In the 18th century, a pirate was up to mischief on Lake Geneva. He scored his biggest coup when he carried off the French King’s war chest.
Christophe Vuilleumier is a historian and board member of the Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Geschichte (Swiss Historical Society). He has published a number of articles on 17th and 20th century Swiss history.
The repeal of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685 forced 200,000 Huguenots to flee and led to resistance movements and revolts, the most brutal of which went down in history as the ‘Cévennes War’ of 1702. The insurgents, who called themselves ‘Camisards’ (roughly, ‘shirt-wearers’) because of their modest weapons, waged battle against thousands of the King’s fusiliers and dragoons. The religious war brought death, destruction and the usual horrors of partisan warfare. France was plunged into a precarious state of instability. To make matters worse, the country was once again embroiled in a conflict over the succession to the throne in Spain. The War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted from 1701 to 1714, affected large swathes of Europe. The French troops fought mainly against the regiments of the Duke of Savoy. Unsurprisingly, in 1703 Savoy came to the conclusion that supporting the Camisards against King Louis could be useful – despite the militants being of the Reformed (Protestant) faith.When the French army reached the Savoyard possession of Chablais in 1704, Geneva was virtually encircled by the war. For months, the seigneurie had been taking a whole raft of measures to better protect itself and to step up its diplomatic efforts. Although they had a firm grip on the city, the lake was not so easy to guard. From 1703, the authorities banned ships’ captains from transporting deserters – especially French deserters – into Switzerland.
As from April 1703, only Geneva’s own sailors were allowed to load and unload the city’s barques and brigantines, which left the boatmen from Vaud hardest hit. As the number of refugees, mainly from Orange, within the city walls rapidly increased, the Geneva authorities saw an urgent need to take action.Geneva had no influence outside its own borders, and so the city had no choice but to allow the French military operations which Marshall Tessé carried out from autumn 1703. From spring 1704 in particular, there were countless crossings of the lake. Ships manned by military contingents, loaded with grain and animal feed, often ran from Versoix, which was then French, to Thonon. 1704 was a difficult year. Not just the growing tensions between the Geneva bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, but especially the many Camisards, caused quite a headache for the government: ‘The people displaced from France who are now in the city have a mutinous temperament, constantly make trouble and cause grievances for us.’ Moreover, under their notorious leader Jean Cavalier, the Camisards carried out mounted attacks near the Vaud.In addition, relations between Geneva and Bern were once again on a very precarious footing with the regime in Morges having recently increased tariffs, especially on Genevan goods. Against this destructive backdrop, a Savoyard adventurer by the name of Dantal decided to become a privateer. His father, a shipwright from Nice, had built two ships for the Duke of Savoy in 1671, which were suitable both for goods transport and for possible military manoeuvres on Lake Geneva. The first of the two ships built in Thonon, the Saint-Charles, was launched in August 1671, and the second, the Saint-Jean Baptiste, was launched the following November.
Dantal had known his way around a sailing boat from a very early age. As a patriot his sympathies lay with the Camisards, and in spring 1704 he made the decision to take part in the war against France. He assembled a small group of men and provided them with weapons as best he could. He probably fought his first battle with little more than a humble fishing boat. If he had used one of his father’s sailing vessels, evidence of this would be found in the archives.In April, invoking the authorisation of the Duke of Savoy to do so, the privateer captured a ship commanded by a French captain off Collonge-Bellerive. The brutal attack passed off quickly and without any resistance. It wasn’t long before news of this adventure spread from the back alleys of the city to the council chamber, and put the good gentlemen of the city council in a difficult predicament. Should they go after this person, who was known to be loyal to the Duke of Savoy, and risk incurring the Prince’s wrath, or would it perhaps be better to turn a blind eye to this deed and thus inevitably cause an affront to the representative of the French King? The municipal authorities opted for a moderate diplomatic reaction, as they were concerned that the pirate attack might endanger the usual trade in goods across the lake. So the Geneva authorities were wary of taking sides and thus having their hands tied. As a better option, the municipal authorities refused to initiate a ‘public procedure’, preferring to ‘let this Dantal feel the consequences of this matter in a special way’. A typical Calvinist stratagem that even a Jesuit would have condoned!
