Port Saint-Louis, burying at its base a medallion featuring two inscriptions, both in Latin. On one side, it read Conamur tenues grandia: “Small though we are, we undertake great things.” On the other, from the Georgics of Virgil, it read Tibi serviat ultima Thule: “May distant Thule be subject unto you.”105 And then, promising to return in a few months, Louis-Antoine went home.

Versed in the Antarctic horrors of the Shackleford expedition and by now acquainted with the Acadians’ luck, modern readers might reasonably expect a story of failure, if not cannibalism. But when Louis-Antoine sailed back into Port Saint-Louis on January 5, 1765, he found Nerville, the soldiers, and the Acadian colonists in fine shape. Only one of the original thirty inhabitants, a nameless Frenchman who fell in a hole while hunting, had died over the winter. Nerville guessed that the others had killed, eaten, or salted more than fifteen hundred bustards, a turkey-like, protein-rich bird. “You would have found us big and plump,” Nerville wrote to a friend in France.106 The Benoit family had welcomed another son (the first of their three children born in Port Saint-Louis), while three other women had turned up pregnant, forcing an amused Louis-Antoine to perform some hasty marriages. “The country is good for reproduction,” he concluded.107


Acadians in the southernmost European settlement on earth. A View of Fort Saint Louis at Accaron Bay (1766). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Even farming had gone surprisingly well. “Our agriculture gives every hope of success,” noted Nerville, understandably proud of the little patches of grain and peas that adorned the settlement’s outskirts.108 Louis-Antoine’s satisfaction was shared by the Acadians who came with him in 1765, a group that included Jean-Jacques Cyr and Marie-Josèphe Hébert, eight of their children (two of whom were themselves married), and four grandchildren, along with single Acadian men such as Paul Babin, François Henry, and Félix Breau.109

These Acadians had allowed Louis-Antoine to put forward ambitious plans for the Falklands while in France between voyages. He counted 333 Acadian families in Saint-Malo, totaling more than thirteen hundred people. Although neither he nor the crown could cobble together the funds to ship them all off, he remained convinced that a “considerable part” of the port’s refugees would eventually make the Falklands “the key to the South Seas.”110 In fact, their presence was downright necessary. Far removed from any other French possession, with only the Spanish at Montevideo and the natives of Tierra del Fuego within hailing distance, Port Saint-Louis had to be self-sustaining. Moreover, Louis-Antoine’s vision of the Falklands as a whaling, fishing, and sea-lion-hunting hub (and, of course, as a launching pad for missions to terra australis) required a source of provisions. For that reason, Louis-Antoine “consecrated” his return trip to Port Saint-Louis to “different experiments on agriculture and the natural produce of the new colony.”111

The Acadians succeeded admirably. “Everyone was happy,” explained a naval commissioner in Saint-Malo. “The work had been considerable, but with [the colonists] well paid, well clothed, well housed, received with kindness and humanity when sick, treated mildly but firmly, everything went perfectly well.”112 Administrative exuberance, perhaps, but arrival of Acadian children in quick succession suggests that the settlers may have shared it. Three were born to Geneviève Thériot and Frenchman Guillaume Guichard, three to Anne Cyr and Georges Charpentier from Ile Saint-Jean, and three to Marie Cyr and Joseph Granger, all within a few years. Compared to what some of their former neighbors were enduring on the Kourou River, these Acadians had found a good, safe place.

But on January 12, 1765, just days after Bougainville’s second landfall at Port Saint-Louis, Captain John Byron, the grandfather of the romantic poet of the same name, guided the Dolphin and the Tamar into a harbor on West Falkland, seventy miles from the French settlement. A few months later, an officer stationed at the British settlement of Port Egmont found a discarded bottle indicating that “some other Frenchmen had lately been here.”113

Word of the dueling colonies reached Europe in 1766. By then Louis-Antoine had returned to France, but soon Nerville welcomed Captain John MacBride to Port Saint-Louis. Straightforwardly enough, MacBride stated the British intention to “sustain their rights … to the Falkland Islands, discovered by that nation during the reign of Elizabeth.”114 Just as Anson had suggested, they hoped to use the islands to speed British ships toward the Pacific, dominating “the Ports & Trade of Chile, Peru, Panama, Acapulco, and in a word all the Spanish Territory upon that sea.”115 Louis-Antoine pressed Choiseul’s ministry to push back. Port Saint-Louis, he explained, was an economic and military boon in the making. More important, the colony would spur “our search into the rest of the unknown Universe; the lands of the Antarctic pole … an immense continent which reaches above the equator between the [East] Indies and Peru.”116

