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Jean Bart- corsair of Dunkerque 1650-1702

17th century corsair Jean Bart grew rich from prize money and royal rewards as he sunk ships and siezed cargoes from King Louis XIV's enemies

Jean Bart's rise to fame
Corsair Jean Bart is the most famous son of Dunkerque, which is still proud of his heroic exploits on the high seas. Dunkerque's tough and adventurous 17th century corsairs helped Louis the Fourteenth beat France's many enemies. Without them, he could not have made Nord - Pas de Calais part of France.

Born into a poor Flemish family of sailors in Dunkerque, Jean Bart went to sea at age12. When he was a boy, the English had besieged, battered and captured his home town - perhaps naturally, teenage Jean joined the Dutch Navy to fight the English. He observed brilliant Dutch admiral De Ruyter, and learnt seamanship and naval tactics.

When France declared war on Holland in 1672, he returned home and joined up as a corsair.

Dunkerque naval base
While Jean Bart had been away, Louis XIV's Minister of the Marine, Colbert had made huge changes at Dunkerque.

Colbert had established a naval dockyard with an arsenal, ropery, barracks, a sailors' hospital; dredged a deep channel to the port, and created a Royal Basin. Dunkerque was the base for the new Fleet du Nord.

In Louis XIV's Marine Guard, the ships' captains and crews made money from "prizes". They attacked enemy ships, men and cargoes at sea, and if they could bring them back to Dunkerque, were rewarded with prize money.

Were they just lawless pirates? Their defenders say not, because (like Sir Francis Drake in the days of England's Elizabeth I) they carried a licence from the King, and attacked only his enemies.

Dunkerque carnival
Present-day "sons of Jean Bart" celebrating in Dunkerque's carnival

Dunkerque-Louis XIV's port
After buying Dunkerque, Louis XIV improved the harbour, and dredged a deep channel out to the North Sea.
Dunkerque-arrival of the 'Entreprenant'
Dunkerque was a town of sailors: when a fighting ship returned, excited crowds rushed out of the walled town onto the dockside.

Jean Bart's home town
When Jean was a boy, the Flemish-speaking port town of Dunkerque was part of the Spanish Netherlands. At the age of 6, he would have seen the most unlikely allies capture his town.

In 1658, Dunkerque was encircled. At sea, the ships of dour English Puritan Oliver Cromwell blockaded the port. On land, English troops were joined in besieging the town by those of French "Sun King" Louis XIV, fighting for glory and the Catholic religion.

When a Spanish army came to relieve the siege, they were beaten in the Battle of the Dunes.

Part of the deal was that the captured town was handed over to the English - local people joke that Dunkerque was Spanish, French and English all in one day, but it was not funny at the time!

Cromwell's triumphs
Oliver Cromwell - the English Navy blockaded Dunkerque in 1658, helping the French army under Turenne capture it from the Spanish.

1662: France gained a North Sea naval base...
Cromwell died, and in 1660, Charles II was invited to return in triumph. Hard-up, he sold Dunkerque to Louis XIV in 1662. Dunkerque was ideally placed as a base from which French corsairs could strike against Spain's supply routes by sea to the Low Countries, and against English and Dutch shipping in the North Sea.

...and a town of brave, daring sailors


French in 1662


France - inherited by Louis XIV


gained from Spain in 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, when Louis XIV married Spanish king's daughter.

 Spanish in 1662


Won by France in a series of sieges up to 1680. The green parts were later given up.



Remained Spanish


Dutch Republic

MAP: Buying Dunkerque gave France a key naval base, while,Louis XIV's armies besieged and captured St, Omer, Lille, and other towns of what is now Nord - Pas de Calais. Hit by land and sea, the Spanish empire in the Low Countries slowly crumbled.
(L-R) soldiers of the Marine guard; an officer; and a captain.

Dunkerque's sailors were keen to join up. Their town had been North Sea herring fishermen for centuries, but since the 14th century they had also taken to piracy - preying on passing merchant ships. The town had already gained a reputation as a remote lawless place in the sand-dunes.

Jean Bart's success was attributed to Dunkerque's numerous population of sailors who provided courageous spirited officers and crews; also his own qualities as a bold dashing leader with a good tactical sense; and the support and organising skill of Colbert and the Naval Secretary of State, Louis de Ponchartrain who encouraged the corsairs to act as a disciplined fighting force.

