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Sunday, November 26, 2023

The wreck of L'Uranie


This is a rather long post.  But 22-year-old Rose de Freycinet is one of my favorite heroines of the sea.

Gentle young Rose was not even supposed to be there.  Back on September 17, 1817, she had dressed up in a suit of blue frockcoat and trousers, and just after midnight she had sneaked on board the corvette Uranie. This was not because she was naturally daring, or a cross-dresser, but because she wanted to accompany her beloved husband, Captain Louis-Claude de Freycinet, on a discovery expedition to the Pacific.

Rose remained hidden in the captain’s cabin until the vessel was well away from the French coast.  Then her husband made her presence public by inviting the officers, chaplain, and the expedition artist to a tea party where Rose, still in male attire, presided.  According to her, it was a happy occasion.  “I received them with a great deal of pleasure and I had a good laugh listening to the various hypotheses which each one had formulated about my identity.”  And the officers did not seem to mind, either, agreeing one and all that the dainty little lady with the charming manners and very agreeable appearance was a fit companion for her aristocratic husband—though some people said that during mess dinners the conversation about the dining table was more sharp-edged with brilliant wit than it might have been without a woman to impress. 

When the news broke in France, reactions varied wildly.  On October 4, the editor of the Monitor Universel declared, “this example of conjugal devotion deserves to be made public.”  Reportedly, Louis XVIII was amused.  The Lieutenant-Governor of Gibraltar, the first official to receive visitors from L’Uranie, was not, and neither was the French Ministry of the Navy.  Women were not supposed to travel in ships of the State, and yet Madame was there—in male clothing!  It was unsupportable. 

One result of this was that every now and then the artists of the expedition painted the same scene twice, one work being true to life, and the other sans Madame.  This subterfuge was necessary for the official record, Voyage autour du Monde … exécuté sur les corvettes de S. M. L’Uranie et La Physicienne, which was prepared by de Freycinet and published between 1827 and 1839.  Madame herself was embarrassed that her presence was against the rules.  She was not comfortable in men’s clothing.  The only time she was glad of it was when the corvette was pursued by an Algerian corsair.  The prospect of being enslaved was bad enough, but “the thought of a seraglio evoked even more unpleasant images in my mind, and I hoped to escape that fate thanks to my male disguise.”  Luckily, the corsair veered off after counting the corvette’s cannon, and the possibility of the disguise being penetrated was averted.  Then, after a disastrous meeting with the scandalized Governor of Gibraltar, it was decided that she should abandon male dress altogether, much to her relief.

But then, there was the crew.  When Rose first arrived on deck the men were deferential, leaving the lee side of the ship so she could walk in reasonable privacy. They did their best to refrain from swearing, too, but inevitably their self-imposed discipline lapsed, a curse slipped out, and Rose was forced to concentrate her troubled gaze on the water.  This, once noticed, was considered a very good joke, and so from then on the men would swear and sing rude ditties just loud enough for her to hear, while the boatswain tried to shut them up by making violent signs behind her back. 

In the end, Madame was forced to keep out of sight as much as possible.  As the Dictionnaire de Biographie Français remarked afterwards, this was an admirable display of “moral superiority over the crew,” but it did have the disadvantage that it made life on the rolling wave very boring—though Rose herself denied this, declaring she was happy enough with her guitar, her journal, and her sewing.  She revealed herself more frankly when, on September 12, 1819, on departure from Oahu, she noted ruefully that “this part of the voyage will be greatly prolonged.”  Louis had made the decision “in order to collect data on the magnetic equator.  However much I respect science, I am not fond of it,” she complained; “nor am I likely to be reconciled to it by Louis’ prolonging of the voyage, which holds nothing terribly exciting for me.  It is true that this work is one of the main objectives,” she allowed, but it was inescapably boring.  “If only, like so many travelers, we were fortunate enough to discover some new island.” 

Louis had promised her that if they did find an unclaimed dot of land, he would name it after her.  And lo, two months later, in latitude 14º 32’ 42”, they did indeed find an atoll that was so insignificant that it did not seem to have a name—and so Rose had her wish, even though she was not supposed to be there.  “Let’s see, what shall we call it?” the artist, Arago, mused in a letter to a friend, his tongue firmly in his cheek.  “Let it be a flowery name.  Shall it be Green Island, Red Island, or … No, I suppose it will be Rose Island.”

At other times, Rose was terrified to the point of biting her fingers until they bled.  And yet, she never regretted her decision to defy custom and sail with her beloved husband.  She had sailed to be with him, and to care for him when he was sick or weary, and no one could nurse him as she could! In ports (with the exception of Gibraltar) La Jolie Commandante —as the officers dubbed her—was an asset, too, for Madame was a marvelous ambassador, being most loyally French and a natural diplomat. 

