A former officer from the Free French Forces who had become a history teacher at the Lycée Français de New York caused a stir at Columbia University in 1950. In his thesis, entitled When New York Was Called Angoulême, Jacques Habert – a future senator for French citizens in North America and publisher of France-Amérique from 1953 through 1972 – maintained that New York Bay was not discovered by Englishman Henry Hudson in 1609, as was believed, but rather 85 years earlier by a Florentine sailor sent by the king of France.
In the 16th century, European royal families were competing to discover a way to India. Giovanni da Verrazzano offered his services to King Francis I. He left the port of Le Havre with four ships in June 1523, sailed along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts down to the island of Madeira, and set his course west. The La Dauphine caravel was the only craft to reach what is now known as North Carolina in March 1524. Verrazzano chose “Francescane” as the name for this new land that “no ancient or modern figure had ever seen,” according to his report, and continued sailing north.
The Lake That Became New York Bay
On April 17, 1524, the sailors caught sight of a “most pleasant place below two small hills, with a very large river running through the middle.” La Dauphine navigated its way between the two and the crew discovered a “majestically impressive river” and a “beautiful lake” on which “some 30 small boats filled with people were sailing back and forth to see us.”
The “lake” was none other than New York Bay, and the “small hills” were the heights of Brooklyn and Staten Island. In homage to Francis I, Count of Angoulême, Verrazzano christened the site “Nouvelle-Angoulême.” However, the king, who was imprisoned in Spain at the time, never read the explorer’s report. All references to “New France” were removed from nautical charts, including “Cap de la Peur” (Cape Fear, North Carolina), the “fleuve Vendôme” (the Delaware River), the “Côte de Lorraine” (New Jersey), and the “Port Real” (Newport Bay, Rhode Island).
A Manuscript Discovered in Manhattan
Jacques Habert’s thesis corrected this historical error in 1950. The report written for Francis I has been lost, but the historian discovered a copy sent by Verrazzano to a banker in Rome and acquired by financier and collector J.P. Morgan in 1911. With the permission of the Morgan Library in Manhattan where the document is still kept, Habert translated the manuscript to reveal the irrefutable French origins of New York.
The news enthralled the French community, as Verrazzano’s discovery had always been celebrated as an Italian victory. In 1909, as part of the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage, the Italian population of New York had erected a bronze statue of their compatriot in a park in Lower Manhattan. But they had failed to mention he had been sent by the king of France! An inscription mentioning Angoulême and Francis I was added in 1952.
A Forgotten Story
The Florentine navigator gave his name to the Verrazzano Bridge, which was designed by Robert Moses and inaugurated in 1964 between Staten Island and Brooklyn, and a number of plaques marking stages in his journey were installed along the Eastern seaboard. But the homages have remained rather discreet. In Angoulême itself, the tree-lined promenade leading to the former château of the Valois family was renamed Place New York, but the plaque is perched on a do-not-enter sign!
This is precisely the story that documentary filmmaker Marie-France Brière, along with historian Florent Gaillard, director of the city archives in Angoulême, wanted to tell in their historical investigation film shot between France and the United States. “Verrazzano wasn’t looking to settle the New World; he was trying to find a short way to China,” says Michael Ryan, vice-president of the New York Historical Society, interviewed in the documentary. “Had he planted a flag on the island of Manhattan, called it Angoulême, and took possession of it for his majesty Francis I, the story would be very different.”
What If New York Was Called Angoulême?, directed by Marie-France Brière, narrated by Florent Gaillard, broadcasted on TV5 Monde USA on November 12 at 6:30 pm EST, screening at the FIAF in New York on November 12 at 4 pm as part of the French Cinema Week festival.
Article published in the November 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.