In the French port city of Bordeaux on the Bay of Biscay the Governor, Louis Urbain Aubert, Marquis de Tourny, was full of big ideas. The Marquis, who was of royal blood even if it was only a drop or two, wanted his city to rival Paris in her grandeur. The way he financed his ambition was by backing and increasing the fleet of privateers that sailed from the port against that perpetual rival of France, Britain. The Marquis handed out commissions and encouraged ship building beginning immediately after he took office in 1743.
In 1744 one of the first new ships to slide out of dry dock into the Bay was a 460 ton, three-masted brig armed with 24 guns and a crew of approximately 150 men. She was christened that spring in honor of Louis’ wife, Jeanne Claude Cherouvrier des Grassieres and the lady’s full name was molded onto the shiny brass of the ship’s bell. La Marquise de Tourny set sail in search of British merchants, navy ships and privateers.
Fast forward to 2008 when a sizeable wreck, previously undocumented, was discovered in the English Channel by the famous exploration group Odyssey Marine. The ship lay on the bottom of the Channel approximately 60 miles off the coast of Devon and she was unfortunately disturbed by previous trawling. The Odyssey team at first thought they may have found a British merchant from the Napoleonic era, but closer inspection revealed a different story. The wreck carried mounted guns numbering 25 and no reasonable cargo could be located although heavy ballast was everywhere. Odyssey began regular dives in preparation to pull up the artifacts related to the ship and found the answer to the mystery. There among the blue glass bottles of French origin and the ten foot long cannons, was a brass bell now verdigris green. On the bell was the name of Madame la Marquise and from there the identity of the ship was only a few hours of research away.
La Marquise de Tourny had been a privateer masquerading as merchant. She may very well have been carrying “organic” cargo such as coffee, indigo and/or sugar which would, of course, no longer be detectable. Her voyages would have taken her from the Bay of Biscay through the English Channel into the French ports of Saint-Malo, Calais and Dunkirk. On her way she would have passed two of the outposts of British privateering, the islands of Guernsey and Jersey. There is documentation that she took at least one prize in the area in 1749 during the War of Austrian succession.
But did the French privateer succumb in battle? Did she go down fighting, so to say? The evidence says no. Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm and his team think the sea and the weather were the end of their find. La Marquise de Tourny was probably playing merchant on her last voyage when she foundered in a storm. The sinking is currently dated to some time between 1749 and 1755. Regardless, the find is remarkable. As Stemm points out in this article from BBC.co.uk, she is “… one of our most important discoveries in the English Channel.”
As a superstitious sailor myself, I feel compelled to note an interesting dénouement to this story. After taking part in the christening of the ship that sailed with her name, Madame la Marquise went back to the business of being a gentlewoman. Almost exactly two years after her namesake sailed, on March 17, 1746, Jeanne Claude died suddenly at the age of 50. Was it an ill omen for La Marquise de Tourny? One way or another, you would have to think so.
Header: La Marquise de Tourny in situ