One of the intriguing (yet annoyingly hard to pin down) parts about the third Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang letter BN3 (that I have argued was probably written by an as-yet-unidentified French corsair some 60 years after BN1 and BN2) is the claimed link to Napoleon Bonaparte.
As the letter-writer puts it:
Avec la bienveillance que le Premier Consul m’a témoigné après un fait d’armes glorieux, je serais parvenu
…which is to say (in English)…
With the benevolence the First Consul showed me after a glorious feat of arms, I had hoped to return [to France].
There’s actually a lot of historical timing data implicit here. Napoleon Bonaparte was Premier Consul during the period of the French Consulate (from 12th December 1799 to 18th May 1804): and it was during this period that he instituted various ways of rewarding the brave. Hence the most straightforward inference from the line in the BN3 letter would indicate that the letter-writer was honoured by Napoleon during this period (when he was Premier Consul).
However, we also know that the letter-writer was a seaman: and it wasn’t until 9th August 1801 that Napoleon started to honour bravery at sea, specifically by giving haches d’abordage d’honneur (‘boarding axes of honour’). The last ever three haches were awarded on 24th September 1803, after which date the nation’s bravest seamen were instead inducted in the Légion d’honneur by way of a thank-you-for-not-quite-dying-on-our-collective-behalf.
Just so you know, the haches themselves looked like this, and were engraved with the recipient’s personal details:
Recently, I spent some time trying to work out if the letter-writer might have been in the état-major of Capitaine Jacques Perroud (one of the last three hache d’abordage recipients – and, for what it’s worth, I’m now almost certain that he wasn’t).
But while doing so, it struck me that we might instead be able to tackle this whole problem backwards. That is, I wondered if we could build up a list of all the people who received a hache d’abordage d’honneur, because this unknown person’s name might well be on that list, right in front of us.
The 53 haches d’abordage d’honneur
And so that’s exactly what I did: and have just now posted my list of all the hache d’abordage d’honneur recipients I could find to the Cipher Foundation website. However, of the 53 supposed recipients, I was only able to find 50, despite painstakingly cross-referencing my list against several other lists.
Usefully, though, short biographies of almost all the recipients appear in the historical record (the published Fastes, etc): which means that we can eliminate as candidates all these heroic French seamen whose marine resumes fail to match other details we know about the letter-writer.
And yet… now that I’ve ground my way through the biographies of the fifty listed recipients, I can honestly say that I don’t think the corsair who wrote BN3 is included there.
I’ve also gone through many more biographies of seamen inducted into the Légion d’honneur between 24th September 1803 (the date when the final three haches were awarded) and 18th May 1804 (when Napoleon ceased to be Premier Consul), and haven’t found anything. In fact, it’s hard not to notice that nobody (apart from Capitaine Jacques Perroud) who sailed in the Indian Ocean seems to have been honoured for their bravery during this period.
So this whole research avenue is, unfortunately, starting to look like a bit of a cul-de-sac: if the letter-writer was indeed rewarded by the “Premier Consul”, then unless he was one of the supposed missing three recipients (whose names I haven’t yet identified), I can’t obviously see who he was. Which is a huge shame, but it is what it is.