Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez

Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez

Admiral comte Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez, bailli de Suffren (July 17 1729 - December 8 1788) - French admiral; was the third son of the marquis de Saint Tropez, head of a family of nobles of Provence which claimed to have emigrated from Lucca in the 14th century. He was born in the Château de Saint-Cannat, near Aix-en-Provence in the present "département" of Bouches-du-Rhône. He was most famous for his campaign in the Indian Ocean, in which he successfully contended for supremacy against the established British power there, led by Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes.

Early Naval Career

The French navy and the Order of Malta (where he received the title Bailli de Suffren) offered the usual careers for the younger sons of noble families of the south of France who did not elect to go into the Church. The connection between the Order and the old French royal navy was close. Pierre André de Suffren was destined by his parents to belong to both. He entered the close and aristocratic corps of French naval officers as a "garde de la marine"--cadet or midshipman, in October 1743, in the "Solide", one of the line of battleships which took part in the confused engagement off Toulon in 1744. He was then in the "Pauline" in the squadron of M. Macnémara on a cruise in the West Indies.

In 1746 he went through the duc D'Anville's disastrous expedition to retake Cape Breton, which was ruined by shipwreck and plague. The following year, in 1747, he was taken prisoner by Hawke in the action with the French convoy in the Bay of Biscay. His biographer Cunat assures us that he found the British arrogance offensive. When peace was made in 1748 he went to Malta to perform the cruises with the galleys of the Order technically called "caravans," a reminiscence of the days when the knights protected the pilgrims going from Saint John d'Acre to Jerusalem. In Suffren's time this service rarely went beyond a peaceful tour among the Greek islands, but it also involved piracy suppression operations against the wily Barbary states of North Africa.

even Years' War and Afterward

During the Seven Years' War he had the unwonted good fortune to be present as lieutenant in the "Orphée" in the action with Admiral Byng, which, if not strictly speaking a victory, was at least not a defeat for the French, and was followed by the surrender of the English garrison of Minorca. But in 1759 he was again taken prisoner, when his ship, "Ocean", was captured by Boscawen off Lagos. On the return of peace in 1763 he intended again to do the service in the caravans which was required to qualify him to hold the high and lucrative posts of the Order. He was, however, named to the command of the "Caméléon", a xebec--a vessel of mixed square and lateen rig peculiar to the Mediterranean--in which he cruised against the Barbary pirates.

Between 1767 and 1771 he performed his caravans, and was promoted from knight to commander of the Order. From that time till the beginning of the War of American Independence he commanded vessels in the squadron of evolution which the French government had established for the purpose of giving practice to its officers. His nerve and skill in handling his ship were highly commended by his chiefs; he has been called the best French naval commander of the 18h Century.

Operations against the British, 1770s-1780s

In 1778 and 1779 Suffren formed part of the squadron of Vice-Amiral ès Mers d'Asie et d'Amerique D'Estaing throughout its operations on the coast of North America and in the West Indies. He led the line in the action with Admiral John Byron off Grenada, and his ship, the "Fantasque" (64), lost 62 men. His letters to his admiral show that he strongly disapproved of D'Estaing's half-hearted methods.

In 1780 he was captain of "Zèle" 74, in the combined French and Spanish fleets which captured a great English convoy in the Atlantic. His candour towards his chief had done him no harm in the opinion of D'Estaing.

It is said to have been largely by the advice of this admiral that Suffren was chosen to command a squadron of five ships of the line sent out to help the Dutch who had joined France and Spain to defend the Cape against an expected English attack, and then to go on to the East Indies. He sailed from Brest on March 22 on the cruise which has given him a unique place among French admirals, and puts him in the front rank of sea commanders. He was by nature even more vehement than able. The disasters which had befallen the navy of his country during the last two wars, and which, as he knew, were due to bad administration and timid leadership, had filled him with a burning desire to retrieve its honour. He was by experience as well as by temperament impatient with the formal manceuvring of his colleagues, which aimed at preserving their own ships rather than at taking the English, and though he did not dream of restoring the French power in India, he did hope to gain some such success as would enable his country to make an honourable peace. On April 16 1781 he found the English expedition on its way to the Cape under the command of Commodore, commonly called Governor, George Johnstone (1730-1787), at anchor in Porto Praya, Cape Verde Islands.

Remembering how little respect Boscawen had shown for the neutrality of Portugal at Lagos, he attacked at once, in the Battle of Porto Praya. Though he was indifferently supported, he inflicted as much injury as he suffered, and proved to the English that in him they had to deal with an admiral of quite a different type from the Frenchmen they had been accustomed to as yet. He pushed on to the Cape, which he saved from capture by Johnstone, and then made his way to the Ile de France (Mauritius), then held by the French. M. D'Orves, his superior officer, died as the united squadrons, now eleven sail of the line, were on their way to the Bay of Bengal.

