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A French Connection: Replica of Lafayette’s ship Hermione to visit Annapolis

Jun 05, 2015 11:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Ellen Moyer | Photos courtesy of Association Hermione-La Fayette

Rochefort, France is a sister city of Annapolis…maybe. It was our sister city when I visited in 2007 but an international faux pas occurred in 2009. Back then, at the City’s invitation, three Rochefort students were visiting Annapolis to participate in our summer sailing school. Several elected leaders, suffering from amnesia on the importance of France to this nation’s independence from England in 1781, objected to the student exchange program. Grievously, the Capital Gazette supported the assault on the student exchange program. And communication between the two towns seemed to have ceased for five years. This June, Annapolitans have a chance to roll out the city’s red carpet and make amends. The replica tall ship of Hermione, that which Marquis Lafayette built and sailed to America in 1780, will be in our port for two days, June 16th through the 18th.
Rochefort, like the U.S. Naval Academy, began its life as a navy garrison town. It was a new town specifically built by decree of King Louis XIV in 1665 as a place of refuge, defense, and supply for the French Navy. The port town of La Rochelle 15 miles away on the Atlantic Coast, and at the time France’s largest port, was an upstart Protestant town closely aligned with England. The Catholic King did not trust them. He needed a new town, thus Rochefort. He instructed his architect Jean Baptiste Colbert to “Make it big, Make it beautiful, and Make it fast.” Worried about the power of the English Navy, Rochefort rose as a premier shipbuilding port on the Charente River. In short time the Corderie Royal, Europe’s longest building, 473 meters from end to end was in the business of making rope for the majestic sailing vessels.

Today the Corderie houses the Centre International de la Mer, a museum that tells the seafaring stories of the town and France. Rochefort, true to the King’s vision and Colbert’s work, is one of the most beautiful and most stylish towns in France. It has a renowned spa and the world’s largest collection of begonias. However it is no longer a Navy port. The Naval Arsenal and dockyard closed in 1926.
The once feared La Rochelle, founded in the 10th century, never lost its maritime roots. It is still a commercial port and houses the largest marina for pleasure boats in all of Europe. Jean Francois Fountaine, who has visited the Annapolis Boat Show many times to showcase the Catamaran that bears his name, is La Rochelle’s mayor.

During the Seven Years War, 1754–1763, the English, with the most powerful Navy in the world, blockaded the coastal ports of France. By 1762, French morale was exhausted. At the conclusion of this worldwide war, Great Britain would acquire great expanses of land in other countries, particularly North America, largely at the expense of the French.

Rochefort was the first target of the English. On September 8th, 1757, a naval raid was planned to invade the estuary of the Charente River, slip upstream, and burn the town of Rochefort and all the ships at the Naval Base and in the river. The mission failed. At the same time, miles away on September 6th, the Marquis de Lafayette, the son of a wealthy landowning family who would be forever linked to Rochefort, was born.

At the age of 13, Lafayette was commissioned as an officer in the military. Descended from a family that, for centuries, was noted for their contempt for danger, Lafayette was enamored by America and the struggle for freedom. Defying an order of the King, who feared offending the British, the young aristocrat fled to America and, at the age of 19 in 1777, was commissioned as a Major-General in the Continental Army working closely with General George Washington who forever thought of him as the son he never had.
After assessing the spirit and strength of the colonial cause with French military expert Baron Johaann DeKalb, whose statue graces the Annapolis Statehouse grounds, Lafayette returned to France in 1779. With Benjamin Franklin he advocated for the American cause. Six months later Lafayette was on his way back to America under very different circumstances than his flight in 1776.

On March 21st, 1780, Major General Lafayette boarded the new frigate Hermione in Rochefort and sailed to America with secret papers for General George Washington. Arriving in Boston 38 days later, Lafayette delivered the messages. He had secured French reinforcements of 5,550 men and five frigates for the American cause in the War for Independence. In his writings, Lafayette described working for freedom among the happiest days of his life.

The Hermione served in several American Naval campaigns. She was damaged in action by the HMS Iris in 1780, received the Continental Congress on board in 1781, and returned to Rochefort, France, in 1784. Ten years later she ran aground in heavy seas and was wrecked; her Captain court-marshaled.

Two hundred years later the Association Hermione-La Fayette embarked on a challenge to reconstruct the frigate Hermione. Rochefort was becoming an international museum on the History of the Navy. Opening a construction site as a testimonial to its naval past in the original space where the 210-foot, three-mast, speedy, and agile frigate was born would contribute to the economy and culture of the region.

Reconstructing the ship with the original methods would also speak to Franco-American relations. Rebuilding the Hermione, the frigate Lafayette sailed to America, was and is a way of paying an authentic homage to the man and to keep the memory of a great adventure of solidarity between people alive, declared the Association.


Gilbert du Motier Marquis de Lafayette

The rebirth of the Hermoine took over 15 years, far longer than it took to build her in 1779. With her 2014 sea trials successful, Hermione embarks this year to America with stops in Boston, New York, the Chesapeake Bay, and points south. She will be in Annapolis June 16th–18th. With her she brings the message voiced by the Association Hermione-La Fayette. “So that freedom lives, men will always have to stand up and fight against indifference or resignation.” The Marquis de Lafayette, who walked the streets of Annapolis, is a symbol of that man, defying danger to meet the challenges posed by the struggle for freedom.