Cipher mysteries usually offer us multiple bubbles of probability to work with, e.g. whether the Somerton Man was Charles Mikkelsen (close but no cigar, despite the former’s nicotine-stained fingers), or even poor old H. C. Reynolds (and what a waste of time that bubble was, eh?). Yet these bubbles tend to be fragile and elusive, and we catch only indirect glimpses of them through the cracked mirrors of historical archives. For would not future historians also struggle to pin down and reconcile the vagaries and scattered events of our own tangled lives?
And so it was that while trying to reconstruct the history of Joachim Vieillard before his time on Robert Surcouf’s La Confiance, I took another look at Lhermitte’s ship La Preneuse, because Louis Garneray said that Vieillard had been on it. (Of course, though we can’t take anything attributed to Garneray as a fact in and of itself, we can use it as a stepping stone to point us in a plausible direction to look for genuinely verifiable evidence.)
In case you’re still not sufficiently steeped in Indian Ocean maritime history, La Preneuse sank in the Battle of Port Louis on 11th December 1799: you can buy a halfway-decent print of Garneray’s painting here:
Anyway, while going through all that, it struck me that BN3’s Captain “Hamon” / “Harmon” could feasibly have been not Captain Hamelin (as I have long suspected, and which lead pointed me in the direction of Vieillard) but instead Captain Lhermitte. And I thought I ought to look a little closer…
Though the linguistic match is admittedly a little worse, the timing is better – for by the time Hamelin and the others were inducted into the Légion d’Honneur in 1810, Napoleon was no longer the “Premier Consul” but “Sa Majesté” or “l’Empereur”.
After being defeated at the Battle of Port Louis, Lhermitte was (along with a good number of his men) captured by the British and returned to France. Subsequently, Lhermitte was brought to the Tuileries in October 1801 and honoured in the highest terms by Napoleon. Henceforth he would be referred to as “Lhermitte le Brave“. Which is nice.
So… might someone sailing under Lhermitte have also been honoured by Premier Consul for his part in the same naval action, in the same way that Joachim Vieillard and various other valiant enseignes de vaisseau were made Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in December 1810? It’s certainly possible, though I have to say that there’s a distinct lack of external documentation to be found.
Further, one might possibly try to reason (from the lack of reference to “Chevalier” etc in BN3, though I admit that this is still a little bit of a stretch) that whatever event was being referred to, it happened after the position of Premier Consul was put in place (17 November 1799) and also probably after when weapons of honour were first “awarded as military awards for feats of arms” (25 December 1799), and yet before the Légion d’Honneur itself was founded (in 1802, replacing weapons of honour). Which is quite a narrow window. 🙂
Remember that BN3 says:
“Avec la bienveillance que le premier consul m’a témoigné, après un fait d’armes glorieux, je serais parvenu.”
Hence I think it is entirely possible that the person who wrote BN3 received a weapon of honour from Napoleon, and was thus made a légionnaire (though not yet a Chevalier, because that naming style only began in 1802).
Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on weapons of honour says that “recipients […] automatically received the Legion of Honour after its inception”. For example, Lhermitte was made an early member of the Légion d’Honneur for that specific reason.
Lhermitte’s record there is LH/1632/62 (his date of birth is 1766/09/29), which says that he was upgraded to Chevalier on 5th February 1804, and then swiftly to Officier on 14th June 1804.
So… we have a date to look for, it would seem.
5th February 1804
On a webpage entitled “Pierre Callens, Le dernier Corsaire Dunkerquois“, we find a corsair “Qui fut décoré de la Légion d’Honneur sous le numéro 280 le 5 Février 1804, 15 Pluviôse An XII de la République” listed by Pierre Van Eccloo in 1996:
L’HERMIT[T]E qui commande à bord a pour second DEHAU, Pierre PLUCKET Lieutenant de Vaisseau, Pierre CALLENS Enseigne de Vaisseau, Pierre AUDIBERT Aspirant. Ce sont des “durs”. Une grande aventure commence.
(Though note Pierre Callens was listed with a later date in the Leonore database, which is a little confusing.) However, if you look a little more closely, you’ll see that these people were on le Tigre under Lhermitte, and that they seem not to have sailed to the Indian Ocean with him.
What’s more, if you do a websearch for “15 pluviôse an XII” or “5 fevrier 1804” with related keywords, you’ll rapidly find plenty of other French mariners people who were made Chevaliers on that same day, e.g.
* Louis-Antoine-Cyprien Infernet (1757–1815)
* André Jules François de Martineng (1776-1860)
* Yves Marie Gabriel Pierre LE COAT, baron de SAINT-HAOUEN (1756-1826)
* Guy Pierre de Coëtnempren, comte de Kersaint (1747-1822)
* Claude Vincent Polony (1756/1828)
* Pierre-François Violette (1759-1836)
* Pierre-Paulin Gourrege (1749–1805)
* Jacques Épron des Jardins
* Théodat Jean-Baptiste Le Bastier de Rivry (1785-1829)
…none of whom seems to have served with Lhermitte, unfortunately. So we still have plenty to look at here before we can properly evaluate whether or not this is a workable bubble to be examining (or indeed popping). Oh well!