restricted access Clerics, Cartographers, and Kings: Mapping Power in the French Atlantic World, 1608–1752
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Clerics, Cartographers, and Kings Mapping Power in the French Atlantic World, 1608–1752 George Edward Milne P+++++++p In the spring of 1726, a Jesuit missionary and his escorts paddled up the Mississippi on their way to the Arkansas Post, a tiny settlement on the banks of the river. In the description of his voyage, the priest wrote, “I am not yet sufficiently acquainted with the Country and with the customs of the Savages to give you information of them; I shall only tell you that the Mississippi presents to the traveler nothing beautiful, nothing exceptional, save itself: nothing mars it but the continuous forest on both sides, and the frightful solitude in which a person is in during the whole voyage.”1 This seemingly casual observation belies a significant shift in the manner in which French clerics, and those who employed information provided by them, envisioned the spaces of North America. Writing as a missionary, Father Paul du Poisson portrayed the region as empty—devoid of the reference points that marked his homeland. As bleak as his characterization might appear, it represented a departure from earlier missionaries’ depictions of the interior of the continent as the realm of Satan, populated by his indigenous worshipers.2 Over the course of the previous century, Catholic clergymen who ministered in the colonies had revised their descriptions of these unsubdued spaces. Their communiqu és reveal a departure from tales of landscapes possessed by demonic forces to descriptions of rich unoccupied terrain in which France might build a Christian “civilization.” At the heart of these depictions was emptiness—silences that came to dominate large sections of the texts that made up the emergent corpus of knowledge about the Atlantic World. Many of these texts were written items, like the letter penned by Father Poisson, but they also included geographic representations by cartographers such as Claude and Guillaume Delisle and Jean Baptist Bourguignon D’Anville.3 It was precisely these silences that marked a search for authority, both political and “scientific,” by clerics and cartographers who worked for the glory of their king. The first type was to be obtained through the erasure of native peoples who stood in the way of the French colonial project. 56 George Edward Milne The second type was to be achieved by elimination of images and symbols that denigrated the credibility not only of the mapmakers but also of the priests who provided them with information. Thus the two groups joined together in an epistemic partnership in which missionaries donned the mantle of intellectual respectability when they provided reliable data to cartographers, from which the latter drafted their creations for a public that deferred to their expertise. This partnership was a component of a larger convergence of interests of the French cartographic community with those of the state and church. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, mapmaking was the province of artisans. By gaining governmental and ecclesiastical approbation during the late 1600s, some cartographers entered the ranks of the scientific elite. At the start of the eighteenth century, Catholic clergymen sought similar respectability—that of refined intellectuals. They came closer to that goal when they began to provide accurate data for mapmakers. The French state benefited from yet another sort of authority. Maps acted as instruments of hegemony when they legitimated the Bourbon Dynasty’s territorial claims. This convergence was marked by three characteristics. First was a general trend in missionaries’ reports that moved away from portrayals of North America as a wilderness under the command of the Devil and his minions. These more benign accounts became prevalent as the second characteristic manifested itself during the early 1700s when priests in the colonies spent more time with French transplants than with the indigenes whom they had been sent to convert. Finally, this later wave of clerics based their depictions on empirically observed phenomena and thus painted far more “rational” pictures of France’s overseas possessions. With the blessing of the state, cartographers incorporated their “rationality” into their maps and disseminated them to an eager and increasingly sophisticated public. An important component in this shift was the growing attention that both groups paid to the networks of waterways that penetrated these realms. These riverine highways became central features in the maps produced with the aid of missionaries. They also became a part of the conceptual framework for imagining the spaces of New France and Louisiana. Eighteenth-century French missionaries and colonial officials sent home charts that signaled a change...


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