Published on June 18th, 2015 | by Isabelle Karamooz, Founder of FQM0
Interview with Emeritus Professor and historian Patrick Villiers who talks about the reconstruction of the Hermione frigate
Credits of the interview
Editor of the interview: Isabelle Karamooz
Interviewer: Isabelle Karamooz
Editor: Isabelle Karamooz
Transcription & video: Pascale Nard
I.K. : Hello, Patrick Villiers
P.V. : Hello everyone, hello to the United States, to the French in America.
I.K. : Where did the royal fleet build the original Hermione?
P.V. : In France, the French fleet is in the arsenals. There are three major arsenals in France: Brest, Rochefort and Toulon. It was war time then, in 1777, so we were preparing for war, and Rochefort and Toulon were going to be major boat construction sites and Brest would be the place where we actually built the ships, but also for repairs and maintenance. The French war fleet was sixty ships, and although there were generally between thirty and forty in Brest, ten in Rochefort, and ten to twenty in Toulon, construction was in Rochefort.
At Rochefort, a war was brewing and we needed a new type of vessel that cost less than the Frigate warship. What is a Frigate?
A frigate is a warship, fifty to fifty-five meters long, forty meters high with a cannon deck; the cannon deck was the upper deck and below was a stowage that housed the crew; at the waterline and below you have the hold.
You have to understand that the sailors do not live in the hold, the hold is for food, it is for water, because a warship holds four months of water, sometimes six months of water and four months of food or six months of food.
When starting from France or England or Spain, a warship is autonomous for four to six months.
I.K. : Why is it said that the frigate Hermione is a frigate of twelve?
P.V. : A ship is defined by its number of guns, so we say a ship of fifty guns is a fifty vessel, the largest ship is one hundred and twenty guns. A frigate of twelve is the caliber of the gun. The frigate has a limited number of cannons, usually only twenty-six, thirteen guns on each side. The guns fire cannonballs and the balls are set by weight – eight pound ball, twelve pound ball twelve, or eighteen pound ball. A pound is five hundred grams. During the Seven Years War, eight frigates of increased power were built, for the American War of Independence twelve frigates were used and at the end, we used the frigates of eighteen that shot six and nine kilo cannonballs.
The English instead used the new template. That is to say, more than eight but less than twelve, thus four and a half kilos – a little less powerful.
I.K. : How many masts does a frigate have?
P.V. : The frigate has the same number masts as a warship. That is why it is said that the frigate has a royal ship rigging, that is to say, it has three masts. In fact, it has a tilted mast in the front called the Beaupre mast, a Misene mast, a central mast called the Grand Mast, and a rear mast called the Mizzen. In English, it’s the opposite. It is the Mizzen mast that is the second, they always put things in the opposite direction. There are three poles. The poles are very, very expensive. They are actually pine from Russia because it is necessary that the mast is flexible, large enough, the poles are offset from each other that’s why we speak of one, and we slide the three pieces, in total they reach to over forty meters high. Imagine going up in the rigging forty meters high and it moves! There is the wind, there is the sea, etc…
The best sailors are called the “Galliers.” It is very difficult to be Gallier, you must have sea legs.
I.K. : Are they hard to find, perhaps?
P.V. : Yes, it was very difficult. They were very scarce, and they were better paid.
I.K. : What is the role of a frigate?
P.V. : First, in peacetime, vessels were too expensive to sail. It’s two hundred men a vessel: that is four hundred, six hundred, eight hundred. So in peacetime we won’t arm the ships. During peacetime, if we have war missions or want to “show the flag” we will use the frigates. It costs less, and then in times of war, frigates serve as “scouts” for the war fleets, that is to say, they will go first out to sea, because there was no radar at the time to indicate what lies ahead in the sea. So we put frigates in front of the ships like that, and if the frigate was captured, the ship was not captured. And then there was another mission: frigates escorted colonial convoys. This was very important for France, England, and Spain.
Convoys had to travel between the Americas and Europe. It was the sale of colonial products that enriched Europe and vice versa. For one last mission, a frigate was used to transport ambassadors and governors. This was how Lafayette traveled, how Silas Deane returned to France from the United States, etc., etc.
