Pierre André de Suffren was born on July 17, 1729 in the Château de Saint-Cannat in the present département of Bouches-du-Rhône. He was the third son of Paul de Suffren (1679–1756), the marquis de Saint Tropez, head of a family of nobles of Provence. He grew up at the Hôtel de Suffren, a hôtel particulier located at 40 on the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence.
Early naval career
The French navy and the Order of Malta (where he received the title Bailli de Suffren) offered the usual careers for the younger sons of noble families of the south of France who did not elect to go into the Church. The connection between the Order and the old French royal navy was close. Pierre André de Suffren was destined by his parents to belong to both. He entered the close and aristocratic corps of French naval officers as a "garde de la marine"—cadet or midshipman, in October 1743, in Solide, one of the line of battleships which took part in the confused engagement off Toulon in 1744. He was then in Pauline in the squadron of M. Macnémara on a cruise in the West Indies.
In 1746 he went through the duc D'Anville's disastrous expedition to retake Cape Breton, which was ruined by shipwreck and plague. The following year, in 1747, he was taken prisoner by Hawke in the action with the French convoy in the Bay of Biscay. His biographer Charles Cunat reports that he found the British arrogance offensive. When peace was made in 1748 he went to Malta to perform the cruises with the galleys of the Order technically called "caravans," a reminiscence of the days when the knights protected the pilgrims going from Saint John d'Acre to Jerusalem. In Suffren's time this service rarely went beyond a peaceful tour among the Greek islands, but it also involved piracy suppression operations against the wily Barbary states of North Africa.
During the Seven Years' War he was present as lieutenant in Orphée in the action with Admiral Byng, which, if not strictly speaking a victory, was at least not a defeat for the French, and was followed by the surrender of the English garrison of Minorca. But in 1759 he was again taken prisoner, when Boscawen captured his ship, Océan, at the Battle of Lagos. On the return of peace in 1763 Suffren intended again to do the service in the caravans which was required to qualify him to hold the high and lucrative posts of the Order. He was, however, named to the command of Caméléon, a xebec—a vessel of mixed square and lateen rig peculiar to the Mediterranean—in which he cruised against the Barbary pirates.
Between 1767 and 1771 he performed his caravans, and was promoted from knight to commander of the Order. From that time till the beginning of the War of American Independence he commanded vessels in the squadron of evolution which the French government had established for the purpose of giving practice to its officers. His nerve and skill in handling his ship were highly commended by his chiefs; he has been called the best French naval commander of the 18th Century.
In 1778 and 1779, Suffren formed part of the squadron of Vice-Amiral ès Mers d'Asie et d'Amerique D'Estaing throughout its operations on the coast of North America and in the West Indies. He led the line in the action with Admiral John Byron off Grenada, and his ship, Fantasque (64), lost 62 men. His letters to his admiral show that he strongly disapproved of D'Estaing's half-hearted methods.
In 1780, he was captain of Zélé (74), in the combined French and Spanish fleets which captured a great English convoy in the Atlantic. His candour towards his chief, Luis de Córdova y Córdova, had done him no harm in the opinion of D'Estaing.
It is said to have been largely by the advice of this admiral that Suffren was chosen to command a squadron of five ships of the line sent out to help the Dutch who had joined France and Spain to defend the Cape against an expected English attack, and then to go on to the East Indies. He sailed from Brest on March 22. On April 16, 1781 he found the English expedition on its way to the Cape under the command of Commodore, commonly called Governor, George Johnstone (1730–1787), at anchor in Porto Praya, Cape Verde Islands. Remembering how little respect Boscawen had shown for the neutrality of Portugal at Lagos, he attacked at once, in the Battle of Porto Praya. No serious losses were sustained by either side. Suffren pushed on to the Cape, which he saved from capture by Johnstone, and then made his way to the Isle de France (now Mauritius), then held by the French. M. D'Orves, his superior officer, died as the united squadrons, now eleven sail of the line, were on their way to the Bay of Bengal.
The campaign, which Suffren now conducted against the English admiral Sir Edward Hughes (1720?–1794), is famous for the number, severity and indecisiveness of the encounters between them. Four actions took place in 1782: the Battle of Sadras on February 17, 1782, south of Madras; the Battle of Providien on April 12 near Trincomalee; the Battle of Negapatam (1782) on July 6 off Cuddalore, after which Suffren seized upon the anchorage of Trincomalee compelling the small British garrison to surrender; and finally the Battle of Trincomalee near that port on September 3. No ship was lost by either side in any of these battles.
His activity encouraged Hyder Ali, who was then at war with the British East India Company. He refused to return to the islands for the purpose of escorting the troops coming out under command of Bussy, maintaining that his proper purpose was to cripple the squadron of Sir Edward Hughes. During the north-east monsoon he would not go to the islands but refitted in the Malay ports in Sumatra, and returned with the south-west monsoon in 1783. Hyder Ali was dead, but Tipu Sultan, his son, was still at war with the Company. Bussy arrived and landed. He was slack in his conduct of the operations on shore, which hampered Suffren. Still, when Suffren met Hughes at the Battle of Cuddalore (20 April 1783), with fifteen ships to eighteen, Suffren forced Hughes to retire to Madras, leaving the army then besieging Cüddalore in a very dangerous position. The arrival of the news that peace had been made in Europe put a stop to hostilities, and Suffren returned to France.
Suffren was crippled to a large extent by the want of loyal and capable co-operation on the part of his captains. This was, in no small part, his own fault: his bullying and openly expressed contempt for his subordinates undermined their support for him in battle, depriving him of the successes which his undoubted tactical ability and determination might otherwise have made possible. He had, however, an indefatigable energy, a wealth of resource and a thorough understanding of the fact that success at sea is won by defeating an enemy and not by merely outmanoeuvering him. This made him a formidable foe.
Suffren's achievements may seem modest but even this record stands in stark contrast to the failures of most contemporary French naval commanders. Any assessment must acknowledge that he succeeded at the tasks assigned to him. He revived French fortunes in India when Paris had conceived his tasks as essentially ones of armed transportation and privateering. That his achievement went beyond these duties despite a lack of support from his uncomprehending superiors and battle shy captains adds greatly to his credit and perhaps explains his personal fury. Ironically, if anybody learned from his example, it was the British, who were confirmed in their longstanding policy of seeking outright victory in naval engagements. French military policy made naval operations subordinate to land operations, yet Suffren realized that in wars fought overseas from the mother country, the nation which controlled the sea first had a great advantage in supporting the land war:
The military situation... demanded first the disabling of the hostile fleet, next the capture of certain strategic ports. That this diagnosis was correct is as certain as that it reversed the common French maxims, which would have put the port first and the fleet second as objectives.
While refitting at the Cape on his way home, several of the vessels also returning put in, and the captains waited on him. Suffren said in one of his letters that their praise gave him more pleasure than any other compliment paid him. In France he was received with enthusiasm, and in 1781 he succeeded Comte d'Aubigny unopposed to the office of vice-admiral of France (Ponant or the Atlantic). He had been promoted bailli in the Order of Malta during his absence. His death occurred very suddenly, when he was about to take command of a fleet collected in Brest. He died of apoplexy, due to a "gout travelling upwards added to a putrid abscess"
A legend has it that many years afterwards his body servant told M. Jal, the historiographer of the French navy, that he had been killed in a duel by the Prince de Mirepoix. The cause of the encounter, according to the servant, was that Suffren had refused in very strong language to use his influence to secure the restoration to the navy of two of the prince's relations who had been dismissed for misconduct.
Seven ships of the French Navy have been named Suffren in honour of Suffren de Saint Tropez. See French ship Suffren for a list.