Many are the men who proudly hang their diplomas upon the walls of their offices, or line their dens with trophies of sport or the hunt. Jean Bart likely did not have many formal awards in recognition of athletic prowess lining his den, and it seems equally unlikely that he had much in the way of framed certifications, either – but that is to be expected when you spend the majority of your life at sea, engaging in running battles. So he’s had to settle with having some twenty-seven plus ships of the French Navy named in his honor over the past two centuries, and having fathered some fourteen children (that we know of – he was a sailor, after all).
Tall, swaggering, Jean Bart was unapologetically a man of action, rather than class. Literally; being of common birth (the son of a fisherman), he was initially socially excluded from receiving a command in the French Navy, even though he had experience serving in the Dutch Navy under the notable Admiral De Ruyter from the age of 12, learning seamanship and tactics fighting the English. (The English assault upon and capture of Dunkirk being what first inspired Jean to take up arms.) Fortunately, the 17th century's military culture provided an unenfranchised man of action, itching for a fight, the perfect outlet: To become a corsair. (Likewise, one did not have to be a gentleman by birth to enjoy the long-stemmed clay pipes that were popular in his day, and from simple contemporary drawings intended for mass-printing, to the intricate 19th century portrait by Jean-Léon Gérôme, seen above, Jean Bart has typically been portrayed with a pipe at hand.) This was even better than becoming a pirate, as you could be assured there was, at any given time, at least one government that wasn't trying to kill you. When France and the United Provinces went to war upon each other in 1672, Jean Bart signed on with Louis XIV's Marine Guard, by then based out of his old hometown, a much refurbished and refitted Dunkirk. The city of Jean's boyhood was now not only much-improved as a port; it was also the drop-off point for the captures and war-booty of the Fleet du Nord.
And so it was that Jean Bart made his name and rose through the ranks, all the way to admiral, the old fashioned way: By seeking out the enemy, destroying his will to continue battle, and making off into the sunset with everything he possessed - his ships in particular. Three-hundred and eighty-six of them, to be precise, with many more simply sent to the deep. To put that into perspective, if the French were to continue naming military vessels after Jean Bart until there has been one Jean Bart for each of his captures, naming them at the same rate as they have over the past two-hundred years they would finish up sometime around the year 4669 A.D.
A Herculean task, no doubt, and you might well expect even so famed a man of action and celebrated national icon might be forgotten by then. Or perhaps not. Jean Bart's legacy has, it must be said, thus far shown a rather peculiar resiliency. When the unbridled - and unprecedented - industrialized war machines of WWII ran roughshod over Europe, they in the course of affairs managed to completely flatten more than two-thirds of old Dunkirk. Nonetheless, when the smoke cleared and the flames had all danced their last, and the sound and fury was quit, Jean Bart's memorial remained standing tall, and defiant, with sword raised in hand.