He was born in Dunkirk, the son of a fisherman. He served when young in the Dutch navy, but when war broke out between Louis XIV and the United Provinces in 1672 he entered the French service. He gained great distinction in the Mediterranean, where he held an irregular sort of commission, not being then able from his low birth to receive a command in the navy.
His success was so great, however, that he was made a lieutenant in 1679. He rose rapidly to the rank of captain and then to that of admiral. The peace of Ryswick (1697) put a close to his active service. Many anecdotes are narrated of the courage and bluntness of the uncultivated sailor, who became the popular hero of the French naval service. The town of Dunkirk has honoured his memory by a statue and by naming a public square after him.