French frigate Surveillante (1778)

Surveillante was an Iphigénie-class 32-gun frigate of the French Navy. She took part in the Naval operations in the American Revolutionary War, where she became famous for her battle with HMS Quebec; in 1783, she brought the news that the war was over to America. She later took part in the French Revolutionary Wars, and was eventually scuttled during the Expédition d'Irlande after sustaining severe damage in a storm. The wreck was found in 1979 and is now a memorial.

Battle between the French frigate Surveillante and the British frigate Quebec, 6 October 1779. Auguste-Louis Rossel de Cercy
Name: Surveillante
Builder: Lorient
Laid down: August 1777
Launched: 26 March 1778
Commissioned: May 1778
Decommissioned: January 1797
General characteristics
Class and type: Iphigénie-class frigate
Displacement: 620 tons (French)
Length: 44.2 m (145 ft 0 in)
Beam: 11.2 m (36 ft 9 in)
Draught: 4.9 m (16 ft 1 in)
Sail plan: Full-rigged ship


Early career

Surveillante was laid down in August 1777 in Lorient as the second frigate of the Iphigénie class, a series of 32-gun frigates carrying 12-pounder guns designed by Léon Guignace. She was launched on 26 March 1778, and commissioned in May. The very same month, she was refitted as to upgrade her hull with copper sheathing, which was being gradually introduced in the French Navy. In June 1778, Surveillante was part of a squadron of five French frigates that were seeking to retaliate against the British for their capture of three French vessels earlier that month, all before any declaration of war. On 24 June, off Ushant, the French encountered HMS Folkestone, an 8-gun cutter. Folkestone then surrendered to Surveillante.[1] The French took Folkestone into service under her existing name.[2]

After her refit, Surveillante took part in the Naval operations in the American Revolutionary War, capturing HMS Spitfire on 19 April 1779.

Battle against HMS Quebec

On 6 October 1779, off Ushant, Surveillante, under captain Couédic de Kergoaler, met with the 32-gun HMS Quebec, under Captain George Farmer. A furious, three-and-a-half-hour-long combat ensued. Both ships suffered heavy casualties and were completely dismasted. The battle ended when Quebec, firing through her own sails which covered her gunports, took fire and exploded. Surveillante, her hull leaking, had 30 killed and 85 wounded. Her boat rescued whatever British crew had survived, and British and French sailors then had to work together to keep her afloat. She returned to Brest the next day, and the British are said to have been treated as castaways rather than prisoners of war.

Numerous paintings and drawings of the battle were made, notably by Auguste-Louis Rossel de Cercy (a key exhibit of the Musée de la Marine in Paris), by George Carter and by Robert Dodd.

End of the American war of Independence

On 19 February 1781, Surveillante, along with the 64-gun Éveillé, her sister-ship Gentille and the cutter Guèpe, captured HMS Romulus in Chesapeake Bay.

In June 1782 Surveillante captured the English merchant vessel Rose. She served as a cartel before being decommissioned at Morlaix in November 1784.[3] In September Surveillante and Ariel captured the merchant vessel Grand Duc off the coast of Spain. The French navy briefly took her into service before decommissioning, striking off and selling her for £t 72,489 at Brest in 1783.[4]

In summer 1783, along with the British frigate HMS Medea, she sailed to America to announce the Peace of Paris that ended the war between France and Great Britain.

In late 1793, under Captain Tréhouart-Beaulieu, she ferried Rear-Admiral Joseph Cambis from New York City to Lorient, as well as other passagers and despatches.[5]


During the French Revolutionary Wars, she captured the packet ship Antelope in 1794. Surveillante participated in the Croisière du Grand Hiver, an unsuccessful sortie by the French fleet at Brest on 24 December 1794.

She then took part to the Expédition d'Irlande in December 1796. Badly damaged in the tempest and not seaworthy enough to return to France, she was scuttled in Bantry Bay in County Cork, Ireland.

Discovery of the wreck

After the 1979 Whiddy Island Disaster, the wreck of Surveillante was found in 23 metres (75 ft) of water. The wreck is now a memorial, and a 16 model of the ship is now on display at Bantry.

Notes, citations, and references


  1. The number of guns was reported to be 36 or even 40. Study of the wreck confirms that Surveillante had 32.


  1. Hepper (1994), pp.51-2
  2. Demerliac (1996), p.86, #568.
  3. Demerliac (1996), p.117, #834.
  4. Demerliac (1996), p.114, #809.
  5. Fond Marine, p.54


  • Archives de France. Fonds marine campagnes : opérations, divisions et stations navales, missions diverses : inventaire de la sous-série Marine BB⁴. Centre historique des Archives nationales. ISBN 978-2860002653.
  • Demerliac, Alain (1996) La Marine De Louis XVI: Nomenclature Des Navires Français De 1774 À 1792. (Nice: Éditions OMEGA). ISBN 2-906381-23-3
  • Hepper, David J. (1994). British Warship Losses in the Age of Sail, 1650-1859. Rotherfield: Jean Boudriot. ISBN 0-948864-30-3.

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