It was like old home week the other night, watching Chris in another Masonic Magical Mystery Hour on History channel, this one being about the supposed treasure buried on Oak Island. (Curse of Oak Island Drilling Down: Founding Fathers S7/E6)
I thought that Chris looked both adorable and intelligent; Chris kept saying how good Akram Elias was. Neither one of us really enjoys seeing ourselves on television. In my case, I have gone to war each and every time with the video DP, all of them determined to drench me with enough light to illuminate a football stadium. It’s always the same battle cry – “Will you please pull back?” It gets me nowhere. On one of them, Chris stood behind the camera and checked to make certain they weren’t getting a surgical close-up of my nose hair. So the little bastard did what they all do; he fixed it in post, doing a cheesy optical zoom that put the camera right back up my nostrils where he clearly felt it belonged, my round, over-lit face glowing like the rising harvest moon.
In any case, the days of tracking Chris' illness by the way he looked in various shows are now past. I thought he looked glowingly healthy, and about thirty-two years old.
As for the unexplainable presence of William Shatner, I can take it, I guess. He’s obviously signed himself into indentured servitude with History (you’re still not supposed to add “Channel”) where he has another show called The UnXplained. Am I spelling that right? They’re obviously going to use him as Spook Host in a bevy of crossover stuff, including this Season Seven episode of Curse of Oak Island. (Season Seven?) Shatner isn’t as bad an actor as people say. Calling him a lousy actor, for awhile there, was this huge national bromide, a cliché as worn as “Wanna buy a duck?” But he can be good, especially when he’s got a director to sit on him and knock some of the hot air out of him. When Shatner went head to head with Stanley Kramer, the result was his subtle and easygoing performance in Judgment at Nuremberg. He’s so laid back you hardly recognize him.
This episode of Oak Island was called The Founding Fathers, its premise being that the Templar treasure with the Ark of the Covenant that we all know is at the bottom of the island’s deep, deep hole was raided to help finance the American Revolution. A stretch when you consider that all of Nova Scotia was in British hands at the time. Also a stretch when you consider that our fledgling nation-in-revolt was in constant, hardscrabble debt, rattling the tin cup to anyone who passed by. But what the hell, Britain and France were constantly at war in the 18th century, leaving them both bankrupt. Why not play hardball like the big boys?
And of course they ended up at Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, with connective tissue so vague as to be absurd. At this point, you can’t say the word “Freemason” on TV without doing either Rosslyn Chapel or the hidden symbols in the streets of Washington, D.C. And then they have the gall to wonder why my husband’s email is so cluttered with meandering, scary missives from the anti-Illuminati crowd, vaguely accusing him of being a Satanist. These types have been hanging around since the Reverend Jedediah Morse climbed into his pulpit and scared hell out of everyone over the Bavarian Illuminati in 1798, though I find no comfort in this.
However, once you blow away the pixie dust, the history at the core of the typically meandering episode was fascinating. This constant battle over Nova Scotia where Oak Island sits was part of the incessant naval warfare that characterized the 17th and 18th century, much of it exacerbated by religion, most of it dominated by the battle of the Continental powers for first dibs on all the richest lands to colonize, not to mention the trade routes between. The British tried to turn Halifax station into another Gibraltar, a major military outpost. Americans loyal to their King fled to Nova Scotia during the Revolution, while, in the War of 1812, it served as the operations headquarters for the British blockade of over 2,000 miles of American coastline.
But what was fascinating about this episode of Oak Island was the log entry claimed to have been from one of the ships of the D’Anville Expedition. Of course, they made it sound shiny and new, though they’ve talked about it in past episodes. In actuality, this supposed partial log entry has been in the National Archives in France for many years. You know, like the founding documents of the Priory of Sion, which the Bibliothèque Nationale just comes out and tells you is a forgery. But tales of a lost treasure of the D’Anville Expedition have been around for at least a century, along with all the requisite ghost stories. This sort of thing is a treasure hunter’s Holy Grail, though their explanation of it wasn’t very detailed. The episode had some lovely photography, though.
The French navy doesn’t have much of a reputation, and to some degree that’s unfair. I bought a book that just arrived called Napoleon’s Admirals, a brave attempt to shed some light on French naval history by offering biographies of the 26 flag officers listed on the Arc de Triomphe, where the roll-call of French military heroes is vastly outnumbered by the other 634 names of the generals and marshals who fought on land. Sad to think there wouldn’t be a United States of America if it hadn’t been for the French navy.
In the show much was made of the expedition leader being a Rochefoucauld, an important family of French nobility. This particular flag officer was Louis Frédéric de la Rochefoucauld de Roye, the Duc d’Anville of the marine d’état, and he led a massive French force across the Atlantic in what is called the D’Anville Expedition to Acadia. Though they sound like a bunch of Greek shepherds drinking wine out of goatskins, the Acadians were descendants of the French who colonized the whole area of Quebec, many of them of mixed blood, métissage, just like here in Indiana, in the Metis settlements along the Ohio. The British eventually tried to drive them out, in what's called the Great Expulsion. Their descendants still speak a variety of unusual French dialects, including Cajun.
