Charles-Marie de la Condamine


       Stanislas Leszczyński

Historical investigations in France


 Modern research allows us to determine that the introduction of Polish Draughts in France took place between 1670 and 1685. The Frenchman of the 18th century however did not have our knowledge, and when the Paris draughts player Manoury started an investigation in the 1780's he started with a clean sheet.

 In his second book (1787), Manoury gave an account of his investigations. In the title of his first chapter, see the page left, he announced he is going to write about the origin of Polish Draughts. Manoury was assisted by a prominent visitor of his coffee house: Charles-Marie de la Condamine (1701-1774).

 De la Condamine was an important man. He was an acknowledged scientist (mathematician) and member of the Académie Royale des Sciences, the respectable Royal Academy of Sciences. In the early 1730's, he sailed on a voyage to Algiers, Alexandria, Palestine, Cyprus and Constantinople (now Istanbul) where he spent five months. On his return to Paris he published mathematical and physical observations of his voyage. The Académie was impressed and sent him out on an expedition to Peru to measure the length of a degree of meridian at the equator. He left Paris in 1735, but began his return journey only in 1743, a journey which included a four month raft journey down the Amazon river. His was the first scientific account of the Amazon which he published as "Journal du voyage fait par ordre du roi a l'équateur" (1751). He returned with many notes, 200 natural history specimens and works of art. In the last part of his life Condamine campaigned for inoculation against small-pox. His passion on this topic was partly due to the fact that he had suffered from small-pox as a child.


 Another of his passions was draughts. As a scientist he was curious about the origin of Polish Draughts.  The French equivalent of the Dutch name Pools dammen was Jeu de dames à la polonoise, later à la polonaise. Unlike in The Neterlands, Polonais  had a neutral sense; it meant 'from Poland'. His investigations failed, and for this reason he published an article in the "Mercure de France" in July 1770, with the question if anyone could help him to solve the problem. He wrote: "The name Polish draughts suggests the game originates from Poland, but the late king Stanislas did me the honour to tell me that the Poles distinguished between the old game on 64 squares and the new game on 100 squares calling the new game French draughts, from which we may conclude that the Poles borrowed it from the French".

 We make mention of the social position of de la Condamine and his relation with a royal person to point to the different positon of draughts today and in the past: in the past, the game was recognised and played by the higher classes.


 The king mentioned by de la Condamine was Stanislas Leszczyński (1677-1766), who lived in exile in France as the result of the power politics of mighty countries like Russia, Sweden, Prussia, Austria and France. Pushed through Europe as a long king across the draughts board, Stanislas was king of Poland from 1704 till 1709. From 1719 till 1725 he was on the run, among other places living in Bavaria and Weissenburg. Especially the period 1719-1725 was hard: Stanislas lived destitute in a hotel. In 1725 the tide was turning: the French king Louis XV took Stanislas' daughter Marie as his wife. France felt compelled to give the father-in-law of the French king a fashionable accommodation: the castle of Chambord (1725-1733). In 1733 Stanislas returned to Poland, where the Polish noblemen chose him as their king. But Russia and Austria disagreed. Stanislas fled to Dantzig, an independent town. Russian troops laid siege and took Dantzig, but Stanislas escaped, disguised, to Prussia. In 1735, France accepted him for the second time; Versailles' noblemen received him respectfully, praising him because of his erudition. The great powers allowed him to maintain his royal title, and gave him the titles duke of Lithuania and count of Bar and Lorraine (Treaties of Vienna, 1736 and 1738). In 1737, Stanislas received the castle of Lunéville near Nancy as his residence. Under legal restraint of France, that took care he did not pursue political power. The French state gave him enough money to receive guests, among which many artists and intellectuals: Versailles in miniature. In Nancy Stanislas founded an academy of science, the Academia Stanislaw, and a military college, and devoted himself for the rest of his life to science and philanthropy. His works include a book which outlines his proposed changes to the Polish constitution (1749; it was in fact written by Jean-Pierre Tercier, polyglot, jurist and historian) and "Oeuvres du philosophe bienfaisant" (1763). [Based on Boyé 1898].


 Back to de la Condamine's investigations.

 As said, he made an appeal in a French journal in 1770. Who could give information on the origin of Polish Draughts?

 There was a reaction of Manoury, and the inquiry was continued with combined forces. Manoury questioned oldies who played the game in his establishment, there was a player who had made inquiries himself and who had left a manuscript about it, and in this way the inquiry advanced.

 In his 1787 book, Manoury gave account. It is doubtful whether Manoury wrote the text himself, for according to French authorities on the late 18th century it is written in the eloquent French that was written by intellectuals in those days. A man who worked for a living in a coffee house all his lifde can never have produced such a language. Therefore we must assume that de la Condamine was the author of these lines.

