Ivan Ivanovich de Traversay was a man of an unusual, if not unique, destiny. The circumstances of his life can serve as a backdrop for a most interesting historical novel pivoting on the key international events of the late eighteenth and first quarter of the nineteenth centuries. The destiny of this brilliant French aristocrat was interwoven with the history of such countries as France, the US, Russia, Ukraine, and is associated with such historical figures as Louis XVI, George Washington, Catherine II, Paul I, Alexander I, Nicholas I, Napoleon, Duke Armand-Emmanuel Richelieu, and Count Alexandre-Louis Andrault de Langeron.
Admiral de Traversay’s activities in Ukraine were closely connected with the Black Sea Fleet and the cities of Mykolayiv and Sevastopol. Surprisingly, Ukrainian sources contain too little information about the admiral. There are only three publications: A History of Mykolayiv by Kriuchkov (1996), Mykolayiv Military Governor I. I. de Traversay by Levchenko (2000), and A Frenchman in Ukraine: Duke Richelieu, Count Langeron, Marquis de Traversay by this writer (2002).
Jean-Baptiste de Traversay was born in 1754 into the family of a naval officer on the island of Martinique, a colony of France. The Marquises de Traversay are a branch of the old French family Prevost de Sansac recorded as far back as in the fourteenth century. Following the family tradition, he began his military service as a midshipman on French naval ships at the age of twelve and took part in many sea battles.
During the reign of King Louis XVI, de Traversay made a spectacular career and was appointed the captain of a ship. The marquis was considered one of the best officers in France: he had already had dozens of sea battles won and a number of fortresses captured to his credit. Then came a new stage in his life story — participation in the American Revolution, where he played a key role in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay and was decorated in 1782 with a Cross of Saint Louis, the highest French award of the time. He was also awarded the top American Medal of Cincinnati. In Boston, de Traversay was received by General Washington, the future president of the United States. Contemporaries characterized the marquis as an outstanding naval commander and shipbuilding expert. This refined French aristocrat, a well-mannered, clever, and brilliantly educated person, was a favorite of the French king.
The merciless terror of the French Revolution forced Marquis de Traversay, like many other high-ranking nobles, to leave his homeland. Jean-Baptiste went on vacation to Switzerland, where he received an invitation from Empress Catherine II to serve under the Russian colors. His professional knowledge, probity, devotion to the cause, and organizational talent helped him make rise rapidly. Under Catherine II he commanded a fleet of galleys in the Baltic Sea; under Paul I he, a vice-admiral, fought against the English-Swedish fleet; and under Alexander I he commanded the Black Sea Fleet for seven years. In 1811, after becoming a Russian subject and declining a very lucrative invitation from Napoleon to return as supreme commander of the French Navy, de Traversay was appointed Russian Empire’s naval minister by Alexander I.
After the Peace of Tilsit was signed (1807), the marquis oversaw the continental blockade of England on the Baltic Sea. With the onset of the 1812 War, he supervised the defense of the Gulf of Finland ports and Saint Petersburg from French warships and French-Prussian ground forces by means of the Baltic Fleet and a dismounted Guards Cavalry Unit. Simultaneously, some ship crews subordinated to him fought at Polotsk, Smolensk, and Borodino. The Russian emperor offered de Traversay the title of count, but he declined this offer, wishing to preserve his ancestral title of marquis.
Of special interest is the activity of Ivan Ivanovich (as he was called in the Russian Empire) de Traversay in southern Ukraine: in mid-1802 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Black Sea Fleet and ports. On March 20, 1805, he was officially confirmed in the office of military governor of Mykolayiv and Sevastopol. Marquis de Traversay made the administration of these cities independent of Kherson Province.
The admiral conducted a number of naval expeditions and participated in the taking of Anapa in 1807. After the expansion of Russia’s southern territories, the western and eastern (including the Caucasus) parts of the Territory of New Russia were entrusted to Duke Richelieu and de Traversay respectively.