Fighting the Dutch 1672-78
Jean Bart was rapidly promoted. In 1674, he got his own ship "le roi David". Colbert soon noticed his successes in fighting heavily armed Dutch naval ships, and in bringing home Dutch merchant vessels with cargoes of cacao beans, timber, hides, coal, and wine. He married a local inn-keeper's daughter, had a son, François, and by the end of the war was Dunkerque's most celebrated corsair with 81 prizes and a victory at the Battle of the Texel (1674) to his credit.

1678: Fortifying the corsiares' base
With a brief peace in 1678, Jean Bart, now prospering in Royal favour, worked with military engineer Vauban - another Royal protegée who rose from humble beginnings. They designed up-to-date fortifications for the walled town - which were to prove useful in the next stage of Louis XIV's wars at sea....

Jean Bart's ship - Contemporary portrait

1688-1694: Daring deeds against stronger foes
From 1688, the rest of Europe saw France as a threat: Louis XIV faced a hostile coalition of England and the Dutch, brought together by William of Orange, and other countries. 

In 1689, Jean Bart's ship was escorting 20 French merchant vessels down the Channel. when they were attacked and captured by a much bigger Anglo-Dutch force. Jean Bart, his lieutenant Claude de Forbin and 20 men were imprisoned in Plymouth. They escaped, stole a boat and were back in France in 2 days!

Jean Bart's new fleet had manouverable shallow-draft boats that could cross the sandbanks along the coast - firing guns and boarding English, Dutch and Spanish ships that had to keep to the channels leading to the ports.
Battle: in 1694 Jean Bart saved Paris from starving, by capturing a huge fleet of 150 ships carrying grain from the Baltic to Holland. As a reward, Louis XIV made Jean Bart a noble, and made his 14 year-old son François Bart a marine guard.

Louis entrusted Jean Bart with a fleet of light vessels which could skim over the shallow sands of the south North Sea, attacking English and Dutch ships with great success. In vain they tried to stop him by blockading Dunkerque - even twice (1694-5) bombarding the town.

1696-1702: In command
In 1696, Louis XIV promoted Jean Bart to command of the fleet after he had burnt an enemy force of 50 ships. In 1702 Louis XIV ordered the fleet to be prepared for war again. Though weak with sickness, Jean Bart went out to check a ship in a storm and died in his bed soon after.

The end of Dunkerque as a nest of pirates
Attacks from Dunkerque's corsairs so annoyed the English and Dutch, that when peace was made in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, they insisted that the fortifications were destroyed and the harbour filled in. France was not allowed to use Dunkerque as a naval base.

The town was made into a desert, and the desperate inhabitants turned their seafaring skills back to deep-sea fishing. They built up the risky trade of sailing out to the North Sea cod shoals around Iceland - see 'Fishing".

Jean Bart pirate-polish ad
A 1930's shoe polish advertisement uses the image of the pirate hero (Port Museum collection)

Jean Bart - hero of Dunkerque
The spirit of Jean Bart and the corsairs lives on in Dunkerque. He is the town's local hero, with a statue in the main square. His body is buried in the nearby Eglise St. Eloi, whose belfry dates back to the 15th century. Participants in the town's boisterous carnival call themselves "the children of Jean Bart" and sing corsair songs every year.

Plans for a Maritime Heritage Park
There is now a re-enactment society that celebrates his exploits, and plans to re-build one of his ships as centrepiece of a major tourist attraction Maritime Heritage Park in Dunkerque harbour.

The Tourville association has already achieved a prototype model (pictured RIGHT) based on Colbert's naval dictionary, and archeological diving in the Channel off Cherbourg, which discovered six 17th century wrecks - part of Admiral Tourville's fleet whose mission was to restore James II to the English throne. A feasibility study of the Heritage Park estimates it could attract up to 400,000 visitors annually.

Jean Bart model
Prototype of Jean Bart's flagship - there are plans to rebuilt it full-size.


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Places to visit:
Dunkerque Port Museum - the ships, harbour, fishermen, dockers, corsairs and people of Dunkerque in Jean Bart's day and after.
Dunkerque Fine Arts Museum - with local history gallery about the port from the 17th to 19th centuries, including exhibits about Jean Bart.
Dunkerque harbour trip - starting near the Port Museum, a tour by boat of the old port going on to today's industrial harbour

Related background information
Louis XIV - the "Sun King"
Spanish Flanders
William of Orange - Louis XIV's Dutch enemy
Dunkerque carnival - still celebrating Jean Bart in February-March (with the help of local giants...)




Dunkerque © Copyright 2002 Invicta Media Last updated 23th May 2002