The French explorer, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, or simply Robert LaSalle, knew all about petards.
After all, the 17th century bombs known as petards were found aboard his ship, La Belle, which sunk in February 1686 during a windstorm in Matagorda Bay, according to Eric Ray, current curator of exhibits and collections at the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria.
Ray, who has a master’s degree in shipwreck archaeology from East Carolina University, Greenville, S.C., was the featured presenter at the Bayside Historical Society’s quarterly presentation and meeting on Saturday, Nov. 9.
Ray was at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, working for the Texas Historical Commission, when he re-catalogued 1.8 million items from the La Belle, over the span of a couple of years.
Among those items, he identified eight pots – artifacts in the ship’s cargo – that looked like they could be petards.
The pots were X-rayed and were found to have something else inside.
Ray described the petards as a ceramic chamber pot (the cheapest pottery one could purchase) filled with gunpowder. He called them “fire pots.”
Inside the pot’s gunpowder was an iron grenade, also filled with gunpowder. A cork was used to seal the gunpowder in the pot, and a slow fuse was atop the cork.
Ray believes the pot was some kind of explosive weapon.
Ray said he could not find anything that explained how the petard worked or for what it was used in battle.
“These were composite ceramic-iron explosives. What’s the point? Why did they have them on the La Belle?” he asked.
So, Ray said he sought to experiment by making replicas of the petards.
With the help of a ceramic artist at Victoria College, the Corpus Christi Police Department bomb range, and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, he constructed several replicas of the petards to measure their effectiveness and try to figure out how they were used.
He also employed a New Jersey camera company to film with fast speed film so numerous frames could be viewed of the explosions.
The results were surprising.
“(The fire pots) don’t break when they hit the ground. They hit and roll,” he said.
From 12 tests, it was found that the ceramic pot explodes slowly, launching small pieces and shards in all directions, followed by the iron grenade explosion, which served to accelerate the ceramic pieces to a speed of 1,400 mph.
In essence, this was like shrapnel in modern-day warfare.
Ray said the ceramic went through wooden figures erected near the explosion, and some of the pieces fused with the wood.
Pieces of iron were found in a berm, 400 feet away.
“Just the pressure wave can cause lung problems (in a person),” Ray said.
More specifically, lung damage could occur at 18 1/2 feet away from the point of explosion – that is if the ceramic and iron missed.
The bomb’s shrapnel would most likely miss a target. It was measured and found that 99 percent of people would survive if they were standing 10 feet away, but the closer a person is, the less chance they have of survival.
At 7 1/2 feet away, only 50 percent would survive.
At 6 1/2 feet away, only 1 percent would survive.
“It’s pretty dangerous, but what are they for?” Ray said.
He said the petards were for blowing out doors or gates, or for throwing them over a wall at invading forces.
“It’s a kit for invasion,” he said.
Ray said three-quarters of the Spanish wealth in the New World was Mexico’s silver mines, and La Salle was at the “back door of Spanish wealth.”
It has been said that the Jumano Native Americans told the Spanish that the French were asking where the silver mines were.
This information so frightened the Spanish that they began to colonize in earnest. To keep the land, they had to have somebody there.
“It kicked off the mission system. It kicked off the cattle industry in Texas. La Salle was helpful in getting the Spanish to colonize,” Ray said.
All the while, the French were in Texas by mistake. La Salle had been searching for the mouth of the Mississippi River, but he had maps that were poorly drawn.
The maps did not show the large delta of the Mississippi River. La Salle wanted a warm Gulf of Mexico port for fur trade and other commodities coming from the cold north.
La Salle ended up at Garcitas Creek where he had Fort St. Louis constructed. Eventually, the Spanish erased that fort, and to further hide it, they built the Presidio La Bahia, which eventually moved to its present-day location in Goliad.
Ray said he wrote five chapters on the La Belle for a technical book on the shipwreck that will be published in about a year. The book has 1,800 pages and has several contributors.
He said his current project at the Museum of the Coastal Bend involves a “massive reworking of the museum’s core exhibits, to be opened in late February.”
Ray also said more books on La Salle are available at the museum, including one by a survivor of La Salle’s expedition, Henri Joutel, who wrote “Joutel’s Journal of La Salle’s Last Voyage” (London: Lintot, 1714; rpt., New York: Franklin, 1968).
Of course, the museum also houses artifacts from the La Belle.