Questions answered – a corsair is not a pirate

Earlybird has asked me to find out about the statue of the corsair in my diaporama of Tillybud’s visit.  His name was Georges-René Pleville le Pelley, and it seems he was quite a chap.  Here’s my very rough translation of the Wiki entry at

  Picture from Tourist Office of Granville website  and Wikipedia.

Georges-René Le Pelley, lord of Pléville, nicknamed after the Revolution Pléville Le Pelley, born Granville 18th June 1726, died Paris 2nd October 1805, aristocrat and French politician.  As a Norman naval officer, he was governor of the Port of Marseille, Minister of the Navy and the Colonies 1797/8, senator, knight of the royal and military order of Saint-Louis and of the Order of Cincinnatus, and was one of the first Grand Officers of the Légion d’honneur.

Son of an aristocratic merchant navy officer and the daughter of the Lord of Saussey (a village very near here) he was drawn to the sea at an early age.  Orphaned young, he ran away from school in Coutances to join the cod fishing fleet off Canada in 1738.  His uncle, who had wanted him to become a priest, demanded of his captain to give him a hard time in order to disgust him with life at sea.  A subsequent captain, a friend of his father, treated him better, and he participated in several cod-fishing campaigns on different ships.

In 1740, as an Ensign on the Ville de Quebec he revolted against the unjust arrest of shipmates, and ran away, escaping the wreck of his ship on the Canadian coast.  He walked alone for fifty days across the forest, meeting Indian tribes, before arriving in Quebec where he was welcomed by a sympathetic family.  Georges continued his career at sea under a pseudonym, becoming lieutenant on a Granville ship sailing under letters of marque (corsair) to attack enemy ships and disrupt their trade.  Shortly after leaving port, his ship was destroyed by two British corsairs near Jersey, caught in their crossfire.  He was wounded during the six-hour battle, lost his right leg and was taken prisoner of war.  Welcomed like a son into a naval family in Falmouth, he was cared for and learned English until his exchange.

He then served in the French Royal Navy as lieutenant on the frigate Argonaut, commanded by Tilly le Pelley (!) another uncle.  The squadron was sent in 1746 under the orders of the Duke of Anville, to retake Cap-Breton, but were attacked on their return by Admiral Anson.  In the battle, a bullet carried away Georges’ wooden leg, and his captain laughed, saying « the bullet was mistaken – it only made work for the carpenter.”  Georges was once again prisoner of war.  On his liberation, he signed-on again on a corsair ship, was again taken prisoner but succeeding in escaping shortly before the end of the war of Austrian Succession, and resuming his naval career.

Georges was married in 1757 in Marseille, to Marie Ursule de Rambaud, daughter of a corsair captain, shipowner and merchant.  They had four children.

He spent the Seven Years War as captain of the Brilliant, requisitioned as a troop carrier and later, once again a corsair, he acted as informer for the navy on the movements of British ships.

He re-joined the royal navy as captain of l’Hirondelle, and captured three ships of the East India Company.  During a battle, he lost his wooden leg for the second time.  Health problems kept him ashore for the next few years, as captain of the port of Martinique.

Returned to France, he became captain of the port of Marseille.  On the evening of 1st May 1770, a british frigate, HMS Alarme, hit the rocks on the Provençal coast, in imminent danger of breaking up.  This gave Pléville the chance to use his nautical knowledge, his calm and his courage.  Warned of the state of distress of the ship, he quickly got together a team of brave sailors and at their head, he flew to the aid of the British ship, in the darkness of a night of storm and furious seas.

He belayed himself with a rope, scrambled along the rocks and managed with his wooden leg to board the frigate and take command.  Having grounded several times, Pléville succeeded in refloating the ship and bringing it into the port.  That frigate was commanded by Captain Journ Jervis, who became British Admiral of the Fleet and received the title Lord Saint-Vincent for having destroyed the Spanish fleet near to Cap St Vincent in 1797.

