Théodore Gudin: Naval Combat off Cape Lizard in Cornwall, 21 October 1707, won by the French fleet commanded by DuGuay-Trouin and Admiral de Forbin against five English war vessels
René Trouin, Sieur du Gué, was born at Saint Malo on June 10, 1673, the fourth child of a Breton shipowner named Luc Trouin, Sieur de la Barbinais. Young René was destined for the church, so his youth was spent studying at Rennes and Caen. But he was much more inclined to the sea, therefore, against his parents’ wishes, he withdrew from the Jesuit school when the War of the Grand Alliance or King William’s War erupted in the summer of 1689.
Trouin first shipped out on one of the family’s vessels. Then the next year, he set sail as a volunteer on December 16, 1690, aboard the 28-gun privateer Trinité of Captain Legoux. The teenaged Trouin proved so adept at naval warfare that he was given command late the next year of the 14-gun family frigate Danycan. In the crowded sea lanes around western Europe, he proved an audacious and tireless rover. Soon, the mounting number of his captures made him famous as “Duguay-Trouin.”
Coming to the attention of King Louis XIV, the young privateer was entrusted with a series of royal warships. First, he took over the 36-gun, 300-ton royal frigate Hermione on June 6, 1692, and the next year he cruised aboard the 32-gun, 400-ton flute Profond. While escorting a convoy with the 34-gun royal frigate Diligente in 1694, Duguay-Trouin was cornered near the Scilly Isles and captured on April 12 by six English warships under Adm. David Mitchell. The wounded young Frenchman was sent as a captive to Plymouth Castle, while Mitchell was knighted for this feat. But Duguay-Trouin and four companions escaped on June 19 of the same year and sailed home aboard a boat loaned to them by a Swedish friend.
In January 1695, Duguay-Trouin sallied once more with the 48-gun, 600-ton François, capturing HMS Nonsuch of 42 guns in a two-day running fight. Louis XIV rewarded this victory with a “sword of honor,” while Duguay-Trouin renamed the Nonsuch the Sans Pareil. The next year, he used it to lure two unsuspecting English vessels under his guns off Vigo. In 1697, while commanding the Saint-Jacques des Victoires and two other ships, he snapped up a 15-ship Dutch convoy outside Bilbao. This triumph won the 24-year-old privateer a commission as a junior captain in France’s Royal Navy.
When the War of the Spanish Succession broke out five years later, Duguay-Trouin enjoyed even greater success. Numerous captures gained him promotion to senior captain by 1705, and his scattering of a Portuguese convoy the next year earned him a knighthood in the Order of Saint-Louis. Hundreds more seizures resulted in René and his older brother Luc being ennobled in 1709. At a time when France’s fortunes were otherwise faltering, their skills at sea were a ray of hope for the nation.
When peace feelers started in 1711, Duguay-Trouin led his first American foray. Ostensibly to avenge du Clerc’s mistreatment at Rio de Janeiro, this expedition also promised rich booty. Royal warships were loaned, and investors showered him with funds. With typical boldness, Duguay-Trouin burst into Rio’s harbor and unmanned the defenders with a quick assault. Yet profits proved meager, and he never again campaigned in the New World.