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Histoire du Bailli de Suffren Review


It has been a long time since 1852 when Histoire du Bailli du Suffren by Charles Cunat was published. Suffren was an aggressive, bellicose French admiral, famous in French naval history for his warlike campaign in India during the War of American Independence. But there are rather precious few books on Suffren - it seems a total of 3, one, this one, from 1852, 1862, and 1994. So books like Histoire are invaluable resources. But how has it held up to the tide of years?

For one, the language of the book has become quite difficult with the passage of time. The past tense subjunctive, never used today and which even in the 1850s was becoming a rare presence, speckles the book, although normally it isn’t too hard to figure out what the root word is. There is a very specific naval vocabulary in the book, some of which is difficult to find in dictionaries even! And above all else, the author writes in a rarified style which is hard to read today. There is also the odd choice of translating the names of British and Dutch ships into French, which can make keeping track of battles hard.

The book is a narrow campaign story of Suffren’s fight, after his childhood and early youth’s naval actions. There is some strategic analysis, but limited, and the book makes no effort to connect it to broader naval warfare strategy and operations. It is military book but doesn’t really endeavor expand beyond a provincial French framework, without a serious engagement with strategic principles.

This is in contrast to some other naval warfare books of the 19th century. Most famous of course is Mahan’s Influence of Seapower on History which tries to elucidate broader strategic principles. By contrast, l’Histoire does speak of the importance of naval victories and attention to the national fortunes, but it lacks the extensive attempt of Mahan’s book to figure out a firm vision of general ideals and priorities of naval warfare. Mahan insists on the power of battle fleets to wind decisive naval battles nd then to be able to exploit this through blockades and the throttling of enemy commerce and the capture of their colonies. By contrast, here, the focus is upon France and France’s narrow strategic goals; In a sense, it does reveal a different strategic conception of power, since victory is achieved through a direct attack on enemy territory, which permits a shift of the political balance of power enabling the commercial balance of trade to be altered, rather than Mahan who is more explicitly directed in his targeting of trade. But there is less analysis and far less enunciation of general principles.

Of course, it is partially unfair to compare this book to later works, which have incorporated additional historiographic principles, more potential sources, and more examples to use. But to do so anyway, compare this book to another book about a naval campaign under the French ancien régime - that of Anatomy of a Naval Disaster: The 1746 Expedition to North America by James Prichard: Like Cunat, Pritchard looks at a campaign and has a central figure of the duc d'Anville - but he also sheds valuable light upon the resupply, education, naval technology, preparation for the voyage, combined with a real humanitarian perspective on the tragedy of the French crewmen, and excellent statistics backing it all up. Canut's book falls far short of this. It is a rather standard campaign history, aiming to glorify the man involved, and failing to critically examine it.

Related to this is another element which could have used greater focus in the book: that of the captains of Suffren. Suffren’s campaigns, as the book states over and over again, were a flawed breed. If they weren’t outright cowardly - and some were, such as Captain Cillart who attempted to surrender his ship in the line Sévère in the Battleof Negapatam - they were generally too passive, lacking Suffren’s highly aggressive philosophy of war, and rarely got along well with the admiral. They would stay at ranges in fights and often failed to attack the enemy. Canut is eager to blame this on the captains themselves, but what about Suffren and his ability to inspire the confidence of captains and to build up an esprit de corps? Great admirals like Nelson famously could do this: Suffren could attire the sympathies of his crews, was a brilliant tactician, and desire to fight, but he does not seem as capable of inspiring his captains. Why this was a problem is never really explored. It could have been structural to the French navy in its culture of command, it could have been in its training, it could have been - as is briefly noted - in the nature of the officers sent out to accompany Suffren or posted to the Indian Ocean, but no serious exploration is conducted beyond denunciation of their weaknesses.

In the end, the book is a decent strict military campaign history, but one which doesn't examine the character or weakness of Suffren, which doesn't explore why such an aggressive and capable admiral didn't achieve more, and which doesn't truly link Suffren's campaign to the wider war.

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