HMS Arethusa (1759)

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Charles Edward Dixon HMS Arethusa 1759 Saucy Arethusa Belle Poule Fight of Belle Poule and Arethusa.jpg
The duel between HMS Arethusa and the Belle-Poule, by Charles Dixon
Royal Standard of the King of France.svgKingdom of France
Namesake Arethusa (mythology)
Builder Le Havre
LaunchedDecember 1757
Capturedby the Royal Navy, 18 May 1759
Naval Ensign of Great Britain (1707-1800).svg United Kingdom
NameHMS Arethusa
FateWrecked, 19 March 1779.
General characteristics
Type Fifth-rate frigate
Length132 ft (40 m)
Beam34 ft (10 m)
ArmamentPierced for 36 guns, 32 mounted (1759) [1]

Aréthuse was a French frigate, launched in 1757 during the Seven Years' War. She was captured by the Royal Navy in 1759 and became the fifth-rate HMS Arethusa. She remained in Royal Navy service for twenty years until she was wrecked after being badly damaged in battle.


French service

The ship was constructed at Le Havre for privateer warfare as Pélerine. Soon after her launch, she was purchased by the King and commissioned as Aréthuse on 21 January 1758.

In April, under Captain Jean Vauquelin, she departed from Brest with the ships Echo and Bizarre (sailing En flûte ) for the French Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, then being besieged by the British. [2]

Vauquelin and his ship played a significant role in defending the fortress by bombarding the positions of the besieging British troops, slowing their advance. On the foggy night of the 15 July Aréthuse departed from Louisbourg to return to France with dispatches. She was damaged by fire from British shore batteries, but was able to evade the blockading squadron of British ships. [3] Louisbourg surrendered 11 days later.

On 18 May 1759, Aréthuse was in transit from Rochefort to Brest, under the command of Louis-Philippe de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, when she was intercepted near Audierne Bay ( Baie d'Audierne ) by three Royal Navy ships – Thames, Venus and Chatham. [1] She attempted to escape but after two hours, she lost her topmasts and was overtaken by her pursuers. She was fired on by Thames but only surrendered after suffering several broadsides from Venus that killed or wounded 60 crew. [1] During the action four men on Thames were killed and 11 wounded, of whom three later died. Five men were wounded on Venus. [4] [1]

Royal Navy service

She entered service with the Royal Navy. For the rest of the war, she was in service in British home waters and was responsible for the capture of several French privateer cutters.

In 1777, a Scotsman James Aitken, widely known as John the Painter, was hanged from her mizzenmast for burning the Rope House at Portsmouth Royal Dockyard on 7 December 1776, to aid the cause of American independence . [5] The mast was struck from the ship and re-erected at the dockyard entrance so as many people as possible could watch the execution. This was the only execution for arson in royal dockyards.

On 17 June 1778, she fought a famous duel against the French 36-gun frigate, Belle Poule. Belle Poule was on a reconnaissance mission, along with the 26-gun Licorne, the corvette Hirondelle and the smaller Coureur when she encountered a large British squadron that included Arethusa at a point 23 miles (37 km) south of The Lizard. Admiral Keppel, commanding the British fleet ordered that the French ships be pursued. [6]

The captain of Belle Poule refused the order to sail back to the British fleet. The British fired a warning shot across his ship's bow, to which he responded with a full broadside. [7] This began a furious, two-hour battle between the two ships that resulted in the deaths of the French second captain and 30 of the crew. However, Arethusa was crippled by the loss of a mast and withdrew, allowing Belle Poule to escape. [7]

This battle was the first between British and French naval forces during the American Revolutionary War [7] and took place around three weeks before the formal declaration of war by France. [7]

The battle was widely celebrated in France as a victory, even inspiring a hair-style in court circles that included a model of Belle Poule. [8] It was also viewed as a victory in Britain and became the subject of a traditional Sea shanty, The Saucy Arethusa (Roud # 12675). Arethusa is also the subject of a song on the Decemberists' album Her Majesty the Decemberists .

Location of the sinking

On 18 March 1779, under captain Charles Holmes Everitt, Arethusa engaged the French Aigrette, under Lieutenant Mortemart, sustaining considerable damage in the fight. Arethusa was wrecked the next day off Ushant, at a point 48°27′4″N5°4′4″W / 48.45111°N 5.06778°W / 48.45111; -5.06778 (HMS Arethusa (1759)) Coordinates: 48°27′4″N5°4′4″W / 48.45111°N 5.06778°W / 48.45111; -5.06778 (HMS Arethusa (1759)) . [9]

It was apparently the fame of this Arethusa which induced the Royal Navy, during the following two centuries, to bestow the name on a further seven consecutive individual ships (see HMS Arethusa) and two consecutive classes of cruisers (see Arethusa-class cruiser).

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 "Extract of a Letter from Captain Lockhart, of His Majesty's Ship the Chatham,". The London Gazette . No. 9898. 22 May 1759. pp. 2–3.
  2. Boscawen (2011), p.96
  3. Boscawen (2011), pp.256-257
  4. "Stephen Colby". more than Nelson. Retrieved 7 September 2022.
  5. "History 1690 – 1840". Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust. 2007. Retrieved 4 August 2008.
  6. Syrett (1998), p. 36
  7. 1 2 3 4 Syrett (1998), p. 38
  8. "Hair and Hairdos of the 18th Century". 2007. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
  9. "HMS Arethusa (+1779)". Wrecksite. 2007. Retrieved 3 August 2008.