The Navy has made an irreparable loss

One cannot speak of Lapérouse without mentioning his teenage friend Jean-Baptiste Mengaud de la Hage (1741-1780). His parents lived in Toulouse and it is not clear why he attended high school in Albi, but La Pérouse declared: “our friendship dates back to high school”. Mengaud had been a sea guard in Toulon as well as one of his brothers. He made several youthful maritime embarkations in the company of La Pérouse. They were together on the Robuste in 1761, and then found themselves on the Ile de France, accomplices in La Pérouse’s love affair with Éléonore Broudou, and then in the Channel. Although Maingaud had a more rapid advancement, La Pérouse had an unfailing friendship with him. His sorrow and esteem will be manifested in 1780 when the frigate La Charmante, which he commanded as a lieutenant, is lost by running aground in poorly explained circumstances on the western coast of Finistère. La Pérouse, at the time commander of the frigate L’Amazone, commented on his death on this occasion:

 « The Navy has made an irreparable loss».

…. it is with these words that Lapérouse comments on the loss of his friend Mengaud, perished in the morning of March 24, 1780, with two hundred and ten men, in the wreck of “La Charmante” that he commanded.

Jean Baptiste Paulin MENGAUD de LAHAGE, Lieutenant de Vaisseau, took command of La Charmante at the beginning of January 1780. As is often the case, he encountered difficulties in fitting out the frigate with men and equipment; he reported this in writing to the Minister, but specified that it would be ready “in three or four days. On February 7, he reported that he had gone to Bertheaume to join Mr. Du Chilleau (with whose division he was to escort a convoy to the Indies); he asked for new masts, additional sailors and… promotion, as was customary. Mr. Du Chilleau’s division was chased away two days after his departure by Admiral Rodney’s squadron. La Charmante, which was the first to see the English squadron, tried in vain to lead it on a false trail and only escaped with great difficulty. Isolated, Mengaud returned, taking a 28-gun privateer “lined with copper, new and excellent” which he brought back to Lorient. The convoy was saved but Mr. Du Chilleau was taken by the English. We no longer leave for the Indies. The Charmante, like the Amazone commanded by Lapérouse, had to join the squadron of Mr. De Ternay in Brest.

On March 15, Mengaud prepared the escort of a convoy from Lorient. On the 20th, the contrary winds prevented his departure, so he took advantage of the opportunity to train his crew in maneuvers. On March 23, the winds shifted to the SSE and allowed the ship to leave.

The drama that is now going to play out is known to us through the reports of Mr. Puké, a Swedish lieutenant in the service of France, and of Mengaud, captain of infantry, brother of the commander of La Charmante. The first report, dated March 26, the day after the shipwreck, is that of a sailor. It is precise on what happened during his watch and during the sinking, concise on what happened out of his sight, and provides us with reliable information but leaves some grey areas. The second report, dated April 1, is less technical, more subjective and perhaps partly inspired by the first.

Here is what can be reconstructed from these documents.

The winds are from the South South East. Nothing says that they are violent, but the speeds reached by La Charmante suggest that they are “fresh”. The swell is strong, enough to put the canoes in difficulty after La Charmante has made contact with the water. We are at the spring equinox, the tidal coefficients are strong and the resulting currents can reach five or six knots in the vicinity of the Raz de Sein. Visibility at night was poor (the convoy was lost) but probably quite good at daybreak on March 24 (the boats could see ships several miles away). The frigate was equipped with a coastal pilot, of which Mr. Puké said nothing, but which Mengaud frère described as “so bad that we ran aground”.

On March 23, 1780, La Charmante “left the roadstead of Lorient at about three o’clock in the afternoon” and maneuvered to escape the perils of the island of Groix, and “being out of danger at five o’clock” broke down to “wait for the ships that were being conveyed by the frigate La Sybille”.

At this point we cannot be sure of the position of La Charmante. She prudently sailed five or six miles and, obviously, passed the island of Groix; but was she heading south or west? The second hypothesis is the most likely because it leads to sailing “on the beam on the port side” in a zone, admittedly of restricted waters, but reputed to be safe since it is still today listed as an access channel and holding area for vessels transporting dangerous materials. The other possibility implies a delicate “upwind” exit with vessels that do not sail well upwind.

At six o’clock “all the convoy being rallied we made serve”. The Charming was heading to the west to begin the bypass of Penmarch before passing Sein.

Around ten o’clock the convoy was lost from sight. To search for it, Mengaud instructed Mr Visdelou (officer of the watch) to sail “five leagues to the NW and three leagues to the NNW”.

At midnight Mr. Puké takes the watch and finishes at half past midnight the NW course on which one league remained to be done. We are then in the vicinity of the tip of Penmarch. The three leagues to the NNW are done at two hours. These very clear elements allow us to deduce that, in the wind conditions of this night, in the “wide open sea” or “downwind” the frigate is sailing at six knots (the nautical mile is worth three nautical miles).

At two o’clock Mr. Puké took new instructions from his commander. There followed an hour’s course to the SW and then three quarters of an hour’s course to the North.

At three hours and three quarters the convoy was in sight. Informed, Mengaud ordered to “sail on port tack” until the convoy remained to the north and not to sail ahead of it. The Charmante was then west of Audierne Bay and was sailing in the west/northwest sector. The convoy was between her and the chaussée de Sein.

