The World's Famous Orations/Volume 7/On the Heroism of the "Vengeur's" Sailors
ON THE HEROISM OF THE "VENGEUR'S" SAILORS
Born in 1755, died in 1841; elected to the Assembly in 1789, to the Convention in 1792, over which he presided during the trial of Louis XVI., and was a member of the Committee of Public Safety and a Deputy in 1815 during the Hundred Days. Macaulay's ferocious attack on Barère will be remembered.
The Committee has instructed me to make known to the Convention certain sublime acts which can not be ignored either by it or by the French people.
Since the sea became a field of carnage and war has dyed the waves with blood, the annals of Europe have known no combat so stubborn, no valor so sustained, and no action so terrible, so murderous, as that of the 13th Prairial, when our fleet saved the American convoy. Vanstabel, in convoying the American fleet to our ports, has passed through waves stained with blood, through corpses and the wreckage of ships. The ferocity of the combat which preceded the arrival of the convoy has proved how thoroughly republican are our fleets, since the hatred of the name English directed the blows; and the greater the inequality of force on the side of the French, the greater and more courageous was their resistance. The English sailors, returned to their island, have not been able to rob history of this remarkable event.
The soul of the Republicans rises insensibly as the Revolution progresses; it becomes more energetic, and their courage is more exalted, by reason of dangers and misfortune. The passion of liberty follows them everywhere; it solaces them in chains; it encourages them in adversity; and the songs by which we celebrate our victories and our independence console them for being condemned to live amid the implacable enemies of the Republic.
The English have seized their persons and their ships; but the republican virtues, the patriot's proud courage, that love of his country which is the idol of the French warrior, the Republican's elevated soul, were never in the power of this old enemy of France; and in spite of adversity, even when in fetters, the freeman overawes the tyrant.
Citizens, let us turn our backs on these execrable islanders; let us return to the ocean; we shall there see acts of courage and patriotic devotion much more sublime. The naval armies of the French republic and of the English monarchy had long been face to face and the most terrible engagement has just been delivered on the 13th Prairial. The sharpest firing, the most justifiable fury on the part of the French, augmented the horrors and perils of that day. Three English ships were sunk, some French ships were disabled, and under the enemy's cannonade the seams of one of these ships burst open, adding the horror of certain shipwreck to a fight to the death. But this vessel was manned by men who had imbibed that intrepidity of soul which scorns danger, and that love of country which makes death contemptible.
A sort of martial philosophy had seized the entire crew. The ships of the English tyrant hemmed in this ship of the Republic, and tried to force her crew to surrender. A multitude of guns thundered at the Vengeur; broken masts, torn sails, splintered spars covered the sea. Was it possible that so much courage, such superhuman efforts, could be unavailing?
Wretched slaves of Pitt and George! think you that French Republicans will give themselves over into perfidious hands, and make terms with enemies so vile as you? No, hope it not; the eyes of the Republic are on them; they will conquer or die for her. Hours of combat have not exhausted their courage; still they fight; the enemy receives their last shots and their ship leaks through every seam.
What will become of our brothers? They must either fall into the tyrant's hands or be swallowed up by the sea. Have no fears for their glory; the Republicans who man this ship are greater in misfortune than in success. A stern resolution has succeeded to the heat of battle. Picture this ship, the Vengeur, pierced by cannon balls, gaping in every seam, hemmed in by English tigers and leopards, with her crew of wounded and dying, fighting against the waves and the cannon. The third tier of guns is almost at the water's edge, but still hurl death to the perfidious islanders. Suddenly cease the roar of battle, the terror of danger, the groans of the wounded; all hands ascend or are carried to the deck. All the flags, all the pennants are hoisted; the ensign is nailed to the staff; shouts of "Long Live the Republic!" "Long Live Liberty and France!" are heard on all sides; it is rather the touching and animated spectacle of a civic festival than the terrible moment of shipwreck.
For a moment they must have deliberated on their fate. But no, citizens, they deliberate no longer. They see the English, and they see their country; they prefer to founder rather than to dishonor her by surrender; they do not waver; their last wishes are for the Republic and liberty. They disappear.
