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Charles de Freycinet (9 December 1783 – 23 December 1823)

When the Uranie arrived off Mauritius, it was just in time for Louis de Freycinet to catch up with  of his younger brother Charles, whom he had not seen for 16 years and who was just about to leave for Calcutta. It may have been thanks to Charles that the de Freycinets were able to spend an enjoyable two and a half months on the island lodging with the Judge Advocate, George Smith, and Rose de Freycinet gave a little space in her letter to her mother to her own meetings with this previously unmet brother-in-law. One might feel that more could have been said, and readers of the edited version of the diary that she wrote for her younger friend Caroline de Nanteuil, which was not published until  in 1927, almost a hundred years after her death, and which was re-issued in 2002 by Editions Gerfaut, might be disappointed to find that even less was written there. This is about all it amounted to:

At dawn the doctor in charge of quarantine came  on board with my brother-in-law, who had obtained permission to accompany him.

Apart from that, all we read of Charles in the published journal is the suggestion that it was because of him that Smith welcomed them so warmly (which might not even be true. He was an avowed Francophile who hoped to retire to France) and a very brief note about the farewell supper for him and his departure from Mauritius eight days later, on the 12th of May. This brevity is, however, an illusion. Rose had quite a lot to say about Charles, but her editors had decided to omit almost all of it. Happily, images of the diary’s original pages have been placed on line by its present owners, the Mitchell Library in Sydney, The full ‘arrival’ paragraph went as follows.

At daybreak, the doctor in charge of quarantine came on board with my brother-in-law, who had obtained permission to come with him. It was a touching moment to see these two brothers embracing each other and taking each other in their arms. I was myself extremely moved when I kissed him and I felt the emotion one feels on seeing one of one’s own; this young man looks a little like Louis, he has his amiable and affectionate air, but he looks better because he is younger, he has suffered less and he is not marked by smallpox. This happy reunion was soon disturbed by the news that my brother-in-law gave us of his very near departure from the island where we were to stay for a while! He had formed a relationship with a trading house in Mauritius and was going to establish a base for it in Calcutta; the ship on which he and the other agents of the company were to travel was ready to sail; we could only have eight days, because more time would have materially harmed the interests of the merchants, who are intimate friends of Charles. He was unable at first to resign himself to this sacrifice, which was all the greater for him because it had been more than 16 years since he had seen any of his family and because it was probable that many more years would pass before he again experienced this agreeable satisfaction: what was more, he left behind on Mauritius a powerful friend who wished him well and who certainly would have done well by him! But Charles, whose fortune was so brilliant at the beginning of his stay in Mauritius, was dragged into the midst of dreadful affairs by his trust in an evil rascal who ruined him completely. Charles, I have to say, needed to again do some outstanding business to restore his fortunes, and the Calcutta project would allow him to that. The worthy friend appreciated the necessity of my brother-in-law’s absence and let him go, assuring him, however, that he would keep for him the position near to him that he had occupied, in the event of him being unsuccessful in Calcutta. I must tell you that this admirable man is named Sir George Smith and that he is the Grand Judge and head of the judiciary in Mauritius. Charles was his private secretary. He had long anticipated our arrival and had often assured my brother that we would stay nowhere but his house, and as soon as he knew of our arrival, although he was in the countryside in the interior of the island, he returned immediately, had an apartment prepared for us and told Charles to invite us on his behalf to stay there, since he was expecting us for lunch the following day.

Sixteen years from 1818 takes us back to 1802, when Charles could have been no more than nineteen years old. Even in those days, that was quite young to set out to make one’s fortune in foreign parts, and it is also surprising, given the close links between Mauritius and France, that he never went home, even for a visit. However, there was a war on for much of this time, and the main enemy, Great Britain, had control of the seas. Charles probably left France during the brief Peace of Amiens, and his going when he did may have been due to a wish to avoid following his brothers into the Navy, coupled with the widely held (and correct) assumption that the peace would not last long. It must have been hard for his mother to see him go, because Louis and Henri were still away on the Baudin expedition and she would have had little news of them.

Rose also had a little more to say about Charles’ actual departure, noting that this was a painful separation and that some time later a ship had arrived in Port Louis from Pondicherry with the news that he had spent some time there after a fast and uneventful passage. He may have been successful in Calcutta, because he did not return to Mauritius, but even that was so it was a fatal move. He died there on the 25th of September 1823, leaving behind several more illegitimate children.

Rose’s glowing opinion of her brother-in-law might have suffered some diminution in the aftermath of his departure, when she found that her husband had committed her to looking after and instructing a 7-year old son that he had left behind. The mother had been his African or mixed-race mistress, who she had died some time before. Her lack of enthusiasm for this idea is expressed a little more strongly in what she actually wrote than in its edited version.

Still, I had a distraction. A friend of Louis, whose name I will tell you when I see you, being forced to leave Mauritius, had left, in the hands of strangers, a young child he had had by a woman of color. Like Louis, who is very attached to this friend, he thought it would be advantageous for this child to be taken on board with us and for me to occupy myself with his education. Usually these children are endowed with a great deal of intelligence and it seems that nature wishes to compensate them by giving them special abilities; I had met one in Paris who was charming, but the one I have with me is unfortunately only a very ordinary subject. He was seven years old when we left Mauritius and he could neither read nor write. Although this child gave me a lot of trouble, not learning easily and above all never having been accustomed to obedience, it was nevertheless a little diversion and, when Louis is forced to stay away for a long time, his presence prevented me from being completely on my own.

It would seem to be a fairly safe bet that the ‘dear friend’ was Charles himself, but guess-work is unnecessary. The supposition is confirmed in a letter from Louis to his elder brother Henri, written some time after Rose and Louis returned to France and discovered in the Freycinet correspondence by Suzanne Falkiner. In her biography, ‘Rose’, she summarised the letter’s contents, which make it clear that the child, named Charles after his father, came all the way back to France, and that Louis made himself responsible for him thereafter, but in neither her journal of her letters to her mother is he ever mentioned again.