Gabriel Aubaret was a French naval officer, diplomat, linguist, administrator and business leader. He was perhaps most famous for authoring the first French-Vietnamese dictionary and for his dramatic exploits in Vietnam and at the Siamese Court during the period immortalized by the King and I. In the 1880s, he was one of the most consequential figures in Constantinople, as the President of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (which controlled much of the nation’s economy), as well as the syndicate that completed the railroad used by The Orient Express.
From 1854 to 1856, then Lieutenant Aubaret served with the French naval squadron in the Black Sea during the Crimean War (1853-6). This flotilla played major role in the Siege of Sebastopol, an epic 11-month long operation that is considered one of the great classics of military history.
The present archive of fifteen original documents, acquired by Aubaret during this period, is highlighted by Admiral Bouët-Willaumez’s original operational ‘play book’ for the French landing on Crimea; while the most visually impressive piece is the resplendent manuscript Tughra of Sultan Abdülmecid I, given to Aubaret in recognition of his service. Other documents include a manuscript battle “ordre”, as well as papers conferring various assignments, commands and awards upon Aubaret. The archive presents a unique and authentic view into the Crimean War and its era through the eyes of a young lieutenant near the beginning of his career of adventure and high-level diplomacy.
[Gabriel Aubaret’s Promotion to Lieutenant].
Ministère de la Marine et des Colonies. Direction du Personnel. Bureau du Personnel Militaire. August 17, 1854.
Printed letter (letterpress), quarto, singed in Mss. (Very Good, old folds).
This document promotes Gabriel Aubaret to the rank of Lieutenant in the French navy, just in time for his participation in the Sebastopol Campaign.
Louis Édouard BOUËT-WILLAUMEZ (1808 - 1871).
Ordre relative à la navigation et au mouillage des flottes expéditionnaires de la Mer Noire.
Baltchik, Ottoman Bulgaria, August 28, 1854.
11 pp. tall quarto size (35 x 22.5 cm), photographic print, including 2 full-page diagrams, contemporarily tied with original string (Very Good, light wear along old folds, some light toning and staining).
This extraordinary document is an original operational plan for the French Fleet in the Black Sea devised by its commander, Admiral Louis Édouard Bouët-Willaumez, in advance of the Siege of Sebastopol (17 October 1854 – 9 September 1855), the seminal event of the Crimean War. It was printed on March 28, 1854, through a mysterious improvised photographic method, at the Allies’ forward naval base at Baltchik, Ottoman Bulgaria (just to the north of Varna).
A top-secret document, issued in only a small number of examples, it would have been distributed by Bouët-Willaumez only to senior French officers (such as Aubaret), and was intended to be the ‘play book’ for how the French fleet should operate in the run up to the Siege of Sebastopol.
The ‘Ordre’ presents a valuable and seldom seen insight into naval operations during the transitional period whereupon fleets were a mixture of sailing vessels and steamships, a combination which required custom tactics.
The document starts out by noting that during the naval operations towards the invasion of Crimea, the French convoy was to sail behind the British flotilla, but ahead of the Ottoman squadron.
The first diagram (p. 2) showcases the ‘Ordre de navigation’, featuring 63 named French vessel, with the different types of ships marked by symbols, including: ‘Vaisseux français’ (French navy ships of sail); ‘Vapeurs de guerre français’ (French navy steamships); ‘Transports de guerre français’ (French navy transports); ‘Vapeurs marchands français et étrangères’ (French and Foreign Merchant steamships); ‘Bâtiments marchands à voiles’ (merchant ships with sail); and ‘Vaisseux turcs’ (Turkish ships). The French fleet is comprised of 11 different sub-groups and sensibly has its formation defended on the perimeters by large, powerful steamships, while the Ottoman fleet sails in its wake.