 For a man of his education however, the story that is told is rather naive. That the visitors of Café Manoury were convinced that Paris made acquaintance with with Polish Draughts in the 1720's, agreed. But the story found in the left papers of a man named Laclef, a strong Paris draughts players, that is presented as historical truth is too good to be true. This Laclef had made inquiries long ago and had found notes on the origin of Polish Draugths made by a deceased draughts player. Laclef had died decades ago, but Mr. *** had copied his papers and passed them on to Manoury.


 The story in short.

 Polish draughts was born in the Palais Royal during the Regency. One of the field officers of the Regent, a keen player of the old French draughts variety, used to play with a stranger of the same strength in his room. In the Palais, this stranger was called le Polonois, either because he was born in Poland or because people only knew him under this name. Some day in one of their games they got a position which was the occasion for the officer of the Regent to make a remark: he showed the stranger a nice combination which would be possible if a piece was allowed to take in a backward direction, like the king. After a thorough and long examination his opponent was convinced. But he for his part found an even more splendid combination if the board would have ten rows instead of eight and if each row would have five squares instead of four. He asked a piece of paper and proved it by drawing such a board.

 That day they let the matter drop, but a fortnight later the stranger visited the Palais Royal with a servant carrying a draughts board of the shape he had drawn, with forty white and black pieces. At once he showed the officer of the Regent the moves of the pieces he had puzzled out and his description of these moves. They needed several meetings to check, change and try it, and the result of their work was the game we play today. In a few years it became known under the name of Polish draughts, without any doubt as the officer of the Regent wanted to do honour to the stranger who passed for a Pole.

 In which year the new game was devised? The officer served Filips II of Orléans, regent in the period 1715-1723, because after the death of Louis XIV France had no king (in 1715, his son was five years old). About 1723, Manoury tells us.

 The story is nice but not unfortunately not the more boring historical truth, we know now. By the way, this Filips II was a loose liver, described by his contemporaries as Paris' greatest skirt-chazer, with the remark that the word skirt-chazer is a rather friendly word for his sexual splurges. In French draughts is called jeu de dames, which can be read as "amusement with women". It is pleasant that the new jeu de dames was invented under the regime of a man with a sexual overdrive.


      Filips II van Orléans


 Some more information about the Palais Royal.

 Many a tourist visiting Paris looks over the Palais Royal, attends a performance of the Comédie française in the theatre that is established in the Palais, or goes for a stroll in the gardens.

 Originally, the Palais was the residence of cardinal Richelieu when he served France as a prime minister. When he died (1642), the house became the property of the royal family; Anne of Austria, widow of Louis XIII, moved into it, with her two sons Filips of Orléans and the later king Louis XIV, hence its name Palais Royal. When he had become a king, Louis preferred to live in the Louvre, and from that time on the Palais was mostly occupied by members of his family. First Henriëtte Maria of France, widow of king Charles I of England (until her death in1669), then her daughter (until she died in 1670), then her husband Filips of Orléans, the king's brother (until 1701), then his son Filips II (until 1723), then Filips' son.

 The Palais Royal was more than a home for royal persons. The title page of Pierre Mallet's draughts book (1669) for example recommended to buy the book in one of the book shops of the Palais. In the 1750's, many prostitutes had their workplace there [Mathorez 1919 I:322].

 Filips' son seldom lived in the Palais and for this reason he gave the property to his son Louis-Filips of Orléans (in 1741). Louis-Filips altered in twice. In 1752 the renovation was rather modest. In the 1780's, however, the building was greatly expanded with rows of two-story houses enclosing a courtyard and arcades of shops lining the interior garden. The Palais Royal became a lively public place, with coffee houses, gambling dens, music, filles de joie, drunkenness, brawls and so on. This was the situation in 1787, in the last years of the ancien régime, when Manoury wrote his story about the birth of Polish draughts.                                                                               


                                                                          Louis Léopold Boilly, c. 1820                                                                Palais Royal about 1900

                                                                Draughts in Café Lamblin in Palais Royal

                                                                            [Musée Condé, Chantilly]         


 The French view of the origin of Polish Draughts is rather incredible, and nevertheless you can find this story in many a book and on many a site as historical truth? How is this possible? For Manoury's book is not easy to obtain and written in French.

 Well, hundred years ago an Englishman started an inquiry into the origin of draughts. His name was Harold Murray. Murray was a famous man because of his thorough and admirabel study of the history of chess (1913).

 In 1918, Murray finished a history of draughts, but his manuscript was never printed.

 In 1952 he published a second famous and admirable book, this time on the history other board games than chess, such as draughts. And where was Polish or International Draughts invented? You've guessed it: in Paris in 1723. And in this way a legend was promoted to the truth.

 Every next author on draughts took the legend as historical truth. For if the famous Murray said something it was beyond all doubt.

 And this explains why you meet almost everywhere a nice fabrication about the origin of International Draughts instead of the ˗it must be admitted: a little boring˗ real report.


                                                                                                                                                 > Harold J. Murray