|I. Early Privateering|
Abraham Duquesne was born at Dieppe in 1610. His father, a shipmaster and shipowner in a small way, was a self-made man, the son of a Huguenot tailor at Blangy, whose connection with one or other of the noble Norman families of the same name must be regarded as altogether apocryphal. |
Of his boyhood we have absolutely no information and though he, in some way, learned to read and write fairly, he was probably occupied from a very early age on board the small coasters which his father commanded. In 1627, he was serving as his father's chief officer, in a small privateer of 70 tons, and from the evidence given at a trial regarding one of their prizes, it appears that both father and son held commissions as 'captains in the service of the king.' That his commission, dated in 1626, gave him seniority as a captain, is a point on which Duquesne insisted throughout his whole career, but as given to a boy of sixteen, who could, in fact, be nothing more than his father's apprentice, and who does not seem to have ever served in a king's ship, it can only be considered as a species of enrollment, about which we have no certain information.
The father's commission dated from 1625, but neither father nor son appears to have had, at that time, any further connection with the public service; on the contrary, we find the father in 1628 still cruising on his own account, and combining something like piracy with his legitimate trade. Being at St. Malo, he fell in with the skippers of two barques bound for Rouen, and having struck up a sort of friendship, undertook to convoy them as far as the mouth of the Seine. When they arrived off Honfleur he changed his tone, and by a display of force, compelled them to accompany him to Dieppe where at his insistence the officers of the Admiralty condemned them for illegally trading from one province to another. An appeal to the court of Rouen reversed this judgment, condemned Duquesne to pay all the expenses, and fined the Dieppe officers who had perverted justice to the advantage of their townsman. It does not appear that young Duquesne was engaged in this discreditable affair, but it nevertheless gives us a very clear insight into his early training, and the influences under which he grew to manhood.
Laughton, J. K. (1887). Du Quesne: The French Navy in the XVIIth Century. In Studies in naval history: Biographies (pp. 60-62). London: Longmans, Green, & Co.
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|II. Initiation into French Naval Service|
After a few years more of trading and piracy the father disappears. Nothing certain is known of his fate, but there is reason to believe that he was captured by some Spanish cruisers from Dunkirk, and died there of his wounds about the year 1635. At this time the son appears to have cast in his lot with the service of the king, and to have become in reality, as before in name, an officer of the king's navy. He was appointed to the Neptune, a vessel of 200 tons burden, carrying eight small guns, and joined the fleet which assembled at Belle Isle in June 1636, under the command of the Count d'Harcourt and M. de Sourdis, Archbishop of Bordeaux. This fleet consisted of forty-two ships rated as men-of-war, all belonging to the crown, of which the largest, the flag-ship, Saint-Louis, was of 1,000 tons burden and 46 guns. It was collected with the view of its joining such ships as could be got together at Toulon, and retaking the Lerins Islands, which the Spaniards had seized on during the past year, and fortified with the evident intention of making them a base for operations against the neighboring coast of Provence.|
With thirteen transports in company, and carrying 14,000 soldiers, the fleet weighed from Belle Isle on June 23rd, and reached Toulon on July 29th. Many men were lost by sickness, a fact not to be wondered at when we consider the crowded state of these small and filthy ships during the hot season in the Mediterranean.
After a delay caused by command disputes with Marshal de Vitry, Harcourt and Sourdis carried on their operations with vigor. Sainte Marguerite, the principal of the islands, held out for six weeks. When it surrendered, the others followed its example. Considered as a military operation, the reduction of Sainte Marguerite was a very trifling affair, but it derives interest from the illustration it offers of the curious state of discipline and divided command which then prevailed, and which was not apparently considered reprehensible in itself, but only in so far as it hindered the public service. It was here too that Duquesne, as captain of the Neptune, got his first insight into the realities of war as distinguished from privateering.
Laughton, J. K. (1887). Du Quesne: The French Navy in the XVIIth Century. In Studies in naval history: Biographies (pp. 62-64). London: Longmans, Green, & Co.
