The Mississippi Bubble by Thomas B. Costain

I’m on a mission to read all of the Landmark series of children’s history books, and Thomas B. Costain is one of my favorite authors, especially his series of books on the medieval history of England: The Conquering Family, The Last Plantaganets, The Magnificent Century, The Three Edwards. I love those books and have read through them more than once. So I was excited to read Costain’s Landmark history (#52) of the founding of Biloxi and New Orleans, The Mississippi Bubble.

It was an exciting story of intrepid explorers and land speculation and fortunes made and lost, with both heroes and villains, winners and losers, and a narrative thread of consistent and faithful service on the part of one man in particular with the goal of building a “New World” in America at the mouth of the Mississippi River. However, the book shows the strengths and weaknesses of its date of publication, 1955, as Mr. Costain loses his attention to historical detail and his concern to portray all of the parties to the situation fairly and accurately when it comes to Native Americans and enslaved Africans.

The story begins with a “group of Indians . . . busy fishing in the mud-colored waters of Mississippi.” These “savages” encounter Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and although at first they are wary, they “liked La Salle.” These Native Americans are then compared to the Iroquois of Canada and the north, with whom the French had already met and fought and allied and co-existed. According to Costain:

“And while the Indians of the delta country—the Bayougoulas, the Quinipissa, the Moctobys, the Tensas, the Pascagoulas—were not more fierce or brave than the tribes of the north, they were sly and treacherous and with a brand of savagery all their own.”

Readers are left to imagine what that “brand of savagery” looks like, but Costain does say many pages later in the story that “the savages worked swiftly and cunningly” to attack the French forts in various places, incited by the English or the Spanish. Then, a few pages later, we read that “many times the Indians had saved the lives of the colonists with supplies of food from their own stocks.” By treating the Indians as a monolithic group and by stereotyping them as savages, mostly, Costain gives a very confusing and contradictory picture of the Native Americans of the Louisiana and Mississippi regions and of their relationship with the French invaders. In other words, the Native peoples and individuals in this version of history are stereotyped and written off as foils to the conquering French European heroes who are the real story.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t write off this book because Mr. Costain has another story to tell: in addition to giving us his account of the exploration and settlement of the Mississippi River delta, Mr. Costain in his little book also tells of an economic bombshell back in France. So, in the meantime back in Paris, c.1719-1726, while Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville was literally holding down the fort in Louisiana, a Scotsman named John Law was busy taking over the financial system of France. I read about John Law’s financial plans, ideas, and schemes both in The Mississippi Bubble and on Wikipedia, but I can’t say either source successfully explained his theories and his financial dealings in a way that I could fully understand. But the history is exciting with kidnappings and violence and huge fortunes made and lost and gambles and success and disgrace all combined. It’s worth reading about, and Costain tells this story of financial chicanery, speculation, and panic with a great deal of drama and human interest.

Here’s an animated short movie that deals with the economics of The Mississippi Bubble in France in as straightforward a way as I could find:

The Mississippi Bubble is not the best of the Landmark books I’ve read, but it’s a worthwhile introduction to the history of Louisiana and New Orleans and Biloxi with a lot of economic history throw in. John Law is the villain of the piece, and Bienville is the hero. And the Native Americans and the black slaves? Marginal and mostly disregarded or stereotyped.

Other books about the early history (antebellum) of Louisiana and the Mississippi delta region:
The French Explorers in America by Walter Buehr
The Explorations of Pere Marquette by Jim Kjelgaard.
LaSalle And The Grand Enterprise by Jeannette Covert Nolan.
The Louisiana Purchase by Robert Tallant.
The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans by Robert Tallant.

Fiction:
Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling.
Swift Rivers by Cornelia Meigs.

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