I.K. : What is the road of cannons and guns?
P.V. : It’s a very nice association that has decided to revive the cannons because Rochefort (I say this to our American friends) Rochefort is a river called the Charente. The river has tributaries that go way far behind France, which dates back to the department is now called the Dordogne. These are areas where there was a lot of wine, a lot of alcohol, but also a lot of wood, and especially in the Dordogne, there were open pit iron ore deposits. In the Dordogne, the region at that time was called the Périgord. There were cannon forges in the Périgord. I restored a barn in the Périgord ten miles from a place called “La Tooth Forge.” This is “The Tooth Forge” that forged the guns of Lafayette’s frigate. There are two great places where iron cannons were manufactured in France: Nevers Nivernais, the Massif Central, and then Périgord. The guns weigh very heavy so as soon as one was built, we put them on the boats headed downriver. From the Dordogne to the Garonne, and then from the Garonne to the sea; arriving by the sea, we brought the guns to the Charente, where the guns were placed on the decks of frigates and vessels.
So we had the road of cannons and guns. The water was so bad that it made you sick, so many French sailors aboard French warships only drank wine. Wine… The king wanted to pay the lowest price possible for wine, so he bought Bordeaux wine, but of poor quality. He bought wines of Biscay and Loire wines. This wine was also largely exported to St. Domingo, to Martinique, and to Guadeloupe. So it was the road of wine and cannons because a warship cannot go without either wine or guns.
I.K. : How long did it take for the Hermione construction?
P.V. : The construction of the Hermione at the time was in preparation for war. The king had called upon all marine carpenters in France, mobilized all carpenters to go to the arsenals. This was the equivalent of military service, so they went to Brest, Rochefort and Toulon, and there, the thousands that had arrived we were able to build the Hermione in four months.
The Hermione needed 1500 hundred-year-old oaks, you can imagine, cut into pieces and trimmed, cut with a saw or with an adze and assembled, so it’s an extraordinary job. We see that the people of the time were wood-working professionals, construction experts, etc. It was the same in England and Spain. We begin to see the use of mills with power saws, but much of it was still done with sawing kinds of axes called adzes and planes to assemble the pieces of wood. Four months – it was extraordinary. That was to first construct the shell, after which then the cannons were added, the food, guns, and the masts.
I.K. : When we think about it now, we would estimate fifteen or eighteen years.
P.V. : Yes. What you are referring to is the duration of the construction of the Hermione today, for which there are a variety of explanations. First, we lost the “know-how.” In Europe, we didn’t know to build a ship in the manner of the eighteenth century. We had to look back at the old historical works, we went to see the old carpenters, had to re-teach people to do that. We had to find the wood. Because the old oaks in France are found in state forests, we had to ask the State, the Ministry of Water and Forests in France, for permission to take the wood. [We had to] find forked wood, good forms of wood, because we’re trying to find wood in natural forms, forked wood for the front or the back, curved timber for such and such pieces. This search has taken years. There is so much. There are “the sinews of war” called money. The association has survived with the help of the town of Rochefort, the Regional Council, but basically it was the visitors and people who are excited for this association kept it alive. You should know that there were four million visitors who came to see the construction of Hermione. This is incredible!
I have visited dozens of times of course. It is an extraordinary vessel that is wonderful to see.
I.K. : What was the duration of the crossing?
P.V. : So the crossing of the Hermione. In fact, there are two routes to go from France to the United States. There’s “the road of cod fishermen.” The cod fishing boats would leave from Saint Malo, departing from the English Channel to go along New England and then arriving on the banks of Newfoundland.
If you look at a chart you see that the longitude is the same. Brest’s latitude is that of New York and Quebec, meaning that when you take your sail boat and you start from Brest going to Rochefort, the course is directly west. The winds coming from Europe to America are westerly winds, so frigates and sailing ships will have headwinds. The crews suffered and it took thirty-five to forty-five days, sometimes less, most of the time. The boats suffered. Or, you took the route of the Jesuits. The route of the Jesuits is also the route of the Portuguese, that is to say, first go down to the Canaries and then turn toward New York or Philadelphia. The winds are going to be calmer; the trip will be more comfortable. You travel a longer distance, but it is less difficult. It is this route that Hermione took.
