If one is researching the nineteenth century French Navy, the Marine, most websites and, indeed that of the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) itself, warn that there is little reason to go to the Marine Archives at Lorient. Upon arriving at the small facility, right on the lovely harbour of Lorient, one reads in the finding aid that the archives "...were profoundly damaged by the destruction of the [Allied] bombings of 1943". After explaining that a heroic archivist had managed to send all Ancien régime (pre-Revolution) archives to a more protected storage in a chateau, nearly all of the archives of the whole nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were lost.
(In our posts on the archives at Rennes and Brest, we have discussed the archives losses occasioned by the Allied Bombing of France. For a precise study in English of the bombing of Lorient, we recommend the thesis by Jon Loftus, "The Devastation of Lorient: Why Did the Allies Area Bomb the Biscay Ports in 1943?")
Consequently, when one looks at the lists of archives series, some of the categories are completely empty. Series R for example, concerning colonies, has not a single file in it. The library is quite interesting, having books that we have been seeking for some time but could not find online, in a repository or on the wondrous AbeBooks website of second-hand booksellers. In moments of frustration with the archives, we took many notes on these books. Of moments of frustration, there were many. Some clever soul had decided to rewrite some of the finding aids, assigning new codes to archives cartons as they were listed in the paper of the finding aids but not always to the actual physical object, rendering it lost. It seemed that everything we wanted to see fell into this category: the cartons appeared on the list but could not be found in the store room. This occasioned the calling into the room of ever more senior staff until the Chief Archivist himself came down for a chat. He was politely interested in our research and suggested a dozen more books but could not locate the missing cartons. We noted that, as the staff tried to find a better reference to the cartons on the new SHD website, they had as much trouble as we do with it. (Suffice to say that, while it is much prettier, access to finding aids has been severely reduced.)
This is the archives where the Compagnie des Indes has deposited their collection. Recall that a large part of it is online, particularly crew and passenger lists on their vessels (rôles d'équipage). As once records are available online they are no longer available in the original, this presents us with yet another reason not to go to the SHD in Lorient. This discouragement is rather sad and, if you, Dear Readers, are really hunting something that could be there, do not heed the discouragement. And so it happened that, because we always read the finding aids looking for any of the subjects about which you, Dear Readers, have written to us, we happened upon a list of young Polish officers on Belle-Ile, possibly refugees from the Polish-Russian War of 1830-1831, who received aid in 1833. Clearly written, it gives their names, ages, places of birth, rank, and the amount of aid received. Perhaps those of you who have written of Polish ancestors in France could find one here.
So, in the end, the SHD at Lorient may well be worth a visit. Ah, we do love a good junket.
©2019 Anne Morddel