The next section concerns ‘Mouillage,’, the anchorage of the fleet. The corresponding diagram (p. 5), shows how the French fleet was to form itself off the enemy shore, with the fast steamships and large vessels protecting the corridors to be used by the tenders transporting landing troops; weaker vessels, such as merchant ships and transports, are to be anchored further from shore for their protection. The precise adherence to this plan was crucial, as even small errors in coordination or timing could doom a landing party and risk the ships to enemy fire.
The following section, ‘Débarquement’, is closely related to the former, and describes, in specific detail, how the landing itself should be coordinated. A chart (p. 8) breaks down the number of troops carried by each component of the fleet and reveals that the French convoy aimed to land 9,070 men on Russian soil.
As it turned out, the present naval operational plan was carried as proscribed, without a hitch, when the allied fleet landed its armies at Yevpatoriya, Crimea, on September 14, 1854, only 17 days after the present ‘play book’ was printed. While the Siege of Sebastopol Campaign would last almost 11 months, and the eventual Allied victory would prove much harder than anyone could have predicted, the competence and discipline of the naval side of the endeavour has generally been praised by historians.
The author of the ‘Ordre’, Rear Admiral Louis Edouard Bouët-Willaumez (1808 - 1871) was a veteran of thirty years-experience in the French navy, having served in the Greek War of Independence, as well as numerous missions off the coasts of Africa. In 1853, the was appointed the Chief of Staff of the French Mediterranean Fleet and the head of operations for its campaign in the Black Sea. He was later promoted to become Commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, before serving as a Senator.
As the ‘play book’ for the operations of the French fleet in the lead up to the siege of Sebastopol, the present work was viewed by Bouët-Willaumez as especially important. He reprinted it in full as part of his memoir on the war, Édouard Bouët-Willaumez, Bataille de terre et de mer jusques et y compris la bataille de l'Alma (Paris, 1855), pp. 259 – 270. We cannot trace another example of the present original version. While not noted in the original text, Bouët-Willaumez classified it as ‘No. 336’ of his operational orders issued during the Crimean War.
Louis Édouard BOUËT-WILLAUMEZ (1808 - 1871).
“Ordre no. 346”
[Black Sea, n.d., but just before September 14, 1854].
Manuscript, 4 pp., in black ink on tall (legal) size paper (31.5 x 21 cm) (Very Good, some wear along old folds).
This fascinating document is a manuscript operational order by Bouët-Willaumez (labelled “no. 336”) that was issued for the use of senior French officers immediately in prepration for the landing of the Allied force at Yevpatoriya on September 14, 1854, so beginning the Sebastopol Campaign. The “Ordre” elaborated on some of the details of the ‘Débarquement’ section in the preceding above (no. 2). While, for security reasons, the previous document was vague as to the landing place of the Allied fleet, the present document reveals where the landing is to occur and gives extremely detailed instructions as to how the operation was to unfold. While the previous documents was the ‘playbook’, these are the ‘final instructions’.
Gabriel AUBARET (1825 - 1894).
[Untitled Rough Notes on Technical Specifications].
[Black Sea, circa 1854].
Manuscript, 2 pp., black pen on ‘Genie Maritime’ letterhead (Very Good, old folds and slight creasing).
This is a small rough note in Aubaret’s handwriting regarding the “l’ordre de bataille” and the technical specifications of his ship. It was seemingly made for his own use during the period leading up to the Siege of Sebastopol.
[Aubaret’s Appointment to serve on both the Bayard and the Ville de Paris flagship].
Ferdinand-Alphonse HAMELIN (1796 - 1864).
Marine et Colonies. Le Vice-Amiral, Commandant en Chef…
Aboard the Ville de Paris [off Crimea], October 27, 1854.
Manuscript, 1 p., black ink on quarto paper, signed “Hamlin” and stamped (Very Good, old clean folds).
This manuscript document, in the name of Admiral Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin, the commander of the French Mediterranean Fleet, appoints Lieutenant Aubaret to serve aboard both the Bayard and the French flagship, Ville de Paris.
[Aubaret’s Appointment to the Friedland].
