Thursday, April 29, 2010

Women At Sea: Madame La Jolie Commandante

Contemporary portrait of Rose de Freycinet (source)

I am always excited to get to Triple P each day. When I sit down in front of the blinking cursor (which can be such an enemy in other situations) I'm ready with research in hand, pictures lined up and an idea in my head. But some posts are more fun and indeed more dear than others. Today's is just such a one. To honor not only the lady in question but all those women who have gone to sea (including the able female seamen who will now be serving aboard U.S. submarines) I give you the fascinating story of Rose de Freycinet and her voyages aboard L'Uranie and La Physicienne.

What we know of Rose Marie Pinon's early life is nominal. She was born into a family of bourgeois at a time when being bourgeois in France was all the rage - 1794. Pretty and charming, she was well educated in particular for a French girl. As the Revolution and Consulate gave way to the Empire, Rose caught the eye of an aristocratic sea captain sixteen years her senior. She married Louise-Claude de Saulces de Freycinet in 1814.

When the Empire fell and things looked bleak for French honor and pride, Louis was picked to lead a voyage of discovery. He would circumnavigate the globe on a three year cruise with the very best French navigators, naturalists and artists to document native cultures, local bays and ports and with luck claim some land for France. The ship chosen was L'Uranie, a weatherly French corvette of twenty guns and 300 tons. There was nothing, it seemed, at all remarkable about the voyage. That is until a conjugal ruse was revealed to crew and officers once the ship was well out to sea.

Rose had been smuggled aboard by her husband. Dressed as a boy and under cover of darkness, she slipped into the great cabin posing as a servant. The de Freycinets were determined to be together and, despite Rose's natural reticence over the prospect of so long a time at sea aboard a ship full of men, their determination paid off. Thus began an adventure that Rose documented in a stream of journal-like letters to both her mother and her best friend.

The men of L'Uranie acted, not surprisingly, like Frenchmen. They were thrilled to have Madame aboard. Rose writes that the conversations at her husband's table were crisp, witty and completely without course or vulgar language. The crew tried to keep up with their officers, allowing Rose the lee side of the ship for her morning strolls on deck. But sailors will be sailors and eventually their cursing got the better of Rose. She gave up taking the air and contented herself in her husband's cabin with "... my guitar, my sewing and letters."

Though she had come aboard in men's clothes, and wore them for a while, she was never comfortable cross-dressing. She confided her relief in dawning her gowns again to her mother, saying that she was only "...glad of a man's cloak" when L'Uranie was threatened by a Barbary corsair. "The thought of a seraglio evoked such unpleasant images in my mind and I hoped to escape that fate by virtue of male disguise." The corsair thought better of challenging a 20 gun ship, and gave up the chase.

Back in Europe, the French - generally morally opposed to the thought of women at sea - found the entire story charming. The new Bourbon King mentioned the situation was amusing and the papers congratulated Captain and Madame on "... this example of conjugal devotion". Interestingly, it was the British who clucked their tongues. The Lieutenant Governor of Gibraltar was down right rude to Madame when L'Uranie put in to his port. The Royal Navy, with it's long history of women at sea as both companions and hard working sailors, showed a most unpleasant and ingenuous side of itself to Rose. Perhaps it was because she was French.
L'Uranie continued into the South Pacific and made several stops in Australia. The watercolor above, by J. Alphonse Pellion, shows just such a one at Shark Bay. Rose can be glimpsed to the right of the stately white tent, tending a kettle over a fire. The painters aboard ship, Pellion and Arago, made two sets of each of their works. One was for the Captain's official report and did not include Madame, while a second true-to-life work featured Rose. Thankfully, both examples of many have survived.

The journey continued westward. At Mauritius and Reunion, Rose met with welcome and potential disaster. The island of Mauritius was then held by the British and Rose was introduced to Captain and Mrs. Purvis. Both were charmed by the Frenchwoman and encouraged her to spend time with them while her husband's crew did their surveys. This was particularly delightful for Rose as Mrs. Purvis had a new baby. Rose - who may very well have nailed her courage to the sticking place to follow her husband in the hope of achieving motherhood - documents her adoration for children time and again.

At Reunion, Rose tried to avoid the French Governor, whose name was the more commonly spelled Lafitte. She feared that he had orders to remove her from her husband's ship and keep her on Reunion. To her relief, Governor Lafitte had no such intentions. Instead, her only concern was "... to ward off the compliments of someone who was full of admiration for my courage." Rose, it is no surprise, managed with aplomb and gentility.

