Tag: Basque corsairs

Lafayette, Hero of the American War of Independence, and the Basque Connection

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?

640px-First_meeting_of_Washington_and_Lafayette,_Currier_and_Ives_1876

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.”

April 4, 1804: The Greatest Battle of the Last Great Basque Corsair

Étienne (or sometimes Ixtebe) Pellot “Montvieux,” aka le Renard Basque (the Basque fox) was the last in a long line of legendary Basque corsairs, privateers, or buccaneers (to put it another way, pirates who had been officially authorized to attack and raid their paymaster countries’ enemy ships). These legendary figures included the fourteenth-century figure Pedro Larraondo from Bizkaia, Antton Garai from Gorliz, Bizkaia (? – 1509), the seventeenth-century Joanes Suhigaraitxipi from Baiona, aka Le Coursic (the little corsair), and Jean Dalbarade (or d’Albarade) from Biarritz, Lapurdi (1743-1819).

Plaque_Saint-Jean-de-Luz

“To Our Basque Corsairs, Sailors, and Fishermen.” Plaque in Donibane Lohizune (Saint-Jean-de-Luz), Lapurdi, bearing the names of many noted seafarers, with Pellot at the end. Photo by Salvatore Poier. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Hendaia (Lapurdi), he was especially renowned for his skill and bravery and some of his ships, like the Deux-Amis and the Général Augereau, have gone down in corsair legend. Indeed it was on-board the latter that he enjoyed his most spectacular victory, capturing two English ships in the process. Philippe Veyrin, in his classic The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre  (p. 242) tells the story of the last great Basque corsair:

…at sea, the Basque corsairs, given a new lease of life during the Revolution under the leadership of one of their number, Dalbarade, continued to fight the English. But privateering was tending to decrease, especially in terms of the tonnage of the ships that were involved. Their range was now limited to (successful) actions just off the coastal areas, sometimes within sight of localities on the Basque coast. The last of the corsairs, Etienne Pellot-Montvieux, from Hendaia (Hendaye; 1766–1856), owed his legendary popularity to his remarkable feats and the picturesque sallies of his very individual character, as well as to his extremely long life. Captured on several occasions, he managed to make the most daring escapes, right from under the noses of his British jailors. In his still sprightly old age, he considered his finest exploit to be his victorious battle on April 4, 1804, on board the Général Augereau against two powerful English ships, one of which, armed with twenty-two big cannons, was boarded and captured. In 1830, Pellot had a painting done of this episode and offered it to the Institute of Hydrography of Donibane Lohizune, founded in the eighteenth century by another well-known Basque, the abbot Garra de Salagoïty, from Heleta (Hélette; 1736–1808). This school of navigation is no longer in existence, but the painting offered by the old corsair is still, as far as we know, in the Maritime Registry of Baiona. Pellot died at the age of ninety-one years; only in 1843 had he been awarded the Legion of Honor.

Every January, on the occasion of Hendaia’s patron saint’s festival (Saint Vicent, or Bizente in Basque), children dress up as corsairs and parade the streets of the town to celebrate the safe return of Étienne Pellot, the last Basque corsair. Peillot is even celebrated in song by the great Ruper Ordorika, who, in “Hargiñenean” (on the album Hurrengo goizean) sings the lines “Biba Pellot, biba festa!” (Long live Pellot, long live the party!”). Listen to this great tune here (track 3 in the four-song playlist).

There are plenty of corsair stories in the latest publication by Bill Douglass, Basque Explorers of the Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, though, here the corsairs tend to be English and adversaries of Basque explorers in the service of the Spanish Crown.