At four o’clock Mr Puké finishes his watch.

At half past seven he was surprised by “two or three very violent shocks” and understood that “we had just touched the tip of the chaussée des Saints, about five leagues from land”. We are thus in the vicinity of Ar Men.

The lazarette was flooded with water. However, the frigate did not run aground. Mengaud lightened the ship by throwing the cannons into the sea (except for two cannons kept for signals) and forced the sails to try to reach the land before sinking. This implies an ENE route to get away from the causeway and reach the bay of Douarnenez.

But the water continued to invade the holds and the ship, undoubtedly too deep in the bow, could no longer steer.

Mengaud had a first canoe launched, which “sank low because of the number of sailors who had thrown themselves into it”.

The other two canoes were launched successively, commanded by officers with the mission to prevent too many sailors from jumping in and, for the second one, commanded by Mr. Puké, to stay as close as possible to the back of the frigate. The boats had difficulty staying afloat in the swell, they were taking on water even when holding the stern with the blade.

At a quarter past nine, Mr. Puké, judging his boat to be in danger, moved away from the frigate, which went down on its port side in the following minute. Many sailors threw themselves into the sea clinging to the floats they could find. The two boats were unable to help without sinking themselves. However, each of them managed to be taken in charge by the ships of the convoy which was in sight and had crossed the causeway without any accident. La Gourmande (Captain Michel Le Moine) took over the canoe of Mr. Puké with thirty-nine men, including the infantry captain Mengaud who had embarked in this canoe on the orders of his brother. The ship that had picked up Mr. Rouillard’s canoe went to the wreck site, stayed there for half an hour to pick up the shipwrecked and then went on its way. When she saw this, La Gourmande, probably located further north and judging herself incapable of “going up a league in the wind and the waves before nightfall” did the same. Eighty-five men in total were saved.

It does not appear that La Sybille, perhaps ahead of the convoy, was aware at sea of the situation of La Charmante. Moreover, there is no indication that Mengaud actually used the cannons kept on board to send distress signals, although the situation had, in less than two hours, become desperate.

Both reports praise the coolness of the commander and the crew during the sinking. There is no doubt that there is a great deal of truth in this, as all these men are used to dealing with danger and death. The rush to get into the boats, however, suggests a more tense situation. But there is also the part of the customs of the time where, the help to the families of the victims being very uncertain, one recommended those to the kindnesses of the Minister all the more firmly that those had died courageously for the service of the King. Let us add to this a very strong emotional element and a direct interest for Captain Mengaud to highlight the memory of his brother.

One can see in the instructions given by the commander the concern to deviate sufficiently to the West before going up to the North to successively parry the point of Penmarch and the chaussée de Sein. In particular, the instructions “not to make more way to the North than I had made to the SW” or “until the convoy stays to the North” and thus not to put oneself between the convoy and the chaussée de Sein, are characteristic of a certain prudence.

… However, it was in this way that on the morning of March 24, 1780, “the Navy made an irreparable loss.

We do not allow ourselves to question the qualities of Jean Baptiste Paulin Mengaud de Lahage whose entire career provides proof of talent and courage. We are inclined to think as “landlubbers” with the spirit of our time and very few of us have run so many dangers with such constancy. However, and precisely because of this, it is difficult for us to understand how, in dangerous waters, with weather that was certainly manageable but in a big swell, with a coastal pilot in whom we apparently have no confidence, Mengaud seems to have left his room only after the frigate had touched down. Mr. Puké’s report is clear on the fact that the officers of the watch leave the deck and go to the commander’s room to take their instructions.

On the other hand, Mr. Puké does not say anything about the pilot. The route from Lorient to Brest was one of the most commonly used at the time. Can we really think that the pilot was not qualified? Was his advice listened to?

Other elements can also explain the wreck:

  • once the convoy was found, between four o’clock and half past seven on March 24, did the officer of the watch not have the reflex to “follow” the convoy? That is to say, to constantly keep the course on it and thus to get closer to the chaussée de Sein when, having passed it, the convoy took a NE route to return to Brest?
  • in addition, the tidal currents (1) must have caused a drift towards the East during the hours of rising tide which preceded the wreck. The wreck occurred about an hour and a half after the high tide slack water.


February 25, 2002

The attached map shows the two possible routes in their safe OR assumed segments and successive positions. The northern route noted À B C ……H is the more probable given its starting point and the fact that being shorter (85 miles instead of 98) it gives a more realistic average speed (6.3 knots instead of 7.3).

References :

  • Archives Nationales Marine B 4 / 174, C 7/205
  • Letters from Lapérouse to the Minister, from Lorient on March 31 and from Brest on April 10, 1780

Revue des études historiques Avril – Juin 1915 ” Un officier de Marine du XVII° siècle : Mengaud de la Hage ” by Marie de Chateau- Verdun.

  • Admiral de Brossard : ” Lapérouse – From the battles to the discovery “.

(1) The Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service of the Navy has kindly made, for our association, the retrospective calculation of the conditions and hours of the tide of March 24, 1780 to verify this hypothesis. On that morning, the tide was high at 6 o’clock (solar time), the coefficient was 96, and the water height was about 6.40 m above chart datum.

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