In the dockyards of Rochefort, an extraordinary project took place: to recreate an 18th Century ship which sailed from France to America and helped America to win the War of Independence. A mission to honour the memory of a young French nobleman with a passion for America. A story of two countries whose ties were forged when America was born and whose legacy lives on…
Many Americans will be aware of the General Lafayette (1757-1834); his name is taught in history lessons alongside that of the Founding Fathers of America. Many streets and schools are named after him in America. A Frenchman who played a pivotal part in the American Revolution and whose story is one of extraordinary valour and stubbornness. His actions mean that France is in fact, the USA’s oldest ally.
Born Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Mortier, Marquis de Lafayette, in 1757, he was orphaned at an early age, married at 16, wealthy and an idealist. Whilst still a teenager, the Marquis resolved to support the American fight for Independence and joined up as an unpaid volunteer serving under General George Washington. Realising more aid would be needed to help the Americans win their cause he returned to France with a remarkable personal mission. He would negotiate backing from the French King Louis XVI. He succeeded. However the debt that this caused in France contributed to the fiscal crisis which lit the fires of the French Revolution.
Later Lafayette worked alongside Thomas Jefferson to establish trade agreements between the US and France. The home where he lived with his family – his son was called George Washington – in Paris, was the headquarters of Americans in Paris where luminaries like Benjamin Franklin met weekly.
L’Hermione French Ship
General Lafayette embarked on L’Hermione at Rochefort on 11 March 1780 and arrived in Boston on 28 April carrying the then-secret news that he had secured French aid for Washington. The frigate had been built at Rochefort by shipwright Henri Chevillard in 1778-1779. L’Hermione fought in several important battles and afterwards returned to France but was destroyed just a few years later.
21st Century replica of the original Hermione
In 1993, a group of American friends were discussing the history of Lafayette and L’Hermione and thought it would be a great idea to recreate the ship. The original idea was conceived in New York by French author Érik Orsenna and American Benedict Donnelly, whose father was a GI who landed on the beaches of Normandy during WWII. The building of a replica frigate was an hommage to the brave French general who supported America and to the history of the French Navy. It is also, says Dr Kissinger, recognition that “The United States and France have a long history of working together for shared principles. From French support when The Hermione tipped the balance against Britain in the Revolutionary War to long years fought together during World War I & II, there has always been a mutual and deep belief in liberty and freedom as our common cause.”
In 1997, work began. Called Hermione-Lafayette, the ship’s design is based on documents discovered in British archives detailing Hermione’s sister ship, La Concorde, which was captured by the British. This incredible quest was completed in 2015 when the frigate made its inaugural voyage from Rochefort to Yorktown, Virginia, where the original L’Hermione took part in the blockade that led to the British surrender at Yorktown, the turning point in the American Revolution.
It was a most extraordinary undertaking. Quite apart from the +3million people who made donations towards the cost, there was a splendid line up of the board of the Friends of l’Hermione-Lafayette in America. They worked tirelessly to bring the project to life under the honorary chairmanship of Dr Henry Kissinger.
But the most astonishing aspect of the built is that the entire frigate was crafted authentically – exactly as it would have been when it was first built. The carpentry, metal work, riggings and sails are true to the original designs and methods in use in the late 1700s. The original ship was created in eleven months at Rochefort. This ship too was built at Rochefort by artisans and hundreds of volunteers, but took quite a bit longer. Those old skills that have been lost over the centuries have been rekindled, there was fanatical attention to historical accuracy and it took some twenty years to build. The sails were hand sewn, metal work was forged, chairs made to old methodology along with lanterns created. The anchors were cast, guns and cannons fabricated – every aspect was researched and lovingly reproduced.
The French support for the American War of Independence sparked a trend amongst the nobility and many of them imported and planted American trees to show their encouragement. If you walk round a chateau and spot a Redwood tree – it could well have been planted in the name of Lafayette 200 years ago.
When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the last surviving member of those who signed alongside Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin etc. was Charles Carroll (Carrollton, USA). He had been educated in St Omer in northern France and spent almost 20 years in France and was in the first delegation to seek help from France at the request of George Washington. The collection of books at Saint Omer that Charles Carroll may well have studied dating back to the 7th Century can be seen at the extraordinary St Omer Public library.
In 1865 the French decided to give America a present to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, it took longer to organise but has become an enduring symbol of the alliance between the two countries and their shared love of liberty: The Statue of Liberty.
The Hermione sailed from Rochefort in April 2015, recreating her famous voyage of 1780, arriving in America in August 2015 landing at Yorktown and then sailing to key points on the coast.
See the video to see just what an amazing undertaking it was:
Find out more at: www.hermione.com