De Traversay was successful as governor of Mykolayiv. A seedy town turned into a real city with a botanical garden, a theater, a vocational school, a cartographic bureau with a printing office, a room of antiquities, a library, and many other institutions. The city’s first coat of arms was approved, a pontoon bridge was built, and more
In 1804, a naval boy’s, school was opened in Mykolayiv, with a special artillery department to enroll orphans. The school trained skippers, paramedics, and record keepers, while the artillery department was attended by would-be petty officers and naval artillery officers. De Traversay also wanted to reestablish the Black Sea Cadet Corps for the children of naval officers and Southern nobles.
The admiral in fact became the pioneer of Black Sea shipbuilding by establishing the Mykolayiv Shipyard. Several ships were built and commissioned there: two brigantines, the Desna and Dnestr; the corvette Abo; the frigate Minerva, the ship Lesnoye (this was the second ship to be launched from the Mykolayiv launch)... A copper skin and copper underwater fixtures were used for the first time in Russian shipbuilding in the construction of the ship, Pravyi. Mykolayiv was well protected by sea: for example, temporary batteries were to be installed on the Wallachian Spit and the Deep Wharf.
The marquis also reinforced the land defenses of Sevastopol. In 1809 he submitted a project report, “On Raising Sevastopol to the Level of a First Class Fortress.” To this end, it was planned to encircle the town with stone walls, bastions, and moats. In the same year, five earth batteries were set up on the northern bank of Sevastopol’s roadstead and a line of earth fortifications was established on the southern side from Quarantine Bight to Southern Bight.
The governor formed a commission to verify the rights of land owners. They found that if the lands captured without permission were returned, the territory of Mykolayiv and Sevastopol could be enlarged significantly. De Traversay obtained permission to take the lands, whose owners had not met the terms of allotment. But the landlords refused to part with their real estate and took a number of court actions in response to de Traversay’s demand to produce the required papers. The long trials clearly did not arouse warm feelings in people for the governor who pursued only the state’s interests.
Napoleon closely and enviously watched de Traversay’s activity. Ambassador Caulaincour regularly reported to the French emperor about achievements of the marquis who was highly appreciated by Alexander I for his military and administrative skills. Napoleon ordered that de Traversay be lured back to France on any terms. He offered him the post of France’s Minister of the Navy. The marquis refused point blank. By that time, he had decided to take Russian citizenship. French consul in Odesa Mure recalled that his compatriot enjoyed the emperor’s complete trust. According to his contemporaries, the marquis was bad-tempered, but kind and forgiving by nature.
When the war with Napoleon started, Naval Minister de Traversay was one of those who formed the first marine corps. In 1812 the Russian Army had 105 70,000-strong battalions of marines. Never had the Russian Empire launched so many sea expeditions in its history than when Ivan de Traversay was minister. In the whole nineteenth century there were twenty expeditions, including 13 in the years of his being minister, one of them being to Antarctica. Fabian Bellingshausen named a group of unknown islands near Antarctica the Traversay Islands. And there is another small island in the Pacific Ocean, near the Marshall Islands, discovered by August von Kotzebue and named for de Traversay. The minister paid great attention to organizing research sea expeditions. After Bellingshausen’s and Ivan Krusenstern’s expeditions ended successfully, de Traversay became a full holder of all the orders of the Russian Empire orders; the organization of that expedition brought him the Order of Andrei Pervozvanny (St. Andrew, the First Called Apostle).
Ivan Ivanovich de Traversay, already member of the State Council, died on his estate on May 18, 1831. He had been married twice. His first wife, Madeleine de Ruiffe, gave birth to three of his children: two sons and a daughter. Both boys were named Aleksandr (the second — by the wish of Catherine II), which later caused a major confusion, but since then the name Aleksandr was inherited by the many generations of Ivan Ivanovich de Traversay’s descendants. He also had a son and a daughter by his second wife, Louise Brun.
The life of Marquis de Traversay is first of all interesting as part of the history of France, Ukraine, Russia, and the USA. In spite of all the ebb and neap tides of history, he left good memories of himself in both France and his adopted homeland.