Marie-Therese Pollet was a navy wife used to her husband’s long absences, but the famous Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, hero of Hudson Bay, founder of Mobile, and recent conqueror of British Nevis and St. Kitts in the West Indies, was dead of yellow fever at Havana. The young widow was only 34, living in La Rochelle, France, and the financial obligations concomitant with her exalted station allowed little time to mourn. But along with the news of her husband’s passing came a heavy wooden trunk and accompanying strongbox. These carefully sealed receptacles held sundry treasures and three canvas sacks stuffed with Spanish silver — all plundered during Iberville’s brilliant Nevis and St. Kitts campaign. By rights, most of this wealth belonged to the French government and the shipowners whose vessels had carried her husband’s forces across the Atlantic. Iberville had certainly known this but had been secretly funneling profits to his wife for years. As she had with his previous shipments, Madame Iberville moved quickly to conceal this last windfall. Unfortunately, her husband’s secretary left a paper trail, and angry shipowners sued her for “fraud and deceit.”
For all their celebrated colonial achievements, Iberville and his brothers Bienville, Serigny and Châteauguay were notorious profiteers whose ceaseless efforts to line their own pockets at the expense of the Crown retarded larger strategic policies and hurt those settlers struggling just to survive in Mobile. Madame Iberville’s complicity was but a slender thread in a fraudulent web that included merchant-ship captains, naval officers, minor government officials, counting-house clerks and shopkeepers from Cap-Haitien, Havana and Mobile to New Rochelle and Paris.
In the wake of Iberville’s death, the French government attempted to unravel his elaborate web, interviewing witnesses and seizing account books, records and receipts. The three areas of inquiry were Iberville’s sale of captured goods for his personal gain, his illegal trade activity and any fraud that preceded the fleet’s 1705 departure from France. Jérôme Phélypeaux, Comte de Pontchartrain and Minister of Marine, who had known Iberville well and liked him, was especially outraged and took an intensely personal interest in the investigation.
The process even included distant Mobile. The local commissary, an argumentative bean counter named Nicholas de La Salle, leveled numerous accusations against the Le Moynes. Among La Salle’s claims were that Iberville double-billed expenses; that Châteauguay used a government vessel to ferry goods to Veracruz to sell for his own gain; and that Bienville, the governor of French Louisiana, hoarded and sold government foodstuffs at excessive prices meant for the Mobile garrison’s underfed soldiers. Pontchartrain, disgusted with all the Le Moynes, sent a new governor to replace Bienville and an accountant named Dartaguiette Diron to conduct a thorough inquest. Unfortunately, the prospective governor died en route, and Diron had to deliver Pontchartrain’s stern rebuke to Bienville personally. The missive enumerated all the charges and concluded, “If you have followed such a course of conduct, His Majesty has great reason to complain of you and will punish you severely.” One can imagine Diron’s nervousness and Bienville’s chagrin.
At Mobile, Diron was careful, cognizant that he was far from France. For all Bienville’s apparent shady maneuvering, Diron could see that he was a capable man on the ground who knew how to handle dangerous Indians as well as disgruntled colonists. Whatever his faults, no one else was likely to do any better in such a harsh environment. Diron could not adequately document La Salle’s accusations and concluded that Bienville was, mostly, innocent. He suggested that improved business practices would eliminate any further irregularities. Pontchartrain grudgingly accepted the report but refused to formally reinstate Bienville as governor, thus further damaging the colony.
Unfortunately for Pontchartrain, Diron and the other investigators, Iberville’s records were a disorganized mess. Receipts were missing, merchants in Havana and Cap-Haitien claimed ignorance, there were no cargo inventories and so on. Those interviewed were evasive and quick to place blame on Iberville. Nonetheless, enough evidence emerged to prove that the so-called “Hero of New France” had engaged in multiple schemes to enrich himself at the government’s expense. Just two examples were that Iberville skimmed money earmarked to provision the sailors, forcing the expedition to make a stop and buy more food at higher prices, and he illegally loaded 25,000 pounds of iron tools which he then sold at a handsome profit in Havana.
The Iberville case, dubbed the Nevis Affair, dragged on for 35 years. Along the way, the government dropped its actions against the minor players, but few of them got any prize money. Too much to ignore were Iberville’s illicit profits amounting to a staggering 112,000 livres (roughly a million dollars today), and the government demanded restitution from Madame Iberville. She made every effort to avoid paying, at one point even claiming that their three surviving children, all of age, were responsible for a portion. There are no existing records to indicate whether or not she ever paid. The scandal certainly sullied Iberville’s reputation at the time, especially among those in the government’s top echelons, but as the participants died and the matter receded, his heroic deeds once again rose to the fore, and those are what we choose to remember now. Of such is history’s caprice.
John S. Sledge is currently working on a book about Mobile and Havana’s centuries-long shared history.