Tuesday, January 1, 2013

America Gets Saved by the Tax Collectors!

Ship names have always fascinated me.  Most of the great ones are from the Age of Sail, although there are exceptions.  It is said for instance that Winston Churchill more than once proposed the name Cromwell for a battleship.  Final approval from the King was not forthcoming.  Jeez, you execute one reigning monarch and people remember it for centuries!

While doing a bit of reading on the endless English-French conflict of the 18th to 19th centuries I came across this little tidbit from 1761:

“Soon sixteen line-of-battle ships had been pledged, whose names would proclaim the civic virtue of their donors:  the Langedoc, the Ville de Paris, the Diligent (sponsored by the postmasters), the Zealous (by the tax collectors), the Useful (a hopeful public-relations effort by the farmers-general), and (fashionably but with some effrontery) the Citizen, by the court bankers and military financiers.”

This quote is from the delightful book That Sweet Enemy by Robert and Isabelle Tombs.

To appreciate just how bizarre the above naming system really is you need to know that the court bankers and military financiers were totally corrupt.  Also that the farmers-general had nothing to do with farming.  They were simply another species of tax collectors.  In effect under the old French monarchy the collection of taxes and fees for some things was subcontracted, literally “farmed out” to private individuals whose ethics in the pursuit of same were about what you would expect. They in fact went so far as to build a "Farmers-general wall" around Paris so that nobody could get in or out without paying their fair share!

So what became of these ships?  It struck me that they would have been about the right vintage to have been part of the French effort to support the American Revolution.  And this was true.

The final victory of George Washington and the Continental Army came at Yorktown in 1781.  But it was only made possible by the presence of a French fleet that kept the Royal Navy from effecting an evacuation.  If one looks among the line of battle for the French we find the:

Zele (Zealous) a 74 gun ship of the line, and
Citoyen (Citizen), another 74.

So one has to wonder just a little, did the Americans and their allies, fighting and striving to throw off the yokes of unfair taxation and forced support of an oppressive military presence find any irony in the fact that their ultimate victory was made possible in part by the equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service and the Military Industrial Complex?

As to the other ships mentioned the 80 gun Languedoc and the mighty 104 gun Ville de Paris were also present at Yorktown.  The Diligent was not, and I have found little mention of her career.  But what of the Useful, or in the proper French, the Utile?

What sort of career would you imagine for a ship funded by the most avaricious of tax collectors?  Did you vote for short and sordid?  

Could this be the same ship?

Oh, it really wants to fit.  The article describes a “former French warship” named Utile that had been acquired by the French East India Company.  The date 1761 fits, if closely.  It would have had to have been one of the first of the subscribed ships finished and would have then been detailed off to the East India Company.

And the account of taking on a cargo of illegal slaves and then being shipwrecked on a desolate Indian Ocean island?  Just the behaviour and just desserts (and deserts) one would imagine for tax collectors!

Additional odd notes:  some of the castaways from the wreck of the Utile eventually escaped by raft to the Mascarene Islands where they wandered among the palms.    .  

Alas for assigning an ignominious career to the Utile of the tax collectors.  Ship names are so often reused and I have found passing reference to a 58 gun vessel that was launched in a more plausible 1764, then "deleted" in 1771.  Facts can sometimes mar an otherwise satisfying story.

But let history record that the weasels of the farmers-general did not come up with enough money for a proper 74 gun ship. Tax revenues always seem to come up short.  Or did they pocket the difference?

No comments: