Wednesday, March 3, 2010

People: Le Heros De Dunkerque

When most Americans think of Dunkirk we think of World War II, the bombings and the heroism of the Allied forces and French people in their efforts to liberate France. But long before those grim battles, there was a seafaring hero out of the port of Dunkirk who was truly a shining star.

Jean Bart (or Jan Baert if you prefer the Dutch version) was born in 1650 in the notorious hotbed of French privateering, Dunkerque (or Dunkirk). The port is north and east of Calais and has alternated it's nationality over many years being French, Flemish and Dutch. Bart was born when the port belonged to France but had a heavy Dutch influence.

Bart was the son of a fisherman and certainly grew up in and around boats and ships. It was no surprise to anyone when 12-year-old Jean announced his intention to join the navy. Signing on with the Dutch, the young man had the good fortune to serve with the famous Captain Michel de Ruyter and he rose to the rank of lieutenant.

In 1672, France and the Netherlands declared war. Bart chose to serve for France and, returning home, took command of a privateer. The French were persnickety about who could and could not hold an officer's commission in their armed forces; the son of a simple fisherman was certainly not going to be given entree into the naval corps of officers. Jean would see about that.

Bart headed out of Dunkerque and returned with five enemy ships in tow. He was elected leader of the Dunkerque privateers and, with this armada behind him, he took 81 prizes by 1678 when peace was declared. With all this success under his belt, even the French navy had to concede defeat. Bart was made Lieutenant the same year.

Bart continued to sail for the French. When war with the Netherlands was again declared in 1688, he was given a captaincy. He led a fleet of both French navy and privateer ships and once again accomplished great things. He took twenty ships out of a convoy with only three frigates under his command. The prize included 19 merchantmen and a Dutch man-of-war. Louis XIV knighted Bart. It seemed nothing could stop the great commander.
Jean Bart at Versailles (source)

Privateer raids between France and Holland continued. At one point the Dutch blockaded the ports of Saint-Malo and Dunkerque in an effort to stop the continuous predations of the wily freebooters who called them home. Bart slipped the blockade and sailed with another mixed bag of ships to the Netherlands where he engaged five warships in convoy with twenty-five merchantmen. Bart and his seven ships took all thirty of the enemy as prize. He was promoted to chef d'escadre (literally "naval leader") or commodore for this outstanding victory.

Peace with the Netherlands was again declared in 1697 and Bart, who by now was working on his second marriage and the father of fourteen children, settled down a bit. Maybe the lack of seafaring got to him; he died of pleurisy in April of 1702. Jean Bart is buried in the Church of Saint-Eloi in his home port of Dunkerque.

French Navy ships have been named Jean Bart since 1788 and an anti-aircraft frigate with that name is currently in service. The statue at the header, by the way, was a rallying point for citizens of Dunkerque during WW II and it is still remarked that - when the city was virtually leveled by bombs - the Hero of Dunkirk continued to stand proud.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Jean Bart was impressive. Yet another good example to use when you get those "France already surrendered" jokes... I do think the painting of him at Versailles is pretty funny though. He doesn't look very happy. Maybe it's the outfit?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It's a certainty that Jean Bart was a butt kicker.
I also think he was a simple sailor and that "I'm at Versailles, I gotta wear drag" thing probably didn't sit well. That's why he's got his pipe, I'm betting.

Plus Jean Leon Gerome was an incredible artist (as the link will show).

Menno said...

Hi Pauline,

I am looking for someone who can help me further on the early years of privateering in Duinkerken.

According to some old documents my ancester was captured by the Duinkerkers in between 1570-1585. Can you help me further or do you know someone who can??



Pauline said...

Menno; thanks for stopping by. Let me dig around in my notes and see if I can find more specific info on the privateers of Dunkirk. I'll check in here later today.

Pauline said...

Menno: here are a couple of good geneological resources for Dunkirk:

The Geneological Society Nord Pas de Calais has information on Dunkirkers and a forum to post questions:

As with most geneological research in the US, the LDS Church is a great resource. I've gotten a lot of information on my family from them and I know of no one in our geneology who is/was Mormon. Find them at:

I hope that helps. Good luck!