|Robert S. Weddle, The Wreck of the Belle, the Ruin of La Salle. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2001 352pp., 12 b&w photos, 8 maps. Bibliography, Index. $29.95 cloth. ISBN 158544121X.
Robert Weddle’s new book, The Wreck of the Belle, the Ruin of La Salle, uses the discovery and excavation of one of La Salle’s ships, the Belle, in the mid-1990s as the impetus to take a revisionist look at La Salle, his travels and schemes in North America, and his expedition to found a French colony near the mouth of the Mississippi River on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the 1680s. The La Salle expedition was a disaster from the outset. Weddle concludes that it was doomed to failure before it began because of La Salle’s lack of geographical knowledge about the coast, his “confused priorities,” and the “insatiable thirst of many [on the expedition] for glory, wealth, and power.” Studying French and Spanish manuscripts, first-person accounts of the survivors, and the artifacts that were recovered from the Belle, Weddle depicts La Salle as a failure in virtually all aspects of his life. As Weddle writes, “in fact, the landmark explorer failed on all counts: as a fur trader, explorer, military leader, and colonizer. Most of all, in his lack of consideration for those who trusted and followed him, he failed as a human being” (p. 253).
Weddle’s La Salle was an expert in self-promotion and subterfuge. He was a shameless schemer, who abused his followers and was murdered by his own men; he deceived his king and creditors about the expedition and its feasibility; and he did not take advice well or seek the opinions of others before decisions were made. Weddle points out that the truth about La Salle was hidden from history by the explorer’s own machinations and lies, expedition members with personal inadequacies to hide, religious writers who wanted to sugarcoat the poor conduct of the clerics who accompanied the expedition, and La Salle’s own brother, who concealed his brother’s death for personal gain. Despite the French explorer’s many failures, Weddle does admit that La Salle “left an indelible mark upon the North American continent and its future; judged on the basis of his lasting influence on America’s course, he must be allowed a measure of greatness” (p. 253).
Weddle is perhaps the leading historian of this generation writing about the discovery and exploration of the Gulf Coast, and he brings his extensive knowledge to bear when focusing on La Salle and the French colonization attempt. Weddle is at his best in uncovering the history of the Belle and the relationship the ship had to the expedition. Weddle writes that “the loss of the Belle was the colony’s death sentence,” and he lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of La Salle (p. 253). The book is well researched, heavily documented, convincingly argued, and a must for anyone interested in La Salle or in the abortive attempt of the French to plant a colony on the Gulf. My only quibble with the book is its title, which I found to be neither descriptive nor intuitive enough to give a reader a clear understanding as to what the book is about.
Gerald D. Saxon
The University of Texas at Arlington