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Book Reviews

The sea has no end: The life of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville

by Victor Suthren
Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2004
216 pages, $35.00

Reviewed by Major John R. Grodzinski

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Book cover Recent films and programs about the adventures of fictional characters Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey have rekindled popular interest in the age of sail and its heroes, whether they are fictional or real. In these stories, we see the British pitted against the fleets of France and Spain in a series of protracted wars from the 1660s to 1815. The Royal Navy is at the centre of these works, leaving us with a sketchy view of the French, which further compounds the average Canadian’s understanding of one of our two founding imperial powers. Within our French heritage are fascinating tales and stories of great figures, and one that Canadians should know better is Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

Here was a remarkable man. Born in 1729, he became a sailor, soldier, explorer, statesman and mathematician who spent much of his life in the service of France. During the Seven Years’ War, he served as aide de camp to the Marquis de Montcalm, travelling as far inland as Fort Frontenac and Oswego on Lake Ontario. He further distinguished himself during the War of the American Revolution. In 1764, Bougainville was given charge of a group of Acadians and the responsibility for settling them in a new French colony on the Îles Malouines, which were ceded to Spain in 1767. We know them better as the Falkland Islands. Bougainville also held several government and diplomatic posts, was an advisor on scientific questions and also helped found modern ethnography. He survived the French Revolution, becoming a friend and Senator to Napoleon. His brilliance as a mathematician and his exploits as a sailor transcended national boundaries, earning him membership in the Royal Society of London in 1756. King George III was overheard saying that while the explorer Captain James Cook was a fine sailor, Bougainville was an inspired one. All this while he was an enemy of Britain! He died in Paris in 1811.

Victor Suthern’s historical interests lay mainly with seafaring and exploration. An experienced sailor and one-time Curator of Exhibitions at the Canadian War Museum and Director General of the same facility, he also served as a staff historian at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park. In earlier days, he was a member of the Fort Henry Guard in Kingston, Ontario. He now holds positions as Canadian representative to HM Bark Endeavour Foundation in Australia, guest curator at the David M. Stewart Museum in Montreal and historical advisor to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Aside from books on the War of 1812 and the life of the explorer James Cook, Suthern has penned a trilogy of novels “in the Hornblower tradition,” dealing with mid-eighteenth century adventures of Paul Gallant, an Acadian-born officer of the French Navy.

Above all, Suthern is a storyteller, and, word has it, an impressive raconteur. He planned this book as a “popular retelling of this remarkable man’s life” and the times he lived in.” In many ways, he achieves this. The story is of the great events of the second half of the eighteenth century and is fast paced, with the author’s pen describing Bougainville’s role in many significant events. Excerpts of Bougainville’s own writings add colour to the tale, although the author often relies on lengthy quotes from secondary sources, such as Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766.

The text continues with three chapters describing the final battle for Canada during the Seven Years’ War, where the author fails to deliver the promised use of “Bougainville’s own journal to follow the events of the struggle and Bougainville’s participation in its clashes and forest warfare.” Of the 107 references cited in these chapters, only one-third come from Bougainville; the rest are from biographers or historians. Accordingly, “Bougainville’s perceptive observations on the nature and character of Indian nations he encountered” become lost in a sea of secondary source passages. A pity, given the richness of Bougainville’s writings.

For students of Canadian history and warfare, Bougainville offers several interesting perspectives. During his stay in Canada, “he came to establish a remarkable intimacy with, and knowledge of, Indian society,” yet, was uneasy of the practice of la petite guerre, the guerrilla tactics, employed by both the natives and the Canadian militia, choosing, like Montcalm, to keep his faith with European discipline and firepower. This “civilized philisophe and rationale lover of the classics ... could never ... overcome his horror of the other aspects of Indian society at war,” making him very much a man of his age. Bougainville was also brave. In August 1756, he had a “sudden immersion into the fighting arts of the warriors,” during the French attack on Oswego, when he fell in with the advance party making the attack. In what his first exposure to land warfare, Bougainville performed brilliantly under artillery and small arms fire, leading Montcalm to note: “I shall not be mistaken if he does not have a good head for soldiering.”

Since he could speak English, Bougainville negotiated the articles of surrender with the fort commander. In 1758, he undertook a most difficult mission by representing Montcalm’s proposals to save New France to the French court. Two months of pleading and polite conversation brought little encouragement and our hero returned to Canada to witness the final act of this play.

It was on the sea that we see Bougainville at his best and worst, perhaps illustrating the political complexities of the time. He spent two years and four months circumnavigating the globe – no mean feat – losing only 13 men. Unfortunately, there was not much to show for his tenacity. He had neither found sizeable lands to colonize nor opened a new route to China. No new sources of spices were located, and his scientific exploration yielded mixed results. Bougainville was warmly received by the court but was given the cold shoulder treatment, and, in some cases, experienced outright derision from intellectual circles. Redemption came when Bougainville commanded a squadron in Admiral de Grasse’s fleet against the British. Appearing in Chesapeake Bay, off Yorktown in September 1781, Bougainville’s squadron was in the French van and played a key role in driving the British off. This helped secure the Franco- American victory at Yorktown, effectively winning American independence. Unfortunately for Bougainville, he was not as successful when he met the British again at the Saintes the following year. In a surprising phrase, the author condemns the British commander for “disregarding the protocol of engaging in two parallel lines and burst[ing] through the French line well back from the van.” Bougainville was charged with not doubling back to defend the French centre, was court-martialled, reprimanded and disgraced.

Suthern does not offer any new interpretations or insights about Bougainville. His endnotes and bibliography demonstrate reliance on published documentary collections or standard secondary sources on the period, which is fine, given that this is a popular work. Demonstrative of the new information world we live in, there are only two archival references, but three from the Internet.

A few illustrations would have helped reveal more of the man and his times. Three nicely drawn maps, in keeping with the popular style of the book, complement events in Canada during the Seven Years’ War. Additional maps depicting other places, such as the south seas, that were visited by Bougainville would have been a nice touch, as would an index. Yet these faults likely lie more with the publisher than with the author. There are a few other niggling problems, such as the title of Barry Gough’s very useful history of the Falkland Islands being incorrectly listed as “The Falklands/Malvinas: The Conquest for Empire in the South Pacific.” Oh editor, where art thou? Suthern also uses the term “flintlock era” to identify the era associated with smoothbore weaponry. “Smoothbore era” or “musket era” are the generally accepted terms and one wonders what sparked (excuse the pun) this unusual usage.

Popular history is useful and this work fits that genre. At times Bougainville seems a sad character, seeking greatness with mixed success. He was brave, brilliant, an outstanding seaman and, likely, a strong leader. Yet he also appears restless, sloppy and lacking focus. Court and societal politics gave him mixed treatment. The presentation is both wonderful and disappointing. Hopefully “The Sea Has No End” will expose many readers to a wonderful part of our history and heritage; a heritage that has given Canadians the distinction of having a history where our forefathers occupied both sides of the same hill in war. How would Liddell Hart have dealt with that? If he were alive, I know he would begin by reading this book. You should as well.

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Major John R. Grodzinski teaches History at the Royal Military College of Canada.


Soldier and small boy

Photo: Cpl John Bradley, 3 R22eR Bn Gp

Corporal Tommy Mailloux from A Company, 3rd Battalion Royal 22e Régiment Battalion Group (3 R22eR Bn Gp), lets a young boy listen to his Personal Radio Receiver (PRR), while on a small break from a patrol in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan.