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A scandal and a mystery

On page xi of the Introduction to the first (1927) publication of Rose de Freycinet’s journal, Baron Henri de Freycinet wrote that:

It was rumoured in Toulon that, to better accommodate his wife, commandant de Freycinet had one of his officers (M. LeBlanc) disembarked before departure: The maritime prefect had no difficulty in doing justice to this malicious remark.

It was a comment that might be thought to show a high level of economy with the truth. LeBlanc’s departure left Louis de Freycinet with only four commissioned officers (two lieutenants and two enseignes) but he nonetheless decided to leave without waiting for a replacement. He merely wrote a short note to the port admiral, Édouard de Missiessy, which arrived the evening before the ship sailed. It is reproduced in Georges Benoit-Guyod’s ‘Au Temps de la Marine en Bois’, and it said that:

Mon general

I have the honour to report to you that I am obliged to leave ashore one of my lieutenants, M. Leblanc, as his health does not allow him to sail. I lose in this way an officer who is a skilful sailor and a well-trained observer. As my departure will take place in a few hours, it will be difficult for me to have time to choose another officer in his place. I therefore ask you, mon general, to allow me to not replace M. Leblanc and to appoint as the fifth watch-keepe my former pupil, M. Fabré, a young man of great promise. [Benoit-Guyod: p 27]

Missiessy, who had already clashed with Louis over the construction of the dunette, was not happy about this, but given the timing, there was little he could do about it. Less concern seems to have been felt on board the vessel, where Gaimard, who might, as a medical officer, have been expected to have taken some notice of the event, gave it just one sentence in his diary:

On the same day one of our lieutenants, M. Leblanc, was sent to the hospital.

In the Historique, which he wrote after the voyage was over, Louis did not mention LeBlanc at all. Once the Uranie had sailed, no-one on her seems to have given him a second thought.

Back in Toulon things were very different, because rumours began to circulate almost immediately about Rose’s presence on board, coupled with the suggestion that LeBlanc had been set ashore to make room for her. The first person to investigate officially was the local police commissioner, which seems a little odd now, but at the time the south of France was still in a rather febrile state politically and anything that could conceivably upset the balance had to be looked into. The newspapers were already beginning to question the competence of the new Minister of the Navy, Louis-Mathieu, the Comte du Molé, who lacked any obvious qualifications for the post, and he was definitely not happy to receive a rather curt note from the Comte Decazes, the Minister of Police.

M. le Comte

M. Freycinet, commanding His Majesty’s corvette Uranie, destined for a long expedition, had brought his wife to Toulon. On the evening of the corvette’s departure, Mme. Freycinet, disguised as a man, went to join her husband and remained on board the corvette. I thought it my duty to inform Your Excellency of this occurrence, of which he may not be aware.

Accept, Sir, the assurances of my highest consideration

Le ministre Secrétaire d’Etat au Département de la Police générale.  Le comte DECAZES. [Benoit-Guyod: pp 29-30]

Molé was outraged, and immediately fired off a letter to Missiessy

M. Vice-Admiral,                                                                                                                                                   Paris. October 6, 1817.

M. Freycinet, commanding the corvette Uranie, informed you on the 16th of September, as I saw in his letter attached to your letter of the 17th of September, that as Lieutenant Leblanc’s health did not allow him to continue, he was forced to leave him ashore.

 You have undoubtedly already seen that several newspapers have spoken in a very critical manner of the secret embarkation of Mme. Freycinet on the Uranie, and it seems that something that I can hardly believe, is only too true. Indeed, second-hand reports arriving here claim that Mr. Leblanc is well but that he was forced by M. Freycinet personally to hospitalise himself.

 If these facts are true, then the circumstances are such as to render M. Freycinet guilty of crimes and lies.

Commanding a king’s ship, he would have allowed himself, without authorization and against orders, to embark his wife on board; he would have deprived the expedition of the services of an officer placed, by order of the king, on the staff of the Uranie; one who M. Freycinet himself declares, in his letter of September 16, to be a skilful sailor and a highly trained observer; he would have deceived you yourself by asking you not to replace M. Leblanc, because the sending of a new officer on board the corvette could have revealed the fraud of which he was guilty.

If Mme. Freycinet has really followed her husband, are there also grounds for thinking that he had meditated and prepared for her embarkation for a long time, and that the forced disembarkation of M. Leblanc had no other object than to provide more comfortable accommodation on board for Mme. Freycinet?

I am sure, M. Vice-admiral, that if you had suspected that Mme. Freycinet was on board the Uranie you would have immediately ordered her to be set ashore, and I assume that this fact, of which the newspapers have spoken so much, has not yet come to your knowledge, since you have so far given me no account of it; but I cannot remain in doubt. It is essential that either the accusations against Mr. Freycinet are contradicted, if his wife is not with him, or that he is abandoned to the censure he has brought upon himself by revealing, at the time of his departure, his unworthiness of one of the most honourable commands which a naval officer could be given in peacetime.

