As I’m sure you all know, Lafayette–or to give him his full name, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834)–was the famed French aristocrat who fought in the American War of Independence and was a close friend of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson.  During the war he served with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine (1777), the Battle of Rhode Island (1778), and, later during a second journey, played a significant role in the Siege of Yorktown (1781). Today, cities, streets,  and squares–even a mountain–across the US are named in his honor. But did you know there is a Basque connection to Lafayette’s exploits?

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A firm believer in the cause of American independence, he volunteered to cross the Atlantic to fight for the revolutionaries there while still a young man. Lacking official support, though, he himself raised the necessary funds to acquire a sailing ship, the Victoire, to transport him and his men across the ocean. This initial trip was complicated due to the delicate diplomatic position of France during the war and Lafayette carried out much of the preparations clandestinely. While the Victoire was fitted out and prepared for the journey in Bordeaux, official opposition to Lafayette’s expedition meant that he himself could not depart with the ship when it left Bordeaux and would have to seek another port of departure. Traveling overland, disguised as a courier, he reunited with the ship and his men in the Basque  Port of Pasaia, Gipuzkoa, from where he set sail for America on April 26, 1777, six days after it had left the Port of Pauillac, Bordeaux. It is even rumored that several Basque corsairs were among the crew accompanying him on the voyage.

An additional note of interest: As Douglass and Bilbao observe in Amerikanuak (p. 59n), the last of the great Basque corsairs, Étienne Pellot (1765-1856), a legendary figure we discussed in a previous post, “received his first taste of combat as a cabin-boy on the Marquise de Lafayette, a ship of four hundred tons and thirty cannons, which was outfitted in Bayonne by the ‘ladies of the Court’ to fight against England during the American Revolution.”