I.K. : Who is the commander who led the Hermione to America?
P.V. : At the time? The commander, Latouche Treville, was quite an amazing figure. Quite interesting, but mostly he was his father’s son. His father was the commander of the arsenal port of Rochefort. From the time of Napoleon I, the commander of the port was the maritime prefect. The maritime prefect helped to promote his son. When war came, he gave him a corvette, because he was a lieutenant. A corvette is a small frigate. With this corvette, Latouche Treville was to take many English privateers. The king congratulated him and when a frigate was to be available, the king would give his consent to Latouche Treville to take command; he thus receives command of the Hermione in 1779, a year and a half before Lafayette would board. With this frigate, he escorted convoys, making transatlantic voyages to fight against pirates. He proved himself to be a very brilliant sailor.
I.K. : What is the name of the commander of the British ship Hermione fought in the Bay of Long Island?
P.V. : When Latouche Treville reached the US coast, he didn’t know the American coast well enough to go to Boston. There was no pilot, so he intercepted a ship that turned out to be an American privateer. The American privateer said, “I know the route to Marmalade.” So he went to to Marmalade and took aboard a pilot to return to Boston. From that time, Latouche Treville is put at the disposal of the United States Congress. For a year and a half he will remain available to the Congress of the United States and battle against the English cruisers along the US coast. That’s how they ended up off Long Island. Here, he intercepted a frigate called Iris. It was a very hard fight on either side. Many were wounded or killed, and both sides claimed victory.
However, Latouche Treville later engaged with La Perouse off Quebec. They intercepted a British convoy, the convoy of Louisbourg, and captured its corvettes and commercial vessels.
Louis XVI ordered a painting of the battle of Louisbourg. It is the only document where you have a painting of the frigate Hermione.
I.K. : Why the association Hermione – Lafayette decide to rebuild the Hermione, the replica of the frigate La Fayette in 1997?
P.V. : It was started by a group of friends who were all from Rochefort. The port of Rochefort was closed as an arsenal after the first World War. There is an association to revive Rochefort. It said, “we have to find something,” and they got the idea to build a boat. A ship was too much wood, too expensive, too difficult etc. A corvette was too small. They said, “We will build a frigate.” A frigate, we must find a frigate that impacted history, which was built in Rochefort. “There was an extraordinary frigate, Hermione, so we will rebuild the Hermione.”
I.K. : Why has the reconstruction of the 21st century Hermione taken so long?
P.V. : I already told you a little bit. First there was a problem of money, and then I told you there was a problem of wood, and a problem of knowledge. We had to first find model makers that would reconstruct a model of Hermione, then we had to find shipyards who would agree to take the risk to build it. It took a series of institutions to give their agreement because that the frigate Hermione today is a frigate that must navigate in accordance with international standards. For example, international standards require engines. So, Hermione is forced to have engines.
At the beginning they said: “We will try to sail.” But, you cannot enter a port in Europe or the US without an engine.
I.K. : It would be difficult to do with…
P.V. : There would be problems. There would be extraordinary management costs so we put the engines.
I.K. : For the American campaign, the crew was about two hundred people. Today, the professional crew of seventeen sailors was helped by fifty volunteer enthusiast sailors who were very knowledgeable and passionate. Could you talk about the crew of yesterday and today? What qualities must the sailors have?
P.V. : We will first talk about the crews of yesteryear. There were two ways to recruit a crew. The English system was very simple. If there weren’t enough men to staff a war ship, they “scooped” up men who were unfortunate enough to be walking along the ports without a place to stay. That is, they were forced into service for a period of 18 months to 2 years. The French and the Dutch tried to do the same, but as they were on continental Europe, the men escaped and the French and Dutch ports were emptied. So France and Holland had, more or less, male volunteers. The Dutch had more because they paid well – twice the amount of the French or English. France envisioned an intermediate system from the time of Louis XIV. It was Colbert who invented that. We created the maritime parishes and in these maritime parishes all men are accounted for and at eighteen, he agrees to either be a sailor or not. If he is a sailor the King may, until you are disabled, have him commandeer on boat.