Politics, however, won out. Unwilling to risk a diplomatic rupture but loath to lose to the British once again, Choiseul surrendered France’s right to the islands to the Spanish, who had claimed them all along. Bearing a letter to that effect from Louis XV himself, Louis-Antoine sailed for the islands aboard the Boudeuse, reaching Port Saint-Louis in March 1767, but only after making a stop in Buenos Aires to pick up two Spanish ships, one of which carried the settlement’s new governor. Clutching the royal edict, Louis-Antoine and Nerville assembled the soldiers and Acadian families outside the governor’s house. The cousins said that in the interest of maintaining “friendship” with the Spanish (and, it needed no saying, harming British interests), the king had given up the Falkland Islands. Everyone now had a choice. Louis XV gave his “royal word” that those who wished to stay in Spanish territory could, at any time, return to France and enjoy “the rights and privileges of my other subjects.”117 Alternatively, they could leave as soon as ships arrived to carry them off.

Most began packing. In September 1767, Nerville sailed for France with “the greater part of the French families.”118 Augustin Benoit, Françoise Thériot, and their children made the return voyage alongside Françoise’s sister Geneviève, Geneviève’s husband, Guillaume Guichard (now going by his strapping carpenter’s nickname, “Thousand Men”), and Geneviève and Guillaume’s daughter and son. Madeleine Henry, the Beaubassin-born wife of Frenchman Michel Beaumont, abandoned the Falklands as well.119

The Spanish were not impressed with Port Saint-Louis. “The state of the houses we now possess in this Versailles,” sneered one officer, “leaves us cut off and damned in every way, for this island has nothing and produces nothing.”120 To believe one of the Franciscan friars sent to Port Saint-Louis in 1767, the Spanish governor grew misty-eyed watching ships leave the harbor, declaring himself willing to give up his office to return to Buenos Aires “though in no higher station than a cabin boy.”121 The few colonists who remained (38, compared to 125 who departed) had done so, one Spaniard declared, because “they had no reason to go anywhere else.”122 In any case, with the growing Cyr clan as their anchors, these veterans of Louis-Antoine’s colony hung on until 1772, when they seem to have returned to France.

After leaving Port Saint-Louis and the Acadians behind, Louis-Antoine completed one of the most celebrated circumnavigations of the eighteenth century. Aboard the Boudeuse and trailed by the Étoile, he rounded Cape Horn and sped into the Pacific in 1766. Each morning, on Louis-Antoine’s orders, the Étoile veered south until its pilot could barely keep the Boudeuse in sight; and each night, the two ships converged again, having failed to discover the shores of terra australis incognita.

The expedition did, of course, make landfall on Tahiti, the New Hebrides, and the Solomon Islands. Louis-Antoine’s account of these places and their inhabitants reflected his classical instruction at Jean-Pierre’s feet. Positioned on the Boudeuse’s quarterdeck, the Tahitian who “carelessly” dropped her covering cloth in full view of the sailors “appeared to the eyes of all beholders, such as Venus shewed herself to the Phrygian shepherd.” The Polynesian tattoos that so baffled the crew made perfect sense to Louis-Antoine, as “when Caesar made his first descent upon England, he found this fashion established there,” marking the practice as common among cultures that “bordered upon a state of nature.” Louis-Antoine was sheepish about his comparisons, considering them ungainly: “I have lost a brother, whose productions were admired by the public, and who might have assisted me in that respect.”123

Returning home by way of New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, and Ile-de-France, Louis-Antoine reached Saint-Malo in March 1769, throwing the harbor into a commotion before rushing off to Versailles. What Augustin Benoit, Geneviève Thériot, Madeleine Henry, and the other Acadian veterans of Port Saint-Louis living near the Breton port thought of all this is unknown. They might have felt a measure of pride. After all, in 1764 their combination of industriousness and homelessness had helped make Port Saint-Louis a reality, and their strange settlement had laid the groundwork for Louis-Antoine’s glorious, if not fully successful, voyage of discovery.