Campaign Against Sir Edward Hughes

The campaign, which Suffren now conducted against the English admiral Sir Edward Hughes (1720?-1794), is famous for the number and severity of the encounters between them. Four actions took place in 1782: the Battle of Sadras on February 17 1782, south of Madras; the Battle of Providien on April 12 near Trincomalee; the Battle of Negapatam (1782) on July 6 off Cuddalore, after which Suffren seized upon the anchorage of Trincomalee compelling the small British garrison to surrender; and finally the Battle of Trincomalee near that port on September 3. No ship was lost by Sir Edward Hughes in any of these actions, but none were taken by him. Suffren attacked with unprecedented vigour on every occasion, and if he had not been ill-supported by some of his captains he would undoubtedly have gained a distinct victory; as it was, he maintained his squadron without the help of a port to refit, and provided himself with an anchorage at Trincomalee.

His activity encouraged Hyder Ali, who was then at war with the Company. He refused to return to the islands for the purpose of escorting the troops coming out under command of Bussy, maintaining that his proper purpose was to cripple the squadron of Sir Edward Hughes. During the north-east monsoon he would not go to the islands but refitted in the Malay ports in Sumatra, and returned with the south-west monsoon in 1783. Hyder Ali was dead, but Tippoo Sultan, his son, was still at war with the Company. Bussy arrived and landed. The operations on shore were slackly conducted by him, and Suffren was much hampered, but when he fought his last battle against Hughes at the Battle of Cuddalore (1783) (April 20, 1783), with fifteen ships to eighteen he forced the British admiral to retire to Madras, leaving the army then besieging Cüddalore in a very dangerous position. The arrival of the news that peace had been made in Europe put a stop to hostilities, and Suffren returned to France.


Suffren was crippled to a large extent by the want of loyal and capable co-operation on the part of his captains, and the vehemence of his own temperament sometimes led him to disregard prudence; yet he had an indefatigable energy, a wealth of resource, and a thorough understanding of the fact that success at sea is won by defeating an enemy and not by merely outmanoeuvering him, and this made him a most formidable enemy. Suffren's legacy lies in his stark contrast to his contemporary French naval commanders. French military policy made naval operations subordinate to land operations - yet Suffren realized that in wars fought oversea from the mother country, the nation which controlled the sea first had a great advantage in supporting the land war:

:The military situation... demanded first the disabling of the hostile fleet, next the capture of certain strategic ports. That this diagnosis was correct is as certain as that it reversed the common French maxims, which would have put the port first and the fleet second as objectives. [Mahan, A.T., "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, p. 433 ISBN 0-486-25509-3]

The news of French aggressiveness and early successes in this naval campaign caused the British high command to change the destination of a fleet with land troops assembling in Canada from the American Colonies in rebellion to India. This decision made the successes won by the Colonial Army irreversible. World historical events stamp De Suffren's campaign as one of the greatest battles.

udden Death

While refitting at the Cape on his way home, several of the vessels also returning put in, and the captains waited on him. Suffren said in one of his letters that their praise gave him more pleasure than any other compliment paid him. In France he was received with enthusiasm, and in 1781 he succeeded Comte d'Aubigny unopposed to the office of vice-admiral of France (Ponant or the Atlantic). He had been promoted bailli in the Order of Malta during his absence. His death occurred very suddenly, when he was about to take command of a fleet collected in Brest. The official version of the cause of death was apoplexy, and as he was a very corpulent man it appeared plausible. But many years afterwards his body servant told M. Jal, the historiographer of the French navy, that he had been killed in a duel by the Prince de Mirepoix. The cause of the encounter, according to the servant, was that Suffren had refused in very strong language to use his influence to secure the restoration to the navy of two of the prince's relations who had been dismissed for misconduct.

Further reading

*Engraving by Mme de Cernel after an original by Gerard.
*"Histoire du Bailli de Suffren" by Ch. Cunat (1852).
*"Journal de Bord du Bailli de Suffren dans l'Inde", edited by M. Mores, published in 1888.
*Captain Mahan's "Sea Power in History".
* "Mais qui est le bailli de Suffren Saint-Tropez ?" Charles-Armand Klein - Mémoires du Sud - Editions Equinoxe, 2000.



External links

* [http://www.sarfrance.net/home/h'esc'su.htm Composition de l'escadre sous Suffren aux Indes (1781-1783)]

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