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Dreams of a New Merchant Republic

The morning air was warm on October 29th, 1768. And tensions were high among wealthy merchants and members of the New Orleans Superior Council. Most of whom gathered that day to discuss recent restrictions placed on local trade imposed by the new Spanish governor.

Taking the floor was a wealthy Canadian migrant named Nicolas La Frénière, who spoke passionately. Rousing a small audience of elites on the need to project the ideals and rights of the local administration.

By noon the expanded council had resolved to demand free trade with France and its Caribbean islands. Whereas new rules required exclusive trade with Spain. It was decided that it should be the currently exiled Governor of Spanish Louisiana, Antonia de Ulloa himself, who would deliver these demands to his King. Along with a comprehensive list of grievances further encompassing the idea that the Spanish should retire all officials from Louisiana immediately.

These issues alongside a justification of recent actions were published and distributed as the Memorial of the Planters and Merchants. A sort of manifesto and way to gain public support for the cause.

Just days prior, Jean Milhet and other more minor members of the insurrection had been sent to various villages along the Mississippi river to gather military support. The escalation of events caught the attention of German Coast Commandant Charles F. D’Arensbourg. Who, like the city merchants, had a vested interest in promoting less restrictive trade policies. Especially as his community relied on exports like indigo and tobacco which was easier to sell on an open market.

Shortly after an attempt by the governor to quell mounting unrest by way of compensation, D’Arensbourg ordered militia Captain Josephe Villere to march on New Orleans with 400 men. Once arrived, this group met with other soldiers touting various affiliations to converge on the home of Francois Chauvin de Lery. Now numbering over one thousand, these soldiers drank and armed themselves. At times spilling out into the streets shouting for victory, in a display of force and high morale.

Although most importantly it was on this night that the goals of various rebellious factions throughout the colony aligned. And it has been noted that it was during this brief period that ideas to form an independent republic had began to take form. It was in fact the ideas of a military officer named Pierre Marquis. Who himself had been in service to France.

One of the primary thoughts behind such a stance was the proven defensibility of New Orleans and surrounding areas by even its previous native occupants as recent as 1707 at Fort De La Boulaye. Even the river itself proved difficult to navigate for the uninitiated, let alone an entire hostile fleet due to the dynamic climate.

Further, and similar to other existing city-states from Monaco and the then-struggling Genoa to Venice; control of trade could be established via maritime strength along the entirety of the river and into what is now the Gulf of Mexico. Although this was all beside the point for most involved. As the most immediate of affairs simply concerned getting a good trade deal and a “return to normal” with the exclusion of Spanish rule.

Meanwhile, a small garrison of Spanish and French guards numbering around one hundred held their posts which, for the time being, were not being assaulted. In fact it was not until the following morning that the local militias gathered to surround governor Ulloa’s residence in the city. If only in the spirit of protesting unfair regulations. Although the crowd being armed added some urgency to the situation.

On October 28, 1768, Ulloa was told to board his packet boat and leave Louisiana, to which he complied and set sail to Spanish Cuba after a brief stint in La Balize due to bad weather. The documents drafted a day later, as Superior Council troops patrolled the streets of downtown New Orleans, were later received by the exiled governor and accepted. Ulloa recalled all Spanish troops back to Havana and for all native aid to the colony to cease. Although how effective all this was is questionable. The French flag still flew in New Orleans.

Exiled governor Ulloa raised troops in Havana for a potential re-capturing of the city although this would never occur on his part. Meanwhile the government in New Orleans began losing local support. Mostly for their political machinations, considering the inherent reliance on trade with the French and others that the city both enjoyed and required to function. There was never a promise that the French would actually commit to any agreements with what was a city in rebellion. In addition, there was no guarantee that the Spanish crown would not just attack and recapture the city. It was doubtful that the Superior Council was even prepared for such a response.

What resulted was a slow dissolution of rebel forces and the dispatch of a counter-insurgency at the request of the Spanish throne. The Superior Council tried appointing syndics, a sort of middleman between politicians and civilians, from the ranks of the most well-connected in society to help gather more support. But the population seemed to increasingly prefer a return to order.

Key members of the German Coast militia and others began to split and return home in anticipation of a threat. They would later resist. But those remaining in the city and loyal to the Superior Council had very little funding and a sense of complacency set in as nothing happened. And so for nine months, New Orleans became a city run by a group of socialites and merchants who had no real economic plan as export trade ground to a halt. Their legitimacy continuously questioned in consideration of some French officials still being a presence in the area.

Photo by Marco (@marcorasi1960)

Alejandro O’Reilly was a stout Irish soldier in service to the Spaniards who had over three decades of military experience. He was a decorated man who walked with a limp, having fought in the Austrian Succession, Seven Years War and most recently during the 1766 riots over in Madrid. Who was now tasked with restoring order to Louisiana.

On July 24th, 1769 news of O’Reilly’s arrival was met with relief. Particularly among alienated officials like senior military and colony captain Charles Philippe Aubry. Who had been and still would be essential in de-escalating the conflict in the background. In addition to being a major voice in encouraging Ulloa to leave New Orleans. It helped that he was affiliated with the French with whom the Superior Council had ultimately planned to appeal.

O’Reilly set off to New Orleans with 2,700 soldiers and 27 ships with the intention of awing the rebels into submission. His goal was to display such a show of force that the opposition would become discouraged enough to avoid a real conflict.

In direct comparison to the troops present in New Orleans these men were well-trained and represented a variety of combat disciplines. Acting Governor (as far as the major powers were concerned) by this point had been Charles Aubry who swiftly pledged his own forces to O’Reilly in anticipation of restoring order.

The Spanish flotilla arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi on July 24th after a small garrison had already sent a fast-boat upriver to warn the rebels. Who by now had no intention to stage a counter-attack.

And so on August 18th, after spending weeks navigating the river and personally meeting with members of the rebellion, O’Reilly sailed into the harbor and negotiated for the formal possession of the city on behalf of the Spanish crown with French cooperation. Symbolic cannon-fire erupted from the docks while troops and horsemen disembarked and moved to re-occupy New Orleans. No one was killed.

The following morning he requested that Aubry provide a full account of the rebellion. On August 21st, all prominent members of the insurrection laid down their swords and were imprisoned on grounds of treason. All co-conspirators among the elite who were connected with the Superior Council were told to come forward at no consequence and declare their loyalty to Spain.

Almost a year after it began, on October 25th, five of the accused, including: La Frénière, Marquis, Joseph Milhet, Pierre Caresse and Jean-Baptiste de Noyan were sentenced to death. The execution took place the following day on what is now known as Frenchmen Street.

The Superior Council, quite possibly being one of the first attempts at a cohesive and at least semi-autonomous governing body for the city of New Orleans, had been dissolved. Along with the fleeting dream of a merchant republic in the New World.

Crane-Mercury is a new digital publication created in the spirit of celebrating culture in southeast Louisiana. We will be launching soon and do hope you decide to stick around. Feel free to join our mailing list for future updates!

Christon Le'John

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