How the French looted Rio


September 21st, 1711. A French expedition led by corsair René Duguay-Trouin took Rio de Janeiro after nine days of siege to the city. The navigator imposed conditions to leave the city: receive the equivalent of 2 million French pounds. Negotiations lasted for weeks. The Portuguese rulers haggled. They did not have such a huge amount at hand.

Duguay-Trouin threatened to burn the entire village, then with 12,000 inhabitants. Finally, on October 28th, the Portuguese gave in, although they did not pay everything the kidnappers asked for. But, two weeks later, when they set out for France, the full amount – a product, for the most part, of the sacking of the city – was a fortune: 600 kilos of gold, 610,000 cruzados, a hundred boxes of sugar, 200 oxen, slaves, and dozens of other items. The expedition, partly financed with official French money, had yielded almost a 100% profit. Thus ending the first kidnapping of Rio.

Do not think Duguay-Trouin was a pirate. He was a corsair, which is different. That is to say: he looted like a pirate, but with all the support of a monarch. King Louis XIV granted him a charter, a document that gave him the task of stealing enemy ships. Europe was experiencing one of its periodic dynastic wars, true worldwide conflicts that involved combat in every sea where there was a European presence. Portugal was an ally of England, therefore an enemy of France. Brazil, a Portuguese colony, became, consequently, the object of greed of French corsairs.

Duguay-Trouin was a true expert at looting when he arrived at the gates of Rio in September, 1711. By 1709, he had already captured more than 300 merchant ships and twenty war ships. His fleet of seventeen boats sailed for Brazil in June, made a stopover in the Cape Verde archipelago, and proceeded as fast as possible – which at that time meant 10 or 15 knots. The ship Le Lys, commanded personally by Duguay-Trouin, had more than one hundred victims of scurvy.

Curiously, a British boat was able to make the crossing of the Atlantic more quickly and arrived in time to warn the Portuguese in Rio. When the fleet passed through Cabo Frio it was sighted and Rio received a new warning. The Portuguese should have been ready for the attack. But they were not. In a fierce campaign, Duguay-Trouin managed to enter Guanabara Bay and sequester the city. Entirely.

The key to take Rio was to avoid fire from Carioca fortresses, to disembark troops and to advance fast. In September 1710, a year before, French privateer Jean-François Duclerc had attempted this. His five ships were prevented from entering Guanabara Bay by the forts. Duclerc landed his small troops far away and made a strenuous march to Rio. Tired and without the support of naval artillery, the corsairs were beaten by the Cariocas and surrendered. But the attack revealed an impressive amount of ineptitude among the defenders. It was the population, not the regular troops, who acted.

Forts are made of stone and don’t catch fire if attacked with spherical iron bullets, fired from cannons with maximum reach of 2 kilos (2 km?). Wooden ships, with canvas sails and carrying gunpowder, are very flammable. And the defender can use a powerful weapon: the bullets can be heated in furnaces and fired still incandescent. The attacker’s biggest enemy is fire, so the fleet must avoid exchanging shots with the forts. Escaping the fire, sailing ships are extremely resistant to massive iron bullets. According to John Keegan, a specialist in military history at the time, naval battles were decided more by the death of the sailors, in concentrated carnage, than by the sinking of ships.

Preparations for taking on the French, however, were made without urgency. Rio’s fortresses were almost unguarded when the fleet quickly entered on September 12th. Soldiers and sailors were digging trenches. To add to it, thanks to a providential wind, Duguay-Trouin’s ships passed through without giving time for the fort’s canons to practice aiming at them.

The French took over the city after intense canon firing. They released prisoners from the Duclerc expedition (except the man himself, who had been murdered) and nearly a hundred Jews arrested by the Inquisition (two went to France, with the privateers). The governor, the bishop, the admiral, all the notable people fled earlier. The poorest people suffered the most. A thunderstorm made nightfall a nightmare. People were trampled, drowned in the mud, mothers lost their children, while the canons and thunder made it hard to hear the screams.

Duguay-Trouin, the corsair hijacker, said that the expedition yielded 92% profit to shareholders. Among other figures, the invaders took 602 pounds of gold to France. And that was little, because there was a certain misfortune there: most of the metals had not yet come from the mines to Rio de Janeiro, from where it would be sent to Portugal. According to historian Virgílio Noya Pinto – who studied the influence of Brazilian gold in the expansion of English capitalism – at that time, the average shipped to Portugal on the fleets leaving Brazil was 5 to 8 tons per year, or about ten times more than what the French took.

Even so, the total sale of the booty passed 20 million pounds. To give you an idea of ​​what that meant, the monthly salary of a French sailor ranged from 10 to 18 pounds, according to Jean Merrian, an eighteenth-century naval art historian. A Navy captain made 300 pounds a month.

In order to raise the necessary capital for the expedition, a commercial enterprise was created, whose shareholders were both via “private initiative” – ​​mainly traditional privateer shipowners from Saint-Malo, the city of Duguay-Trouin – and the government. France’s Royal Navy lent ships and men. One of Louis XIV’s sons, the Admiral of France, Count of Toulouse, was one of the shareholders. The booty was divided between capital and labor – each of the 6,000 men from the expedition – according to a system of “parts”. A captain received at least twelve parts; a lieutenant received six or nine parts; a soldier or gunner received one or a half; and a sailor would take one to two parts.

To know more:

In the Buccaneers’ Time

See how the corsair attack happened

The chronology:

9/12, 9:30AM. The French saw the islands at the entrance to Guanabara Bay. The morning was spent preparing for the attack.

9/12, 1PM. The fleet raises more sails and passed the border, with the ship Le Magnanime ahead, because its captain had already been to Rio before. Duguay-Trouin is on Le Lys, the fourth to enter.

9/12, 2:30PM. Everyone has already passed the border. Villegaignon fort exploded. The Portuguese beached their four ships.

9/12, 4PM. The fleet was anchored outside artillery range. The cost of entry was eighty dead, 220 wounded.

9/13. At sunrise, the Frenchman Le Goyon, with 500 men, took Ilha das Cobras. Duguay-Trouin visited the island and had it armed with cannons and mortars to bombard the city.

9/14. French troops land in the region of Saco do Alferes and Praia Formosa, without resistance.

9/15. Skirmishes and more cannons are offloaded to bombard the city.

9/16. The French set up a battery of ten cannons at Morro do Pina, today’s Morro da Saúde. The bombing and skirmishes continued until the 20th. The population begins to flee from Rio.

9/21. Duguay-Trouin ordered an attack. A French prisoner escaped and warnsed that Portuguese had already left the city. In the afternoon, the city had already been taken. The next day, the Portuguese commander of the Santa Cruz Fortress surrendered. From 9/23 to 10/9, there were skirmishes and negotiations. The city was ransacked. On October 28th, the governor, under threat of attack on his troops, decides to pay the ransom. The French leave Rio on 11/13 at 4PM.

Source (PT)


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