Black Sea, aboard the Friedland, February 5, 1855.
Manuscript, 1 p., black ink on quarto paper with ‘Escadre de la Mere-Noire- Service de Bosphore’ letterhead, signed (Very Good, old clean folds).
This manuscript letter appoints Lieutenant Aubaret to become the commander of the Friedland, representing his first vessel command.
Josephine LAMBERT (Fontaine, Switzerland) to Gabriel AUBARET, April 25, 1855.
Manuscript, 1 p. on octavo paper (Very Good, old folds).
This manuscript letter was written by Josephine Lambert, a resident of Fontaine (Doubs) Switzerland, to Aubaret, requesting that he assist in allocating her son a place within his command.
[Aubaret’s Appointment to Papal Order approved by the French Emperor].
Grande Chancellerie de l’ordre impérial de la Légion d’Honneur. Ordres Etrangers.
Paris, October 12, 1855.
Printed document with details filled out in manuscript, in black pen, signed, with blindstamp of the Imperial Chancellery (Very Good, light old folds).
This document, written on the letterhead of the Imperial Chancellery of Emperor Napoleon III, confers France’s recognition of Aubaret’s award of the Knighthood of the Order of St. George, as conferred upon him by the Holy See. Many French naval and army officers who served in the Crimean War were decorated by the Pope. While the Crimean War was, in reality, an effort by Britain and France to prop-up its Ottoman ally against an expansionist Russia, technically one of France’s stated reasons for entering the conflict was to protect Roman Catholics living within the Ottoman Empire from having their rights trampled upon by Russian ‘Orthodox’ intervention. In this sense, the French officers were on the vanguard of protecting Catholicism in a critical part of the world. Aubaret, as a notably devout Catholic, would have been particularly honoured by this knighthood.
[Aubaret’s Appointment to become a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour].
Ferdinand-Alphonse HAMELIN (1796 - 1864).
Ministère de la Marine et Colonies.
August 14, 1855.
Printed letter (letterpress), tall quarto, with details filled out in manuscript, black pen, signed “Hamlin” (Very Good, light old folds).
In this letter, Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin, previously Aubaret’s ultimate commander in the Black Sea, by now promoted to become France’s Minister of the Navy & Colonies, hereby informs Aubaret’s that the Emperor has appointed him to be a Knight of the Legion of Honour, in recognition for his service in Crimea. Aubaret was still serving in the Black Sea as the commanding officer of the Friedland.
[Tughra of Sultan Abdülmecid I, with text in Ottoman Turkish].
Constantinople, September 15, 1855.
Manuscript, Tughra in gold with text in black on a folio sheet (56 x 35.5 cm / 22 x 14 inches) (Very Good, old folds, some light toning).
AMBASSADE DE FRANCE (CONSTANTINOPLE).
Toughra. Traduction. Chiffre de S.M. le Sultan portant l’inscription suivante: Le Sulan, fils de Sultan, Sultan Abdul-Medjid Khan, fils de Sultan Mahmoud Khan.
Constantinople, September 15, 1855.
Printed document (letterpress), tall quarto, with details filled out in manuscript, black pen, with embassy stamp (Very Good, clean old folds).
Item no. 10a, is the visual highlight of the archive. It is the Tughra (Imperial Monogram) of Ottoman Emperor Sultan Abdülmecid I (reigned 1839-61), drafted in gold, with inscriptions in black, in Ottoman Turkish, conferring an award upon Lieutenant Aubaret.
As explained in the accompanying ‘Tradution’ sheet (no. 10b), prepared by the French Embassy in Constantinople, the ‘Toughra’ is granted to Aubaret in recognition of his service defending the Ottoman Empire, as a ship commander of the French Black Sea squadron, conferring upon him the Imperial Order of the Medjidie (5th Class). The decoration, inaugurated by Abdülmecid I in 1851, was chartered to recognise foreigners who committed distinguished service to the Sublime Porte.
