Jean Audubon was born in Les Sables d’Olonne, France, on October 11, 1744. He is only 13 when his father, Pierre Audubon, makes him part of the crew of La Marianne for a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from Les Sables to Louisbourg on the northern end of Nova Scotia. The fort at Louisbourg is instrumental in France’s ability to access the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the country’s territories in Canada, and the city of Québec. Louisbourg is also France’s main port for the enormous fish trade that the Grand Banks supports.
It takes Jean Audubon five years to return to Les Sables. While working on La Marianne’s next load of cargo for the return to France, conflicts between Great Britain and France escalate into the Seven Years War. La Marianne is pulled into the fighting. The French resist a British attack on Louisbourg in 1757. The British return the following spring and lay siege to the town. In May 1758, Jean Audubon is wounded and taken prisoner. He is then transported to England and put behind bars for the duration of the war. The French at Louisbourg surrender to the British on July 26. From there, the British are able to conduct successfully similar actions against Québec.
Upon release, Jean Audubon returns to France. He maintains the desire to be at sea but with a heightened wariness of the English. Voyages to Louisbourg are no longer possible. The Treaty of Paris voids all of France’s claims on the New World except for two islands off the coast of Newfoundland, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and those in the West Indies. And Jean Audubon can no longer sail with his father. The last record of Pierre Audubon is battling the English with his son and La Marianne’s crew in Louisbourg.
Audubon helps maintain France’s supply of salted codfish and codfish-liver oil by sailing four times to Newfoundland between 1766 and 1768. He then joins the French navy and serves for almost a year before moving to Nantes. On November 1, 1770, Jean Audubon sails for the first time to Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). Saint-Domingue’s slave labor economy is thriving on the production and trade of cotton, sugar cane, rum, and coffee. The trade between Saint-Domingue and France is lucrative, but it is also fraught with risk. The only recourse against pirates and English privateers is either to outrun them or fight them.
Audubon completes the crossing to and from Saint-Domingue three times on the Dauphine. Before the third trip, at age 28, he meets Anne Moynet, age 37. While the older, rotund widow maybe cannot claim comeliness, she is wealthy and has no heirs. She and Jean Audubon marry on Aug. 24, 1772, in Paimboeuf. Instead of staying close to home with his newlywed, Audubon spends most of the next six years on his ships Le Marquis de Lévy, Les Bons Amis, and the Le Comte d’Artois and on the land he purchases and develops in Saint-Domingue.
As if eluding pirates and privateers were not making it difficult enough to sail on the Atlantic with valuable goods, on April 19, 1775, the shot that is heard around the world is fired. Part of Great Britain’s retaliation for its defeat at Concord to the Massachusetts militia is to block American trade. Audubon’s success slipping through the blockade ends in 1779. It takes four British corsairs and two galleys to seize Le Comte d’Artois. Audubon and only a few others survive the attack and are taken to New York City where Audubon must endure another 13 months of living in an English prison.
It is most likely through the efforts of Anne-César de la Luzerne, the French Minister to America, that Audubon is freed in June 1780. Audubon directs his animosity towards the British by accepting command of a ship taken from the British named Queen Charlotte and joining the fleet under the direction of François Joseph Paul de Grasse. In October 1781, Audubon and the rest of Count de Grasse’s forces keep the British navy out of the Chesapeake Bay and away from Yorktown to prevent General Charles Cornwallis from surrendering to the Americans.
Rather than returning to France, Audubon decides to strengthen his American relations, many of whom live in Philadelphia as members of the Quaker community. He then continues on to Richmond where L’Annette with her load of tobacco awaits his command to Nantes. Audubon has a brief amount of time to be with his wife Anne Moynet before he is back at sea on his way to America. After completing the crossing, Audubon accepts the command of another ship taken from the British named The Queen. Audubon and The Queen‘s crew fight for America’s independence until it is achieved on September 3, 1783.
Jean Audubon returns to France in time to witness his sister, Marie Anne-Claire, marry Jean Baptiste le Jeune de Vaugéon. After the wedding, Audubon returns to Saint-Domingue on Le Conquérant. Also on the ship is Jacques Pallon de la Bouverie, a lawyer for France’s royal court. Traveling with him is a chambermaid named Jeanne Rabine. She is 25 and from a farming family. Jeanne Rabine becomes Audubon’s mistress and bears him a son on April 26, 1785. The boy is named Jean Rabin. Jeanne Rabine dies from complications of giving birth to her son and is buried at Notre-Dame de l’Assomption in Les Cayes. It is Jean Rabin, later re-named John James Audubon, who grows and becomes the greatest bird artist that ever lived.
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