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|III. Rise To French Command|
In 1638-39, Duquesne commanded successively the Saint-Jean of 300 tons, and the Maquedo, a Spanish prize, of 600 tons, and was engaged under Sourdis in the naval operations executed on the north coast of Spain in conjunction with the army under Conde. The active share of the navy in these operations was however considerably reduced by the crushing defeat which the Spanish fleet sustained from the Dutch off the South Foreland in September 1639. The next year the Archbishop, being appointed to the command of the Mediterranean fleet, took Duquesne with him to Toulon.|
In 1640, Catalonia revolted from Spain and applied to Richelieu for assistance. Sourdis was directed to cooperate with the insurgents, but want of stores and equipment prevented his leaving Toulon until late in the following spring, when he established the blockade of Tarragona, then besieged by the French troops in concert with the Catalans. His force was insufficient to resist the strenuous efforts made by the Spaniards and, after several encounters in July and August, he was fairly beaten off the coast. Tarragona was revictualled, and the archbishop, already in disgrace for his long delay at Toulon a delay caused by want of stores was summarily removed from the command for his want of success, although his failure was clearly due to the numerical inferiority of his fleet. Several of the captains and officers on active service wrote a semi-public letter expressing their regret at and strong disapproval of this step by the government. This letter was signed, amongst many others, by the Chevalier de Cange, who succeeded to the command of the fleet, and by Duquesne, who was appointed to the command of an independent squadron.
Up to this time our information concerning Duquesne is very limited. That at the age of thirty-two he, a man of no family interest, was appointed to such a command affords a fair presumption that during these six or seven years of actual service he had distinguished himself by energy, zeal, and intelligence. He seems to have enjoyed the confidence and favor of Sourdis, himself undoubtedly an able man. It is however quite certain that he had a pushing temper, which would never permit him to lose anything for want of asserting his own claims, and which led him to insist on what he conceived to be his rights in the most pertinacious manner.
During the summer of 1642 and the following year Duquesne, still in the Maquedo, continued cruising on the Catalan coast. His service at this time was principally one of blockading.
Laughton, J. K. (1887). Du Quesne: The French Navy in the XVIIth Century. In Studies in naval history: Biographies (pp. 64-69). London: Longmans, Green, & Co.
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|IV. Stint of Swedish Naval Service|
Naval affairs were poorly supported after the death of Cardinal Richelieu. Duquesne being left in 1644 without employment, applied for service under the Swedish flag. His offer was accepted, and he commanded the Swedish ship Regina in the battle off Ribe on May 16th. His conduct obtained for him promotion to the rank of admiral-major, or, as we should say, rear-admiral. He continued in the Swedish service for about three years.|
Laughton, J. K. (1887). Du Quesne: The French Navy in the XVIIth Century. In Studies in naval history: Biographies (pp. 69-70). London: Longmans, Green, & Co.
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|V. Return to France and Temporary Retirement|
Duquesne returned to France in charge of four ships which Cardinal Mazarin had bought from the Swedish government, but Mazarin was usually averse to expenditure. Under Richelieu the annual estimate for the navy had been from three to five millions of francs, and even this sum was barely sufficient to meet the requirements of the small fleet. It now fell lower and lower, until at last 300,000 francs was all the government thought fit to devote to the maintenance of the navy.|
Without any declaration of war, and while nominal peace continued to exist between the two countries, English and French ships fought whenever they met. An encounter is pithily described by Whitelocke under the date of August 22, 1650 - 'Letters of some Fights at Sea between the Parliament's Frigates and some French Men-of-war, who were soundly beaten.' This, we may conclude, was the fight which is reported by the French to have taken place near Jersey, in which a squadron of five ships under Duquesne, bound for Bordeaux, was rather roughly handled. This desultory war ended in September 1652, in the seizure by Blake of the French fleet which had been sent to the relief of Dunkirk, then besieged by the Spaniards. Seven ships were sent into Dover, and those that escaped were so damaged as to be valueless.
It is not too much to say that from that time the French navy was altogether unable to undertake any operation. It gradually dwindled away and, by the time Mazarin died in 1661, had practically ceased to exist. During all this time there had been no employment for Duquesne. He had endeavoured, but without success, to reenter the Swedish service, and had passed the years from 1650 in domestic retirement.
Laughton, J. K. (1887). Du Quesne: The French Navy in the XVIIth Century. In Studies in naval history: Biographies (pp. 70-72). London: Longmans, Green, & Co.
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