The remarkable adventure of a young doctor from Normandy
In June 1941, the French children’s magazine, Jean et Paul, published this article on one of my wife’s more well-known ancestors, François Pouqueville. At the time, the north and west of France had been under German military occupation for 12 months. The choice, then, to write a patriotic portrait of a Frenchman who served his country in sometimes difficult conditions, and who helped liberate another country from foreign rule hardly seems coincidental. All footnotes are my own, mainly added to explain names and events to an English-speaking audience. How did French kids know all this stuff!?
During his life, François Pouqueville was both a doctor and a diplomat. He went to school at the college of Caen before joining the seminary in Lisieux soon after the outbreak of the Revolution. It was only at the age of 18 that he decided to start studying medicine. In 1798, when he was just 28 years old, he was appointed as a doctor on Napoleon Bonaparte’s military expedition to Egypt1. It was this appointment that would later lead him to become a diplomat, a career which he certainly never dreamed of pursuing at the time.
Soon after arriving in Egypt, Pouqueville witnessed the disaster of Aboukir on the 1st of August2. From the coast near Alexandria, he saw the defeat of our squadron which resulted in the death of the brave captain Dupetit-Thouars3 and so many other heroes of our navy. Pouqueville’s intelligence, empathy, and kindness had already been noticed by general Kléber4. After the battle, he gave Pouqueville the job of negotiating the exchange of prisoners with admiral Nelson5. Pouqueville performed this difficult task so well that all our prisoners were released, despite their number greatly exceeding those of the British held by our forces.
But the Egyptian climate severely affected Pouqueville’s health and general Kléber advised him to return to Europe. On the 7th of December 1798, he boarded an Italian tartane6, sadly taking leave of a region where he had already been able to be of great service to his country. When he left, Pouqueville hoped to find a position as a doctor in France. However, it was a much more eventful destiny that awaited him.
Pouqueville had been at sea for a mere two weeks when the tartane was set upon by a corsair from Tripoli7. The tartane, being unarmed, was quickly overcome. Pouqueville and his companions were made prisoners and were to be taken to Tripoli to be sold as slaves. But when the captain of the pirate’s ship discovered they were French, he decided to release them. He himself had been freed from captivity on Malta only a few months beforehand when Bonaparte captured this island en route to Egypt, and he wanted to show his gratitude in some way. This didn’t stop him from robbing Pouqueville and his compatriots of most of their possessions, but he did plan to set them free.
At least this was what the pirate thought he was doing when he landed the Frenchmen, in a much-reduced state, at Navarino on the coast of Morea8, a province of the Ottoman Empire. Alas, the travellers escaped the prospect of slavery only to be once more taken captive! Shortly before their arrival, the Turks had declared war on France. As soon as they encountered the local inhabitants of the coast, they were taken prisoner. They were then taken to Tripolitsa9 where they spent the harsh winter of 1798-1799. During this time Pouqueville did much to ensure they were treated humanely by the province’s ruler, Mustafa Pasha.
Word quickly spread that there was a doctor within the walls who could cure many of the ailments of his fellow prisoners. Pouqueville was even allowed some freedom to explore the city and its surroundings. He took advantage of this to locate the ruins of several ancient cities in the Peloponnese. Chateaubriand, in his Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem10, said that Pouqueville was one of the best guides to the Morea. He was often called upon by the Turks when they were ill, and the gates of the Pasha’s harem were opened more than once for his consultations. In this way he introduced one of France’s enemies to French scientific knowledge and generosity. The Turks’ confidence in him was also reflected in how they treated his fellow prisoners, and Pouqueville was able to obtain a number of concessions which he was quick to share.
The following spring, Pouqueville and his fellow prisoners were taken to Constantinople and imprisoned in the Fortress of Seven Towers11. There, they found members of the French embassy that had been imprisoned since the 10th of September of the previous year. The embassy was headed by the much-respected Ruffin12, who, through his good deeds and faithful service, did so much for France and the Catholic religion in the East. Pouqueville who soon became friends with him, called him the Nestor13 of the Orient.
Our young doctor remained imprisoned in the Fortress of Seven Towers for more than two years. But he put his forced inaction to use to learn modern Greek. He spent so much time studying both this language and medicine that when he was finally released in 1802 and returned to Paris, he soon received his doctorate. The subject of his thesis was the Oriental plague. This attracted considerable attention, and his book, Voyage en Morée, à Constantinople, en Albanie14 even caught the eye of the emperor Napoleon15. Some months after its publication, he appointed Pouqueville as French consul general to the court of Ali Tepelena, Grand Vizier of Ioannina16, capital of Epirus.
The doctor had now become a diplomat. At first, Pouqueville believed that he was being sent to Greece, then under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, with a scientific mission. But the orders that awaited him quickly proved him wrong. When he had his first audience with Ali Pasha in March 1806, it was as a veritable ambassador. For a time, Pouqueville lived in splendour, travelling the length and breadth of the land accompanied by the Pasha’s guard. The Pasha wanted French support to help him carry out his ambitious political plans. But after the Treaty of Tilsit17, he allied himself with the British without daring to break openly with France.
