Sunday, March 14, 2010

Boats for memory

English translation of Marie-Béatrice Baudet's original article, journal "Le Monde, March 12, 2010"

It's the story of a young naval lieutenant, François-Edmond Pâris, raised in the severity of the Naval School, brilliant teenager, gifted in math, but who did not like card games or the atmosphere of intoxicated taverns. During stopovers, he preferred to peacefully engage in his lifelong passion: drawing, a talent inherited from his mother, a daughter of a Brest shipowner, who was a little artist. His sailor's eye did the rest. He decided to capture the vessels which he found in his travels at sea, intrigued by their shape, their material and their use. His brushwork made miracles and at final a real scientific work.

Since March 10 (until 19 September), the National Museum of the Marine in Paris, pays tribute to this gentleman of the nineteenth century with an exhibition entitled 'All ships in the world'. A collection of beautiful drawings, sketches, models, watercolors he took two years to compile, explains Alain Niderlinder, assistant curator at the Museum of the Marine.

This heritage treasure made of Admiral Pâris, born in 1806 and died in 1893, the founder of nautical ethnography. The book he published in 1843, Essay on the shipbuilding nations outside Europe, remains a bible for scientists who claim to be heirs of his school today. "Pâris would have been content to describe the crafts from Arabia , India, China, Polynesia, for simple technical drawings, explains Eric Rieth, director of research at CNRS and member of scientific committee of the exhibition, but
he quickly sees that the boat is also a social object, in harmony with its natural environment, economy and culture. In short, the boat is also and especially men."

Fortunately, the military who required to speak in English at home so that his two son, sailors also open onto the other, writing. He annotates his drawings, describes, analyzes, compares... "This is a field researcher, in line with social anthropology," says Rieth. For him, the boats outside Europe, those of 'wild' or 'natural' people, according to the vocabulary of the nineteenth century, are likely to be subjects of history as well as civilian buildings, military and especially religious.

When he boarded the Astrolabe as Hydrographer in 1826 for his first circumnavigation of three years - it will make two more trips around the world -, the young naval officer was noticed by his commander, Dumont d'Urville, who encouraged him drawing. The mission is still in the spirit of exploration of the eighteenth century, although it is also going to shake the French flag along the coasts of Africa and Asia. It was during this expedition that the scientific project of Pâris began to take shape. Ethnocentrism repels him. This humanist feels the need to clarify and convey : "
Our era of progress may be accused later of being selfish and letting lose what does not serve his pleasures or his direct utility", wrote there. Some criticize him for not being able to completely detach from the thought - and also from the conquests - during the colonial era, giving way for Africans he didn't like, to stereotypes of racial anthropology. But his empathy for the other indigenous people was real.

One event was particularly marking for him. Fan of James Cook, the famous British explorer of the eighteenth century, he devoured his travel stories in Polynesia and his descriptions of Tahitian leaders'canoes, including the King O-Too, architecturally very sophisticated for the period. A ship of war completely sewn by hand, over 30 meters long, powered by 144 paddlers. When he landed in Papeete in 1839, during his third world tour aboard the Artemise, a frigate commanded by Laplace, it found no trace. Many villages are deserted, the warehouses are empty ... "The boat was exceptional," says Hélène Guiot, ethno-archaeologist attached to the joint research unit (UMR) and Archaeological Study of Antiquity (ArScAn) . But like many others, its destruction was ordered by the Catholic and Protestant missionaries, obsessed with the eradication of objects associated with pagan rituals. The idols should be burned. "

The scientist tells about offerings dedicated to all the tutelary gods, protectors of the boat. The spirits of shipwrights, for example, to thank the choice of wood, flexible ties, dense stem. It describes how the deportations and travel bans - to better monitor populations to convert - have led to the loss of knowledge of the sky and its stars, so ultimately navigation.

During the Polynesian stopover, Pâris understands, in the words of Titouan Lamazou (*another modern navigator also involved in painting, traveling and ethnography) who prefaced the book devoted to the exhibition ('All ships in the world', published by Chasse-marée-Glénat) that "fears about the casualness of our civilization of progress are well founded". Upon his return to France, he continued writing his essay. It does so with more alacrity so the staff of the Navy, also impressed by the excellence of its engineering background, entrusts him the task of developing the steam propulsion, which earned him the "Admiral of mechanics" nickname. The world of sailing is definitely threatened. The Clippers will soon give way to the freighter. When he left active duty in 1871 to become curator of the Naval Museum of the Louvre, he puts the finishing touches to his work. And he builds from his observations, dozens of models, from the Arab dhow to Pondicherry chelingue. The memory of the sea is preserved.

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