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Sunday 14 September 2014

Lafayette's frigate "Hermione"

This week, at Rochefort in France, a replica of the 1778 frigate “Hermione” began her sea trials. The Hermione was a typical light warship of her day carrying an armament of 26 guns, each firing balls weighing 12 pounds, designed to pound enemy vessels to matchwood. 44 metres long by 11 metres beam, she carried 1500 sq.m of canvas on her 3 masts.

What makes Hermione more interesting historically than her 3 sisterships, or any other French warship of her day? The fact that in March 1780 she left Rochefort on a secret mission that was to culminate in Boston, US. On board was a contingent of French troops led by the 23 year old Marquis de Lafayette who had persuaded Louis XVI to send military and financial support to General Washington in his campaign against the British. He and his men arrived in Boston 38 days later.

The United States has never forgotten the debt owed in those most precarious days of revolution to the extraordinary young French visionary, who not only served as a Major General at Washington's side, but also won his respect and friendship. “Nous voila, Lafayette!” announced American Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stanton, on disembarking in Boulogne in July 1917 with the first 200 American troops to set foot in France in World War 1. The debt would be repaid by America's aid in the victory over Germany and the liberation of eastern France.

Hermione under construction at Rochefort
The replica Hermione project dates back to 1997 when a group of enthusiasts came up with the idea to reproduce the original 18th century frigate using traditional ship building skills and techniques. The keel was eventually laid with considerable ceremony on Independence Day, July 4, of that year. Since that date 3.7 million visitors have visited the construction yard, in the historic 18th century graving dock at the old arsenal in Rochefort, as the vessel has taken shape. In 2012 the bare hull was floated and towed up river before another huge crowd of fans.

Hermione will now undergo sea trials whilst her young crew learn 18th century sailing and seamanship skills climbing kilometres of rigging and handling vast square sails. After calling in at Bordeaux she will return to Rochefort for further fine tuning then in April 2015 set off across the Atlantic; destination Norfolk, Boston, Baltimore and New York.

Lafayette was more than just a revolutionary – he was a genuine innovator in the field of human rights. He supported the abolition of slavery even when it was common in America, Europe and the West Indies, and even tried to persuade his great friend and father figure, George Washington, to ban slavery during his presidency. In 2002, an act of the U.S. Congress made Lafayette only the sixth of seven honorary citizens of the United States. He is buried in Paris under soil from the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Bunker Hill.


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