The façade of a ship owner’s manor house overlooking the turquoise water of quai de la Batellerie in Saint-Valery-en-Caux, reveal nearly everything of importance about its fine owner. Above the door are a few words, fashioned long ago, that roughly say:
‘L’an mil cinq cent quarante c’est maison fut faicte P Guillaume Ladiré a qui Dieu bien bonne vie’.
‘This house was built in 1540 for P William Ladiré, to whom God gives good life.’
How William achieved his good life is displayed in bold carvings. You can see a man chopping down a tree, a bare chested man wearing feathers in his hair, saints to preserve brave travellers and the puffed out cheeks of gods blowing the winds that took sailors across vast oceans to find their fortunes.
What it doesn’t show is that the fortune was made by trading, with cannibals.
Royal rage for red
William made his fortune in Brazil. We know this because in the 16th century there was only one reason to include a carving of a tree cutter on your house; Caesalpinia echinata. The Brazilwood tree whose heartwood produces brilliant red ‘brazilin’ dye. Red was all the rage in the French court, so in high demand by the bourgeoisie desperate to imitate the nobility.
A happy accident
Pedro Álvares Cabral from Portugal had stumbled across Brazil (or Terra de Santa Cruz as he tried to call it) after taking a wrong turn on the way to India in 1500. News of the discovery spread so quickly that ships from Normandy were in the region within months. Some claimed they were first to this exotic place that was so rich in natural resources.
The Portuguese claimed, legally by European laws, the new Terra for their Crown. Norman traders would have to use less obvious (and illegal) means to get what they wanted from Brazil. So they used buckets of charm.
Bonjour mon amis!
When a French ship arrived on the coast of this vast new land they treated the people they met not as savages to be overcome, but rich trading partners. Gifts were exchanged and the visitors made great efforts to learn native language and custom. Norman generosity and charm won over the red painted strangers. Back in 1550 the red paint was one of the many things that interested the visiting Frenchmen, a lot.
French diplomacy was so successful that three major tribes, the Tupinambâ, Tamoio and Potiguar saw their visitors as friends and allies, much to the annoyance of the Portuguese. Two tribes, the Tobajara and Tupinikin were sworn enemies of these tribes and sided against the French. Battles between the groups were common.
Norman entrepreneurs were not put off and were soon adding parrots, monkeys and colourful feathers to ships nearly filled with cotton and Brazilwood.
The new land was soon named Brazil after of the magical plant that would make so much profit for European traders. The 40 day journey to Brazil was considerably cheaper for investors than the four months it took to sail to the Indies for a similar wood.
Remarkably the people of Brazil enthusiastically helped their new trading partners fill their ships with Brazilwood. Remarkable because the country had no draft animals; oxen, horses or donkeys to pull the heavy timber across rough land to the coast. As André Thevet, cosmographer to the King of France said:
‘When that the Christians are there for to loade Brasill, the wylde men of the countrey cut it them selves, and sometimes they bring or carie it three or foure leagues to the shippes. I leave to youre judgement their paine and travel, and al for to get some poore or course weede and shirt’
Back in Normandy, Rouen became a centre of trade for goods from this ‘new’ continent. French confidence was high and in 1547 Jean Cordier published a navigation manual in Rouen including a list of French-Tupinambâ trading words. It was a happy, prosperous time.
But Norman diplomacy went a lot further than trade and language.
A little light cannibalism
Tribes all along the Brazilian coast were delighted to be introduced to hunting dogs and, usually arable farmers, thrilled with tasty and tame French domestic fowl.
When laden ships set sail for France many young men stayed behind in Brazil to share skills, learn the language and customs of their new friends. These Norman interpreters ‘truchements’ made every effort to integrate joining hunting parties; fighting tribal battles, falling in love and marrying local girls. Rumour has it some also indulged in a little light cannibalism. It was only polite.
The Normans also developed a custom of bringing Brazilian friends to France to learn about French life. A special property, 17 Rue Malpalui in Rouen, was kept for these honoured guests. This was a large establishment and although it was demolished in 1837 we know the building was highly decorated as some intricately carved panels were saved. These panels, much like the house in Saint-Valery-en-Caux, included scenes of Brazilians cutting and carrying wood.
Beards and bonds
The Brazilians soon distinguish between the French and Portuguese by their colouring, calling the French (along with any northern European sailors) ‘blond beards’ and the Portuguese ‘black beards’. There are records of Portuguese taken prisoner by French allies claiming to be French with varying amounts of success, to avoid being eaten by their captors.
The interpreters, those representatives of civilised Normandy living with the tribes, could not be relied upon to put the interests of Europeans first. On one, not isolated, occasion a German mercenary was captured and the resident Frenchman advised his Brazilian hosts their captive was Portuguese, knowing full well he would be eaten.
Parrots and Popes
Despite occasional setbacks the French dominated trade with Brazil in the middle of the 16th century.
A laden French ship captured by the Portuguese in 1532 reveals exactly the sort of cargo making its way to across the Pacific. The cargo valued at 62,000 ducats was made up of 3,000 léopard’ (possibly jaguar) skins, 300 live monkeys of many varieties, 600 parrots, cotton, and 5,000 quintals of Brazilwood.
The Portuguese were furious at France’s refusal to give up trade with Brazil so took their complaint to God, or at least his representative on earth – the Pope. A Papal bull and treaty in 1493 established their rights.
It is a testament to the skill of the Normans in building good relations with the Brazilians that it took the Portuguese nearly a century, thousands of pounds, many fierce battles and a lot of pressure back in Europe to get them out.
The French, who had profited nicely from their time in Brazil thank you, were unperturbed. They were already looking north to the uncontested and recently colonised New France. We know it as Canada.
A little house history
The ship owner’s house in Saint-Valery-en-Caux stayed in William Ladiré’s family until 1881. It was the home of a doctor until 1920, then sold to an unsuccessful merchant. By 1936 the building was in a state of disrepair and restoration began, to be interrupted by WW2.
The terrible time Saint-Valery-en-Caux suffered is discussed a little in our post The Last Battle.
By the 1980’s the house was offered to the municipality of Saint Valery-en-Caux, after the death of Mrs Germaine Grégoire, its last owner. Restoration was completed in 1992. Known as ‘Maison Henry IV’ the building is now home to local history, regular exhibitions and workshops.
Opening times here.