The calm before the storm
The plan was unsuccessful, however, because the Geneva envoys were unable to track down the privateer. Dantal, meanwhile, had taken it into his head to deliver the captured French officer to the Savoyard high command in Chambéry.
During the months that followed, the corsair kept quiet. It wasn’t until 1705 that he started stirring things up again, after French troops of the Duke of Vendôme had won the Battle of Cassano against Savoy in August and occupied Lombardy. For this, of course, the soldiers had to be paid. The transportation of gold coins for Vendôme’s troops in northern Italy was organised by Geneva bankers. The transport was to proceed first along the shores of Lake Geneva and then across the Alps: a mission that was as challenging as it was out of the ordinary. In October 1705, a convoy set off with a rather meagre escort. The carriages had to be driven along the Swiss lakeshore, as it was considered safer than the other side, where the risk of being ambushed by Savoyard partisans was high. But something had evidently leaked out, because Dantal got wind of the special transport and was planning another attack. Taking gold from the French troops was worthwhile for him in a number of ways: firstly, for his personal enrichment, and secondly for the Savoy cause.As is standard practice in pirate stories, the bandit gathered his men in a tavern. They assembled on 19 October in the ‘Couronne’ in Morges, at the time still Bernese territory. In the evening some of them boarded the fishing boat they had used to cross the lake. Night soon fell, and the unsettled weather ensured that the operation went unobserved.
The little sailing boat covered the short distance to a nearby forest, where the rest of Dantal’s henchmen were already waiting with weapons. With a full crew, the boat finally set course westward in the darkness, sailing past the Vaud country towns of Allaman, Rolle and Nyon. In the dawn light, the privateers moored just behind the harbour at Coppet. Their destination was an isolated beach close to the convoy route. Now they just had to wait. The pirates waited patiently for several hours, hiding in the wet grass. By midday on 20 October, however, they were tired of waiting and no longer believed that the Duke’s gold would be transported by this route. They pulled back. But Dantal wasn’t prepared to give up that easily. He decided to cross the lake and capture the village of Hermance, which was in French hands, to satisfy himself that Vendôme’s wagons had not travelled along the other shore.The bewildered villagers had no choice but to help the armed men dock, obey Dantal’s orders, and answer his questions. By all accounts the pirates let the populace get away unscathed, but they did make off with the royal tax collector’s cash chest. They discovered that no convoy had passed that way either. Believing that Vendôme’s gold transport wouldn’t now take place until the next day and would be on the Swiss shore, Dantal and his followers left the scene, to get themselves closer to the coveted booty.
They set sail in the direction of the Savoyard village of Yvoire, where the ruins of the medieval castle offered protection against possible attacks. The local lord of Cinquantod, who was known to be sympathetic to the French, had to vacate the place for the night.
On the morning of 21 October, the privateers again set out for Coppet, where they lay in wait in anticipation of the convoy. Around eight o’clock in the morning, a covered wagon escorted by four riders did in fact turn up. In a flash, the mounted group was surrounded by threatening swords, bayonets and guns. In an exchange of gunfire one of the horses was killed, so escape was out of the question. Taken completely by surprise, the guards let themselves be disarmed by the pirates. The men with Dantal calmly removed the chests and loaded them on to their boat. They had captured twenty thousand Louis d’or! Shocked but alive, the victims watched the privateers sail away. The bandits calmly headed for their lair in Yvoire, where Dantal dropped off a portion of his comrades before returning to the Swiss shore that same evening.
What happened to the gold remains a mystery to this day. Did the pirates split the booty among themselves? Or did Dantal hand over the coins to the Camisard leader Jean Cavalier, who had just placed himself and his men in the service of the Duke of Savoy? In any case, Dantal and his pirate band were seen several days later in Bern, where they celebrated their success in the ‘La Cigogne’ inn and in the ‘Croix-Blanche’ hotel, without letting themselves be disquieted by the Bernese archers – despite all the protests of the French diplomats. Then the pirate vanished into thin air. He was never heard of again…
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