Her letters give us a sly and very French perspective on the many places, cultures and people that she encountered. She notes in an almost blithe aside that a young woman in Australia was very pretty with a "... ravishing ankle, or so Louis noticed." She mentions women on Mariana who, when surprised while bathing by some of the L'Uranies, covered not their fronts but their backs. Rose reports that "... the gentlemen were not tempted to take issue with them on this matter!" There are a hundred such delightful turns of phrase in Madame's prose. Reading her letters, even in translation, makes me long for a time when people were capable of regular understatement and eloquence.

Tragedy awaited L'Uranie and her crew, however. On February 14, 1820, she struck an enormous rock off the Falkland Islands. It took some time for realization to set in as the ship continued on under sail; the hull was ripped open and water poured in. The crew manned the pumps and everything that could be brought up and salvaged from below was. The ordeal was horrifying for Rose, who was slow to action and then spent much of her time exhorting the laboring crew to entreat and trust in the holy Virgin. Probably fed up, Arago snapped back: "In the holy pump, Madame!" It is to Rose's credit that she included even this in her letters.

L'Uranie made it to shore but the sandy beach was deserted and Rose and the seamen were stranded for some weeks in deplorable conditions. There was ice on the ground each morning and no blankets had been salvaged. Rose slept in a sarong and her slippers could not keep her feet warm. The crew was finally picked up by a merchant whose Captain, Galvin, virtually blackmailed de Freycinet for passage to Rio de Janeiro. Things looked bleak as Rose and her husband were stuffed into a dark, cramped cabin. But rescue came in the form of the Scottish brig Jane who came into company near Montevideo. Jane's Captain, James Weddell the future Antarctic explorer, managed to convince Galvin to sell his tub to de Freycinet.

Galvin and his crew were put in at Montevideo. His ship was spruced up by de Freycinet's craftsmen and, christened La Physicienne (the Lady Doctor), she took Rose and her comrades not just to Rio but back to France. They made the port of Le Havre on November 13, 1820. Rose was welcomed home and, in her glory, the most sought after guest for balls and dinners in French society.

Unfortunately, this was about as good as life got for Rose and her Captain. They were never blessed with the children Rose so desired and, though Louis published his manuscript on the voyage to some acclaim, they retired to a rather quiet existence. In 1832, Louis contracted cholera. Rose nursed him tirelessly and he survived, however she fell ill just as he recovered. Rose de Feycinet, the intrepid woman that Governor Lafitte had named Madame La Jolie Commendante, died at the age of 38.

Rose's letters, in journal form, were not published in France until 1928. A sad commentary, I believe. An English translation by Professor Marc Serge Reiviere of James Cook University, Australia, was published in 1996. Entitled A Woman of Courage, the book is available and well worth the read. Courageous she surely was, but I'd bet that Rose would have preferred that more eloquent moniker: The Pretty Commander.


Undine said...

This is one of the great things about your blog--I find myself keeping company with characters I'd probably never meet elsewhere.

I have to say, I found the ending to Rose's saga a bit anticlimactic. I find myself wondering if the de Freycinets found their quiet, peaceful final years a welcome relief after all the hardship--or a bit of a bore?

In any case, I look forward to finding this book about her. She sounds like a delightful woman!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine, and thank you indeed.

I wonder the same thing about Madame and her Captain. Perhaps the age difference helped Rose settle in and, in all fairness, the voyage was at times a bit too much of an adventure for her. Obviously her great tragedy was not to be blessed with children.

Reiviere's book is excellent and faithfully translated. Well worth the read. Do come back and let me know what you think.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! Women on submarines? What will they think of next? Just kidding, Piarate Queen. But seriously, Rose's story is quite fascinating, exciting and yet somewhat sad. It is true though, where else would we find out about this stuff, Pauline?

And one more thing. "The Pretty Commander" is a moniker that suits YOU as well, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! You are too kind on all counts, as usual. And yes, women on submarines. What a fascinating modern age we live in.

Timmy! said...

I wish that were true, Pauline... And yes, indeed it is.

Anonymous said...

This post is wonderful, thank you. You've prompted me to order a copy of A Woman of Courage; can't wait for it to arrive.

And I appreciate the Jack Aubrey quote in your comment above! ;)


Pauline said...

Thank you, Vivien. I hope you enjoy that book as much as I did. My daughter did a presentation on the book at school recently and a couple of the "young gentlemen" in her class told her it must have been a work of fiction as women didn't go to sea in that age. She responded that they knew nothing, and should return their heads to their derrieres. An appropriate come-back that I think even Captain Aubrey and Mme. Freycinet would have appreciated. Fair winds.