Antonio de Ulloa tries to govern Louisiana

A brilliant Spanish scientist and explorer, Antonio de Ulloa’s political talents prove far less impressive when he tries to take control of the formerly French territory of Louisiana.

Ulloa faced a difficult situation in Louisiana. Encompassing most of the western half of the Mississippi Valley as far north as the present-day state of Montana, Louisiana Territory was originally claimed and settled by the French. In 1763, the French transferred the territory to Spain under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, as a reward for having been an ally in the French war with England. The French colonists of Louisiana, however, had not agreed to the treaty. Many were determined to frustrate any attempt by the Spanish to assert control over their home.

This impulse to resist only strengthened when the Spanish failed to immediately dispatch a new governor for the territory, leaving the administration in the hands of the acting French Governor Philippe Aubry. After a three-year lag, the Spanish crown finally sent one of its most distinguished scientists and explorers, Antonio de Ulloa, to govern the territory.

Arriving in New Orleans on this day in 1766, Ulloa faced widespread antagonism to his rule. Before coming to Louisiana, Ulloa had led a brilliantly successfully exploration of Peru, which he publicized in the widely read book A Voyage to South America. Ulloa had also gained fame among European scientists by founding an astronomical observatory and a mineralogical laboratory. However, Ulloa’s scientific accomplishments did not impress the French inhabitants of Louisiana.

For all his scientific brilliance, Ulloa proved a timid and ineffective governor. When the French troops of Louisiana refused to recognize his authority, Ulloa did not even attempt to stage a public ceremony marking the formal transfer of power to the Spanish crown. Instead, he decided to execute his orders through Aubry, the acting French governor, preserving the appearance of continued French rule. Possessed of a personality that dangerously combined shyness with arrogance, Ulloa was completely unsuited for the delicate diplomatic task of bringing the people of Louisiana under Spanish control.

Ulloa’s attempts to force the French colonists to use the handful of Spanish-dominated ports in the territory further alienated his subjects, as did his refusal to honor old French promissory notes held by many of the colonists. In 1768, the French political leaders revolted, forcing Ulloa to flee to Havana, Cuba. Although subsequent Spanish officials were better able to control the French residents, Spanish control over Louisiana continued to remain tenuous. In 1800, Spain finally abandoned its claim to the territory and handed it back to the French. Three years later, Napoleon Bonaparte sold it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Unlike their Spanish predecessors, the Americans eventually succeeded in winning the loyalty of the Louisianians.

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