While her husband navigated his ship at sea and measured eclipses on shore, with equal élan she threaded her way through colonial jealousies and strange points of etiquette.  When Rose decided not to attend a ball at Government House in Mauritius (because she did not think the expense of a new gown was worth it), she developed a migraine to avoid the social blunder being seen at a dinner party staged by her host that night.  She was equally adept with native peoples.  Rose was amused when the Caroline Islanders burst into roars of laughter every time the corvette’s officers politely raised their hats to each other—”We must, indeed, appear as strange to the natives as they are to us”—and only a little taken aback when a woman in Guam, after complimenting her on her curly hair, offered to come on board and seek out her head lice. 

Dietary customs fooled her completely, especially when Moslem guests left the table in horror after pork was served, but a Papuan pirate chief who “became very attached” to her chairs was immediately presented one.  Another Papuan inhaled all the pepper on the table, ate all their pickles, and asked for “the plate, the glass and the bottle” he had used.  These were gladly given (though she refused him the napkin), for Rose found him such excellent company.  She even maintained her poise when some of the Hawaiian men startled her by throwing off all their clothes, layer by layer, as they got hotter and hotter while working their way through enormous meals.

Her descriptions provide a view of the early nineteenth century that is as feminine as it is French. There was, for instance, the celestial singing at a religious festival in Rio de Janeiro, in which the voices, “though far too sweet and melodious to belong to men, had a virile force and a vigor which were not characteristic of women’s voices.  I was overwhelmed,” Madame declared, and took the first opportunity to ask details.  “The answer”—that the singers were castrati—”conjured up a cruelty I could never have imagined before that day!”  Quelle horreur!  What a waste!  More amusing were the native girls whom a party from L’Uranie surprised bathing in the Marianas, who screamed with embarrassment and flew to cover themselves, but were more concerned with veiling their backs than their breasts.  “Methinks the gentlemen were not tempted to take issue with them on this matter!” And only a Frenchwoman, surely, would slyly remark, as Rose did, that a certain Australian was not just “very pretty,” but had “a ravishing ankle, or so Louis noticed.”


Departing from Sydney on Christmas Day, 1819, the corvette took the deep southern route around Campbell and Auckland Islands. She had developed a leak, but instead of stopping on the way, de Freycinet carried on. They saw their first iceberg on January 21, 1820, and land was sighted on 7 February—spiked with black rocks, and covered with short, dense shrubbery. The following day they rounded Cape Horn in mild, calm weather—”Was this really the notorious Cape?” she asked. As the ship steered north the weather deteriorated, and so they dropped anchor in the Straits of Le Maire. Then, while the naturalists were gathered at the rail, contemplating the lush vegetation and the thousands of birds, the order was shouted to cut the cable. The current was dragging the corvette onto the rocks.

Getting back to sea was no improvement, as the gale rose and tore at the rigging until the last sail was in shreds, making it almost impossible to steer. The ship lunged north for two stormswept days, until the Falklands were raised. Louis decided to head for French Bay (now called Uranie Bay) on the northeast coast of East Falkland Island, where repairs to the ship could be made. They were slowed up by a thick fog, but on February 14, the headlands surrounding the sheltered bay were sighted, and the corvette sailed toward them.  All seemed calm and promising, but then they hit a rock. 

  As Rose described it, they were sitting at the table when the ship stopped in her wake a moment, and then sailed on.  The shock was so slight that nothing was upset, but shortly afterward, water started rushing into the holds.  The gentle blow was fatal, for a rock had pierced the hull. As Rose wrote, it was a dreadful, suspenseful moment—the bay where they had intended to anchor was still some distance away, and the coast around it was studded with sharp rocks.  If only the ship could be kept afloat as far as a sandy beach, then the equipment and natural history collections could be saved before she foundered, so de Freycinet ordered the entire watch to man the pumps, while the others steered the ship and managed the sails.

The operation took ten arduous hours, and all the time Rose was abject with terror.  She shut herself in her cabin, “overcome by the horror of our situation,” and for a while she and the Abbé—the ship’s chaplain—knelt together in prayer, but then she rallied to help the crew bring all the ship’s biscuit to the poop, to save it being soaked.  As the artist, Arago, put it, la pauvre petite “arranged it all with the minutest care.”  Every now and then she could be seen at her window, vainly searching the faces of passing sailors for a sign of hope.  And all the time the men labored at the pump, shouting out crude, wild songs to keep up their strength and spirits.  When Rose cried out that they must put their trust in the holy Virgin, Arago retorted, “In the holy pump, Madame!”

Whatever the focus of their prayers, it worked.  At three in the morning a faint, kind breeze wafted them up onto a sandy beach.  The barren sandhills that dawn revealed did not look promising, but the company took the ship’s altar ashore and said a Te Deum.  Luckily, the expedition carried an abundance of tents, so that a village soon took shape on shore, though in the meantime the company still lived on the steeply canted ship. The next task was to discharge all the scientific material from the holds and cabins of the corvette, and stow it in tents according to order. Providentially, the weather stayed fine.

