- Marc-Antoine Caillot and the Company of the Indies in Louisiana: Trade in the French Atlantic World by Erin M. Greenwald
Since the early 1990s, and the publication of Hall’s and Usner’s pioneering books on colonial Louisiana, the French colony has attracted the attention of a rising number of historians of early America.1 One reason for this interest is the availability of rich primary sources. Historians of French Louisiana thought that they had located all of the existing documentation, but the re-discovery and purchase of the travel account [End Page 270] written by Marc-Antoine Caillot—a clerk in the service of the Company of the Indies in New Orleans between 1729 and 1731—by the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2004 was a pleasant surprise. Although scholars could already rely on the travel accounts of a few military officers, a ship’s captain, a nun, or a director of the Company’s plantation, Caillot’s memoir offers an original perspective on French Louisiana society because of the author’s background, profession, culture, and style.
While working on the edition of Caillot’s manuscript (A Company Man: The Remarkable French-Atlantic Voyage of a Clerk for the Company of the Indies), Greenwald, curator of the Historic New Orleans Collection, decided to use Caillot’s account to “[examine] Louisiana in a new way—as a colony of the French Company of the Indies—and [place] the development of the colony within the context of the company’s global trade network” (2). The result is this small but well-crafted book. Divided into six chapters that follow Caillot’s journey from Paris to New Orleans, it constitutes a detailed contextualization of an extraordinary primary source.
Marcel Giraud’s five-volume, monumental A History of French Louisiana (Baton Rouge, 1953–1991)—the last three volumes of which are devoted to the period 1717–1731)—paid great attention to Louisiana as a colony of the Company. Yet, since the early 1990s, most non-Francophone historians of Louisiana have neglected Giraud’s contribution, failing to reflect thoroughly enough upon the impact of the Company’s trade monopoly on the government, economy, and society of Louisiana. In that regard, Greenwald, too, might have written more about this subject. Her two short chapters about the time that Caillot spent in the colony do not engage with a new historiography seeking to analyze the specificity of American colonies run by proprietors and companies.
Contrary to what the book’s title seems to imply, the Company of the Indies was not a purely commercial enterprise. The purpose of the trade monopoly that was granted to the Company in Louisiana was not only intended to suppress economic competitors; it was also conceived as a privilege designed to serve colonial development. The Company was under the obligation to populate and settle the colony. Because its monopoly involved both trade and property, it was a vassal to the monarch, empowered with kingly rights and prerogatives. The Crown, moreover, closely supervised and controlled the Company and the colony. Sovereignty ultimately belonged to the king in theory as well as in practice. In Louisiana, the Company in no way constituted a “company-state” that functioned as a political authority and community on the model of the East India Company.
Greenwald does not participate in the ongoing debate about the existence of a genuine early French empire. Yet, Caillot’s career took him from Paris to Louisiana and then to India. One of his relatives worked for the Company in the Parisian headquarters, and two others sought their fortune in Saint-Domingue. At stake is how family connections and the circulation of administrators contributed to the construction of an empire. The Company’s operations were re-oriented toward the Indian Ocean [End Page 271] when Caillot left New Orleans for Pondicherry. But even before 1731, the Company’s domain already extended from the Americas to Asia. In that light, the question is whether scholarly analysis...