From then on, Pouqueville’s position became increasingly difficult. The Pasha didn’t allow the inhabitants of Epirus to have any communication with the French consul, and Pouqueville’s house became a kind of prison. He occupied himself by cultivating some of the Orient’s rarest flowers in his garden. This situation lasted for almost nine years, during which he was often threatened by the Pasha and at times in real danger. When the emperor abdicated in 181518, Pouqueville was finally able to leave Ioannina. But before leaving, he dined with the Pasha, who had wanted to be reconciled with him. By doing so, Pouqueville put the interests of his country before any personal feelings he had towards the Pasha.
Pouqueville returned to France in 1816 with a large amount of information he had collected on the Orient.19 In 1819, he became a member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.20 He also used his considerable influence in Paris and with foreign embassies to help secure the liberation of Greece from Turkish rule. When the Greeks, through their heroic deeds, finally gained their independence, they remembered their loyal friend, François Pouqueville. They recognized his services to their country by awarding him the Order of the Redeemer21 before he died in Paris in 1838.
Life’s unexpected twists and turns had turned a young provincial doctor into both a skilled negotiator and an ambassador of French scientific knowledge. He was one of those modest men who, from their remote station in some far-off land, have helped make France the world’s most beloved nation.
1 The French military campaign in the Ottoman territories of Egypt and Syria (1798 – 1801) was designed to establish a French presence in the Middle East and undermine British access to India and the East Indies. The campaign ultimately ended in defeat for Napoleon.
2 The Battle of the Nile (1 – 3 August 1798) fought between the British Navy and the French Republican fleet at Aboukir Bay, on the Mediterranean coast off the Nile delta. The battle was a decisive victory for the British.
3 Aristide du Petit-Thouars (31 Aug. 1760 – 2 Aug. 1798), known as Dupetit-Thouars, was commander of the French ship, Tonnant. During the battle he lost both legs and an arm but continued to command from a bucket filled with wheat until he died.
4 Jean-Baptiste Kléber (9 Mar. 1753 – 14 June 1800), a general in the French Revolutionary Army. He was assassinated shortly afterwards in Cairo.
5 Horatio Nelson (29 Sep. 1758 – 21 Oct. 1805), British naval commander better known for his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar.
6 A tartane was a small single-masted ship in use on the Mediterranean from the 16th to the late 19th centuries.
7 Tripoli in present-day Libya was then the capital of a semi-independent province of the Ottoman Empire.
8 Morea was the name given to the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century.
9 Tripolitsa in the central Peloponnese was the capital of the Ottoman eyalet, or province, of Morea.
10 François-René de Chateaubriand (4 Sep. 1768 – 4 July 1848), French writer, politician, and historian. His Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem was published in 1811.
11 The Yedikule Hisari, (‘Fortress of seven towers’ in Turkish) was built in 1458 on a section of the former wall that encircled Constantinople, now Istanbul.
12 Pierre Ruffin (17 Aug. 1742 – 19 Jan. 1824), French diplomat.
13 Nestor of Gerenia was a legendary Greek king of Pylos. He is a secondary character in Homer’s Iliad, where he frequently offers advice to other characters who respect him due to his age and experience.
14 Pouqueville’s first book, Voyage en Morée, à Constantinople, en Albanie, et dans plusieurs autres parties de l’Empire Ottoman was published in 1805 in Paris.
15 Napoleon Bonaparte was proclaimed French emperor on 18 May 1804.
16 Ali Pasha of Ioannina (1740 – 24 Jan. 1822) was an Albanian warlord who became the ruler of a de facto independent state within the Ottoman Empire centred on Ioannina in modern-day north-western Greece. At the height of his power, Ali Pasha ruled over most of present-day Albania, the majority of mainland Greece, part of the Peloponnese, and parts of Northern Macedonia. He sought diplomatic relations with France as part of an effort to establish his state as a sea power in the Mediterranean.
17 The first Treaty of Tilsit was signed on 7 July, 1807, between Imperial Russia and the French Empire under Napoleon. As part of the agreement, Napoleon agreed to help Russia in its plans to seize control of the Ottoman Empire’s possessions in Europe.
18 Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated as emperor on 22 June 1815 after the defeat of the Battle of Waterloo.
19 Pouqueville later used the material he had collected to write a further three books: Voyage de la Grèce (1820-22), Histoire de la régénération de la Grèce (1824), and La Grèce (1835).
20 Founded in 1663, the Académie des Inscriptions et Belle-Lettres is one of the five academies of the Institut de France.
21 Established in 1833, the Order of the Redeemer is the oldest and highest decoration awarded by the modern Greek state.
François Pouqueville: the remarkable adventure of a young doctor from Normandy by Aaron Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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