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Marine of Revolution & Consulate

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Marine of Revolution & Consulate
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Author(s): Moreau de Jonnès
Date Published: 2008/06
Page Count: 224
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-469-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-470-6

A soldier of revolution

The wars of the French Revolution are justifiably dominated by the masterful figure of Napoleon. His rapid rise to power, initially as general, then as First Consul and ultimately as Emperor has created the popular perception of the epoch. But by the time Napoleon began his meteoric rise to power the revolution itself was well established. The author of this book Moreau de Jonnes was a true child of the revolutionary period. Taken from his studies as a future lawyer in 1791 he never again returned to his intended profession. He was drafted into the National Guard during the doomed attempt at constitutional monarchy and thereafter into the Marine Artillery where he began an experience of continual war for the next 15 years. We follow de Jonnes to the siege of Toulon, to engagements against the Royal Navy at sea, to Quiberon Bay, the Irish Rebellion and finally to service in the Caribbean. This is an unusual and rare first hand account of the early years that formed the First Empire and is not to be missed by any student of the period.

Fresh injustices had worn out the patience of the sailors manning the Portsmouth squadron commanded by Admiral Bridport. In the month of April they, by a common accord, addressed petitions to Parliament in which they complained bitterly of the harsh treatment and brutal punishments to which they were subjected; they called attention to the inadequacy of their rations and the bad quality of the food, and finally to the miserable insufficiency of their pay, which had not been increased since the days of Charles II.<br>
Three admirals, sent on board the Queen Charlotte to confer with the men's delegates, tried to intimidate them, and one of them, Gardner, swore on his soul that every fifth man would be hanged. These threats had an entirely opposite result to what was expected; the men became angry in their turn and nearly manhandled the admirals. The Royal George hoisted the red flag in sign of mutiny and called a meeting of delegates throughout the fleet, who landed their officers, refusing to recognise their authority any longer.<br>
The details of these counts, which I have abridged, were already known to the commissary, but their official confirmation caused him great satisfaction; and his exclamations left me in no doubt but that he had been instructed to get into touch with the mutineers and make them proposals in conformity with their situation. It was the revenge for Quiberon. But the newspapers which had appeared after his departure from Paris announced an unexpected turn in the situation. Whilst Fox and Whitehead, in the House of Commons, accused the minister Pitt of being the cause of the revolt and forced him, despite his indomitable will, to enter into negotiations, the Board of Admiralty had gone to Portsmouth and had used the personal influence wielded by their senior member, old Admiral Howe, to bring the mutineers to a more reasonable frame of mind.<br>
Without him Parliament would have granted their demands to no purpose, and it was only the respect and affection in which this famous sailor was held by the fleet which caused it to return to duty. The delegates came ashore to fetch the Admiral, and since he was seventy-two years of age and gouty, they carried him on their shoulders aboard each ship. He was accompanied by his wife. Order was immediately established, the red flag hauled down, and the squadron prepared to put to sea to fight the French.<br>
This astounding ending to a formidable mutiny which suddenly died down at the sight of an old man and an old woman, coupled with a faith in a certain number of illusory promises, seemed to me one of the most extraordinary aberrations of the human mind recorded in all history. The commissary was completely taken aback. I consoled him by reading a short article which stated that grave fears were entertained regarding the Thames squadron anchored at the Nore, many signs of mutiny having been reported amongst its crews.<br>
It appeared that the captain and his passengers were bound by their instructions to persist in the object of our expedition, at least up to a certain point, for we continued our course and sailed up the Channel as far as Havre; we then crossed towards the English coast as though we intended to go to Newhaven.<br>
It was a dangerous voyage. We met a number of small coasting vessels, but each was attending to his business, and we seemed far too small and inoffensive to attract attention. Besides, our landing was calculated to take place at night. When towards nightfall we reached the waters which bathe the cliffs of Sussex the captain searched carefully for some object which should have been in view. I thought at first that he wished to get into touch with one of the villages whose lights we saw, and whose inhabitants chiefly consist of smugglers. His purpose became plain when with his telescope he picked out a vessel anchored at the opening of a bay. He immediately manoeuvred to approach it and burnt a blue flare, which was answered by a yellow one. The commissary was delighted and made no secret of it; he was impatient to go on board this vessel; but unhappily the breeze had fallen completely, and our boat, instead of advancing, had great difficulty in keeping its position, the Channel current tending to throw her back. A quarter of an hour passed without progress; the captain and the commissary were on tenterhooks; the former because the situation of his ship was extremely dangerous, the latter because he had almost attained his objective without being able to reach it, and because the appearance of a coastguard cutter might force us to haul off without profiting by information from which he was obviously expecting much. There was one means to put an end to this anxiety; this was to launch a boat and row to the vessel which had replied to our signals; but the captain refused, and it was sorely against his will that he eventually agreed. The gig was prepared and manned by two picked men to handle the oars; the commissary asked that I should command it, and took his place beside me. Although he was not to let us out of his sight, the captain gave me my instructions and recommended the greatest prudence; he personally inspected our arms and, in addition, had two loaded blunderbusses placed in the boat. Every one knows that these are short muskets with a bell-mouthed barrel holding a charge of some fifteen bullets.<br>
The moonlight permitted me to examine the vessel which we were going aboard. She was a large schooner, well equipped, and appeared to have four men on board. This number did not worry us, since our forces were great. On coming alongside we were welcomed in French by the words <I>"Messieurs, soyez les bienvenus."</I> They were the exact words destined to assure the commissary that he was among friends; he was invited on board as well as ourselves, and, doubtless to aid us to make up our minds, a bowl of punch was announced I remained deaf to these compliments, but the commissary went on deck and entered into close conversation with the captain of the schooner.<br>
So far nothing had disclosed the existence of a trap, only the insistence upon our coming aboard to take part in a friendly drink had aroused distrustful suspicions.<br>
Following my orders the sailor in the bows of the gig was watching the English schooner's foredeck whilst the other sailor and myself paid our undivided attention to her quarter-deck. <br>
He came and whispered in my ear that several men appeared to be hidden under some sails thrown on the deck near the bowsprit. Considering the distance at which we were from our own ship, which was unable to come to our aid, we were evidently lost. I seized a blunderbuss, and the first seaman, who had orders to imitate me in everything, did the same. At this moment the commissary raised his voice, either refusing to do something, such as to go between decks, for example, or else to call us on board. The sound of scuffling was heard, then a shot, and the fall of a body on the deck. Simultaneously along the schooner's side above our heads appeared not four men but double that number, who treated us to a discharge from pistols and muskets.