[Aubaret’s Appointment to Serve as the Aid-de-Camp to Admiral Pellion].
“L’Amiral Commandant en chef Ordonne à M. Aubaret Lieutt. de v”eax de cesser les fonctions d’aide de campm de Mr. le c. Amiral Pellion, pur fair partie de l’Etat major du Friedland”.
Black Sea, aboard the Montebello, October 4, 1855.
Manuscript, 1 p., black pen on a quarto sheet, signed (Very Good, light old folds, small tears in bottom blank margin).
This letter orders Aubaret to leave his post as the commander of the Friedland in order to serve as the Aide-de-Camp to the Sardinian commander, Rear Admiral Carlo Pellion conte di Persano (1806 - 1883). Sardinia was junior partner in the Anglo-Franco-Ottoman alliance during the Crimean War, and it was great honour and to be chosen to serve on the general staff of a senior foreign commander’s flagship. It would have burnished Aubaret’s credentials as a diplomat, preparing him for this subsequent illustrious career in the French foreign service.
[Aubaret’s Appointment to Command the 122nd Company].
Port du Toulon. État-Major Général. Conformément à l’ordre Monsieur de Préfet Maritime.
December 31, 1855.
Printed letter (letterpress), tall quarto, with details filled out in manuscript, black pen, signed and stamped (Very Good, old folds, some short tears in blank margins).
This document appoints Aubaret to command his own detachment of marines, the 122nd Company.
[Aubaret to Prepare for a New Assignment].
Marine Impériale. Escadre de la Méditerranée. En virtu des orders de M. Vice-Amiral Commandant en chef...
March 27, 1856.
Printed letter (letterpress), tall quarto, with details filled out in manuscript, black pen, signed and stamped (Very Good, light old folds).
This letter calls for Aubaret to cease his command of the 122nd Company in preparation for a new assignment.
[Aubaret’s Appointment to join the Bretagne].
Port du Toulon. État-Major Général. Conformément à l’ordre Monsieur de Préfet Maritime. [Aubaret’s Appointment to the Bretagne].
March 27, 1856.
Printed letter (letterpress), tall quarto, with details filled out in manuscript, black pen, signed and stamped (Very Good, light old folds, lightly toned).
This letter appoints Lieutenant Aubaret to join the Bretagne, in preparation for his return to France upon the end of the Crimean War.
Gabriel Aubaret: A Life of Adventure and High-Level Diplomacy
Louis-Gabriel-Galdéric Aubaret was a highly consequential figure in the diplomatic and economic affairs of the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans during the second half of the 19th Century. He held various important military, political, and commercial appointments in the region over a period of forty years. Additionally, he was renowned for perhaps being the person most responsible for ensuring that Vietnam came under French rule.
Aubaret was born in 1825 in Montpellier to a respected family of lawyers. Uninterested in the law and restless in a provincial city, he longed to see the world. In 1841, he enrolled at the École Navale (Brest), joining the French Navy in 1844. He subsequently served on a variety of vessels, visiting places throughout the Mediterranean and the West Indies.
As a lieutenant, he served with distinction during the Crimean War (1853-56), commanding his own vessel on several occasions, notably at the Siege Sebastopol. During this time, he gained a fascination for the Ottoman Empire and its many cultures; quickly learning Turkish and Arabic. He forged friendships with several influential Ottoman officers and politicians, connections which would become useful later in his career.
In 1856-7 Aubaret served as the chief science officer (and second-in-command) of a prestigious expedition to discover the headwaters of the Nile, led by the explorer the Comte d’Escayrac, and backed by the Khedive of Egypt. Although the venture was well-funded and included scientists of international distinction, it was almost immediately derailed, barely making it past Cairo, due to Escayrac’s eccentric and dictatorial behaviour.
After the failure of the Nile mission, Aubaret returned to France where he had a highly public romance with Rachel Félix (1821-58), better known as ‘Mademoiselle Rachel’, a world-famous French actress, which ended shortly before her untimely death.
