This Model Ship is Made of Real Bones!
The Story of the Vengeur du Peuple
Have you ever made a model ship? It can be a very precise and time-consuming
Porchester Castle on the south coast of England was one such location for prisoners of war and the location where this model was made. As with many British war prisoners at other locations, the French men held at Porchester Castle were given a meager allowance, but were allowed to supplement this sum by selling model ships. Not only did this increase the prisoner’s income, but also helped pass the time for many prisoners who spent years in captivity.
Model making is an art that requires great passion. The model depicted here is a testament to the passion of its creators. Made around 1798 in England, this model of the French war ship Vengeur du Peuple was expertly carved out of bone by prisoners of war.
Model making is difficult at the best of times, but the French prisoners at Porchester did not even have the luxury of decent pieces of wood from which to craft their models. Instead the individual or individuals who made this model of Vengeur du Peuple used bone from their rations to fashion the rigid parts of the ship.
So what was the Vengeur du Peuple? Some context is necessary and I will begin its story with a song of war:
Lève-toi, sors des mers profondes,
Cadavre fumant du Vengeur!
Toi qui vis les Français vanquer
Des Anglais, des feux et des ondes!
D'ou partent ces cris déchirants?
Quelles sont ces voix magnanimes?
Ce sont les braves expirants
Qui chantent au fond des abîmes
Gloire au peuple français!
Rise, emerge from the deep seas,
Smoking cadavre of the Vengeur!
You who saw the French vanquish
the English, the fire and the waves!
Where do these shrieks come from?
What are these magnaminous voices?
They are the brave dying
Singing from the depth
Glory to the French people!
Such powerful imagery evokes the sense of pride felt by the French people for their country and the ship Vengeur du Peuple which is referenced in the above extract from “Le Chant Des Victoires” written by M.J. Chénier shortly after the sinking of Vengeur du Peuple.
Vengeur du Peuple was a 74 gun French war ship that fought in the Napoleonic wars (1793-1815) against Britain. During the American Revolutionary War two decades earlier, it fought under the name Marseillois.
“The Glorious First of June” is the name given to an early naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars. On June 1, 1794 the British Fleet, led by Admiral Earl Howe, intercepted a French convoy and in the ensuing conflict it is thought that 250 crewmembers of Vengeur du Peuple were killed, 106 drowned when the ship sunk, and 367 were rescued by the British.
The sinking of Vengeur du Peuple gained legendary status in France and was used for political purposes. Speeches were made which portrayed the crew as heroes singing the French national anthem, crying “Vive la République” and waving the French flag as they sunk with the ship rather than surrender to the British.
While these accounts are likely exaggerated, there is no doubt that the legend spread through France and the existence of this model suggests that even French prisoners in England heard the stories or the songs of Vengeur du Peuple. The sunken wreck of the ship even made an appearance in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”.
As a bone model ship, Vengeur du Peuple is seen as one of the best in the world and the history behind both the model and its namesake make it even more unique. And the best part of this story? You can see the Vengeur du Peuple on display at the Vancouver Maritime Museum!
Written By Duncan MacLeod, Curator of Collections