In peacetime, you are a sailor for trade purposes, but in wartime trade stops and men are forced to go on warships. This is what we call the system of classes. The king compensates you by reducing your taxes, and if you die your wife will be a widow’s pension. If you have children they will be orphans of the Navy and it will give you a number of advantages … It’s a small “social security.”
The fate of French sailors was much better than the English, but French sailors will be old because you start at eighteen years old, but you can be twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty years old. The French sailors were often married with children, so they are very loyal to the king, they are very loyal to the republic and the empire. They are very nationalistic. These were highly trained sailors, but there wasn’t enough of them, so in times of war, after a while, there is a lack of highly trained sailors, so people who knew much less began to navigate the boats. Take the crew of Hermione: there are two hundred men, but only a hundred sailors. Who are the others? The officers. There are very few officers on board (English or French), six officers including the commander is really very little. So, the commander, the second in command, and three or four guards of the Navy. Six men command in the officer corps. Below there are essential men called the Masters Quarters Seconds or Masters called “Mauscos.” These are petty officers, they are sailors. They are the elite, that is, the best sailors who are very highly paid. The captain gets along very well with them, for no commander can sail without his petty officers. Below you have the sailors to handle the guns. You have soldiers, ground troops anywhere from forty to eighty, and then came the youngest sailors. There were twenty to thirty sailors that were 10, 11, or 12 years old. In some larger English crews there could be sailors as young as nine years old, you can imagine! There, life was terrible. In the French case, there were sailors younger than on the English ships because they came with their father, uncle or their guardian because the bond of the Catholic religion was so strong.
On French warships crews board by parish. For example, I’ve found the logs of the crew of Hermione, and I can tell you that there are so many here from Rochefort, from Dieu island, from the island of Oléron. They are not isolated. They are in groups of five, six, seven, eight, so there was a small family relationship that allows them to be less alone on board. (In the English system one was all alone). Because of this, we have always said that life on board a French ship was better than on an English one, but it was still a very hard life.
Today’s crew consisted of 17 professional sailors (which would be our petty officers at the time) and then you have young men and girls we trained who will furl the sails. You have to forget the movies, Captain Bligh, the mutineers of the Bounty – forget all that. A warship mast is forty meters high, and when the wind rises, when the wind increases, the risk was enormous of losing the sailors who fell.
So unless you are sued because there was a fight, when the wind gets too strong, we cargue (we return the sails) and when the wind calms we navigate from the base of the sails; instead of up to forty meters high you climb more than fifteen or twenty meters. It’s still good, but we’ll spare the crew, because the crew gets tired quickly. A good commander will calculate the weather and take precautions. The commander of the Hermione, Cariou, is an extraordinary man.
I.K. : Could you explain to what daily life is like on the Hermione?
P.V. : Daily life on Hermione, in times of war, the crew is at a maximum and the risk of encountering an enemy ship is permanent; the whole crew is always ready for combat. As on all ships of both yesterday and today, people are divided into two groups, those on the port side and those on the starboard side. There is always a group who sleeps while the other works and vice versa. A 24 hour day is divided into six-hour and four-hour shifts. The day starts early at six in the morning, usually starts with a prayer or a Mass if it’s Sunday, then we take a first lunch, then we make the exchange. The starboard group works while the port group heads down and goes to sleep four hours while the others are maneuvering, so there mixtures.
I.K. : Where do they sleep?
P.V. : When you visit the Hermione you will see. Under the gun deck, above the waterline, there you have a space of five feet tall. In this space we have hammocks that are suspended, England, Spain, France, everyone has the same pattern. There is one hammock for two men, each has its starboard watch and port watch counterpart.
On each ship everyone has a role and every moment of the day, everyone knows where he belongs. To sleep, you take the hammock of your counterpart.