But as Louis-Antoine eased into the life of a celebrity of the old régime, publishing his Voyage autour du monde in 1772 and making plans for an ambitious polar expedition, the Acadians came to painful conclusions about their place in the order of things. Much of their disappointment had practical roots. Surviving the streets of Saint-Malo turned out to be more difficult than hunting bustards on East Falkland. In July 1769, only months after Louis-Antoine’s homecoming, Madeleine Henry and her three children lived in “the greatest indigence.” They begged officials to “procure our subsistence.”124 Augustin Benoit and several others claimed that Nerville owed them money, but reported in 1772 that he had stopped responding to their letters. As they proclaimed to ministers at Versailles, the Acadians had known much “toil and misery” in the Falklands, and would “forever remember Montevideo, Encenada de Baragon [a minor Argentine port], and Buenos Aires,” stopovers on the voyage to and from the South Seas. Benoit and company pressed their case against Nerville but understood the odds against them. “We are poor and he is rich,” they confessed. “He is powerful and we are nothing.”125

They only knew the half of it. For Nerville, Louis-Antoine, Jean-Pierre, Charles de Brosses, and the other boosters of Port Saint-Louis were not simply powerful. They were the fruition of an imperial vision whose gnarled intellectual roots stretched far back into history: past the eighteenth-century physics of the bulging equator and hemispheric balance; past early modern explorers barreling toward the Antarctic convergence; past the southern monsters of medieval map-makers; past the terra australis–denying Epicureanism of Lucretius, recovered and attacked by the cardinal de Polignac; past the African voyage of Hanno of Carthage and the northern advance of Pytheas the Massalian; all the way to Aristotle, who first opened the European mind to the world below. After 1763, terra australis incognita enjoyed its greatest burst of notoriety, and not just from the desperate French. In 1770, Alexander Dalrymple advocated the discovery of southern lands as a means of heading off the imperial crisis in British North America. With “new markets” of fifty million consumers to “take off our manufactures,” the American colonies “would be unable to compel this country to a precipitate concession.”126

But as Louis-Antoine had begun to suspect, everyone had been wrong about terra australis. In hindsight, it was easy to see the folly of becoming, as Samuel Johnson put it, “encroachers on the waste of nature.”127 Yet even this most outlandish of empire-building schemes had at once ensnared Acadians and been energized by their potential. As faithful, hardy tillers of what seemed to be uncooperative soils, they were, as Louis-Antoine had exclaimed, “the kind of men most proper to found a flourishing colony.”128And that, ironically, made them “nothing.”

Still, Acadians helped inspire big ideas until the very end. In 1772, a Breton nobleman returned to France to report on an exciting voyage. Bearing south from Ile de France, Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec claimed to have sighted “the central mass of the Antarctic continent.” He thought it was a promising place. The soil there yielded “all the vegetable productions of the metropolis.” Whales, sea lions, and fish swarmed thick in its coastal waters, and one could even find dyes, copper, lead, crystals, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and other treasures in mountainside mines. “New men,” Kerguelen speculated, might live there. “All that our eyes have seen is crisscrossed by woods and greenery,” Kerguelen lied about his island, “which seems to announce a peopled land, cultivated with forethought.”129

He envisioned the new settlement as a breadbasket for Ile de France and other French outposts in the Indian Ocean, supplying grain to a colony where none grew. The produce of terra australis, he predicted, would “give new life to Ile de France and Ile de Bourbon, tripling their annual commerce by sea.” With patience, bigger things might follow. From a perch “overlook[ing] India, the Moluccas, and China,” southern lands might allow the Bourbons to “command Asia and America,” shaking off the yoke of British oppression. To populate the islands, Kerguelen hoped to recruit “a few families chosen from among the poor Acadians, who today live in several parts of France in the most frightful poverty.”130

Kerguelen had discovered not Antarctica but Ile Kerguelen, a cold, Corsica-sized rock well over three thousand miles southeast of the southern tip of Africa. The island’s continuing status as a territoire d’outre-mer, or overseas territory, marks it as the only remnant of France’s eighteenth-century assault on terra australis incognita. No Acadian ever settled there, and with the completion of James Cook’s 1775 circumnavigation, the unknown southern continent finally retreated south of the Antarctic convergence. The notion of using Acadian labor to create an agrarian paradise on remote islands, however, died hard. The French simply shifted their ambitions, and the Acadians’ destinations, closer to home.


The Acadian colony that wasn’t: Ile Kerguelen, two thousand miles southeast of the Cape of Good Hope. George Cooke, A View of Christmas Harbour in Kerguelen’s Land (1811). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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