The adventures of seafarer Jean Bart read like the chapters of a buccaneering novel
When the British finally caught Jean Bart in 1689 it was quite a coup. A Dunkirk-based privateer sailing on behalf of Louis XIV, Bart had wrought havoc up and down the English Channel for 15 years by the time two 50-gun warships bore down on his 24-gun frigate off the Isle of Wight as he escorted a captured Dutch ship to Brest.
It was the early stages of what would become the Nine Years’ War in which an expansionist France, powerful under Louis, was facing resistance from a wide coalition of European states. The capture of the charismatic sea captain was considered a major blow to French hopes.
Bart and a fellow officer named Claude de Forbin, both wounded during capture, were taken to Plymouth but soon charmed the governor of the gaol into dining with them regularly (despite the fact a badly injured Forbin had been stripped naked on arrival and left that way). Won over by their clubbable bonhomie and cultured civility, the governor transferred his highly-prized captures out of the vulgar surroundings of the prison to more amenable accommodation in a room above a local inn. Bars were fixed over the window and sentries posted outside but it was still a great improvement on a draughty, damp cell. Forbin even had his clothes returned.
Bart realised this unconventional imprisonment offered his best chance of escape and he began to plan accordingly, especially when by chance stormy weather forced a French fishing boat with a relative from Ostend in its crew into Plymouth for shelter. When the fisherman learned of his kinsman’s incarceration nearby he was permitted to visit him at the inn – and managed to surreptitiously hand over a large metal file. Bart instructed his visitor to locate a boat in which they could escape across the Channel and commenced sawing through the window bars. The sentries, delighted to find themselves being paid to sit in a pub, spent most of their watches in drunken stupors, allowing their charges’ task to be a little easier than it might have been.
Once the bars had been dealt with, the Ostend fisherman stole a boat and under cover of darkness signalled to Bart and Forbin that all was ready. With their guards snoring happily outside the door the pair descended via knotted bedsheets and crept through the darkened streets to the harbour.
The night was calm and a perfectly-timed fog had descended to aid an undetected departure. The men slipped their boat into the water and heaved away on the oars in the direction of France. As they left the harbour a patrolling British naval cutter loomed up, a dark silhouette in the mist, demanding to know what kind of vessel they were.
“Fishing boat,” called Bart casually in the best English accent he could muster. The cutter passed on.
For two and a half days they rowed in the fast-running Channel tides, always at risk of discovery by British vessels, until they finally made landfall just outside St Malo on the coast of Brittany. Approached by sentries tasked with preventing Huguenot refugees from escaping to England, Bart and Forbin learned that they’d been given up for dead. The return of Bart in particular provided a valuable boost to French morale, and freed up the swashbuckling seaman to dominate events in the Channel for many more years to come.
He came from a long line of military and maritime figures. Born in Dunkirk in 1650 to a soldier father who died in battle fighting for the Dutch against the English in 1668 – it’s possible Dutch was Bart’s first language – and a Spanish mother, his grandfather Coril Weus had been a sea captain fighting for the Spanish against the Dutch during the Eighty Years War. His great-grandfather Michel Jacobsen was a privateer and also a respected pilot who shepherded what remained of the traumatised Spanish Armada back to safety in 1588. Awarded the Cross of St James by Philip of Spain for his actions against the Dutch and the English, Weus earned the nickname ‘the fox of the seas’ from ally and adversary alike. In 1622 Bart’s great-uncle Jan Jacobsen blew up himself and his ship in the English Channel rather than surrender to the Dutch.
Such illustrious ancestry made it inevitable that Jean Bart would go to sea. At the age of 11 in 1662 he joined the crew of a corsair and five years later was on the Seven Provinces when it participated in the audacious Dutch raid on the River Medway that scored impressive successes against English ships at Chatham dockyard, towing away the Royal Navy’s flagship the Royal Charles in the process to cause maximum humiliation.
When Louis XIV declared war on the Dutch in 1672 Bart aligned himself with the French king and began to build a formidable reputation for harassing shipping in both the Channel and the North Sea. During the war with the Dutch he skippered his vessel through six battles in which he captured 81 ships, achievements so notable that he was made an officer of the French navy, the first time a man not born into the nobility had been elevated beyond the ranks.
By the 1690s, following his breathtaking escape from Plymouth, Bart began setting about the Dutch North Sea herring fleets in an effort to starve out the nation, on two occasions battering his way through an attempted blockade made up of English ships designed to prevent him leaving Dunkirk, his seven frigates proving too much for the greatest navy in the world to handle.
Arguably his greatest achievement came in June 1694. With his son Francois, who would go on to become a vice admiral, he’d already successfully defended Dunkirk against English attacks as two successive grain crop failures and a string of Channel blockades had left France in in the grip of famine leading to thousands of deaths. A desperate French government managed to secure a convoy of 120 ships from Norway packed with grain, but the route inevitably took them through dangerous waters. Jean Bart was given command of nine frigates to escort what was effectively a nation-saving flotilla safely through the North Sea.
A breakdown in communication meant the grain convoy set off before Bart arrived and was almost immediately captured by the Dutch. Bart scoured the North Sea coast in search of the fleet and found them just off island of Texel, close to the Dutch coast. Without hesitation Bart sailed straight for the Dutch flagship in charge of the convoy and within half an hour had outwitted, outmanoeuvred and outgunned the opposition in an extraordinary display of military seamanship against almost impossible odds.
Bart sailed the convoy home to Dunkirk where he was greeted by crowds celebrating with wild abandon: he had almost literally saved the nation, bringing home enough grain to avert the worst of the famine until the next home crop could be harvested. Immediately he was summoned to Versailles where Louis XIV made him a Knight of the Order of St Louis, lifting a man once barred by his humble birth from a simple naval promotion to the ranks of the French nobility. According to legend, when Louis asked his naval hero to describe how he’d attacked the Dutch, he hauled the courtiers in the room into positions representing the Dutch ships, then attacked them in the order he’d attacked the vessels, knocking them to the ground with his fists as he recreated the skirmish.
The newly-ennobled Bart was far from finished. In 1696 he outwitted the combined nous of British and Dutch commanders at the Battle of Dogger Bank, again forcing his way successfully through a blockade to bring home 25 captured merchant ships and 1,200 prisoners, and the following year escorted François-Louis de Bourbon, a pretender to the Polish crown, safely to Danzig through yet another blockade.
By the end of the Nine Years War Bart had been responsible for the sinking of 30 enemy warships and the capture of more than 200 merchant vessels along with the detention of countless prisoners.
In 1702 he was in the process of assembling a fleet ready for the War of the Spanish Succession when he fell ill with pleurisy and died at his Dunkirk home. The whole of France mourned. Today a statue of Bart dominates the Dunkirk square that carries his name, sword raised, looking towards the English Channel in a pose that combines the courage and panache that made him one of Europe’s most extraordinary maritime figures. The fate of the governor of Plymouth gaol isn’t recorded.
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