You share his lice, you share his illnesses, his fever (sometimes his wife). That’s why we say that every sailor is amicoté (each has his double).
That’s when everything is going well, or when it’s nighttime. When the sun rises and the frigate is (for example) charged with protecting a convoy, she will look for ships that are scattered to force them to get back in the convoy. Up top, the lookout watches for enemy sails and if there are no enemy sails, if the navigation is smooth, there was the four hour rotation with the crew working the sails. At the same time tasks are assigned, such as mending the sails, or checking the guns for soldiers in weapons handling.
Anyway, a good captain will always keep a sailor busy, or he might develop other ideas. The sailor must never be unoccupied. Lunch comes at noon and again in the afternoon, between six and eight in the evening. If all goes well, a little quiet way of life will settle, with the officers in the rear, the petty officers in the middle, and the sailors in the front.
What I forgot to tell you is that what is true for warships is also true of some commercial vessels: the back is for the officers, the middle is for the petty officers and the soldiers, and the front is for the sailors. Each space is separated. A sailor cannot go to see an officer without having asked, otherwise he may receive lashes. At the same time, unless there is a particular reason, neither the Captain, nor the second will go to the front where the crew rests. When the crew at the front is resting, singing, playing music, the time to relax is just before dark. At 8pm, everyone must either be asleep or in the canopy. It was a very orderly life because the boat is a very small space. Otherwise, the risk of conflicts between people would be great. You can imagine that the captain-stateroom cabin is only four meters by three meters, the second has a cabin he shared for meals with the officers; for the other officers there was a cabin of canvas that was five feet wide. Through this canvas cabin you could hear coughing, snoring etc. And the smell! It is a very hard life for officers and men, it needed to be structured in order to avoid conflicts. You all know the Mutiny on the Bounty, you saw.
I.K. : How did the sailors feed themselves in the past?
P.V. : There were two types of food: food for the officers and food for the crew.
Officers and privileged people like Lafayette were fed at the table of the captain. The captain had his own cook and his own servants who prepared food for the staff and passengers.
This was “special” food because it was the captain who bought all of the food and the king and the passengers repaid him. It was a very important role in the crew to be nourished at the table. (So, at the captain’s table). Here, the food was better. For one thing, there was no refrigerator. When you sail, the vessel is loaded with fresh food.
What does that mean? They are going to load sheep, sometimes cattle, chickens and kill them as needed. When the boat leaves, you can imagine that there are a dozen sheep with straw, fifty hens in cages (that’s why some warships have called them the “chicken cages”) and at the beginning, eggs are gathered and after, the hens are eaten.
This was the food of the officers.
The crew! The crew will have a little bit of fresh food in the beginning. Basically, they ate dried meat (the best dried meat is beef). The Navy bought dried meat, and cheese (from Holland) that keeps for seventy days. Also, the Navy used a lot of bread, it was a kind of bread that was manufactured in the arsenals. It was a kind of very hard rusk – sailors dip it in the water and wine to soften it. Because they were very religious, there were days of fasting or days with dried fish, mostly cod, and on “les jours de gras” they could eat some corned beef.
I.K. : Before Hermione, Lafayette and Victory went to Bordeaux in 1777 to lend a hand to American independence, could you briefly reconstruct the story of the Marquis and his revolutionary epic, and the day of the real start for America?
P.V. : Lafayette was very young, 17 years old, and contrary to legend, he was a minor. It will be important that, at the age of twenty-five, in September 1782, he bought a mansion on Bourbon Street. He left the mansion to his step-mother and step-father who were honored Faubourg Saint. His first act of independence was to buy his mansion at only twenty-five years old. Until the age of twenty-five, he had been under the economic tutelage of his stepfather and stepmother, and under the supervision of a business lawyer who countersigned all of his letters.
