Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Women at Sea: The Pretty Commander
What we know of Rose Marie Pinon's early life is nominal. She was born into a bourgeois family at a time when being middle class in France was all the rage: 1794. Pretty and charming, she had a classical education as well. As the Revolution and the Consulate gave way to the Empire, Rose caught the eye of an aristocratic sea captain sixteen years her senior. She married Louis-Claude de Saulces de Freycinet in 1814.
When the Empire fell and things looked bleak for French honor, Louis was hand 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 along. These men would document native cultures, local bays and ports and, with luck, Captain de Freycinet would claim some land for France. The ship chosen for the expedition was L'Uranie, a weatherly French-built corvette of twenty guns and 300 tons. There was nothing at all remarkable about the voyage. That is, until a conjugal ruse was revealed to officers and crew once the ship was well out to sea.
Madame de Freycinet had been smuggled aboard the ship 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 so, despite Rose's natural reticence at the prospect of so long a time at sea on a ship full of men, their determination paid off. Thus began an adventure that Rose would document in a stream of letters to her mother and her best friend. These were eventually published in book form, and the same was translated in 1996 by Marc Serge Reiviere in A Woman of Courage.
When the ruse was discovered, 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, Rose 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 pirate galley thought better of challenging a 20 gun ship, evidently, and eventually gave up the chase.
Back in Europe meanwhile, the French, who were in general morally opposed to women at sea as anything other than passengers and then only in groups, found Rose's adventures charming. The new Bourbon King mentioned the situation was amusing and the country could not but agree. Paris papers congratulated Captain and Madame on "... this example of conjugal devotion." Interestingly, it was the British who clucked their tongues at the situation. The Lieutenant Governor of Gibraltar was down right rude to Rose when L'Uranie put in to his port. The Royal Navy, with it's long history of women at sea as both companions and sailors, showed an unfortunately unpleasant and ingenuous side of itself to Madame de Freycinet.
L'Uranie continued into the South Pacific and made several stops in Australia. The watercolor above, by J. Alphonse Pellion, shows the ship's company at Shark Bay. Rose can be glimpsed to the far left, away from her stately white tent and apparently sitting with her arm around another woman or a child. 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 his wife. The second sets were true-to-life works that included Rose. Thankfully, both examples of many of these paintings have survived.
Putting in at Mauritius and Reunion, Rose met with welcome and potential disaster. The island of Mauritius was then held by the British and Rose was there introduced to Captain and Mrs. Purvis. Both were delighted by the Frenchwoman and encouraged her to spend time with them while her husband was out surveying. This invitation was particularly welcomed by Rose as Mrs. Purvis had a new baby. Rose, who may very well have nailed her courage to the sticking place to join her husband at sea in the hope of conceiving a child, documents her adoration for children time and again.
At Reunion, Rose tried to avoid the French governor, whose name was Lafitte, as she feared that he had orders to remove her from her husband's ship. To her relief, Governor Lafitte had no such intentions. Instead, her fears were replaced concern. She writes to her friend that she had constantly "... to ward off the compliments of someone who was full of admiration for my courage." Rose, it is no surprise, managed to keep Lafitte at arm's length with aplomb and gentility.
Rose's 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 her husband's men, covered not their fronts but their backs. "The gentlemen were not tempted to take issue with them on this matter," Rose reports.
On February 14, 1820, L'Uranie struck an enormous rock off the Falkland Islands. It took some time for realization to set in as the ship continued on under sail with her hull ripped open and water pouring in below decks. The crew manned the pumps and tried to salvage what they could from the hold. The ordeal was horrifying for Rose who spent her time exhorting the laboring crew to "trust in the Holy Virgin." Probably fed up with the woman's yammering, Arago snapped at her: "We put our trust 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 sailors were stranded for weeks in deplorable conditions. There was ice on the ground each morning and no blankets or coats had been salvaged. Rose slept wrapped in a Hawai'ian sarong and her slippers could not keep her feet warm.
The crew was finally picked up by a merchant ship whose captain, Galvin, virtually blackmailed de Freycinet for passage to Rio de Janeiro. Rose and her captain were stuffed into a dark, cramped cabin, but rescue came in short order. The Scottish brig Jane came into company with Galvin's ship near Montevideo. Jane's captain, James Weddell - the future Antarctic explorer - managed to convince Galvin to sell his ship to de Freycinet for moneys already promised.
Galvin and his crew were put in at Mondevideo. His ship was spruced up by de Freycinet's and Weddell's shipwrights and christened La Physicienne - the Lady Doctor - probably in honor of Rose. La Physicienne took de Freycinet and his crew to Rio and then back to France. She made the port of Le Havre on November 13, 1820. Rose was welcomed home and became a sought after guest in French high society.
Unfortunately, this was about as good as it got for Rose and Louis de Freycinet. They were never blessed with the children that Rose so desired. Louis published his manuscript on the voyage to some acclaim and the couple retired to a quiet existence. In 1832, Louis contracted cholera. Rose nursed him tirelessly and he recovered only to see his wife fall ill with the same disease. Rose Pinon de Feycinet, the intrepid woman that Governor Lafitte had named Madame la Jolie Commendante - the Pretty Commander - died at the age of 38.
Header: Watercolor by J. Alphonse Pellion of L'Uranie's crew at Shark Bay, Australia from the Google book version of A Woman of Courage