I therefore ask you to immediately question M. Leblanc, to obtain information from the house where Mme Freycinet was living in Toulon, and finally to collect and send me all the details I need in order to form an opinion. [Benoit-Guyod: pp 30-31]

The admiral’s reply was not long in coming, since he had had time to collect more information since his first meeting with the policeman. It would not have made comfortable reading for Louis had he been able to see it, but the letter was sent from Toulon to Paris on the 17th of October, by which time he and Rose were safely through the Straits of Gibraltar and beyond recall.

My lord,                                                                                                                                                                  Toulon   October 17, 1817

 I hasten to respond to your letter of October 6, in which you inform me of your desire to know whether it is certain that Mme de Freycinet has followed her husband aboard the corvette Uranie.

The ship had already sailed when the rumour of Mme de Freycinet being on board reached me, but in such a vague and uncertain manner that I investigated further. The Commissioner General of Police told me about it but without telling me anything more, and said that he was taking steps to discover the truth, and since then we had not spoken about it again.

Your Excellency having instructed me to spare no effort to discover the truth, I sought information at the lodgings that Mme de Freycinet had occupied in the city, and also from people who might know of her embarkation, and I learned that she had actually embarked on the Uranie. She left her apartments during the night of the 15th to 16th around midnight, telling her hosts that she was going to leave by diligence for Marseille, where she would stay with M. Bonnet, a merchant, and wait there for her father-in-law, who would come to collect her and take her to Freycinet, in the Drôme. M. Bonnet did not see her, nor did her father-in-law come to Marseille. What is certain is that she went from the apartment on the Rue Saint-Roch to another at 96 Rue Royale, where she stayed until the night of the 16th to 17th, when she got into a boat disguised as a man and boarded the Uranie at 12:30 a.m. The corvette sailed at ten in the morning on the 17th.

The embarkation of Mme de Freycinet is therefore confirmed

With regard to the naval lieutenant Le Blanc, who came ashore from the Uranie at the time of the corvette’s departure, I had him summoned immediately after receiving your dispatch; I asked him for the his reasons for disembarking and what he knew about Mme de Freycinet.

He replied that, as far as the lady was concerned, he had for some time suspected, from various preparations being made, that M. de Freycinet intended to take her with him.

 As for him, he told me that Mr. de Freycinet had accused him, when he left, over comments about the arrangements on board and the delays to the departure that he believed he had made and which M. LeBlanc assured him, he told me, that he had not made; that this was, however, used as a pretext to tell him that they could not live in harmony together, and that since conflict between them could breed dissent among the officers, he had resolved to remove him. The proposal was put to him that he be disembarked with a certificate of hospitalisation, and he was threatened that if he refused he would be put ashore at the first port of call, using the powers given to de Freycinet by his commission. Faced with these alternatives, M. LeBlanc accepted the first proposal.

It is likely that M. de Freycinet was all the more eager to do this because it gave him more room to house his wife, since he did not ask me to find an officer to replace Mr. Le Blanc.

 Based on these facts, it appears that M. de Freycinet permitted himself to do something expressly forbidden by the regulations.

 Accept, Monseigneur, the assurance of my respect.

Vice-admiral commanding the navy        Comte de BURGUES-MISSIESSY [Benoit-Guyod: pp31-32]

Reading this exchange does bring home just how far out on a limb Louis had gone, in taking Rose with him. If something had gone wrong and Rose had been discovered on board before the ship sailed, or it had been forced by weather or accident to put in at a French port, he would surely have been dismissed the service, at the very least. An investigation might well have uncovered facts about the building of the dunette that could have led to him being prosecuted and possibly imprisoned. He had certainly made an enemy of Missiessy, who in 1823 was appointed to the Vice-Presidency of the newly created Admiralty Council, and that is probably sufficient to explain the virtual ending of his naval career after he returned to France in the Autumn of 1820.

Things could have been a great deal worse because, as Molé pointed out in his letter, Louis had effectively flouted the royal prerogative, but the king took a rather relaxed view of the whole affair. When informed of the facts by Molé, he replied

My dear friend, the offence may be serious in itself, and I agree that it sets a very bad example for officers and their wives. But, after all, this example is very unlikely to be contagious. So let us be lenient, I think that is the best thing to do, and if you don’t mind, let’s bring this matter to a close. [Benoit-Guyod: p 34]

And Lieutenant Leblanc? He disappears from history as inconspicuously as he arrived. What happened to him is not known, but it seems that he never progressed beyond the rank of lieutenant.