"La France sait ce que tu vaux, Et l'Angleterre mieux encore" - The French Naval Hero de la Motte Picquet

10 June 1791, the French Admiral Count Toussaint-Guillaume de la Motte Picquet died in Brest at the age of 70.

“Marin dès sa première aurore, Guerrier cher même à ses rivaux, La France sait ce que tu vaux, Et l'Angleterre mieux encore." (De la Motte Picquet’s epitaph)

The First Battle of Ushant by Théodore Gudin (1802-1880)

 “Invincible“ was captured after putting up a gallant defence against six ships-of-the-line of the Royal Navy during the First Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747, the British did not only gain access to the dernier cri in battleship design, the event somehow marked a turning point in French fortunes of naval warfare. During the 1620s, Richelieu still felt compelled to remark that “The tears of our sovereigns have the salted taste of the sea that they ignored”. Two decades later, Colbert senior and junior had provided the Sun King with the most powerful and best-equipped navy in European waters and even despite a few setbacks, the French were at least the equal of all the Northern Protestant powers, including the British Royal Navy, in terms of skilled crews and experienced officers and certainly had the edge in ship design. After the capture of the powerful 74-guns, 3rd rate ship-of-the-line “Invincible”, the type was copied, first by English shipyards and later became the backbone of all major European navies and after the battles of Lagos and Quiberon Bay during the annus mirabilis of the Seven Years’ War, major French naval victories over their British rivals were a thing of the past. Or almost. The French naval engineer Jacques-Noël Sané still designed battleships that, despite their size and their heavy armament, manoeuvred like frigates and when war with Great Britain broke out again in 1778 in the wake of the American Revolution, King Louis XV’s new Secretary of State of the Navy, the Marquis de Castries, insisted on having the French warships out at sea and not blockaded in their ports to keep their officers and men in constant training, just like the British did. And indeed, while Admiral Suffren defied the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean, the squadron of Admiral de Grasse inflicted a strategic defeat on the British at Chesapeake Bay in 1781 that, in all probability, cost them their North American colonies. And the war was not even over by then.

De la Motte Picquet’s “Annibal” during the Battle of Martinique by Rossel de Cercy (1736 - 1804)

in 1778, a squadron of 12 ships-of-the-line under Admiral d'Estaing began to harass the Royal Navy under Howe along the American eastern seaboard and “Foulweather Jack” Byron’s squadron in the West Indies, and one of d'Estaing’s officers especially distinguished himself during the island hopping in the Caribbean, Count Toussaint-Guillaume de la Motte Picquet during what went down in the French naval annals as the Combat de la Martinique in 1779. De la Motte-Picquet was by then 59 years old, went to sea at the age of 15 as ensign in the marines aboard the good ship Venus to fight the Barbary pirates and later against the British during several frigate actions in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War, changed his career path, became a frigate captain himself and was promoted into the Seventy-Four “L’Annibal” when d'Estaing sailed for America after having fired the first foreign gun salute to an American vessel, John Paul Jones’ “Ranger”, and took part in the First Battle of the Ushant against Keppel. Now, in December 1779, a French convoy bound for Martinique where de la Motte’s “Annibal” and two other ships-of-the line underwent a refit, tried to sneak past the British in St Lucia and were promptly spotted by Hyde Parker’s squadron of 12 battleships. Despite the rather challenging odds, de la Motte-Picquet sailed his three ships-of-the-line out of Martinique, gained the weather gauge and manoeuvred his small force under the guns of the island’s fortifications and held off Parker’s squadron until most of the convoy could reach safety. The feat impressed Parker enough to send a note of congratulations to de la Motte-Picquet under a flag of truce: “The conduct of your Excellency in the affair of the 18th of this month fully justifies the reputation which you enjoy among us, and I assure you that I could not witness without envy the skill you showed on that occasion. Our enmity is transient, depending upon our masters; but your merit has stamped upon my heart the greatest admiration for yourself.“ Two years later, de la Motte-Picquet managed to capture a British convoy near former Dutch St Eustatius, the “Golden Rock”, occupied by the British under Rodney a couple of weeks before. One of the ships carried the most valuable loot accumulated by debt-ridden Rodney himself, worth 5 million pounds sterling, just before the British admiral terminated French naval ambitions in the West Indies by defeating de Grasse at the Battle of the Saints in April 1782. In the end, victory at sea remained a tradition of the Royal Navy.

“very small, very thin and very ugly” - de la Motte Picquet and Louis XVI in 1785 

After my head falls off, send it to the British, they will pay a good deal for it!" the Comte d’Estaing wrote when he had his appointment with the National Razor in April 1794. Two Months later, his old enemy Howe won a decisive victory of the French revolutionary navy on the Glorious First of June. Since almost all of the old French Royal Navy’s officers were aristos, most had already shared d’Estaing’s fate during the Terreur along with large parts of their experienced crews. It was a blow from which the Revolutionary and later Napoleon’s navy would never recover and contributed considerably to Nelson’s later successes at the Nile and Trafalgar. De la Motte was spared witnessing the dismantling of his old navy. He died highly decorated in 1791 in Brest at the age of 70, described by contemporaries as “very small, very thin and very ugly”, but highly intelligent and “with eyes full of fire”, on a par with the best French naval commanders, d'Estaing, Suffren, Rusty and Tomay Guichen, commanding ships and men that were, for decades, serious rivals to British naval supremacy.

And (a bit) more about la Motte Picquet on: