Friday, September 12, 2008

From France to Martinique

The purpose of this blog is to publish some facts about the era in which Andre de Mestre, Heleine Cotterel and their children Jean Charles Prosper and Melanie Caroline Jeanne lived.1 Their lives were greatly affected by the French Revolution, with Andre being killed at Martinique. His death was a consequence of a complex series of events that were partly due to his battalion's presence there to maintain order amongst several volatile, opposing factions. His final demise resulted from the futile attempt by the French to defend Martinique against a British attack. I will attempt to explain some of the circumstances of this time, but first, will publish some relevant dates for the family's births and information regarding marriage. I have not attempted to list exhaustive genealogical details, as these are available elsewhere (see links at right). Comments or questions are welcome at the bottom of the post.

In France:
Andre de Mestre was born 16 February 1756 at Montastruc to Pierre de Mestre and Marie Marguerite Chefdeville.  He was baptised the following day.

From the Archives Municipales de Rennes, I discovered the baptism record for Heleine Thomase Coterel (her father's surname spelling on this record). She was born on 15 July 1768 and baptised the next day in St-Etienne parish church.

From the Archives de la Ville de Lorient, I found the baptism for Jean Charles Prosper who was born 15 August 1789 and baptised in the parish of St-Louis two days later. He is listed as "fils naturel" of Heleine, which means he was born outside wedlock. There is no record of the father on this baptism. 2

Melanie Caroline Jeanne Mestre was born on 15 November 1790 and baptised the next day in Lorient, parish of St-Louis. On this record, Andre's name appears as the father, and he has signed "Mestre".

We have information from Andre's army records that he applied for 3 months' leave in February 1788 to attend to business, along with his brother Jean, following their father's death. The Will was located in the town of Lauzun in Lot-et-Garonne, so it seems logical the brothers would have travelled there, and therefore would have had no reason to visit Rennes where it had been implied Andre met and married Heleine.  Their daughter Melanie's baptism record states Andre and Heleine 
"declared" they had been married in Rennes in 1788. However, there is no marriage record in any parish in Rennes for 1788 or any other year. Nor is there any record at Lorient. It is simply not true that there was ever a marriage, considering the circumstances of Prosper's birth and the requirements for a marriage during that era:  

For a civilian marriage, the engaged couple had to attend marriage banns at the church for three consecutive Sundays. If either of the couple was under the age of majority (at that time 30 for men and 25 for women) then parental approval was required for the marriage. For military marriage from 1 July 1788, tough new laws were introduced, requiring approval by superiors. (These requirements were later relaxed somewhat from 8 March 1793, but after 1799, Napoleon reinstated them.)  The laws required checking potential brides' "persons, fortunes and family" as many men had been marrying women of ill-repute. 

At Martinique:
I am indebted to Professor William S. Cormack, a Canadian historian, who has supplied me with a great deal of information about the social and political history of Martinique during Revolutionary times. This information has revealed considerable factional friction and unrest on the island between white French planters who were royalists, and other rebels who were against slavery and who ultimately supported the republican cause. The French navy was representative of this schism, and many believed legitimate French authority was upheld by whichever naval presence (royalist or republican) dominated in the Caribbean. Another historian, Michael Duffy, has also written extensively on this period, so considering the work of both authors and other research I and others have carried out, we were able to get a clearer picture of the volatile situation that existed at Martinique.

These circumstances had become so explosive in 1793 that three delegates, representing white planters, travelled to England, arriving in February, to draw up an agreement whereby the British would take the island, and hold it in trust until the French monarchy was restored. Copies obtained of that agreement plus other correspondence between the British and French confirm this. 

On 27th April a fleet of 10 British ships under the command of Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner arrived at Martinique.  Gardner did not attack Martinique yet as the was awaiting reinforcements. French royalist navy captain Riviere was highly critical of Gardner's failure to land his troops immediately to support the planters, and angered by his refusal to allow French warships to fly the fleur-de-lis.  Gardner's fleet continued to Barbados where they embarked reinforcements and returned along with Major-General Bruce, arriving at Martinique on 11th May 1793.  An attempt to land troops on the 13th was repulsed.  However, the arrival of another battleship and a 44-gun ship four days later bearing Du Buc, one of the original Martinique delegates to London, led them on once more.  Du Buc backed the royalist claims that the commercial port of St Pierre might be taken easily, and on the 16th, Bruce at last landed his troops to co-operate with royalists in an assault on that town.  However, only about 800 royalists came forward and their attack on the night of 18-19 June was a disaster. The British re-embarked, and French republican General Rochambeau, who replaced royalist Governor-General Behague, made no attempt to stop 5,000-6,000 royalist refugees departing with them.4

It is likely that the ship Ulysses was the 44-gun warship and its musters confirm they took on board 685 French refugees before heading for Barbados, arriving at the end of June. It is possible that at least Jean Charles Prosper was among these, as there are two entries for "Jean Charles". (A great number of the people have only their first names listed.) The muster numbers are consistent with the number of refugees divided between 10-12 ships.

The Rise of the "de Mestre Legend":
Family stories and claims from "Prosper" (as he was known in Australia) had always indicated that he had been born on a British ship, possibly Ulysses, heading for Martinique in 1793. Over the years there has been much discussion and theorising about Prosper's birth and parentage. Unfortunately the family stories included the myth that he had been the son of Edward Duke of Kent and his mistress, Julie de St-Laurent. (Ulysses had once travelled to Canada in 1791 with Edward, Duke of Kent.) One story also claimed that Julie and Heleine were the same person! Edward did take part in the British invasion of Martinique, and there may be a slim chance that he and Heleine met there, but that is the only possibility there was any liaison between them. When Jean Charles Prosper was born, Edward was in Geneva and involved with Catherine "Adelaide" Dubus, who bore him a child, Adelaide Victoire Auguste Dubus. Catherine died giving birth on 15 December 1789.So, perhaps at a stretch, we could say that Jean Charles Prosper might have been "borne" aboard a British ship, and taken to safety, considering the imminent attack, and almost certain defeat. (According to Rochambeau's journal, British troops numbered 15,000-16,000 while the French were only left with 171 troops of the line, 30-40 artillery, 160 naval troops, 300-400 national guards and several negroes.) 3

Andre's Movements and Death:
Concentrating on the period from 1791-1794, I have been able to establish that Andre's batallion, the 2eRIdeLi (2nd Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne) went to Martinique in March 1791 under the new Governor-General, the compte de Behague, who was a royalist. Andre was present at Behague's inspection at Martinique on 31 December 1791. He was 1st Class Captain in the 2nd Brigade.

Because of the continued struggle for royalist or republican rule at Martinique, Rochambeau was eventually dispatched to take over from Behague, and therefore enforce republican law. When Rochambeau and his troops arrived at Martinique in September 1792, deputies from Martinique's colonial assembly forbade him to land. He eventually took over in February 1793 after Behague was expelled.

So Andre fought originally under a royalist governor-general, but had no choice but to serve under a republican from February 1793. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel on 27 June, 1793 by General Rochambeau who subsequently promoted him further to Colonel of the Artillery on 10 February, 1794.

In December 1793, Andre had written several impassioned pleas to France for a great increase in funds and troops to stave off imminent attacks by either the English, the Spanish, or a combined force. However, due to higher priorities for the mainland battles between these nations, the requested resources were never sent.

An entry from Rochambeau's journal informs us about Andre's death in battle on 14 March, 1794. It reads (quite literally):"The Colonel Mestre of the artillery had his head taken off by a cannon ball. I was covered in his blood and I had a slight bruise of the heel. This officer was of great merit and his loss is irreplaceable. He was day and night on the ramparts. His talents were known to me during the war campaign that had already happened in this country and I have myself to recognise them on this occasion. His activities were greater during the siege and his multiple assets were to be at the same time director of the artillery, captain of the gun markers and the bombadier. He leaves a wife and two children. The republic should take care of them and give them a pension because this brave man had no fortune at all except his talents, his courage and his qualities."

There is another mention further down about Andre's skull bones wounding Rochambeau's aide, Marlet, in the kidneys.

