Naval Battle of Augusta, by Ambroise-Louis Garneray.
The French Case
In this new context the idea of the command of the Mediterranean appeared. In France, Colbert built his naval policy around this idea. In 1679 he wrote to the général des galères: ‘Considérez s’il vous plaît quelle gloire le Roy et vous recevrez d’être entièrement maitre de la Méditerranée et de n’avoir jamais aucune puissance dans cette Mer qui puisse ni égaler ni balancer celle du Roy.’ In his instructions to his son and successor Seignelay, he repeated that the minister must ‘penser continuellement aux moyens de rendre le Roy maître de la Méditerranée’. The first step of his grand dessein was first executed with the Sicily campaign, where Vivonne and Duquesne were victorious at Stromboli, Augusta and Palermo in 1676, but the tactical command of the sea obtained through these victories could not be exploited strategically. France was too heavily engaged on the northeastern front and was unable to provide enough troops to subdue Sicily. The island was finally evacuated and the campaign ended without result.
The efforts of Louis XIV, of Colbert, and of the latter’s son Seignelay to build a strong navy are well known. The results are impressive: a nearly ruined navy became, in two decades, the first in Europe. France competed more than honorably with the Anglo-Dutch coalition, particularly during the Nine Years War. In this war, however, the main strategic theater was in the English Channel, the Mediterranean had become secondary. The main French base was Brest, even if Toulon received important equipment and many more projects. Toulon was still active in the first years of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701–14. There was only one battle-inline, Velez-Malaga in 1704, but both fleets were engaged in the support of military operations in Catalonia. In October 1707, soon after the siege of Toulon, the well-known Duguay-Trouin and Forbin surprised an English convoy at Cape Lizard and captured it almost entirely: four warships and 60 merchant vessels. This coup d’éclat, somewhat forgotten by contemporary naval historians, had a great impact on the war in Spain. It was a severe blow for the Imperial Army in Catalonia and contributed to the victory of Felipe V. The French fleet also supported the sieges of Gibraltar and Nice, but the naval effort collapsed after 1706 for several reasons. Priority was given to the Army to repel the invasion; Toulon was besieged by the allies and suffered heavy casualties in 1707, and, first of all in the longue durée, the British, having seized the splendid position of Gibraltar, constantly threatened the links between Brest and Toulon.
In the face of this France was not able to establish itself as a durable seapower in the Mediterranean. It tried periodically to compete with England, but could not impose domination at sea. In the end, the grand dessein of Louis XIV and Colbert was abandoned by their successors. The Regency accepted second rank at sea and Louis XV made no serious effort to rebuild the Navy. After the great disasters of the Seven Years War, which occurred more in the Atlantic than in the Mediterranean, Choiseul tried to reconstitute French naval power. His aim was to have a navy equivalent to two-thirds of the Royal Navy, with the hope that the Spanish and the Neapolitan Navy would provide the complement to match British superiority. His policy was validated during the American War of Independence. Finally, during the last decades of the ancien régime, France had an efficient navy that was able to match the Royal Navy. Yet France was not a naval power in relation to its military power. French maritime trade suffered heavily during the Seven Years War, but during the War of the Austrian Succession and the American War of Independence the Navy was able to organize an effective convoy system for the protection of trade.