Three Languages and One Word

three languagesWashington spoke only English. His adversary, Louis Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, spoke French. It was Jumonville’s brother who had been among the men killed by Washington prior to the clash at Fort Necessity. Besides Washington and Villiers de Jumonville, there was a Dutch intepreter Jacob Van Braam who was the go-between. Van Braam’s command of the English and French languages was shaky but he was the only one who could remotely bridge the communication gap. And remember, all of this back-and-forth via three languages (let’s toss in at least two Indian languages besides) occurs amid rain, violence, illness, wounds, death, nearly impenetrable woods, and the heat, humidity, and insects of mid-summer.

The word that causes problems for Washington is “assassination.” In the final document—a document that he signs as a sort of representative of Virginia’s colonial governor, the colony of Virginia, and an appendage of the British Empire—Washington inadvertently agrees that he had needlessly killed a French officer on a diplomatic assignment. More than that, though, was another clause in the agreement that indicated Washington had agreed to this language as a way of saving himself from punishment. All the way around, from assassination to self-protection, Washington fared badly when the document began to circulate on both sides of the Atlantic.

The French and British empires were arch-enemies in the mid-eighteenth century. Think of the United States and Soviet Union in the Cold War or, more recently, think of ISIS and every other civilized nation on earth. Arch-enemies.

The apparent signed confession of a British official, even a young colonial officer, who had “confessed” to assassination would bound to be an explosive event.

And so it proved to be.

One other note on this. An Indian leader who was with Washington in the spring—his  name was Tanaghrisson—severely criticized the young Virginian for stopping to build the tiny fort. Tanaghrisson urged Washington to keep his men on the move, to try to outrun his adversary. Tanaghrisson reported that Washington treated the advice the same way he treated all advice from Indians, scornfully and dismissively. It was no surprise to Tanaghrisson that Fort Necessity resulted in a humilating outcome.