The Duc De Choiseul And The Rebuilding Of The French Navy


Ville de Paris in Rochefort, 1764

At the beginning of 1763 France possessed 47 ships of the line, some of which were in need of repairs, and Spain 37, whereas the British had 111. If the Bourbons were to seek revenge in another war, they would need not only to match the number of British ships of the line but to surpass it, given Britain’s advantage in giant 90- and 100-gun ships, her pool of experienced and confident sailors and officers, and her veteran commanders. The British attempted to maintain 80 ships of the line in condition to serve. Louis set a goal of 80 ships of the line for the French navy and expected Spain to provide 60; the duc de Choiseul hoped they would be ready in four or five years.

France had a head start because of the ships of the line donated during 1762, of which only two had been launched by the end of the year. During the first four years after the Treaty of Paris the French navy launched the other fifteen donated ships, purchased the Vengeur, 64, and rebuilt the Conquérant, 74, Palmier, 74, and Zodiaque, 74. Choiseul complained to Ossun in 1762 that he worked eight hours a day on naval matters and was convinced the navy needed a complete overhaul. In March 1765 he issued a comprehensive reform and codification of naval regulations. He also made a major effort to fill the dockyards with the naval materiel necessary for building, repairing, and maintaining the fleet. The number of masts rose from 1,576 in 1763 to 4,341 in 1766 and the amount of wood for constructing hulls from 497,322 cubic feet to 697,000 cubic feet, while the amount of hemp and number of anchors also increased.

As naval minister, Choiseul also was responsible for France’s remaining colonies. He unsuccessfully tried to circumvent the Treaty of Paris by reestablishing control over the posts France had lost in the region of the Senegal and Gambia rivers of western Africa. In the West Indies, the heart of the remaining French Empire, he replaced commanders, gave Guadeloupe its own governor general, and attempted to strengthen military authority. He also made an un- successful attempt to colonize French Guiana on the northern coast of South America. Perhaps most importantly he loosened mercantilistic restrictions on trade between France and the West Indies so as to balance more fairly the needs of West Indian planters and the merchants of the French ports. His efforts had mixed results, but they did demonstrate a commitment to strengthening the colonies economically and militarily.

France would stand a better chance of defending her colonies and of taking the offense in a future war if the British army and navy were tied down by a revolt in North America. In 1765 Choiseul predicted an eventual American revolution, although he told Louis XV that they probably would not see it themselves. He sent a Lieutenant Pontleroy to the British colonies to gather intelligence. The results were sufficiently encouraging for him to send a more senior observer, Acting Lieutenant Colonel Johann de Kalb, who a decade later became a major general in the Continental army. By the time de Kalb returned to France in 1768, however, Choiseul seems to have given up any hope of an impending rebellion, an opinion shared by de Kalb.

By this time Choiseul seems also to have abandoned hope of a war of revenge in the near future. The improved relations between Britain and her American colonies during the Rockingham administration of 1765–66 may have had an effect on his thinking, but by the end of 1766 several other factors also seem to have inhibited thoughts of an early war. The first factor was the difficulty of sustaining the French navy’s building program until the goal of 80 ships of the line was reached, given the king’s waning interest and the continuing weakness of royal finances. The navy still had not paid all its debts from the war, and the government had difficulty increasing its revenues. Second, the Spanish navy’s rebuilding program, the necessary corollary to the French, began very slowly. During the first four years of peace Spain launched only eight ships of the line. It would be several more years before Spain possessed the 60 ships of the line upon which France counted. Third, Choiseul’s attention seems to have been increasingly diverted by France’s declining influence in eastern Europe. After Augustus III of Poland died in October 1763, France was unable to prevent the election to the Polish throne of a Russian-backed candidate, Empress Catherine II’s former lover Stanislas Poniatowski. Catherine and her new ally Frederick II of Prussia were not satisfied, however, and promptly demanded that Poland protect the rights of the country’s Protestant and Orthodox Catholic religious minorities. If the Polish Diet could be bullied into such a concession and into recognizing Catherine and Frederick as protectors of Poland’s religious minorities, Poland effectively would lose its remaining independence and France her pretense of influence in Polish affairs. France’s influence in Sweden and Denmark was rapidly declining, too. In April 1766 Choiseul turned over the naval ministry to his cousin the duc de Praslin and resumed direct control over foreign affairs; however important to him may have been preparing for war against Britain, the problems of the continent demanded his immediate attention.

After Choiseul left office, the naval budget was reduced. This had an impact on the royal dockyards. Although wood for construction continued to arrive, the number of masts and amount of hemp and sailcloth began to decline.