The devotion of brave Pléville was much appreciated in Britain, and the Admiralty sent Captain Jervis back to Marseille with the frigate Alarme with a letter of commendation.  The fulsome letter accompanied the gift of a silver urn, engraved with dolphins and other maritime symbols, with a model of the Alarme, and the lid carrying a Triton, sea god son of Poseidon and inscribed with the British coat of arms and account of the rescue in Latin and English.  Georges didn’t feel he had the right to accept the gift of a foreign King until he had been duly authorised by the King of France.

Ten years later, le Pelley’s son was captured on a French frigate after a battle in 1780, and taken to England.  However the Admiralty sent him straight back to France without necessity for exchange, and with three of his comrades as a recompense no less honourable.

He served throughout the American war of Independence as Admiral on the flagship Le Languedoc, participating in various battles.  He was charged with the sale of prize ships and with their re-commissioning, and astonished everyone by his failure to profit personally from the proceeds.   On his return to France he once again took up his position as Captain of the Port of Marseille, and was notable for his exemplary honesty, rare in that epoch.  He lived frugally on his salary, and supported his numerous family.

He adopted the principles of the Revolution, like most of the officers having served in America.  He went to Avignon, sabre in hand, to restore order.  During the Terror he was sent in command of a division charged with escorting a convoy of supplies blocked in Tunis, replacing Jean Gaspard de Vence, accused of treason.  On his arrival, le Pelley soon realised that Vence was really in difficulty and had in no way failed in his duty.  Ignoring orders, he helped to keep Vence in command.  This caused him difficulty with the authorities on his return, but thanks to him, Vence was totally cleared.

He filled the functions of Minister of the Navy for two years, reorganising the naval forces.  He was one of the three plenipotentiaries sent to Lille for fruitless negotiations with Britain. The Directory confirmed him as Naval Minister, and there he was remarkable for his scrupulous honesty in a regime known for general corruption.  He resigned in 1798 in disapproval of the expedition in Egypt, convinced that the navy lacked the means. The disaster of Aboukir at the end of the year proved him right.

Despite his great age of 72 (!) he commanded naval forces in the Mediterranean, then retired to Paris.  He was named Sénateur Conservateur in 1799 and Imperial commander of the Legion of honour on the creation of the order.  He died shortly afterwards.


By all accounts he was an exceptional man – a great sailor of rare physical courage.  The way he saved l’Alarme, when no one else dared to attempt it, is an exploit worthy of an adventure novel, not forgetting that he had only one leg (unijambiste, lovely word).  He never hesitated to endanger his reputation and his career, on a point of honour, in an époque where heads fell like dead flower petals.  In one of the most corrupt regimes known in France, he was remarkable for his honesty and impartiality – traits which several times left him and his family on the edge of ruin.

photo and translation ©Vivienne Blake

His portrait is in the Museum of Old Granville, his statue dominates the port, and his bust can be seen in the chateau at Versaille and also in the Luxembourg Palace.

This bald account just touches the surface of the life of the great man.  Imagine what CS Forrester could have done with the story…


All poetry, prose and pictures posted here, except where otherwise stated, is my own, and may only be used elsewhere with my expressed permission. Please don't be inhibited from correcting my bloopers and making suggestions: Most of what I post here is instant, ill-considered and off-the-cuff, in serious need of editing.
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3 Responses to Questions answered – a corsair is not a pirate

  1. A great and honourable adventurer, Viv. You could set his life into an epic poem – or seamstress him onto a quilt.


  2. Tilly Bud says:

    There’s the subject of your next novel! A fascinating story. What a lot he packed in to his life.

    Isn’t it funny how my nom de plume keeps popping up all over France?


  3. earlybird says:

    I’m SO glad you did this, Viv! GREAT story. Worthy of Patrick O’Brien. He sounds as if he would have made a worthy adversary (although older) to Jack Aubrey. Thank you!


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