A few days ago, I was wondering here whether I could dig up more about the mini-fleet that La Bourdonnais rustled together to go to the rescue of Dupleix’s land forces in India. And once again, as has been the case so many times already, it was H.C.M.Austen’s exemplary “Sea Fights and Corsairs of the Indian Ocean” (1934) that initially sailed to my rescue.

Austen (p.6) lists La Bourdonnais’ five ships as follows (though note that some of the figures differ from what appears on pp.70-71 in La Bourdonnais’ memoirs, as published by his famous chess-playing grandson):
* Insulaire, 24 guns, 350 men, Captain de la Baume [30 guns]
* Bourbon, 42 guns, 350 men, Captain Sellé [44 guns]
* Neptune, 34 guns, 350 men, Captain de la Porte-Barré [40 guns]
* Renommée, 30 guns, 230 men, Captain de la Gatinais [26 guns]
* Elizabeth, “a small vessel from Surat” [a “petit sloop” of 18 guns]

According to this source (pp.185-186), the famous sinking of the Saint-Géran on 17th August 1744 had so rattled people that hardly anybody wanted to join La Bourdonnais’ fleet. And so, to man his ships quickly, he devised a scheme whereby he would rent slaves for 18 livres per month, with the idea of paying their owner 200 livres if that slave happened to die. People were still umming, ahhing, and grouching about this arrangement when a big slaver ship arrived at the island in the nick of time: at which point La Bourdonnais negotiated to buy many of its noirs at 200 dollars each. And so in May 1745 his conjured-up-ex-nihilo fleet was, against all odds, armed, manned and ready to set sail.

La Bourdonnais initially kept the Bourbon back but sent the other ships to Sainte Marie Island, Madagascar, with the plan of sailing his mini-fleet to Madras on 1st August 1745. However, he received orders at the very last (on 28th July 1745) that he should await a fleet of four ships from France that would arrive by the end of August.

What then scuppered La Bourdonnais’ plans was that these four other ships did not arrive from France until January 1746, when they… (Austen, p.7)

“[…] were in a mutinous, ill-found, and ill-provisioned state. By this time La Bourdonnais’ naval artisans in l’Ile de France had been decimated by an epidemic following a severe drought; the harvest had been ravaged by locusts; a vessel dispatched to India for rice had returned without executing its commission; and the St Géran, with a large store of money, stores and provisions from Europe, had been wrecked near Ile d’Ambre.”

Austen then takes details of the engagement from “Collection historique, ou Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la guerre terminée par la paix d’Aix-la-Chapelle en 1748” (1758), which is available online via Google Play: but probably doesn’t concern us for the moment.

But there currently seems to be no obvious trace in the archives of the enrollment details and the crew lists for La Bourdonnais’ fleet.

La Bourdonnais: Trial and Exoneration

After La Bourdonnais had saved Dupleix’s hide by taking Madras, he fell foul both of accusations made by Dupleix of malfeasance and of a change in the complex political tide: recalled to France, La Bourdonnais was imprisoned in the Bastille while a number of accounts of what had happened were brought together by judges. He was eventually exonerated, but the struggle to clear his name ruined him: he died not long after.

mahe-de-la-bourdonnais-statue

One of these court accounts was subsequently published as “Mémoire pour le sieur de La Gatinais, capitaine de vaisseau dans les Indes (impliqué dans le procès criminel intenté au sieur de La Bourdonnais sur la dénonciation de Dupleix)” (1751), which is digitized in Gallica.

La Gatinais confirms many details of the accounts given above, including the fact that his ship (the Renommée) was crewed entirely by Maures: he claims he was given captaincy of that particular ship because he was the only captain who understood their patois, if only weakly (p.2). La Bourdonnais also told him that the cannons on the Renommée were too feeble to take an active part in the planned siege

He also mentions a “Sieur Najon”, one of four officers of the Compagne des Indes who (he said) submitted false or misleading accounts of La Bourdonnais’ conduct for the trial (the other three were Morin, Bouvet, Foucault, p.7). And I suspect you already know which particular Nageon family we are talking about…

