12 Jun 2015

Sailing Hermione and Sunken Utopia

I have been following with pride an ambitious and audacious shipyard project brought to fruition by the passion and determination of author Erik Orsenna and a handful of ordinary French fellow citizens who managed to get together a team of expert craftsmen who over the last 17 years painstakingly built a perfect replica of Frigate L'Hermione, in Rochefort-sur-Mer. The beautiful and graceful tall ship was then seen off on April 18th, 2014 to sail across the Atlantic Ocean with a costumed équipage to meet its destiny, like the original frigate had back in 1780 with the illustrious Marquis de Lafayette on board. Our French emissary was to take a decisive part in the independence of that faraway land full of New World promise, and where everything seemed therefore possible and feasible.

USS Mitscher welcomes L'Hermione.  
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Sandberg/ Released

L'Hermione II has sailed like a bird on her month-and-a-half maiden journey from the old continent to the shores of the founding fathers of America - Yorktown, Mount Vernon and Alexandria - and her awe-inspiring journey along the East Coast is only just commencing. This is not only a historically-charged moment, but also a highly-symbolic one as a delightful and tasteful homage from France to the US in the form of a kind and thoughful yet acutely tangible reminder of our esteemed friendship and diplomatic alliance, despite specks of tarnish over the last 60 years.

As we sail forth to rekindle the past and salute the prowess of the skilled craftsmen in their labour of love and 84 crew members in their dedication, and to experience the expansive cultural outreach while our flags proudly duet to the sea breeze and gracefully waltz together into an embrace, I join in to celebrate our Franco-American friendship.

L'Hermione is welcomed in Yorktown, © Mladen Antonov/ AFP

In the context of the looming French Revolution (1789-1799), The French Illuminati (free-thinkers, philosophers, writers, teachers) of the time were purveyors of novel ideas (or inspired by past civilisations) to emancipate mankind and free them from the feodal system and the centralisation of power. Utopic societies were dreamt of, and America was seen as a place where utopia, a Land of the Free, could be borne. On the old continent, the French revolutionary ideas stood out from England's more conservative (evolutionary) approach. Albion, France and America's common enemy, did not sit well with the idea of change. La Fayette embarked upon L'Hermione to help Americans liberate from English rule and build a republic that would be a model for the rest of the world, an ideal. The Franco-American alliance brought victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.

Now we may argue whether America ever had anything utopic that is found elsewhere than in the text of its constitution. For once, a Land of the Free built upon the enslavement and eradication of its indigenous populations and the robbing of their lands and destruction of their culture, is hardly a utopic gesture, but rather a dystopic one. A nation that has turned out to become an economic, political and military bully rather than an ally on the world scene, cannot be a role model, surely. At the sight of a nation that has turned into a militarised police state, the American founding fathers and the French revolutionaries will jointly disapprove, because this was never the future they had envisaged for America.

Embed from Getty Images

L'Hermione sailing down towards Bordeaux Harbour, © Getty Images

If utopia there ever was, it was dreamt up in lofty salons and calligraphed together with thoughts and ideas and concepts onto velum. It now is found lying deep off the shores of the East Coast, and there isn't more to salvage from its putrescent self than an idea for a replica. America, I love the idea of you and respect you, but you are only human, hence flawed. And that is your foible as much as it is ours. God Bless You.

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