Sunday, February 12, 2017

Rodrigue Hortalez & Cie.

As I began my research into the American War for Independence to glean background and context for the Yankee Doodle Spies novels, I uncovered many things that I had not known nor even imagined existed. The struggle for independence was long and complex, featuring, besides the traditional aspects of warfare: civil war, insurgency, guerrilla war, diplomacy, piracy, espionage, counterespionage, code-breaking, propaganda, spying, and covert operations.

A Secret War

Not widely known, the French began a covert operation aimed at buttressing the American rebels against the British crown.  But some French secret activities began, in fact, much earlier. The King of France, Louis XVI, and his ministers were smarting from the considerable losses in lands suffered in the Seven Years' War, known as the French and Indian War in America.  France lost all of her North American colonial possessions(except a few small islands off the maritime provinces) and had been militarily humiliated by the British. So shortly after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 was signed, French agents went to the American colonies to cause mayhem between the colonists and their masters. As the actual conflict drew closer both the Americans and the British figured on some sort of French intervention. The question was where, and what and how?

The French & Indian War cost France her
New World power and global prestige

The Minister

Any intervention would be directed by Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, appointed the foreign minister of France by Louis XVI in 1774. Vergennes hated the British, whom he considered the natural enemy of France. With Vergennes at the helm of foreign policy, many believed France would be quick to provide aid following the actions at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. But Vergennes and the King moved deliberately. They anticipated another war (of revenge) against the British. But they knew France was not yet ready nor did they think the colonies could succeed. How to proceed?

Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes

The Playwright Spy

John Wilkes
On the scene comes an unlikely figure: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a watchmaker, playwright (Marriage of Figaro, Barber of Seville, etc.), inventor, musician, politician, fugitive, spy, publisher, arms-dealer, and... revolutionary.  Something akin to the "world's most interesting man", Beaumarchais was well known at the highest circles of French society. Louis XVI was an amateur watchmaker and one-time student of Beaumarchais. As America boiled with patriotic fervor and rebellion, Beaumarchais developed a passion for liberty and the cause of the colonists. It is no small irony that many in the highly stratified and autocratic French society were also bedazzled by the ideals of the American cause. This included the King and
Vergennes - although their bedazzlement was as much of an opportunity for revenge as a love of liberty. Beaumarchais approached Vergennes with a proposition suggesting a plan to provide support to the Americans. At first, Vergennes demurred. He knew the king was not ready to commit to action that might be exposed prematurely. During the run-up to and early months of the American Revolution, Beaumarchais was a French agent in London. He had made numerous secret connections with Americans and British, most particularly Arthur Lee and British radical politician John Wilkes. Beaumarchais penned a letter (via Vergennes) to the king in late 1775, suggesting a scheme of covert arms deliveries to the Americans via the West Indies in exchange for tobacco and other American produce. Louis XVI at first once more demurred, but soon agreed.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
world's most interesting man in an age of
interesting men?

The Company

Arthur Lee
With the king's quiet approval, Vergennes instructed Caron de Beaumarchais to execute his scheme and set up a "proprietary" - called Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie.  This was a front company whose prime purpose was to protect France's role in aiding the American rebels. Beaumarchais, a master of intrigue, registered the company in Spain and made sure no paper trail could be traced to the French government or any other French public entity. Beaumarchais had "backers" for the company whose identities were kept secret.  Beaumarchais engaged the then sole American representative in Paris, Silas Deane of Connecticut. Secret correspondence across the Atlantic and into London and Spain set things in motion. Deane would eventually be joined by Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin, which would take things into intrigues best left for another time.