Heleine and the Children:
It is possible that Heleine and Jean Charles Prosper (at least) travelled to Martinique in 1791 with Andre's battalion. Family stories have mentioned that Heleine left Melanie with an aunt who was an abbess in Nantes, and that the Grey Sisters had taken care of her. However, there is no possibility that the "abbess" was Heleine's sister (or half-sister) as all were either too young or married in Rennes. Also, the only place in France where the Grey Sisters worked during the Revolution was a town called Derval (which is exactly half-way between Rennes and Nantes). The sisters ran an institution for the poor and sick, and it was also a school. During 1793 the republican troops closed this institution down and forced out all who worked there. Most records were destroyed. However, I have been able to obtain names of the sisters from records held at Derval, but none matches the "aunt".

After the Battle at Martinique:
Heleine married British officer James Armstrong at Martinique in 1795, and they had a son, Andrew. Prosper had stated that at the peace of Amiens in 1802, he left Martinique for Philadelphia. However, Coulon descendant, David Conroyd discovered Andrew's baptism in New York on 28 April, 1796. There is also a record which places Heleine at a baptism in New York in early 1797, so research is ongoing to further establish her circumstances, and those of the children. It is believed that James Armstrong had been wounded at some point after their marriage, and perhaps Heleine thought he had died, but he survived. Heleine ultimately married Joseph Coulon in Philadelphia and had two children to him.

1 The paternity for Jean Charles Prosper is not known.
2 There is no death record of a child of this name or any other possible listing of his name. I have done a thorough check of the Lorient records, from 1789 to 1793 inclusive, so he was not replaced by another child of exactly the same or similar name in 1793.  The wording "fils naturel" without further notation about legitimate marriage or a father proves Prosper's illegitimacy beyond doubt. 
3 Behague deported troops if they showed patriot (republican) leanings, and also some defected in 1794, supporting the British on the eastern side of the island. Some would have been killed during prior British attacks and also during the final assault whereby other forts fell before Fort Bourbon. The planned French expedition to deliver reinforcements to Martinique in 1793 was aborted due to war breaking out between Britain and France. The French could not deploy any further military or naval resources to the colonies. Nor was the agreement between the Martinique delegates and the British of any value ultimately, due to the war and the Revolution, as the French monarchy was not restored.
4 According to The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1823, Vol. VII, royalists who could not escape suffered cruel deaths at the hands of their own (republican) countrymen.

Archives Departementales de Lot-et-Garonne,, Saint-Etienne, Montastruc 1701-1759, vue 256 (right).

Archives de la Ville de Lorient, (Acceder aux Fonds, Registres numérisés, Paroisse St-Louis, GG79, vue 85 (left), and GG80, vue 123 (right).

Archives Municipales de Rennes, GGSTET21, vue 182 (left).

Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer,,

Blaufarb, Rafe 2003, The French Army, 1750-1820 Careers, Talent, Merit, Manchester University Press.

Camp, Anthony J. 2007, Royal Mistresses and Bastards Fact and Fiction 1714-1936, Anthony J. Camp.

Cormack, William S.1996, Legitimate Authority in Revolution and War: the French Navy in the West Indies, 1789-1793, 'The International History Review, XVIII', 1: February 1996, pp.1-25

Duffy, Michael 1987, Soldiers, Sugar and Seapower: The British Expeditions to the West Indies and the War against Revolutionary France, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Durham University, Papers of Sir Charles Grey, photocopies provided.

Genealogie et Histoire de la Caraibe 2004, L'Inventaire de la Correspondance des Gouveneurs de La Martinique (Colonies C/8, inventaire et index par Etienne Tallemite), by email to Shirley O'Donovan

Loire Atlantique, Department Solidaire, Conseil General 2007, Re: Soeurs grises a Nantes, email.

Mairie Derval 2007, La Maison de Charite de Bellevue L'Ecole des Filles - L'Hospice, email.

Rochambeau, (Vicomte de) Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur 2007 (1793), Journal de la Siege de la Martinique 1793, Cote: D/XXV/117 CD-ROM, Archives Nationales, Centre Historique de Paris.

Smith, Digby 2000, Napoleon's Regiments: Battle Histories of the Regiments of the French Army, 1792-1815, Greenhill Books, London.

The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1823, Vol. VII, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, Paternoster-Row, London.

Thanks to other researchers: Shirley O'Donovan, Nancy Patterson, Belinda Cohen, Alison Brideson, Ron & Margaret Thompson, Elizabeth Draper, David Conroyd, Pierre Flouret, Roland Orney, Anne Davis.