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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Jean Vauquelin...

is an unsung French hero who I stumbled across in my research of the French and Indian War. I know I have been totally remiss in posting as of late (magazine overload, lol!), but with France so much in the news and in the focus of all our minds due to the recent tragic events in Paris, I thought it would be apropos to share something about French courage and resilience.

     The year was 1760. The place was present-day Canada. General James had just led a successful assault against the French strong-hold of Quebec, and captured the city for the British. But the French weren’t ready to give up their claim to New France just yet, and they put up a gallant struggle to reclaim the province.

     One hero of France from his period was Jean Vauquelin. Born in Dieppe, France, in 1728, he was the son of a captain in the merchant marines. He served as a privateer during the War of Austrian Succession and was an active and inspired commander during the Seven Years’ War. In command of the 30-gun frigate Arethuse, he managed to run British Admiral Edward Boscawen’s blockade of Louisbourg, pick up vital dispatches from Governor Drucour, elude the British ships for a second time, and return to France.

    After the fall of Quebec to the British, Vauquelin mustered a small naval division to resupply Levis’ army during the Battle of Sillery. However, British ships reached Quebec first, and Levis decided it would be prudent to retreat to Montreal. Unfortunately, the order to go back up the river never reached Vauquelin, communications between the army and the navy being hampered by bad weather. On the morning of May 16, 1760, the British ships launched a surprise attack on the French supply ships. One of them was run aground by the enemy, but Vauquelin successfully protected a large French fleet of bateaux from being assaulted.

    Then he continued to fight a difficult rearguard battle with his flagship the Atalante facing off the British ships Diana and Lowestoft that lasted for nearly three hours. The British ship Vanguard under the command of Andrew Knox destroyed all of the lesser French transports, and only the small sloop of war La Marie was able to escape in one piece. Nevertheless, Vauquelin boldly fought on, slamming the British rigging with shot and tearing down the foretopmast steering sail of Diana.

    But even as the French sailors on Atalante cheered the havoc they were wreaking on the enemy fleet, they came to realize that their own ship was badly damaged and practically immovable. With both gunpowder and morale running low, the defiant Vauquelin had the French colours nailed to the mast and continued to lead his men, sword in hand, until the power completely ran out. Then he finally ordered the mizzen mast chopped down so that his surviving crew could use it as a raft to reach the shore. Meanwhile, he and his officers maintained their positions on deck, the French flag flying brazenly overhead, and Vauquelin standing proudly in front of the mast bearing the colours of his nation.

    After the surrender was finally enacted, the British commander, Commodore Robert Swanton, was so impressed with his fierce courage and skilled seamanship that he asked the French commander if their any personal favors he might like. Vauquelin responded that he wanted to be given parole to return to France and defend his actions as soon as possible. Swanton saw to it that he got his wish. Unfortunately, as soon as he set foot in his native land, government officials, in a display of unparalleled audacity, had him seized, thrown into prison, and court-martialed for losing the French fleet.

    Happily for him, Captain Vauquelin was eventually vindicated and promoted to the rank of fire-ship captain and then lieutenant commander. He went on to command several more ships in his lifetime and took part in a project to colonize Guiana for the French. He died at Rochefort, France in 1772. In Canada, he is remembered by French-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians cunning and courage and memorialized in a bronze statue in Old Montreal, which just happens to glare defiantly upwards at a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson at the top of the hill!

Vive La Jean Vauquelin!

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