Silas Deane played a pivotal role that ended
in controversy and ignominy

The "Business"

When the king approved the operation, Vergennes granted Beaumarchais an initial one million livres (several million dollars) to purchase and ship weapons and other war materiel to the Continental Army. At the same time, Vergennes also pressured Spain, which contributed the same amount. Spain also chafed at British ascendancy but suspicious of Americans' intentions in Louisiana, dragged its feet.  The crafty and persistent  Vergennes soon succeeded in pushing them along. The front company prospered.  In its first year of "business", Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie shipped over 30,000 muskets, 100,000 rounds of shot, hundreds of cannons, tents, ordinance, and clothing through New England merchants with shipping connections to the Indies. These items were critical to continuing the war effort as America, by design, had little industrial capacity. The neutral Dutch islands in the Caribbean, such as Sint Eustatius, became a hotbed of clandestine shipping. Experienced American smugglers would navigate around British naval pickets to make secret transactions: typically, tobacco for arms and equipment. France shipped surplus and old (if not obsolete)  weapons from its fortresses and armories. The tobacco and goods received were to be sold for cash and the cash used to stoke the French armaments industry for orders of new weapons for the French armies and navies that would eventually fight Britain. Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie continued in business for two years.

Sint Eustatius was a major transit point for secret weapons for goods trade

The Covert War goes Overt

Franklin and Lee's arrival heated the diplomacy as Franklin, surrounded by British agents, engaged in a masterful stratagem to woo the French public and ruling class. But the covert war had long been established by Deane and Beaumarchais. Yet now, Beaumarchais faded into the shadows, and Deane was soon recalled to America on charges of corruption never proven. After the Continental Army soundly defeated the British at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, things changed dramatically. France entered into an alliance with the infant United States in early 1778, while a reluctant Spain finally declared war on Britain in 1779.  Still suspicious of the Americans, Spain allied itself with France only. Regardless, now much more aid was shipped to the colonies. This time openly and in the bellies of warships and transports, rather than under cover of the covert and private enterprise that was Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie.

Benjamin Franklin waged a masterful subterfuge and
charm offensive as commissioner in Paris

The Legacy of Untidy Business

As the war's progress abrogated the need for Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie, there was some "unfinished business" that fell upon the American Commission in Paris, which now included John Adams in place of Deane. The correspondence below provides a glimpse into the untidiness of wrapping up covert affairs... even in the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies...

From the American Commissioners

To Comte de Vergennes

By some of the last Ships from America, we received from Congress certain Powers and Instructions, which we think it necessary to lay before your Excellency, and which we have the Honor to do in this Letter.
We have the Honor to enclose to your Excellency a Copy of the Contract made between the Committee and Mr. Francy, a Copy of Mr. Francy's Powers, and a Copy of the list of Articles to be furnished, according to that Contract, that your Excellency, may have before you all the Papers relative to this Subject.
We are under a Necessity of applying to your Excellency upon this Occasion, and of requesting your Advice.
With Regard to what is passed, we know not who the Persons are, who constitute the House of Roderigue Hortalez & Company, but we have ever understood, and Congress has ever understood, and so have the People in America in general, that they were under Obligation to his Majestys good will, for the greatest part of the Merchandizes, and Warlike Stores heretofore furnished, under the Firm of Roderigue Hortalez & Company. We cannot discover that any written Contract was ever made between Congress or any Agent of theirs, and the House of Roderigue Hortalez & Co., nor do we know of any living Witness, or any other Evidence, whose Testimony can ascertain to us, who the Persons are that constitute the House of Roderigue Hortalez & Company, or what were the Terms upon which the Merchandises and Munitions of War were supplied, neither as to the Price, nor the Time or Conditions of Payment.
As we said before, we apprehend that the United States hold themselves under Obligation to his Majesty, for all these Supplies, and we are sure it is their Wish and their Determination to discharge the Obligation to his Majesty, as soon as providence shall put it in their Power. In the mean time, we are ready to settle and liquidate the Accounts according to our Instructions, at any time and in any Manner, which his Majesty, or your Excellency shall set out to us.
As the Contract for future Supplies is to be ratified, or not ratified by us, as we shall judge expeditious we must request your Excellencys Advice as a favor upon this Head, and whether it would be safe or prudent in us to ratify it, and in Congress to depend upon Supplies from this Quarter, because if we should depend upon their Resource for Supplies, and be disappointed, the Consequences would be fatal to our Country. 

We have the Honor to be
 with all Respect Your Excellencys
 most Obedient and very humble Servants

B Franklin
Arthur Lee
 John Adams

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