Four days later, though, the skies blackened, the gale rose, and it poured with rain. The beached ship was battered constantly, and settling further on her side, so that Rose had to go in and out of her deck cabin through a window, as the door was completely submerged. It was time to go on shore, and live in a tent. The canvas house had not been set up properly, however, and so the first night was a torment of being soaked in bed.  When day dawned the first job was to secure the tent, but no matter how tightly it was secured the canvas leaked and their bedding was constantly damp—”We shall be most fortunate if we are not afflicted with rheumatism in our old age.”

It was now that de Freycinet felt very thankful that he had shipped tradesmen in his crew, for he had the necessary carpenters, sailmakers, blacksmiths, and ropemakers to turn the ship’s longboat into a seaworthy craft.  They called the little vessel L’Espérance—Hope.  Hunting and fishing parties were assembled to go foraging in the hinterland, to save as much preserved food as possible.  However, fresh provisions soon became scarce.  For the hunters to track down a wild horse was an occasion for joy, as otherwise their diet was limited to penguins or seal meat, roasted or stewed in water with biscuit crumbs for thickening.  A wild snipe was a special treat.

Incredibly, the scientific work went on. With wonderful single-mindedness, the scientists built an observatory in preparation for an eclipse of the sun on 15 March. The naturalists determined which of the local wild herbs was safe to eat, and so Rose and the Abbé collected celery and purslane for salads to go with the horse meat that the hunting parties carried in.  With joy, Rose found a sack of flour that the Abbé had intended to use to powder his hair, and so the cook was able to bake bread. Some essence of hops that had been procured in Port Jackson was also salvaged, and so Rose took up the role of expedition brewer, making beer by adding sugar. Then a box of 66 cheeses was found, making the occasion for a party. But, as Rose privately admitted, religion was her only real source of consolation.

On March 19, 1820, the sound of “extraordinary shouting” was the signal that a ship had been raised.  Everyone rushed to the top of the sand dune that was closest to the sea, to see nothing at first, but then a sloop coming into the harbor.  Three guns were fired, and a white flag raised, and in due course the sloop arrived—when, with French hospitality, the impoverished settlement offered the newcomers food and drink. “Imagine our joy at the thought that our exile would soon be over!” wrote Rose.  However, they were to be gravely disappointed.

The sloop, it seemed, was the tender of a whaler-sealer that was anchored twenty leagues away.  They had been hunting seals for the past eighteen months, and needed another ten months to fill their lading. Louis de Freycinet told them that he pay the captain well for passage to Rio, but the man in charge of the sloop refused to go back to the ship—he had been given orders to fish for eight days, and he dared not return until he had his catch. Showing him a document from the United States government that enjoined all American ship captains to render any assistance needed had a better effect; grudgingly, the sloop-captain agreed to go back, carrying an officer from the Uranie who would convey de Freycinet’s message.

So off the sloop went, but in no great haste. Frustratingly, the longboat was now ready for voyage, but departure had to be postponed until the American captain’s decision was known. Meantime, too, men were falling sick with colic and diarrhea, probably because they had been eating penguins. Getting desperate as the days dragged by with horrible weather and no news from the sealer, de Freycinet planned how to capture and commandeer the sealing vessel, while Rose agitated about the violence that this would involve. “May God preserve us and bring back the sloop bearing good news!”

A ship finally arrived on March 28—but it was not the whaler-sealer. Instead, it was the 280-ton American merchantman 
Mercury, en route to the Pacific. According to the captain, a man named Galvin, she had struck a leak, and he had turned back for repairs.  And would he carry them to Rio? Of course he would!  But he would need help with fixing the leak first, if the French could assist? That was easy, too.  Louis de Freycinet sent twelve of his best shipwrights on board.

When Rose learned the nature of the Mercury’s cargo, she should have become suspicious—it was cannons, for the Chilean rebellion. Which made matters somewhat inconvenient, as Captain Galvin mused aloud, as he revealed his actual mission.  While it was convenient for him to carry the French to Valparaiso, on the Pacific coast, Rio was out of the question, being an Atlantic port.  Louis offered to pay enough money to cover that loss as well as expenses, but the master only agreed to think about it—though, as the shipwrights reported, Galvin needed help even more than they did, as the weight of the cannon in the hold was forcing the planks of the American ship apart.  And, what’s more, the Americans were short of food. Within days, the American captain was begging for rum, as well as the game that the French hunting parties were bringing in. On the other hand, he was able to give them some medicine.

