‘A Company Man’ details a raucus romp through 18th-century New Orleans

From Nola Defender

By Derick Dupre

In 1730, Marc-Antoine Caillot arrived in New Orleans to record his observations about Louisiana, or ‘New France,’ as he knew it. In ‘A Company Man,’ modern Crescent City residents get a peek into their hometown in the 18th Century and see that much of the lure of 18th Century New Orleans persists into the 21st.

Almost ten years ago, the Historic New Orleans Collection unearthed an unpublished memoir by an eighteenth-century employee of the French Company of the Indies. Its author, Marc-Antoine Caillot, was a low-level clerk who had recorded his voyage across the Atlantic as well as his residency in colonial Louisiana. The original title of the manuscript was Relation du voyage de la Louisianne ou Nouvelle France fait par le Sr. Caillot en l’année 1730 (Account of the voyage to Louisiana, or New France, made by Sieur Caillot in the year 1730).

Now, with a wonderfully informative introduction by editor Erin M. Greenwald and a superb translation by Teri F. Chalmers, the manuscript has finally been published as A Company Man: The Remarkable French-Atlantic Voyage of a Clerk for the Company of the Indies.

The book itself is an attractive, colorful hardcover that is guaranteed to class up the shelves of scholars and history buffs alike. Interspersed throughout the account are Caillot’s original watercolors, which were lovingly preserved by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. All of this serves the memoir’s import as a unique artifact of its time, as well as an account of a young man setting sail into adulthood.

Image from ‘A Company Man’ courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection

In March of 1729, Caillot departs France aboard the Duc de Chartres, one of the company’s largest merchant ships. Initially a pleasant trip, the Duc soon runs into foul weather, in which Caillot observes his shipmates “continuously vomiting in the most awful manner.” Though spared at first, Caillot soon falls prey to seasickness, and spends a week “unable to drink or eat or sleep,” suffering from “dizzy spells and awful disgorgements.”

Once cured, Caillot turns his eye to the culture of merchant sailing, describing ritual punishments, shark attacks, and bizarre tropical baptisms with a unique flair. The memoir is at its strongest while Caillot is at sea, but the sections that follow his landborne adventures are still engaging.

For one, his observations of New Orleans seem to echo our current predicament. Caillot writes that “disturbances are quite frequent and vice triumphs here with so much impunity, [though] it is not for lack of being reprimanded by frequent sermons, which [the priest] preaches with zeal, for the promotion of Divine Glory. I can attest that…it is partly because of him that justice is not completely abolished.” As before, so today: big blessings are still poppin’, despite the devil’s frequent attempts to stop them.

When he’s not stunned by the architecture of the nascent French Quarter, or describing the murky smell peculiar to alligator excrement, Caillot puts on a dress and celebrates Carnival with his very own second-line, complete with woodwinds and strings. The young clerk goes full drag, donning “a corset of white dimity, a muslin skirt, a large pannier, right down to the chemise, along with plenty of beauty marks too,” which costume wouldn’t be out of place on contemporary Bourbon Street (he writes of his get-up: “unless you looked at me closely, you could not tell that I was a boy”).

Image from ‘A Company Man’ courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection

Caillot promptly crashes a wedding at Bayou St. John, falls in love with a female boarder of the Ursuline convent, and deftly handles an attempted cockblock by an officer of a rival ship. The Carnival season then draws to a close, and Caillot writes, in his characteristic rococo prose, that “we had a great deal of fun, for Bacchus, having left his kingdom to go find Venus, suggested endless pleasures to us, but…the time seemed short and charming to me.”

This account of Carnival celebrants and cross-dressing stands in stark contrast to the close of the memoir, which follows the French-Natchez War of 1730. Caillot observed the effects of the war from a base camp in New Orleans, and his descriptions of atrocities rival those found in Blood Meridian. (Ritual dismemberments, babes-on-stakes, and the like.)

In February of 1731, the French claimed victory over the Natchez, which allowed for a period of peace and calm, thus enabling Caillot to leave the “unlucky colony” of New Orleans in the “unfortunate country” of America. He set sail on the Saint-Louis on April 1, “as happy to the same degree as I had been sad upon arriving.”

Clearly, New Orleans is not meant for everyone. This has always been true, whether you consult a Jackson Square chiromancer or a long-dead merchant sailor. A terrific historic document in its own right, A Company Man is also a testament to the weird eternal pull of the Crescent City, and contains enough seafaring adventure, festive revelry, and bloodshed to satisfy readers of all stripes.