I found all the accounts of Lafayette made by his guardian, and it is clear that La Fayette at 17, in contrast to what he says in his memoirs, could not have said, “I’m buying a boat.” This is not possible, because he never saw the sea. Bordeaux, he never set foot in Bordeaux. Lafayette actually embarked for the United States as an aide to the Earl of Breuil. Because the Earl of Breuil hoped the Congress would appoint him, instead of Washington, he sent French military staff with a boat load of weapons, ammunitions, uniforms, loaded with money, because he knew that the United States wasn’t able to pay such staff. So the Earl of Breuil came with his military officials.
The Earl of Breuil was the former head of the secret armies of Louis XV, so he left with the help of Louis XVI, (we know that there was help from Louis XVI, because Louis XVI gave four million pounds to Beaumarchais, the famous writer and poet, to buy weapons for insurgents).
From 1776, Beaumarchais sent boats (many of which arrived in Boston) with the secret help of the Spanish. There was a boat is called the Seine (named for the river Seine) but the French were not discrete and the English ambassador noticed. The ambassador asked Louis VVI, under threat of war, that he end the Seine’s activity. And so, Breuil can no longer provide his military officers, either.
It is at this point that lafayette intervened because Lafayette was a victim of a reform of the French army. He was second in command of the regiment Noailles when the king decided that all the regiments should be halved, so Lafayette, who had been second captain no longer had officer work. He was available for the American campaign, and as his father died in the arms of the Earl of Breuil in the war of seven years, he went to see the Earl who said okay to Lafayette’s participation, but Lafayette could not leave without the advice of the king. Although Lafayette says otherwise, that account is wrong because the archives show differently.
I found a Beaumarchais loan of fifty thousand pounds, which corresponds to the purchase of the cargo off Beaumarchais. It was the secret service, it was Louis XVI, it was Breuil who named Foreign Minister Vergennes, so it was at the height of diplomacy; but we couldn’t declare war on England, because the French fleet had not yet finished being rearmed. We were rebuilding the fleet
It would not be ready until 1778. In 1777, we needed to be discreet, so we left from Bordeaux. Who was the governor of Bordeaux? The Duke of Mouchy, The Duke of Mouchy who was he? He was the brother of the Duke D’Ayen’s uncle by marriage of Lafayette.
Governor Mouchy ran what was called the Trumpet Castle in Bordeaux. Trumpet Castle was the Bordeaux fortress that was demolished (which is the place of quincunx, the city square, today). What was here? There was a warehouse of forty thousand guns – the guns that the King sold to Beaumarchais and Lafayette to go to the United States.
Accounting for Lafayette is very clear. When he embarked in March on Victory on the day he boarded the Victory, he signed ten bills of exchange to the ship owner, his friends around him who bought the cargo. He became half-owner of the cargo. We have one final piece of proof – that in the castle of La Grange, Lafayette’s castle, (Lafayette two castles, Savagniac and La Grange) there was a letter that has been preserved (that I publish in my book) and this letter is a letter from his stepmother, Duchess of Ayen, signed by his wife Adrienne that said to the ship owner Reculé Beau De Marin, “Mr. De La Fayette will buy, in Charleston, cargo of one hundred thousand pounds of rice, please make sure.” What happened next? Six thousand rifles were sold in Charleston, (they were actually sold, we have evidence of this) are sold to Coic (not sure of the name) who was friend of the banker Maurice who held a seat in the United States Congress. Roughly, the guns were to be sold for one hundred and fifty thousand pounds. Twenty-five thousand pounds were to go to Charleston authorities, Lafayette kept twenty-five thousand pounds to buy carriages and horses to go from Charleston to Philadelphia and with the hundred thousand pounds, he bought rice.
Why? Because this rice would be sold in Santo Domingo, one hundred and fifty thousand pounds. In other words, the money from the first shipment of guns and rice would then pay for the military campaign of Lafayette.
The boat is insured, he’s right, because a few days after Lafayette’s departure for Philadelphia, the Victory is shipwrecked. Because of the insurance, and because part of the cargo was saved, La Fayette lost only the price of insurance. He would have lost twenty thousand pounds on a cargo of one hundred thousand pounds, had he not been insured…
Fortunately his step-mother and Adrienne insured it. At the same time, in his memoire, Lafayette says, “My mother and my wife were not aware of anything.” They were not aware of anything and yet they ensure the boat! How fortunate! In reality, Lafayette’s expedition was organized by the family of Ayen with the secret help of Louis XVI.
