Colonial America column from April 25, 2016, issue of
Interest in America was evident at France’s Palace of Versailles,
the enormous home constructed for King Louis XIV, long before the Franco-American
alliance was born and Benjamin Franklin was visiting the court of Louis XVI.
France made its first claims on the American continent more than a
century earlier, in 1534, when Jacques Cartier sailed into the Gulf of
St. Lawrence and became the “discoverer” of Canada (much to the
surprise of the thousands of people who already lived there).
By the heyday of Louis XIV’s reign, the French had claimed or
explored much of not only Canada, but the American Gulf Coast and the
Mississippi River Valley.
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To celebrate his dominions, Louis XIV had the ceiling of his
bedroom, called the Salon of Apollo, painted with imagery that would
evoke the full extent of his kingdom. In one corner, a painting called
L’Amerique depicted a topless native goddess, armed with arrows and
wearing a feathered headdress and feather skirt. Holding a long bow,
she appeared unconcerned about a fearsome looking alligator at her
feet. It is thought to have been painted before 1673.
It wasn’t the first time America had been allegorically symbolized
as a topless Indian goddess with a bow and alligator. Since the
mid-1500s, European books had been illustrated with sensationalized
images of American natives, including bosomy women with deadly weapons
and exotic animals.
Borrowing dress from certain South American tribes and an animal
common near the mouth of the Mississippi River, the image of America
as a native with an alligator became commonplace by the mid-1600s. By
the mid-1700s, it was the typical allegory for the whole continent,
familiar to literate people on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the days of Louis XV, in 1751, when New France was on the
verge of falling, the allegory of America was placed on a small jeton
struck at the Paris Mint.
Part of a series now called the “Franco-American jetons,” the
medalet showed the Indian goddess with her crops and the legend SUB
OMNI SIDERE CRESCUNT or “they grow under every constellation.”
Meant to advertise the fecundity of the American continent to
prospective emigrants and celebrate the richness of New France, the
medalets were too little too late: all of New France was controlled by
Britain within a decade. The jetons survive, as does the Palace at
Versailles, but the jetons are a lot easier to add to your collection.