In his book: “Le Maréchal de Castries” (1979 Editions Albatros) the Duke of Castries, in addition to an amusing evocation of Albi, mentions on pages 106 and 107 a letter from Lapérouse to Suffren written on September 22, 1787 in the Bay of Avastscha. The quoted part has for object the enthusiastic approval of the “Castries code”, newly enacted, reorganizing the Navy.

Lapérouse refers to Suffren as “Dear Friend” and calls him by his first name. However, the Bailiff of Suffren is eleven years older and has long been in a higher rank. Moreover, they were only rarely together in operation (under d’Estaing in the West Indies in 1779).
I personally have not found any trace of this letter in the centennial and bicentennial compilations, nor do I recall hearing it cited elsewhere.

The organization of the Navy was a topic of reflection for Lapérouse who had written a memoir on this subject (undated document but post 1764). But why write his approval to Suffren and not to the Maréchal de Castries, to whom he had been able to address himself to explain his marriage outside the rules and for whom he knew he was much appreciated? It must be assumed that the two navigators were in close contact. :

In his “SUFFREN de Saint Tropez aux Indes” (Editions Perrin 1991) Michel Bertrand perhaps provides us with some elements of explanation:

  • on the one hand, he mentions (p. 172) the capture of the Ariel by the Amazone (Cdt Lapérouse), a high fact noticed by the entire squadron in America and thus by Suffren
  • On the other hand, he affirms that Suffren became aware in 1781 of the reports written by Lapérouse on his 1772-75 campaign in the Indies, and that he found in them precious elements for the campaign that he himself began and which would lead him to glory. Back in France, he was able, in 1784-85, to meet Lapérouse and to congratulate him on the accuracy of his views. Held in semi-disgrace despite his successes and his promotion to the rank of Vice Admiral, Suffren was certainly interested in the voyage of discovery entrusted to Lapérouse and was able to remain in good standing with him.

Here is the content of this letter excerpt:

“I have read, dear friend, the new ordinance. I swear to you that I find it perfect, and I wish that, as with the Ark of the Lord, it were forbidden by law to touch it for less than two centuries, after the first year when some ministerial letters of interpretation might be necessary.
I found naval guards raised to be sailors, officers who had only to think of their sea trade and directors of their particular occupations, troops who were constituted to serve usefully in ships, where there would always be enough infantry when we had no war in Germany; finally, a center of unity which was the commander, which ensured the execution of the plan, the only good one, the only true one, the only reasonable one.
What I have longed for has finally arrived: a commanding navy and an auxiliary navy whose interests have been spared so as not to humiliate it, and a hard education given to young people which will perhaps make them a little rough but never proud, and they will have more character.
I wish I had been brought up like the new students whose names were changed, for nothing of the old school was good to keep.

For my part, I am a bit surprised by the excessive reference to “the ark of the Lord”. All the more so since one generally finds few religious references in Laperouse’s writings, and, moreover, when he touches on this domain, it is rather in a critical capacity (see his opinion on the clergy of Chile or his “horror for sacred prisons” about the convents where young girls were locked up).

In any case, it is interesting to read this letter, one of the last ones written by Lapérouse, and it is moving to see him passionate about the organization of the Navy while he is preoccupied with his expedition and while he is so far away from France in space and in time.

M.GARDES Logbook N°13

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