When Lafayette came before the Congress of the United States with the letters of Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette was rich. He had become rich from the sales of weapons. He came before the Congress and said, “I want to be a general and I will serve at my own expense.” That is to say, he would serve free of charge.
He had earned more from the cargo of the Victory than 10 years’ worth of salary of an American general. He wasn’t going to ask the Congress for money it did not have.
Then, something extraordinary happened. Lafayette was no longer a young man who had come to find an adventure. Lafayette finds the US, but he does not encounter the United States by the sea, he meets the United States in Philadelphia, then he meets the United States with Washington.
I.K. : So, three years before the start of Hermione?
P.V. : Yes. So Lafayette was pouring his blood for the United State (You know that there is nothing more beautiful than for an American to shed his blood), from that point on, he became truly American, was adopted by the American people. He fought bravely, so they gave him a military command. (This, too, is something we never emphasize enough – we always talk about the politician Lafayette, but he was also a very brilliant military man). He was very bright in this campaign and then after when he was with with Admiral d’Estaing in Boston, and Lafayette would again be a large military presence in the campaign in Virginia – that’s back when he returns from the Hermione.
He again comes before the Congress of the United States. The Congress gave him the army and he went to Virginia to fight against Cornwallis. Lafayette was a very brilliant military because he didn’t not fight as the Europeans did, he didn’t like the British troops who are professional troops, marching, who have weapons. Rather, he fought as the American insurgents fought, that is to say, with a knowledge of the terrain, mobility, crossing with horses, using swimming and sniping to trip up the enemy.
I.K. : Have you ever put yourself in the shoes of Lafayette?
P.V. : Yes yes yes! First, to admire him deeply. You have to imagine that this boy of seventeen and a half really put his life on the line. There were a lot of French officers who had been killed. Baron Cab who had come with him, who was his companion, was killed in 1780. He had no guarantee of coming back alive, so he abandoned his wife and children to follow his dream. He dreamt of glory, he wanted to be a general and he had the ambition of military glory. He would become a great soldier, and he did it from the age of seventeen to twenty-five. Everyone thinks of Benjamin Franklin, but everyone did not have Franklin’s age there were lots of very young Americans who offered their lives for their country.
I.K. : Is it important for a historian to put himself in the shoes of a character?
P.V. : Yes. One cannot write about a character if you do not have some empathy, some sympathy. At the same time you are in your office or in the archives trying to find documents, you are also immersed in someone’s real life, with all of the daily occurrences that we are not familiar with today. The eighteenth century was the century of odor, a stench that did not wash off. Lafayette had an average of four to six servants, two to four support this camp so that meant that he did not have to deal with ironing clothes or preparing food, with simple officers doing the washing themselves. There was a whole camp life to manage.
Lafayette (you all know) is shown at Bell Forge in the cold, the cold he knew very well because at Castle Chavagniac he faced the cold.
There was a fireplace in the cold room and so we knew, these are people were experienced, accustomed to living outdoors. They were not urbanites, like us.
These were people who had a very rough life, very hard.
I.K. : Do you think Hermione will excite the United States? Is this recreation of Lafayette’s voyage a way to show that we not forgotten the links between France and the United States?
P.V. : I hope Americans are excited about the Hermione because it is a reconstruction of extraordinary frigate. Of course, in the US they have their frigates, the Constitution and the Constellation, which were built ten years later in 1794 and 1796.
The riggings (boats) were iron rigs that had more wood. We restored them, that made them navigate through to the 19th century, and you will see that a wooden rig is a little different but the overall look of the Constitution and the Constellation resembles Hermione.
The Hermione will head there and they will see all this maneuvering crew and this crossing, which is of course exciting. Mostly, what I hope is that there will be a few trips, crossings back and forth between France and the United States.
I.K. : It is important not to forget the friendship between France and the United States.