The dogged British had attacked Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia six times before they finally took it in 1710, setting off the French, who attacked it, almost mystically, another six times, including D’Anville.
As for the expedition, there’s a reason most people don’t remember any of this, apart from general indifference to history. The 18th century may have been the Age of Enlightenment, but you’d need a cheat sheet to keep track of all the wars, the mini wars folded, you might say, into the maxis. This invasion was part of King George’s War, which was part of the War of the Austrian Succession, which bled into the Seven Years War, our French and Indian War, which preceded the Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars. I once did a blog about one of the minis, the comically-named War of Jenkins' Ear, a ten-year naval war between England and Spain in the Indies. Yes, there was a real ear, cut off a real guy named Jenkins. These brawls in the Indies were ongoing. Places like Martinique changed hands between Britain and France so often they didn’t have time to redo the street signs.
This armada was put together to revenge the taking of Louisbourg the year before, after a siege by the British backed up with a force from New England. In a major snit, D’Anville was tasked with taking back the capital of Annapolis Royal, also called Port Royal, which was very near Louisbourg. Afterwards, he was supposed to invade New England, burn down Boston, bombard New York, then attack the British West Indies and destroy some major plantations, all before winter set in. People in Boston were braced for invasion all that summer. Unfortunately, due to one foul-up after another, D’Anville didn’t even leave France until June, and he didn’t arrive for three months, at which point fall was in the air, and the forces waiting for him in Canada assumed the whole war was cancelled.
D’Anville’s Expedition has long been a textbook example of an epic naval fiasco. The Oak Island guys said it was 64 ships, my book says 73. Never mind, just call it a whole bunch of ships. But due to incompetence, bad judgment and the primal forces of nature, it was a debacle. Events were typical of grand naval disasters like the Spanish Armada, in which a variety of catastrophes occurred – after a difficult, disease-laden crossing, short on supplies, the men began dying even faster on arrival, of scurvy and various fevers, having also been whacked by a major storm, scattering some of the vessels as far as the Caribbean. Lightening hit a magazine and blew up one of the ships, at which point a sensible man might have decided that God wasn’t on his side.
Only half of them ever reached the military objective. Like the Walcheren Island debacle and so many others, disease was far deadlier than the enemy. A lot of it may have been typhus. Some sources say D’Anville died of the disease devouring his men, while others say he had a stroke a week after he arrived. I guess you can’t blame him. Days after his death, when the extent of the failure seemed clear, his second-in-command, Vice-Admiral d’Estournelle, retired to his cabin and fell on his own sword. Even this was muffed, and he survived the suicide attempt.
The whole thing limped to a close, which is why the unsupported supposition of the show has some weight, this being that, if they had treasure, the remnants of the invasion force wouldn’t have wanted to attempt to re-cross the Atlantic with it, where it would surely have ended up the property of King George.
So, they buried it, on an unnamed island in the bay, according, at least, to the scrap out of a log by an unnamed seaman of an unnamed ship of the fleet. And this isn’t unheard of in naval history, though it’s a bad tactic, because the buried goods tend to go missing. Me, I smell another forgery, but I’m a cynic.
Yes, the whole show gets bilious and silly, and makes wild unsupported statements, particularly in regard of the Templars. But for me, in the end, I’m in favor of anything that might get a sixteen-year-old kid interested in history. Of course, what gets lost in all this is the Founding Fathers of the title, who never put in an appearance, except in a few vague connections of Canadian land speculation.
As for Shatner’s part in it all, it was typical of History. He walks around in a really bitchin leather jacket, beautifully reading the prepared script as if it just came to him, then he sits in on a conference in the Oak Island War Room, looking both thoughtful and attentive, nodding and occasionally tossing off a “hmm,” or a “wow,” or in extreme cases, an “Oh, really?” It’s not a bad gig, at his age. Listen, I’ve had that gig, and I can tell you, it’s not at all bad. The difference being that I didn’t get paid for it. I did get a great deal on a really bitchin leather jacket at Overland.
I’d like to see Chris do more of these shows, which is a bone of contention. I mean, he ended up on this one because, when History emailed and asked if he could do one, I said he really shouldn’t say no again, as he’s done for several years, because they’ve been so good to us. And they have been very good to us, especially when Chris was sick. So, he said yes, to whatever they wanted, and it turned out to be The Curse of Oak Island. What are you gonna do?
If you’re interested, Anatomy of a Naval Disaster by Professor James Pritchard is the go-to book on what happened. To the French navy, at least. For the treasure, you're on your own.