Don des vaisseaux

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The Bretagne (launched 1766), one of the main capital ships built with funding from the "don des vaisseau".

The don des vaisseaux (lit. "gift of ships of the line") was a subscription effort launched by Étienne François de Choiseul, Duke of Choiseul and secretary of State to the Navy in 1761 as an effort to rebuild the French naval power, diminished at the end of the Seven Years' War and in need for modernisation. Through this subscription, French provinces, cities, institutions or individuals contributed funds for the building of ships of the line, which were then named in their honour. The scheme raised 13 millions French livres and provided 18 ships, including two three-deckers, Ville de Paris and Bretagne.

The names of the ships were chosen to honour their patrons, either directly or by stating qualities with which the patrons wished to be associated. Some of the names became politically incompatible with the policies of the Convention nationale and were therefore renamed in 1794; some of the new names became in turn politically unacceptable after the Thermidorian Reaction, yielding new renamings in 1795.

The success of the operation encouraged the French state to renew it on several dire occasions: from 1782 to 1790, and later again under the Revolution and the Empire.


By the end of the Seven Years' War, the French Navy had sustained heavy casualties and lost thirty-two ships of the line: thirteen in isolated incidents, two at Cartegena, five during the siege of Louisbourg, five at the Battle of Lagos and seven at Quiberon Bay. As the State was already in debts, it was impossible to fund the reconstruction of the Navy by conventional means. Choiseul, secretary of State to the Navy, thus devised a scheme to have shipbuilding patronned by the French society directly.

In 1762, Choiseul suggested to Charles Antoine de La Roche-Aymon, then Archbishop of Narbonne who presided the Estates of Languedoc, to incite the delegates of Languedoc to fund a 74-gun ship to the Crown, in the hope that this would set and example and encourage emulation in other provinces.


Allegorical engraving of the Don des vaisseaux, circa 1762, with an incomplete list of the ships built under the programme (with approximative armament).

On 26 Novembre 1761, the archbishop gave a speech before the Estates of Langdoc, to the effect that they should

offer to His Majesty a ship of the line of 74 pieces of artillery and provide by this endeavour (...) a demonstration of what subjects can and must do who are truly worthy of the best of masters (...). There is no good Frenchman who does not feel moved by the desire to sacrifice everything to assist with the efforts of the King and of the wise and enlightened minister to restore the French Navy.[note 1][1]

Langdoc obliged, and the example was followed the next year by the Estates of the provinces of Brittany, Burgundy, Artois, Flanders; the cities of Paris, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Marseille; some particular institutions such as the Posts, the Six Corps (corporations of the merchants of Paris), the Ferme générale, the Chambers of commerce; and even individuals.

Not only did the Provinces offer, in this occasion, distinguished marks of unusual zeal, but M. de Choiseul has told me that he received daily letters from individuals who volunteered money. Amongst others, there was the case of a simple gentleman from Champagne, whose name he sadly did not recall, and who stated that as he was not a rich man and had children, he was not really in any position to make a donation; but that, as they were still young, he could dispense with a thousand pounds that he had saved and that he sent them to him to be used in the service of the King. M. de Choiseul responded that his majesty, after accepting them, would return them so that they would assist in educating the children, who could not fail, with such a father, to render him great services.[note 2][2]

Ships built through donations[edit]

Of the 30 ships of the line built between 1760 and 1769, 18 were funded through donations totalling 13 million pounds. It is notably the case of the two three-deckers used during the Naval operations in the American Revolutionary War, Ville de Paris and Bretagne.

Ships funded through fundraising
Ship Guns Patron Notes
Six Corps 74 the six Corps of the merchants of Paris
Provence 64 Estates of Provence
Union 64 Individuals
Diligent 74 Head of Posts
Bordelois 56 City of Bordeaux
Ferme 56 Ferme générale
Ferme 74 Ferme générale
Utile 56 Ferme générale
Flamand 56 Estates of Flanders
Citoyen 74 Treasurers of the Extraordinaire des Guerres
Zélé 74 General Director of Finance
Ville de Paris 90 City of Paris Later upgraded to 104 guns
Saint-Esprit 80 Order of the Holy Spirit Renamed Scipion in 1794
Artésien 64 Estates of Artois
Languedoc 80 Estates of Languedoc Renamed Antifédéraliste in 1794 and Victoire in 1795; she was the flagship at the Battle of Grenada in 1779.
Bretagne 110 Estates of Brittany Renamed Révolutionnaire in 1793. Flagship at the Battle of Ushant in 1778.
Marseillois 74 Chamber of commerce of Marseille Renamed to Vengeur du Peuple in 1794
Bourgogne 74 Estates of Burgundy

Renewal of the fundraising[edit]

After a costly French defeat at the Battle of the Saintes, a new fundraising drive was organised, yielding five new ships. Another ship was later built from such funding during the Empire.

Ships funded through fundraising
Ship Guns Patron Notes
Second fundraising (1782-1790)
Deux Frères 80 Louis Stanislas Xavier, comte de Provence and Charles Philippe, comte d'Artois, brothers of Louis XVI Renamed Juste in 1792
Commerce de Bordeaux 74 Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux Renamed Bonnet Rouge on 7 February 1794, then Timoléon later the same month
Commerce de Marseille 74 Chamber of Commerce of Marseille Renamed Lys on 19 July 1786, then Tricolore on 6 October 1792
Commerce de Marseille 120 Chamber of Commerce of Marseille Lead ship of the Océan class
États de Bourgogne 120 The States (Government) of Burgundy Renamed Côte d'Or on 27 January 1793, then Montagne on 22 October 1793, briefly Peuple on 25 May 1795 and then Océan five days later
Third fundraising (1793-1794)
Fourth fundraising (27 May 1803)
Commerce de Paris 110

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ d'offrir à Sa Majesté un vaisseau de ligne de 74 pièces de canon et de donner par cette démarche au reste de la France (...) le signal de ce que peuvent et doivent faire les sujets véritablement dignes du meilleur des maîtres (...). Il n'est point de bon Français qui ne se sente animé du désir de tout sacrifier pour concourir aux efforts du roi et du ministre sage et éclairé pour restaurer la marine française
  2. ^ Non seulement les provinces donnèrent, dans cette occasion, des marques distinguées d'un zèle rare, mais M. de Choiseul m'a dit qu'il recevait journellement des lettres de particuliers qui lui offraient de l'argent. Il en eut une entre autres d'un simple gentilhomme de Champagne du nom duquel malheureusement il ne s'est pas souvenu, et qui lui mandait que n'étant pas riche et ayant des enfants, il n'était pas trop en état de donner ; que cependant, comme ils étaient en bas âge, il pouvait se passer de mille écus qu'il avait amassés et qu'il les lui envoyait pour être employés au service du roi. M. de Choiseul lui répondit que sa Majesté, après les avoir acceptés, les lui restituait pour qu'ils aidassent à l'éducation de ses enfants, qui ne pouvaient manquer, avec un tel père, de lui rendre de grands services|Pierre de Besenval
  1. ^ Discours de l'archevêque devant les États, 26 novembre 1761, Archives départementales de l'Hérault, C 7530, folii 160 & 161.
  2. ^ Pierre de Besenval, Mémoires du Baron de Besenval sur la cour de France, 1805, p. 124.