Ironically, Choiseul’s new tenure as foreign minister was marked by a colonial conflict. Charles III was outraged when he learned the British had sent a small squadron and landing party to one of the Falkland Islands, off the Spanish portion of South America. Choiseul counseled moderation, telling Spain in September 1766, that France would need another eighteen months to prepare for war. Within a few months he postponed until 1769 the projected time at which France would be ready. Meanwhile the French naval ministry gave a guarded reaction to a detailed Spanish plan of war. The Spanish government soon was distracted by internal political issues, and the Falkland Island crisis was deferred for several years. When it finally occurred in 1770 the French navy still was not ready to fight. Its program of ship construction had been drastically reduced after 1766 and did not revive until after Louis XV’s death in 1774. From 1766 through 1774 it launched only eleven ships of the line, the Couronne, 80, Actif, 74, Bien-Aimé, 74, César, 74, Victoire, 74, Alexandre, 64, Brillant, 64, Eveillé, 64, Protée, 64, Roland, 64, and Solitaire, 64. (It also purchased the Actionnaire, 64, Indien, 64, and Mars, 64, from the bankrupt East India Company.) This did not equal the seventeen ships of the line that were lost or retired from service between the beginning of 1763 and the end of 1774 (the Royal-Louis, 116, Couronne, 74, Défenseur, 74, Actif, 64, Altier, 64, Aventurier [ex-Saint-François- de-Paule], 64, an earlier Brillant, 64, Content, 64, an earlier Eveillé, 64, Hasard [ex-Notre-Dame-de-Rosaire], 64, Mars, 64, an earlier Protée, 64, Rencontre [ex- Vierge-de-Santé], 64, Sage, 64, an earlier Solitaire, 64, Ferme, 56, and Utile, 56). Thus, only sixty ships of the line were available on 1 January 1775. This was only thirteen more than on 1 January 1763 and only three more than on 1 January 1755.

During his second tenure as foreign minister, Choiseul enjoyed one clear victory, the leasing from the Republic of Genoa of the island of Corsica, which proved a permanent acquisition. In spite of the British public’s outrage, the weak government of the ailing Pitt, now Earl of Chatham, and the inexperienced Augustus Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton, protested but did nothing more. This victory was overshadowed, however, by disastrous defeats for France’s friends in eastern Europe. In March 1768 the Poles rebelled against their government in response to the rights recently given to religious minorities. Six months later the Turks, with French encouragement, went to war against the Russians. Chosieul had badly misjudged the situation. Logistical and financial difficulties prevented France from sending more than limited financial aid and a few volunteers to help the Polish rebels. The relatively modern Russian army was called into Poland, and it proved more than a match for both the Poles and the Turks. Aided by the British, the Russians even were able to send a fleet from the Baltic via Britain to the Aegean Sea, where in 1770 it annihilated a Turkish fleet. France’s entire system of client states in eastern European now was threatened and her impotence in foreign affairs revealed to all.

Choiseul’s position at the French court also was weakening. It is possible he at least flirted with the idea that a war with Britain would restore his power. In 1770 the conflict over the Falklands became acute when the Spanish commander at Buenos Aires sent a squadron to the British post at Port Egmont and expelled the garrison. Choiseul’s diplomatic correspondence with Ossun was ambiguous about France’s plans and the king was left in doubt about Choiseul’s intentions. Facing renewed struggles with the parlements, Louis XV wished peace at any price and extracted a promise from Choiseul that he would do his utmost to preserve it. In December 1770, his suspicions that Choiseul was pursuing a separate policy led to the downfall of the foreign minister. War was averted when Charles III apologized to George III for the insult given Britain. In exchange, Frederick, Lord North, the British prime minister, secretly promised that Britain quietly would evacuate the islands later.

Choiseul’s downfall also brought down his cousin, Naval Minister Praslin. After a short interval Pierre-Etienne Bourgeois de Boynes, the former president of the Parlement of Besançon and supporter of the king whom Chosieul had betrayed, became naval minister. During his three years in office, supplies of masts, wood for construction, and other naval materiel declined drastically. With its rebuilding program stalled and its dockyards depleted of supplies, the navy apparently was not very formidable when he left office in 1774. Nevertheless it had hidden strengths and in several areas was superior to the navy of twenty years earlier. First, its ships of the line on average were somewhat larger. At the end of 1774, 32 of its 60 ships of the line carried 74 or more guns (increasingly the measure of a true ship of the line), whereas only 25 of the 57 ships of the line at the beginning of 1755 had carried that many guns. More importantly, thanks to the great expansion of colonial trade and fishing since the end of the Seven Years’ War, it could draw on a larger pool of sailors and hence man more ships. Here, France’s saving of her access to the Newfoundland and St. Lawrence fisheries was crucial; the sailors they trained made the difference of perhaps a dozen ships of the line. (The fisheries trained roughly a third of the navy’s sailors. If half of these could not have found alternate maritime employment, the navy would have lost a sixth of the crews of the 63–73 ships of the line it used in the War of American Independence.) The balance of opposing naval forces in the War for American Independence was so close that a dozen ships of the line were enough to make a crucial difference. More likely, however, France would not have risked involvement in the war had the navy been weakened by the loss of the fishery. Finally, the navy could look for help from the Spanish navy, which had grown almost as large as the French; from 1767 through 1774 it launched 22 ships of the line. The French navy had received Spanish help during the Seven Years’War only after it had been fatally weakened; if it could find earlier help, it might hope for different results, even though the British launched 52 ships of the line between 1 January 1763 and 1 January 1775 and ended the period with 106 ships of the line.

In 1774 the possibility that the French navy might soon see combat, however, was unlikely. What transformed the situation was the death of Louis XV and the accession to the foreign ministry of a former member of the “Secret du Roi” who put into practice the policies of the “Secret,” including striking at Russia through Great Britain.

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