A Frenchman on the Rocks
‘L’Herminie was one of the last frigates built before the shift to auxiliary steam power in French warships’ — Dr Gordon Watts
In the 1830s, the temperature in the lands that then comprised Mexico was heating up, not due to the addition of chilli peppers to the kitchen pot, but militarily in the fight against a Texas that had declared itself independent of its southern masters.
The most famous man of the day was General Santa Anna, he who captured the Alamo in March 1836, after wiping out David (Davy) Crockett (a former member of the US House of Representatives) and the other 188 defenders of that Texas outpost.
While credited with losing half the country in various wars, Santa Anna was present at the siege of Veracruz by a French force late in 1838, where he subsequently lost a leg (‘buried with full military honours’) due to injuries there sustained (his cork leg is apparently in an Illinois museum, if you are into such historic appendages).
The Mexicans at the time were taking action against French commercial interests in their country, so the Marine Nationale was sent to do some negotiations, by force as it turned out, in what would be called the “Pastry War”, because one of the offended French citizens ran a pastry shop in Mexico.
One of the ships involved in that diplomatic mission in 1838 was L’Herminie, under the command of a Captain Bazoche, a vessel that came off second best in a later battle with the Bermuda reefs known as ‘Chub Heads’, striking that immovable enemy on 3 December 1838.
The ship had withdrawn from the Mexican scenario due to the infection of its crew with yellow fever and was on its way home to France, when the disaster occurred.
Without the assistance of the guns of L’Herminie, the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa and the town of Veracruz fell to the French in late November, about the time the ship had passed northward through the Florida Straits towards Bermuda, riding with the Florida current, the beginning of the Gulf Stream.
L’Herminie was one of eight frigates designed by Martin Boucher in 1823 and designated as a warship of the La Surveillante class, built to carry 30 French 30-pounder cannon and 30 other guns, including carronades (the latter used by Nelson to such deadly effect against the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805).
The vessel was launched at L’Orient in Brittany in 1824, a place later famous for the Kriegsmarine U-boat pens for the German submarine service in the Second World War, so the ship was but 14 years old when it arrived in a disastrous fashion at Bermuda.
It happened upon the island in a storm and struck and settled on the bottom, although it remained intact until the weather abated.
Once the weather cleared, boats from the Royal Naval Dockyard and Somerset Island came to the rescue and brought ashore 495 officers and crew members.
No sooner was the humanitarian issue dealt with than naval and local people began to salvage what they could from L’Herminie.
As often happened, the Bermudians were not averse to helping themselves, in the absence of naval personnel or other officials, to whatever they could illegally appropriate from the doomed warship.
An advertisement appeared in the newspaper demanding that such material be handed to the ship’s agent at Ely’s Harbour, one Thomas Tucker: it is unlikely, given local personalities, that any goods were there received. (One is reminded of a more recent incident where the purchaser of Dania, raided over some years at a Dockyard berth, tried to recover portholes and other gear, to no effect.)
Over time, L’Herminie broke up, probably with a little help from the Bermudians of the western parishes, and her bones sank to the bottom until they were rediscovered by a French diver, no less, one Jean Archie in 1956.
One of the most scenic diving exhibits on the Bermuda reef, the remains of L’Herminie are spread over a wide area of the sea floor, with some two dozen cannon evident, in one or another poses of death by drowning.
A team from the Smithsonian Institution examined the site in the 1960s and some archaeological work was undertaken by East Carolina University in 1995.
Material that was found in those expeditions would have been similar to some that were advertised for sale in The Royal Gazette soon after the sinking, such as ‘copper hinges, hemp hawser, blocks, sails, hooks, thimbles, a wheel, mast hoops, iron belaying pins, a stove mounted with brass, a set of fire utensils, iron rails, iron stanchions, mess tubs, leather buckets, brass wire conductor, copper stove funnels, harness casks, lead, lead pipes, copper pumps, jack screws, leather hoses, cabin doors, tables, crockery, ladders, and a marble slab’.
Other objects found in the modern explorations underscore the vessel’s military nature, such as ‘round and grape shot, a linstock, a percussion lock and lock cover, gun flints, musket and pistol shot, musket locks and hardware fragments, pistol stock fragments, cartridge boxes and inserts: sword hilts, sheathes, scabbards and axes preserve evidence of shoulder and hand weapons’, in addition of course to the heavy artillery.
Some shipwrecks, like L’Herminie, the Frenchman on our rocks, can serve a country’s Heritage Tourism product in several major ways.
First the site itself is a major underwater museum exhibit and should be so preserved.
Secondly, artefacts recovered from the shipwreck through archaeological research can ultimately be displayed in museum exhibitions, which not only informs visitors about the contents of the vessel, but encourages them to spend some money and dive on the site, taking nothing but photographs and leaving only bubbles.
Thirdly, the collections from the shipwrecks serve as a databank of heritage assets, to be studied and made accessible to the public, with discoveries from such work often emerging over generations.
Shipwrecks are international, indeed world, heritage and thus we have a responsibility to other nations to preserve the remains of their cultures that have inadvertently ended up in our watery back yard.
Introspectively, they also are a poignant reminder of our place in the universe as the second most isolated spot on the ocean seas, a place that could end up as much of a wreck as the Frenchman, albeit high and dry amid the sand dune hills of Somerset and the rest of Bermuda.
We are, if one might suggest, entirely dependent for our lives on the French and all other nations that continue to supply us with visitors and other business that keep our vessel afloat in an uncertain international world, n’est-ce pas?