Oh Hec
 following the rise and fall of the Comte d'Estaing in Colonial America, Module 2: Towards Revolution

29 June 2016

With Colonial America, Module 2: Towards Revolution publishing today, I thought it a fitting time to take a closer look at the rather tumultuous rise and fall of Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, the Comte d'Estaing. 

As the CO5 team at Adam Matthew were presented with an array of weird, wonderful, and highly amusing names whilst indexing material collated within this collection (a personal favourite being Sampson Saller Blowers), you may be forgiven for thinking that the Comte d’Estaing sounds quite an uninspiring figure to investigate in comparison. However, the trajectory of Hector’s military and political career was far more colourful than his name, or indeed the sepia material that record it in this collection, might suggest.


Portrait du Comte d'Estaing, accessed via Wikipedia. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Serving initially as a soldier in the War of the Austrian Succession, only to then become a General and Admiral as part of the Franco-American alliance of the American War of Independence, Hector found himself climbing swiftly to the height of his military and naval career. Affirmation of his military prowess and reputation was marked in 1764, when King Louis appointed Hector Governor of the Leeward Islands.

Sadly such success was short lived, as the documents in C05 reveal that Hector found himself, quite literally, fighting one losing battle after another. His first act as governor-his attempt to settle displaced Acadians in Saint-Domingue (Haiti)- should have been considered an omen of things to come as those that did not die of disease fled the fatalities and poor locale. Not only was this venture a total catastrophe, he also caused much consternation for the French once the British became aware of his “clandestine practices”. In a letter to Governor Bernard dated the 9th of February, 1764, the Earl of Halifax details the “unjustifiable conduct of that Governor” and heated complaints made to the “French minister” seeking redress and reprisals for Hector’s “totally unauthorized” conduct.

Letter sent by the Earl of Halifax to Governor Bernard, 9th February, 1765 © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, by 1766, Hector found himself relieved of his role as Governor, and in 1767, boarded a ship to France in order to address contentious legalities surrounding his separation from his wife and his unravelling personal life.

Alas, things went from bad to worse for Hec following France's engagement in the American War of Independence in 1778. After a series of failed naval engagements against Admiral Byron, and unsuccessful attacks upon Newport, Rhode Island, D’Estaing took command of the Franco-American forces assembled for the siege of Savannah in a last attempt to regain both the city and his military reputation. In a letter to George Germaine dated the 5th of November 1779 Governor Wright gives a detailed account of the siege, noting the action from the “Comte D’Estaing’s
summons to General Prevost to surrender the town & province to the King of France”, through the “sharp” conflict in which D’Estaing was “wounded in the thigh and arm
.[and] on the hip”. Following weeks of unsuccessful bombardment, D'Estaing was forced to admit defeat and, as Wright notes, he retreated "with 11 ships to go to Cheasepeak for provision", abandoning the siege.


 

Governor Wright's letter to George Germain, 5th of November, 1779 © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

The once celebrated Comte found himself a figure of ridicule, with his Revolutionary disposition publicly critiqued and mocked as insubstantial and stemming solely from French agendas as can be seen in satirical caricatures of the period.

Caricature of French admiral Charles Henri d'Estaing (1729-1794). Caption in French: "Le Destin molestant les Anglais.”, accessed via Wikipedia. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Unsurprisingly, he headed rather hastily for the safety and security of French soil. In the end Hector could hang on to his head no more successfully than he could Savannah or military reputation. After years of Revolutionary action, ironically his own loyalty to the French monarch Marie Antoinette proved his final undoing. On the 28th of April, 1794, the guillotine put a sharp end to a life story which was both as unstable and turbulent as the iconic period covered by this collection: the move ‘Towards Revolution’.

Colonial America, Module 2: Towards Revolution will be available from July. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

All of the documents used in this blog will be available to access for 30 days.

About the Author

Rebecca Baxter

Rebecca Baxter

Since joining Adam Matthew's editorial team in June 2015 I have had the opportunity to work on a range of interesting projects, including ‘Colonial America' and 'Frontier Life: Borderland Settlement & Colonial Encounters'. My own personal and academic interests lie in eighteenth century fiction and travel writing.

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