Le Sieur Najon

It wasn’t only Gatinais who had a low opinion of this Sieur Najon: “Mémoire pour le sieur de La Bourdonnais: avec les pièces justificatives” (1751) heavy-handedly poured scorn on the testimony of “Le Sieur Najon, Officier des Troupes”:

Le sieur Najon Officier des Troupes, qui en a été chassé, & qui pendant le tems qu’il a servi a été si universellement méprisé, que tous les Officiers ont refusé de faire le service avec lui, dépose qu’après le coup de vent du 13 Octobre, le Sieur de la Bourdonna fït travailler pour sauver les Effets qu’il avoit, dit-il, fait charger dans le Vaisseau Hollandois. Voilà une insigne imposture.

1°. Le sieur Najon est le seul qui dépose de ce fait, & dès-là sa déposition ne fait aucune foi. Si un fait aussi public que celui-là étoit vrai, ne seroit-il pas attesté par une foule de Témoins? Comment pourroit-on concevoir que le sieur Najon fût le seul qui en eût eu connoissance ? Cette singularité ne caractérise-t-elle pas la méchanceté du Témon?

2°. II est impossible que le sieur Najon eût aucune connoissance de ce fait puisqu’il n’étoit plus à Madraz lors du coup de vent du 13 Octobre, &que dès le premier jour du même mois d’Octobre il étoit parti sur le Lys pour Pondichery (a) [le 5 du même mois le sieur de la Bourdonnais écrivoit au sieur Dupleix [..] ] , comme toute l’Escadre le scait. Il n’a donc pû tout au plus deposer que d’un oui-dire, & cependant il parle comme Témoin de visu, Peut-on desirer une prevue plus precise de la fausseté de sa deposition?

3°. Ce même Sieur Najon est d’ailleurs convaincu d’avoir depose faux, dans un article particulier de sa deposition, où il a soutenu que la sieur de la Gatinais étoit arrivé à l’Isle de France dans une Prise Angloise, quoiqu’il soit de notoriété publique, comme sieur Bouvet l’a attesté, qu le sieur de la Gatinais arriva dans la Renommée. Personne n’ignore qu’on n’ajoute aucune foi à la deposition d’un Témoin, qui se trouve fausse en un point. La fausseté d’une partie influe sur tout le reste.

4°. Le sieur Najon est démenti par tous les autres Témoins sure le fait du Vaisseau Hollandois. En effet le siieur de Barville a affluré, soit dans sa deposition, soit à la confrontation, qu’il alloit journellement le long de la côté, & qu’il n’a jamais vû travailler au Vaisseau Hollandois, ni entendu dire qu’on y eût travaillé. Il depose aussi, qu’il a demeuré avec le Subre-cargue de ce même Vaisseau Hollandois, qui s’étoit sauvé du naufrage, & que ce Subre-cargue lui avoit assure quon n’avoit embarqué dans le Vaisseau Hollandois, que les meubles du Capitaine & quelques vivres.

Whatever the historical rights and wrongs of La Bourdonnais’ dispute with Dupleix (and I suspect that the full answer will turn out to be far more complex than the reductionist “La Bourdonnais = Good, Dupleix = Bad” formula that tends to get wheeled out), I am reasonably sure that the (apparently unlikeable) person being denounced here was “Bernardin Nageon officier des vaisseaux de la Compagnie”, as he was described at his death in 1750.

“Hutin” or “Butin”?

The epithet “Le Butin” seems to have settled onto (the pirate) Bernardin Nageon’s shoulders over time, but it’s far from clear to me where it originated. Paul Fleuriau-Chateau did offer a dissenting opinion: he instead suspected that Bernardin Nageon’s nickname might well have been “Le Hutin”, ‘the quarreller‘ (p.53), but didn’t know for sure.

I now wonder whether the roots of this epithet might have actually lain in accounts of La Bourdonnais’ trial, such as the section of his memoirs I excerpted above, where “le sieur Najon” is described as “universellement méprisé” (universally despised). Certainly I don’t believe we have any secondary material about (the pirate) Bernardin Nageon beyond the internal evidence within BN1 and BN2, so it’s a bit vague where the name came from otherwise.

…unless anyone knows better?

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