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HMS Arethusa (1759)
Combat de la Belle Poule et de l'Aréthusa.jpg
The battle between HMS Arethusa and the Belle-Poule, painting by Auguste-Louis de Rossel de Cercy
Career (Kingdom of France) Royal French Navy Ensign
Name: Aréthuse
Namesake: mythology
Builder: Le Havre
Launched: December 1757
Commissioned: 1757
Captured: by the Royal Navy, 18 May 1759
Fate: Captured
Career (United Kingdom) RN Ensign
Name: HMS Arethusa
Acquired: 18 May 1759
Fate: Wrecked, 19 March 1779.
General characteristics
Class & type: Frigate, 5th Rate.
Displacement: 700 tons.
Length: 132 ft
Beam: 34 ft
Propulsion: Sails
Complement: 270
Armament: Pierced for 36 guns, 32 mounted (1759)[1]

The Aréthuse was a French frigate, launched in 1757 during the Seven Years' War. She was subsequently captured by the Royal Navy and became the fifth-rate HMS Arethusa.

French Service

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

In June, under captain Vauquelin, she sailed through the British blockade of Louisbourg. She helped defend the place, and later departed, again forcing the blockade.

On the 18th of May 1759, she was in transit from Rochefort to Brest, under the command of the Marquis Vandrenil, when she was intercepted near Audierne Bay (Baie d'Audierne(French)) by three Royal Navy ships - HMS Thames, HMS Venus and HMS Chatham.[1] She attempted to escape but after two hours, she lost her top-masts and was overtaken by her pursuers. The Thames and Venus engaged her with heavy fire, causing 60 casualties before she surrendered.[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 .[2] The mast was struck from the ship and re-erected at the dockyard entrance so as many as possibly could watch the execution.

On 17 June 1778, she fought a famous duel against the French, 26-gun frigate, Belle Poule. The Belle-Poule was on a reconnaissance mission, along with the 26-gun frigate Licorne, the corvette Hirondelle and the smaller Coureur when she encountered a large British squadron that included the 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. and returned to his flagship by any means.[3]

The Licorne did so, after being overhauled by two British ships. She subsequently tried to escape during the night, but surrendered after a brief combat with HMS America.[3]

Meanwhile, the Arethusa and the cutter Alert reached the Belle Poule, accompanied by the French cutter Le Courier. The captain of the Belle Poule refused the order to sale back to the British fleet. The British fired a warning shot across his ship bows, to which he responded with a full broadside[4] 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. But the Arethusa was crippled by the loss of a mast and had to withdraw, allowing the Belle Poule to escape. Meanwhile Alert captured Le Courier in a separate battle.[4]

This battle was the first between British and French naval forces during the American Revolutionary War[4] and took place around three weeks before the formal declaration of war by France.[4] Admiral Keppel himself was surprised by the reaction of the French captains as he only intended to speak with them, and then release their ships.[4]

The battle was widely celebrated in France as a victory, even inspiring a hair-style in court circles that included a model of the Belle Poule.[5] It was also viewed as a victory in Britain and became the subject of a traditional Sea shanty, The Saucy Arethusa (Roud # 12675). The Arethusa is also the subject of a song on the Decemberists' album Her Majesty the Decemberists.

On 18 March 1779, under captain Charles Holmes Everitt, the Arethusa engaged the French Aigrette, sustaining considerable damage in the fight. Arethusa was wrecked the next day off Ushant, at a point 48°27′4″N 5°4′4″W / 48.45111°N 5.06778°W / 48.45111; -5.06778.[6]

It was apparently the fame which 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


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Extract of a letter from Captain Lockhart". The London Chronicle. 29 May 1759. 
  2. "History 1690 - 1840". Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust. 2007. Retrieved 4 August 2008. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Syrett (1998), p.36
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Syrett (1998), p.38
  5. "Hair and Hairdos of the 18th Century". 2007. Retrieved 9 August 2008. 
  6. "HMS Arethusa (+1779)". Wrecksite. 2007. Retrieved 3 August 2008. 
  • Syrett, David (1998). The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War. Univ of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1570032386. 

Coordinates: 48°27′4″N 5°4′4″W / 48.45111°N 5.06778°W / 48.45111; -5.06778

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