Then, at last, the sloop arrived, with the news that the sealer-whaler was in the outer harbor. The whaler was the General Knox of Salem, and the captain, named Orne, was willing to carry them to Rio, probably because his voyage had been so poor. The problem was that his ship had been unrigged to make a clear platform for flensing the whales that the sloop brought in, and it would take time and labor to get it seaworthy again. 

And, of course, Orne wanted money—50,000 pieces of eight, or piastres.  Arguing hard, Louis reduced it to 40,000 piastres, telling him at the same time that he had another offer, from the captain of the Mercury. Waving a casual hand, Orne declared he was glad of that, because he did not want to miss out on the whaling season, but nevertheless he kept on bargaining. At the same time, the captain of the Mercury was threatening to leave without them, ignoring the fact that the French shipwrights were still working on his ship.

And so the double blackmail from the two captains continued. Galvin swore he would sail next day unless some cable was sent on board; Captain Orne demanded permission to salvage whatever he liked from the wreck of the corvette, though de Freycinet staunchly refused, saying that it was the property of the French government, and Rose was perfectly sure that the crew of the General Knox would steal everything they could. Then Galvin agreed to take them to Buenos Aires—only half the distance they wanted to go—on the payment of 10,000 piastres.  After another bout of argument, he grudgingly offered to take  them to Rio de Janeiro for 15,000, but then abruptly changed his mind, asking eighteen thousand. “This is an enormous price to pay for the minor inconvenience we shall cause him.  But he is a rogue who is trying to profit from our present predicament,” she angrily wrote.  Meantime, Rose packed boxes, and suffered from the wet and cold, scarcely able to walk because of the agony in her frozen feet. 

Finally, after a great deal of insult and shouting, the company boarded the Mercury, two months to the day since the wreck of the corvette.  “Uranie!  Poor Uranie!  You who were my abode for so long … we must now forsake you for ever!”  Rose’s cabin on the discovery ship had been small enough, but here she was in a cubby hole with much of the scientific collection packed around her, lit only by a small round of glass in the deck overhead, which went abruptly dark every time someone stepped onto it.  Worse still, all her painfully gained courage seemed to be flooding away—just three months ago, she kept on thinking, she was comfortably housed and very well fed, and the voyage was about to come to an end. But now she and Louis were in a tiny cramped room on a miserable foreign vessel, “eating indescribable food with strangers to whom one has to be pleasant and whom I would often like to send packing.”  Little wonder that she could not stop crying.

Fate, yet again, was ironic. The commander of the Scottish brig Jane, a 120-ton whaler that had been at anchor in Berkeley Sound (present day Port Stanley), just along the coast, arrived to declare that he would have been glad to rescue them all at no cost.  This was Captain James Weddell, a man whose naval career had been interrupted by the end of the Napoleonic wars, and who went on to become a distinguished Antarctic explorer.  He was delighted with the “extreme vivacity” of Madame, “who was young and very agreeable.”  Louis presented him with the longboat that the French seamen had worked so hard to turn into a seaworthy cutter, and Weddell christened her Rose.

Finally, on 27 April, the Mercury set sail, still rife with dissension.  Galvin kept on altering his demands, while first the passengers and then the French company threatened to seize the ship.  Finally, the dilemma was settled by buying the ship in the name of the French government, for the same amount of 18,000 piastres that had been bargained for the passage to Rio.  “All this is preferable to coming to blows,” sighed Rose. 

The vacillating, blackmailing Galvin and his unpleasant passengers were set ashore at Montevideo, along with their traps, and the French company sailed on to Rio in their new possession, renamed La Physicienne.  Here, Rose became reacquainted with friends made on the outward passage, listened again to the castrati (this time without a tremor), rejoined society, and refurbished her wardrobe. 

La Physicienne was being repaired and refurbished too . It took over two months, but Brazil’s gallant Minister of Marine would take no payment for it. They sailed from Rio at dawn on September 13, 1820.  And finally, on November 13, three years and fifty-seven days since the night Rose de Freycinet had crept on board, the expedition anchored in Le Havre.  It was a moment that Louis and Rose both welcomed and dreaded, for now they had to face the consequences of their actions.

Louis was court-martialed for the loss of his ship.  The deliberations lasted exactly one hour and a half.  Captain Louis-Claude de Saulces de Freycinet was completely exonerated of all blame, the court finding unanimously that he had done all that prudence and honor demanded.  Rose’s name was not mentioned, her presence being tactfully ignored.  The ordeal seemed behind them.  Rose, who had been pale, yellowish, and sunken-eyed, was once again able to dance all night, and Louis, who had been sick and racked with worry and pain, was back to noticing elegant ankles.  

The voyage, however, was yet to take its tragic toll.  In 1832, when Louis fell ill in a cholera epidemic, Rose was struck down while nursing him, dying within hours at the age of thirty-seven.  Heartbroken, Louis survived for another ten years, but, as a friend remarked, it could not called “living,” for he “only languished.”

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