State-backed French pirate who became royal favourite

The Connexion recounts the astonishing story of privateer Jean Bart, a hero in his hometown of Dunkirk, and a commoner who rose through the ranks of French nobility thanks to an impressive seafaring ability

26 February 2020
By Samantha David

He was a warrior, a state-backed pirate, a leader, a killer. In his hometown, he remains a hero.

Jean Bart (1650-1702) was a giant in every sense who led an extraordinary life, much of it privateering on the high seas.

Born into a working family during an era not noted for social mobility, he nevertheless climbed the ladder until he was admitted to the aristocracy.

Astonishingly, given his career path to nobility, he was no all-night carouser, or given to unnecessary violence.

After hours, he was by all accounts a homebody, preferring a quiet life to the excitements of the royal court.

Born in Dunkirk (Nord), although his mother was Spanish, Bart almost certainly grew up speaking Dutch. His father, and his grandfather before him, had been sailors and, like many in Dunkirk, had fought for what is now called Holland.

By 11, Jean Bart had also gone to sea, as a cabin boy on a smuggling vessel under the command of Jérôme Valbué.

In 1666, France and the ‘Provinces-Unies’ (part of what is now Holland) were allied against England and it was natural that Dutch-speaking Jean Bart should enlist as a sailor on the Dutch vessel ‘Sept Provinces’ under the command of Michiel de Ruyter to fight the English.

He was tall, broad-shouldered and strong, he had an incredibly robust constitution, blue eyes, blond hair, and was generally easy-going. Accounts from the time credit him with common sense and a clear mind.

He was apparently sober, vigilant and fearless. He understood his profession perfectly. It was not long before De Ruyter gave Bart command of a brigantine in the fleet. So began an illustrious career.

By the time France declared war on Holland in 1672, he was an experienced commander with a solid fighting reputation, but because he was a commoner, he could not become an officer in the French Navy.

“He nevertheless wanted to fight for France rather than Holland,” said historian Christian Cardin, who is also president of the Association Tourville, which is reconstructing a ship from the era, using building methods from the era and basing the construction on two wrecks from 1692

“Perhaps he sided with the French because he was Catholic and the Dutch were Protestants, or perhaps just simply because he was French. Anyway, he became an irregular commander with the Dunkirk Privateers, fighting the Dutch.”

The Dunkirk Privateers were formed in the mid-1500s as a fleet of commerce raiders in the service of Spain, harrying trading ships from Spain’s enemies.

They were the scourge of Dutch trading ships. As private business realised the profits to be made by privateers, many of the ships became privately owned and outfitted.

At the time, Dunkirk was almost permanently blockaded by the Dutch but the Dunkirkers often managed to slip past them, exacting a heavy toll on the enemy fleet.

In 1646, the French and Dutch captured Dunkirk, briefly diminishing privateering activities substantially.

In 1652, the Spanish captured it again, and then in 1658 Dunkirk was captured by the French and English.

So in 1672, when France declared war on Holland, Jean Bart joined the Dunkirkers, and the following year, promoted to commander of the King David, set about capturing enemy vessels.

Sailing on behalf of the king, privateers kept a percentage of the value of each vessel captured, and soon Jean Bart began to amass money.

In 1675 (aged 25) he married Nicole Gontier (16), the daughter of a well-to-do innkeeper. She brought a handsome dowry, and in return he gave her a 10-canon frigate called L’Espérance, which he had seized from the Provinces-Unies.

In that year alone, he captured at least 20 more vessels.

He continued capturing vessels at an impressive rate, sending prisoners and treasure back to King Louis XIV, and began to attract attention.

Marine Minister Colbert sent him a gold chain in recognition of his exploits in 1676, and by the next year he was at the head of a fleet of six ships.

He was seriously wounded on the hands, face and legs by a grenade explosion in 1678, a few months before a peace treaty was signed between France and Holland.

In 1679, he finally became a lieutenant in the French Navy, although with France at peace with all her neighbours, there was not much to do.

Two years later he commanded La Vipère on an expedition of three ships, to drive pirates out of the Mediterranean.

But that year was marked by tragedy as his mother, daughter and wife all died.

“He was a good fighter, of course, who forced the enemy to respect him,” said Mr Cardin.

“He was a sophisticated navigator, who didn’t take enormous risks, but who won lots of prizes – which meant he found it easy to recruit crew (who also took a share of the prizes).

“Obviously in such a life there were lots of deaths, and illness. But he never had trouble recruiting because he was fair.

“He once said that when hiring, he only took those sailors who could look him straight in the eye. He was also known for treating prisoners fairly. He wasn’t much of a talker, but he obviously had a very humane side.”

In 1683, France went to war with Spain. Having again distinguished himself, Jean Bart was appointed a commander in the Royal French Navy in the endless merry-go-round of wars which constituted 17th century European politics.

In 1689, he and another commander, Claude de Forbin, were wounded, captured and taken to Portsmouth as English prisoners.

They escaped by filing through their prison bars, climbing down a rope made of bed sheets and rowing for three days across the English Channel.

In recognition of his achievements, Jean Bart was appointed Captain of the king’s ships.

Later that same year, at the age of 39, he remarried, and he and his second wife Jacqueline Tugghe went on to have nine children.

Eight would die in infancy, but an indirect descendent of the surviving child is a member of the Association Tourville.

Jean Bart’s rise continued. He broke the Dutch blockade of Dunkirk; he rescued France from famine by importing captured grain; he and Forbin destroyed so many Dutch herring boats that Holland was faced with famine; he also found time to sail to Scotland, pillage a castle and raze four villages.   

In 1692, he was invited to Versailles, and was the only person authorised to smoke in the king’s presence.

It was an extraordinary honour at a time when commoners never mixed with aristocrats.

“But he wasn’t keen on going to court, where courtiers would mock his manners and dress,” said Mr Cardin. “When he wasn’t at sea, he preferred to stay quietly at home.”

His adventures were far from over. In 1695, when the English were bombarding Dunkirk, Jean Bart and his son François-Cornil Bart (from his first marriage) defended Fort Bonne-Espérance.

A year later, he distinguished himself yet again, at the Battle of Dogger Bank.

He captured 112 merchant ships from the Baltic Sea.

Pursued by the English, his small fleet, plus the captured ships took refuge in Denmark – and, at the end of the summer, he managed to sail back to Dunkirk with 25 captured merchant ships and 1,200 prisoners.

In 1702, on the eve of the Spanish wars of succession, Jean Bart was equipping a fleet in Dunkirk when he developed pleurisy and died. He was 51.

He was buried in the Saint-Eloi church in Dunkirk.

He had been given the highest possible command of Dunkirk, and at the time of his death, shipbuilders in Le Havre had already begun construction of a ship, Le Fendant, commissioned by the king especially for Jean Bart – an unprecedented honour.

During an archaeological dig in the church in 1928, Jean Bart’s bones were discovered. From their measurements, it has been deduced that he was indeed an imposing 6’2” tall. Before being re-interred, the remains were placed in a glass coffin and exhibited in the church for a week.

The statue of Jean Bart by David d’Angers, which was erected in 1845 on the Place Jean Bart, is still considered the heart of Dunkirk (see photo above).

The ‘Cantate à Jean Bart’ a song detailing his achievements, was written to be performed at the inauguration of the statue and is still performed every year, by singers on bended knee before the statue, during the carnival celebrations leading up to Easter.

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