P.V. : It is important to not forget that Lafayette, on Hermione, announced the arrival of Rochambeau and his six thousand professional soldiers Wing De Ternay, but it would not be enough because the English had thirty thousand. Rochambeau’s six thousand were not enough. To earn the victory at Yorktown, it would require the French fleet of Earl De Grace, who escorted a large convoy of supplies, ammunition to protect Martinique, Guadeloupe and Santo Domingo to arrive. Then, De Grace will take the French troops who were protecting Santo Domingo and embark on his warships and arrive at Yorktown where, thanks to maneuver of Lafayette, Wallis locked himself in the peninsula of Yorktown. The peninsula of Yorktown took three maneuvers: Rochambeau’s army, the American troops with Lafayette and the French troops of Count De Saint Simon disembarking from French war ships. This managed to create a power play that would allow the victory of Yorktown. You see, this is amazing.
I.K. : Why is the reconstruction of the Hermione important to you as an historian?
P.V. : I’m an historian of colonial trade and navy, and to be able to see a large picture of what today only remains in maps, is extraordinary.
When we see finally that between fifty and sixty sailors maneuvered such massive sails, when there was no radar, without all these navigation aids of today, it is here that we realize that it was a very large undertaking.
There are ways of playing, that is to say, there were shipwrecks and then the other way to read, ultimately, there was not much wrecked it.
It’s amazing to see boats like that, I must say that I have the greatest respect for those who will sail on the boat; Cariou, the commander, and the other one have to be very, very good sailors and we will train others. Boat reconstructions allow us to find knowledge that has been partially lost.
I.K. : Finally, I would like to introduce our readers to your book “La Fayette Dreaming of Glory” of Monelle Hayot editions. Will you briefly tell us about your book, then your future projects?
P.V. : This book is co-authored, written with Dr. Laurence Chatel de Brancion for the very simple reason that the life of Lafayette is very long, and I am a connoisseur of sailing ships and the whole of the period 1700 – 1795, but the political interests me less than the economic life. Ms. Chatel Brancion, she is a specialist in politics and freemasonry in the French Revolution, under Napoleon and the Empire. Louis XIV, so quickly decimated, unfortunately will disappear very quickly.
Lafayette is a French character who lived the longest, he died in 1834, who saw the French Revolution. During the French Revolution, it goes wrong because it’s a little “French Washington” and he would make political mistakes. It was a very complicated period, few of the first French political men survived. Half were guillotined, the Girondins executed the Feulients, the Jacobins executed the Girondins, and then the Jacobins themselves were guillotined with the death of Robespierre.
After this came the episode of Napoleon’s Executive Board. Lafayette had barely survived all this time and he was going to participate (this was his great acclaim to glory) to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This is an essential aspect of the work and life of Lafayette. Lafayette has always been committed to human rights, and in 1788, it was he who wins (with others) the right for French Protestants to again become full citizens. He also voted for an amendment to the status of Jews (this is something that we forget today), then he took up the abolition of slavery.
He had written on several occasions since 1782 to Washington that we abolish slavery in the United States and Washington replied that the time had not yet come. Lafayette would then buy a plantation in Guyana with slaves, for he said that those slaves were transformed into employees to become free men. No one before him had thought to do that. His experiment was interrupted by the French Revolution, and ultimately it was Adrienne who cared much more than Lafayette, but on the other hand, when the revolution was over and Lafayette returned to the US in 1824 again, he did everything he could (based on US coastal and Freemasonry) for the emancipation of slaves in the US. This was his last fight; the independence of Poland (it will not succeed) and he will play a major role in the independence of Italy. These are his last fights, that is, for the European ideal and the idea of human rights.
I.K. : Your trip back to the United States.
P.V. : I will be invited twice to the United States: once in Vermont in June where I’ll present the first trip of Lafayette on the Victory, how it was an expedition that was largely supported by the King of France and the family of Lafayette. I will participate in a major exhibition to be held in New York on Lafayette and the abolition of slavery. I am currently working on the papers of Lafayette, the plantation of Guyana, that are in the archives of Aix en Provence and of Paris.
I.K. : Thank you for this interview. See you soon.
P.V. : See you soon.