Just as the Uranie was about to leave St Denis on Réunion, which had temporarily reverted to its royalist name, the Ile de Bourbon, another French naval vessel arrived. It was the frigate Cybèle, which they had already seen at Mauritius, but this second encounter was not a happy one. Rose told her mother about it:
It was not until last night that we were able to get back on board. We thought we would set sail immediately, when the French frigate, La Cybèle, coming from China, anchored in the roads a few cable lengths from us: she maneuvered so badly that she collided with us, broke an anchor and nearly broke our bowsprit. I don’t know what would have happened if Louis had not hastened to loosen the cable, to get away from that annoying neighbour. We have been busy all day repairing the damage she has caused.
The incident was also described in Gaimard’s diary but in even less detail, and was ignored in Louis de Freycinet’s Voyage autour du Monde, . It was only in Rose’s Journal pour Caroline that we come anywhere near knowing the full story of what happened.
The minute we arrived on board, the Cybèle, a French frigate coming from China, anchored not far from us in the same roads. She maneuvered so badly that she collided with us and broke an anchor that we had on that side and caused other damage which forced us to stay the next day to make repairs. During the collision, Louis, seeing that no-one on board the frigate was making the necessary manoeuvres in concert with him to disengage the one from the other, went to find the commander, to urge him to give the necessary orders; to his astonishment, instead of finding him on deck busying himself with the safety of his ship, he found him in his saloon in the midst of the ladies and gentlemen who had taken passage on his frigate from Maurice to Bourbon, drinking, laughing, singing etc: his first words to Louis were to invite him to sit down and have a drink. But Louis refused, being obliged to provide for the safety of his ship and, judging perhaps from the state of the man (who had had a little too much to drink) and from the inconceivable indifference with which he said that it was up to the Port Captain to moor his frigate, that he was not very capable of anything, he got together with the officers of the frigate and shortly after the ships were secure [FL687005].
Understandably, nothing of the captain’s behaviour, so little to the credit of the French navy, was mentioned in the official report, or in Gaimard’s diary (he had friends aboard the Cybèle), and even Rose was, as we have seen, circumspect in her letter to her mother; she could not know how widely Jeanne was sharing her letters. Only in her diary, which was to be read only by herself and her friend Caroline, did she feel unconstrained. That lack of constraint was not shared by her editors when the diary was published in 1927. Charles Duplomb, the driving force behind the publication, enjoyed the title of ‘Directeur Honoraire au Ministére de la Marine’, and whatever that meant in practice, it was not a title given to someone likely to publicise one of the more egregious events in the history of the French navy. In the handwritten transcript of the diary either heor the other editor, the then Baron de Freycinet, has writtem ‘sans interet’, which hardly seem to fit the bill.
But who was this careless and incompetent captain, and why was he in the Indian Ocean?
Achille-Jacques-Joseph-Marie de Kergariou was born on the 1st of May 1, 1775 in the Breton town of Quimper, the son of an army officer who left France soon after the birth to take part in the American Revolutionary War and who, having unwisely returned home during the ‘Grand Terreur’, was guillotined in 1794. Achille, however, had joined the navy rather than the army when only twelve years old and was a captive in England during tthe preliminaries to that event. He was exchanged just a month before it actually happened, and presumably did not attend. His patriotism seems to have been unaffected, because he continued to serve in the navy until January 1807, when, by this time a capitaine de vaisseau (so he outranked Louis de Freycinet), he was again captured. On this occasion the British kept hold of him for much longer, and he did not return to France until after the restoration in 1814. Despite this long period when he was not on active service, he was almost immediateley given command of a vessel named La Terre and was made a Chevalier of Saint-Louis. This seems almost inexplicable, but his family was a powerful one and Louis XVIII was anxiuos to keep the Bretons happy.
On the 20th of November, 1816 Kergariou married the 21-year-old Therese-Augustine Bergevin, but enjoyed just four months of married life before setting sail for Indo-China in the Cybèle . His mission was an important one, but diplomatic rather than military. Its object was to restore French influence in Annam (central Vietnam), which had been fractured by the revolution and Napoleon’s lack of interest in expansion overseas. In 1787 France had signed a treaty of alliance (confusingly known as the Treaty of Versailles), supposedly with the ruler of what was then known as Dai Viet, but actually with the dissident Nguyen family. In exchange for a concession in Da Nang and trading rights, the French promised to supply 1650 troops, artillery and four frigates to back the Nguyen claim to the throne, but the governor of Pondicherry, the Comte de Conway, who was actually Irish and had fought on the colonists’ side in the American Revolution, and who had not been consulted, declined at first to participate. The Catholic priest Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, whose idea it had all been and who had represented the Nguyens in the treaty negotiations, managed eventually to persuade him to provide two frigates and supplemented these with ships bought by private subscription and with volunteers, but French involvement waned after the revolution and virtually ended after his death of dysentery in 1799. The Nguyens, however, managed very well without them. They took over the country.
Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh, Prince of Annam, as painted by Maupérin during his visit to France in 1787, when he was just seven years old. Although titular head of the delegation, because of his age and lack of knowledge of the French language, the actual negotiations were carried out by Pierre Pigneau on his behalf. Original in the collections of the Paris Foreign Missions Society.
There is an interesting link between this story and Gaimard’s diary. On Page 98, in the course of a letter making extensive recommendations as to what should be done during the voyage of the Uranie, Cadet de Gassicourt. noted that he was
….. in Versailles in 1786 when Mr le Bailli de Suffren presented the son of the King of Cochinchine to the court. He was seeking help from France to restore his father to the throne of his ancestors, and I had the honour of accompanying him to the porcelain factory in Sèvres. The Bishop of Adran, who acted as his interpreter, showed us, as very rare precious objects, the bracelets, garters, ring and cap worn by the young Indian prince. These were all made of an elastic coral-red gum, and in their thinner parts were as translucent as wax. It follows that there is in Cochinchine a beautiful (natural or artificial) red resinous dye that is not affected by exposure to air.
The ‘Bishop of Adran’ mentioned was none other than Pierre Pigneau, but his attempts to establish a French sphere of influence died with him, and when Kergariou arrived in 1817 the Nguyens pointed out to him, very firmly, that the French had done far less than they had promised when their help was needed, and that since it no longer was, there was no reason for them to have any concessions. All this is recounted at length in Kergariou’s Journal de Voyage, an annotated version of which was published in 1914 by Pierre de Joinville under the title La mission de “la Cybèle“. That account , however, stopped short at the point where Kerargiou was saying adieu to the coasts of ‘Cochinchine’, and so the collision at St Denis was never mentioned.
How to explain the conduct described, in a senior officer of the French Navy? It is possible, of course, that Kerargiou was just like that, and had been promoted beyond his competence by family influence, but it is also possible that there was some resentment fuelling his carelessness. He was sailing home having failed in his mission, Louis was outbound on a mission that had every prospect of success. What was more, Louis had his wife with him, whereas Kerargiou had left his behind, after just four months of marriage, Reason enough for pique!
On October 18, 1818, the Cybèle returned to Brest, but Kerargiou’s second spell of married life lasted only a little longer than the first. He died on the 12th of January, 1820 in Ploumoguer, in his native Finisterre. In the brief time allotted to him, however, he did manage to father two daughters