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Duc D'Anville: His Death
regarding this or any urban legend are welcome at:
|.. The admiral was the Duc d'Anville, one of the illustrious La Rochefoucaulds, whose family name is known wherever French is read ... The fleet left France at midsummer, had a very rough passage through the Bay of Biscay, and ran into a long, dead calm off the Azores. This ended in a storm, during which several vessels were struck by lightning, which, in one case, caused a magazine explosion that killed and wounded over thirty men. It was not till the last week of September that d'Anville made the excellently safe harbour of Halifax. .... All his crews were sickly; and the five months' incessant and ever-increasing strain had changed him into a broken-hearted man. He died very suddenly, in the middle of the night; some said from a stroke of apoplexy, while others whispered suicide. ... [The Great Fortress: A Chronicle of Louisbourg 1720-1760, By William Wood, Chronicles of Canada Series: Volume 8, Toronto, 1915]||
[Contribution pending - See below for a related discussion]
The death of Duc d'Anville
big attempt to thrash the English in the New World was thwarted by medical
In May of
1746, the largest military force ever to set sail for the New World
departed the French port of Brest. Under the leadership of a French
aristocrat Admiral Jean-Baptiste De Roye de la Rochefoucauld, Duc
d'Anville, the fleet carried a commission from King Louis XV to avenge the
recent stinging defeats at the hands of the English. D'Anville was ordered
to "expel the British from Nova Scotia, consign Boston to flames,
ravage New England and waste the British West Indies."
Although this was a most ambitious task, the fleet of 20 warships and 32
transports, carrying 3,000 veteran troops and 10,000 naval hands would
have been well up to the assignment. Indeed, news of this created panic in
the streets in Boston and New York, and sparked mass prayer sessions in
But for a series of medical, tactical and climatic misadventures,
d'Anville might even have succeeded in eradicating the English power base
in North America.
Constant delays caused by shoddy and incompetent contractors delayed the
fleet's departure considerably. Substandard provisions may have played a
role in the subsequent outbreaks of disease on the ship. These delays also
ensured a fatigued and deconditioned crew, even before leaving France.
A subsequent storm in the Bay of Biscay and adverse winds slowed the
transatlantic crossing, and the men sickened and began to die as food and
drinking water deteriorated. A major storm off Sable Island wrecked and
scattered the fleet and it was a sorry lot of typhus- and scurvy-ridden
ships that limped into Chebucto, N.S. (now Halifax) on Sept. 10, 1746.
This was only the beginning of the fleet's disaster. Within six days of
their arrival, the 37-year-old d'Anville suddenly sickened and died.
Sources have listed his death as caused by a variety of conditions
including poison, a brain tumour, apoplexy and even the treatment provided
by his physicians.
Official reports state d'Anville died at 3 a.m. on Sept. 27, of "an
attack of apoplexy, which had seized him on the morning of the 25th while
walking on his forecastle deck."
From the suddenness of the attack, the localized paralysis and the
official diagnosis of "apoplexy," I believe d'Anville died of a
cerebrovascular accident (CVA) or stroke.
A contemporary medical reference (Buchan's Domestic Medicine, 1782),
describes apoplexy as "a sudden loss of sense and motion, during
which the patient is to all appearance dead; the heart and lungs still
continue to move," much as one would observe with a severe stroke.
Buchan's describes treatment of apoplexy by opening the skull, as was done
with d'Anville, and expresses no surprise at finding blood.
The suddenness of death seems to make a brain tumour less likely, and
localized paralysis would seem to rule out poison, scurvy or typhus.
Although a little on the young side for a thrombotic stroke, this
diagnosis is possible, especially if d'Anville suffered from severe
I feel a hemorrhagic stroke due to uncontrolled hypertension, a ruptured
berry aneurysm or perhaps an arteriovenous malformation could also explain
the admiral's demise, and is more likely.
Certainly the stresses he suffered in the ocean crossing, as well as the
high salt diet of a sailor, could have raised his blood pressure and
helped trigger a CVA.
Another possibility would be an embolic stroke, the most likely cause
being valvular heart disease, either congenital or related to childhood
rheumatic fever. Dehydration on his journey across the Atlantic may have
contributed to clot formation.