Do not pity the Frenchmen who composed the crew of the Vengeur; do not pity them—they have died for their country; let us honor their fate and celebrate their virtues. A Pantheon rears itself in the midst of the central community of the Republic. This monument of national gratitude is visible from all the frontiers—let it be visible also from the midst of the ocean.
Until now we have conferred no honors upon the heroes of the sea; those of the land alone have obtained our homage. Why is it not proposed to you to suspend from the vault of the French Pantheon a model of the Vengeur, and to inscribe upon a pillar of the Pantheon the names of the brave Republicans who made up the crew of the ship, and the courageous act they have done?
It is by such honors that the memory of great men is perpetuated, and the seeds of greatness and virtue cast upon the soil of the Republic. Thus will the Pantheon, by a single decree of the National Convention, be changed into a terrible workshop, where, at the voice of the Republic, ships and sailors will come into being.
But it is not enough to create heroes by the influence of national rewards; we must also give back to the French navy the ship that the sea has swallowed up. No, the memory of the Vengeur shall not perish from among us, and this glorious name shall be given by your orders to the three-decker now building at Brest.
But are there not still more durable monuments to glory? Time, which tears down mountains and destroys the works of man, will not always respect those which the Republic erects, and in this world to ruins will succeed new ruins. Have we not other means of immortalizing the deeds we admire? Do not the acts of the celebrated men of antiquity, to whom were erected temples which are no more, still live in pictures and in writings? It is for the poets, sculptors and painters to depict the episode of the Vengeur; it is for their solacing verses, it is for their grateful brushes and chisels to repeat to posterity what the founders of the Republic thought great, noble, or useful. The monuments erected to the heroes of Homer exist no longer save in his verses. The fame of Agricola reposes no more in the urn made by a celebrated artist; it breathes again in the writings of Tacitus. Let us, then, open an honorable competition in poetry, sculpture and painting, and let national prizes, awarded at a civic festival, regenerate art and encourage artists; or, rather, David, take up thy brush again, and let thy genius wrest from the bosom of the sea the famous vessel whose crew has wrested admiration from the English themselves.
Frenchmen, be brave and great like the Republicans who manned the Vengeur, and England will soon be destroyed. Free the seas from these pirates and traffickers in men, and the shades of the sailors who immortalized themselves upon the Vengeur will rejoice together in their tomb hollowed in the depths of the sea.
- Delivered before the Convention on July 9, 1794, in Barère's capacity as official reporter for the Committee of Public Safety. Its basis of fact is that the Vengeur was sunk and that all of her crew, whom the English boats could not rescue, went down crying for help or shouting, "Vive la Republique." The incident occurred during the battle which the British called " The Glorious First of June " (1794). Lord Howe with twenty-five ships of the line had engaged a French fleet of twenty-six ships, dismasting ten, capturing six, and sinking one, the Vengeur. Translated for this edition by Scott Robinson from the text as given by Stephens.
- The Battle of the First of June took place between a French fleet convoying some American ships loaded with grain, of which France was much in need, and an English fleet which endeavored to intercept them.
- The French admiral in nominal command was Villaret de Joyeuse; but Citizen Jean Bon Saint-André, representing the Committee of Public Safety, was aboard his flag-ship and is commonly thought to have made disaster inevitable.
- Indecisive engagements took place on May 28 and 29. Fogs then kept the fleets apart until June 1.
- No English ship was sunk.
- The PIantagenet lions which appear on the British royal arms are heraldically leopards.
- Renaudin, the captain of the Vengeur, reported as follows: "Soon disappeared both the ship and the luckless victims she carried. In the midst of the horror with which this heartrending picture inspired us, we could not deny ourselves a sentiment of mingled grief and admiration. We heard, as we pulled away, some of our comrades still framing prayers for their country. The last cries of these unfortunates were those of 'Vive la Republique'. They died uttering them. Several men came up, some on planks, others on masts, and still others on pieces of cordage. They were saved by boats, and taken aboard the English ships."
- The Convention passed a formal vote embodying all of Barère's suggestions, including the artistic and literary competitions.