In 1860, Aubaret, as captain of his own vessel, sailed to China as part of the French involvement in the Second Opium War, and was present at the taking of Peking. There he impressed his superiors with his amazingly quick mastery of Chinese and his stellar diplomatic skills. This led to his appointment as a special French envoy to the Vietnamese court at Hué, whereupon Aubaret was instrumental in securing France’s annexation of the southern third of Vietnam, which became the French colony of Cochinchina in 1862. He also authored the first French-Vietnamese dictionary, Vocabulaire Français-Annamite et Annamite-Français (1861).
Aubaret, promoted to French Consul-General at Bangkok, became a major figure at the Siamese court of King Mongkut during the period immortalized by The King and I. He succeeded in making France the dominant foreign player in Indochina, and the Quay d’Orsay considered him to be one of the most tactful and successful drivers of Napoleon III’s expansive foreign policy.
In 1867, Aubaret returned home from Bangkok, eager for a posting to the Balkans or the Ottoman Empire which, despite his love for Southeast Asia, remained his true passion. He also ended his long run as a bachelor, marrying Thérèse Granier, with whom he would have a happy union.
In February 1868, Aubaret was appointed as the French Consul-General at Scutari (Shkodër), Ottoman Albania. That such a highly respected ‘star’ diplomat was given this post was a sign of how important Albania and Montenegro then figured in French foreign policy. Moreover, the post was so challenging, that only an envoy of uncommon ability and enthusiasm could handle the file. After serving for two action-packed years in Albania, Aubaret was hastily recalled home for military service in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1).
After the conflict, in 1872, Aubaret was appointed as the Consul-General at Smyrna (Izmir), the second most important French diplomatic posting in Turkey. While honourific, he found the role boring, as he largely handled matters of maritime trade, with little of the political melodrama that he relished.
In 1873, Aubaret was transferred to become Consul-General at Rustchuk (Ruse), Bulgaria, a major port city on the Danube. Bulgaria was then a directly-ruled part of the Ottoman Empire, and its Slavic people were seething with revolutionary sentiment. Aubaret relished the opportunity to promote France’s significant regional interests against the efforts of Austrian and Russian spies, in the days immediately before the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8, which secured Bulgaria’s independence.
Aubaret’s next assignment was to serve as the Commissioner of the Serbian-Ottoman Boundary Survey, operating largely along the Serbo-Bosnian frontier. In 1880, Aubaret was appointed as a French Minister Plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire, with special responsibility for affairs in Eastern Rumelia, an autonomous Ottoman region in south-eastern Bulgaria. This gave him valuable experience for his future role in overseeing the completion of the Rumelian Railway in the same area.
In 1881, Sultan Abdul Hamid II ordained the creation of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (OPDA), which became the most powerful economic entity in the Ottoman Empire. Aubaret was appointed as the OPDA’s founding President, serving several terms spanning a decade.
During his presidency, Aubaret handled the politically sensitive tasks of managing large parts of the Ottoman economy with great energy and competence. He spoke fluent Turkish and counted many long-time friends at the Ottoman Court and amongst Constantinople’s expatriate community.
In addition to his role at the OPDA, from 1885 to 1888, Aubaret served as the chief operating officer of a special enterprise that was responsible for completing the railway connecting Constantinople with the rest of Europe, a line that subsequently carried The Orient Express.
In 1892, Aubaret retired from his place at the height of Constantinople society and moved with his family back to France, settling in Poitiers. There he died in 1894, having lived the experience of many lifetimes. Aubaret’s widow, Thérèse, wrote her husband’s biography, which was published in Poitiers in 1898.
References: Édouard Bouët-Willaumez, Bataille de terre et de mer jusques et y compris la bataille de l'Alma (Paris, 1855), esp. pp. 259 – 270. cf. [Thérèse Aubaret], Gabriel Aubaret (Poitiers: Librarie H. Oudin, ), pp. 105 – 134.