On d'Anville's death, Vice-Admiral d'Estournelle took command. With 2,500
men dead and much of the fleet and supplies missing, d'Estournelle's
situation seemed hopeless. Despondent and discouraged, he repeated over
and over: "All is lost; it's impossible."
Leaving a meeting with his officers, the depressed vice-admiral returned
to his cabin. At one point through the night, groans were heard coming
from his cabin. The officers knocked frantically on the door then broke
in, to find d'Estournelle lying in a pool of blood, impaled on his own
Third in command Captain De La Jonquière now took command.
The sick were brought ashore near Birch Cove in Halifax Harbour's Bedford Basin. Some recovered from scurvy with the arrival of fresh supplies from the Acadians in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, but typhus continued to ravage the men.
The feisty Jonquière was determined to at least attempt to take the
British fortress of Annapolis Royal on the opposite side of the province
and snatch some element of victory.
Typhus, scurvy, malnutrition, stroke and depression: all played a role in
the failure of this grand scheme of Louis XV. The most tangible result of
d'Anville's expedition was to prompt the British government to found the
city of Halifax at Chebucto in 1749.
This strong garrison anchored the English presence and likely prevented
Nova Scotia from joining the other American colonies in successfully
rebelling during the Revolutionary War.
Just think! But for d'Anville, we could all be practising under the
American health-care system right now!
—George Burden is a GP in Elmsdale, N.S.
Le Duc story clarified
read with interest Dr. George Burden's article "The Death of
Duc d'Anville," in the Medical Post, Aug. 13.
After many years of study, I was able through the courtesy of the
late superintendent John Fortier and historian/animator James How,
of Fortress Louisbourg National Historic Park, to examine the
remains of Le Duc, and make a later impression of the anterior
skull cap interior.
Le Duc is buried beneath the floor in front of the altar in the
The results of this study were published in the Canadian Journal
of Neurological Sciences in February 1980.
As well, I have presented an illustrated lecture version of the
story frequently over the past 25 years to many historical
societies in Nova Scotia, to postgraduate and
"refresher" courses, to the Halifax schools when history
was taught as a subject and to many non-medical groups.
On June 14, 1996, at the request of Madame La Contessa
(representing the La Rochefoucauld family) and the superintendent
of Louisbourg, I presented the English version of the story of Le
Duc at the dedication of the family plaque honouring him in the
chapel at Louisbourg.
Some comments regarding Dr. Burden's article:
1. Le Duc's correct name is Jean Baptiste Louis Frederic De La
Rochefoucauld, not Jean Baptiste De Roye de La Rochefoucauld. His
father was Jean Baptiste Louis Frederic de La Rochefoucauld De
Roye. (Data from portrait—indeed his father's portrait is often
incorrectly shown as Le Duc's.)
2. The fleet did not leave from Brest as stated. Brest was the
admiralty headquarters for the French Atlantic fleet. Le Duc's
fleet came together "in secret" all along the French
Atlantic coast, then gathered and sailed from Ile Aix.
3. His skull did not have a "Trephanation Hole." The
entire skull cap had been cut off with a saw for a cerebral
4. He was not poisoned, nor did he commit suicide as suggested by
the British in 1746.
5. He did not have an intracranial hemorrhage from any cause (CSF
clear and watery and no bleeding in or on the brain at autopsy).
6. He did have a right frontal (somewhat Parasagittal) meningioma
which left its base on the interior of the skull, and may have
contributed to a heavily calcified falx. Periodic swelling of the tumour probably led to his headaches and
final collapse with a left-sided hemiparesis (stroke). He was
treated with emetics (to make him vomit), purges (to clear his
bowels), and blistering (to suck poison fluids from his body).
He initially improved—became conscious and spoke. Dr. Duval
continued the emetics and two hours before death Le Duc aspirated
his pomitus (excessive fluid in lungs at autopsy), convulsed and
7. No gross evidence of heart disease was found at autopsy. The
heart was removed and returned to France.
Le Duc's autopsy was done aboard his flagship, the captured
British vessel Le Northumberland. (Probably in Le Duc's own
quarters as there was no sick bay as such.)
He was buried on George's Island in Halifax Harbour where he
remained for three years before being taken to Louisbourg in
September 1749 during the establishment of Halifax.
I trust these comments are of interest to you and your readers.
—Dr. Stephen F. Bedwell, Halifax.