Peter Allen examines the history behind the ill-fated La Surveillante, the French frigate scuttled in Bantry Bay 222 years ago. Some believe the anchor in the town square came from the ship
Bantry’s Wolfe Tone square is adorned with memorials of the ill-fated 1796 French Armada.
Although not confirmed, the landmark anchor on the plaza is strongly believed to belong to the frigate La Surveillante, which is wrecked in the bay.
Construction on the ship began in August 1777, at the shipyards of the French Brittany town of Lorient, part of a ship series known as the 32-gun Iphigénie class. In Greek myth, Iphigenia was the daughter of King Agamemnon. The goddess Artemis was offended by Agamemnon, so she commanded him to kill his daughter as a sacrifice, or she wouldn’t allow his ships to sail for Troy.
After the ship’s launch on March 26th, and her later commissioning into the French Navy, the hull of the frigate was retro-fitted with copper sheeting.
The new technology helped protect the wooden hull against shipworm and seaweed.
The outbreak of war between France and Britain, because of France’s recognition and military support of the breakaway 13-state colony in North-America, saw La Surveillante begin its career hunting for English ships.
The French hoped to take revenge on the British for the loss of New France (modern Canadian Quebec, large areas of the modern US around the Mississippi river and the state of Louisiana) in the Seven Years’ War.
The frigate’s early career saw it capture the British eight-gun cutter HMS Folkestown off the island of Ushant, which is the most north-westerly point of metropolitan France.
It did this as part of a squadron hoping to capture British naval ships and commandeer them into the French navy.
As a warship could require 2,000 trees and five years to build, capturing ships was desirable during wartime to lessen the attrition of resources in manufacturing capacity, time and materials.
La Surveillante captured the sloop HMS Spitfire on April 19th 1779, near the Azores. It was renamed Crachefeu and taken to be sold at Lorient, as a reward for the captors.
Often, the French navy bought such captured enemy vessels to be re-used in the navy.
On October 6th 1779, again off Ushant island, La Surveillante, under captain Couédic de Kergoaler, met with the similarly-matched HMS Quebec. A furious three-and-a-half-hour combat ensued.
Both ships suffered heavy casualties and were completely de-masted. The battle ended when Quebec fired through her own sails, which were covering her gun ports, causing her to catch fire and subsequently explode.
Seamen from the time of the ‘Ships of the Line’ (a type of ship fleet built to sail everywhere in a line, to deliver firepower from broadside) had to fear fire as it threatened to explode their gunpowder magazines, which is what happened to HMS Quebec.
La Surveillante, her hull leaking, had 30 men killed and 85 wounded. The French rescued the British sailors who had survived. Both sets of seamen had to work together in keeping the craft afloat, so the ship could limp back to port for repairs.
After other successful patrols, La Surveillante ended her first campaign intact.
There is some belief that she was one of the ships that crossed the Atlantic to announce both the Peace of Paris between the European powers and the recognition of the US by England.
Her penultimate campaign proved to be as interesting, as the French revolution rocked Europe. The unrest triggered the war of the first coalition, as European monarchies sought to smother the young French Republic.
Now sailing for no king, but for the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, La Surveillante intercepted and captured the mail ship Antelope in 1794.
The frigate also took part in a fleet sortie during the disastrous Croisière du Grand Hiver operation in December 1794.
The frigate’s last campaign brought her to Bantry Bay.
In December 1796, it was part of a French attempt to capitalise on revolutionary sentiment, which was growing in what was perceived as the weak spot of the British dominion at the time.
A large invasion fleet set sale for Ireland, aiming to land an army at Bantry, which would move on to take Cork city.
Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen promised an irregular force of 250,000 men, which would wrest the entire country from British rule, with French assistance.
Sadly, the invasion fleet was scattered and damaged by winter storms, meaning most of the warships turned back for France in disarray.
La Surveillante was one of the ships which did make it to Bantry. The ordeal proved to be the final straw.
She wasn’t seaworthy enough for a return to France and was sank on purpose in the bay, to avoid her falling into enemy hands.
The wreck was found and surveyed by divers in 1982, following salvage operations launched after the Whiddy Island disaster.