HMS Leopard (1790)

HMS Leopard was a 50-gun Portland-class fourth rate of the Royal Navy. She served during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and was notable for the actions of her captain in 1807, which were emblematic of the tensions that later erupted in the War of 1812 between Britain and America. She was wrecked in 1814.

United Kingdom
Name: Leopard
  • 16 October 1775
  • Reordered in May 1785
Laid down:
  • January 1776 (Portsmouth)
  • 7 May 1785 (Sheerness)
Launched: 24 April 1790
Completed: By 26 May 1790
Reclassified: Troopship in 1812
Honours and
Naval General Service Medal with clasp "Egypt"[1]
Fate: Wrecked on 28 June 1814
General characteristics
Class and type: 50-gun Portland-class fourth rate
Tons burthen: 1,055 7594 (bm)
  • 146 ft 5 in (44.6 m) (overall)
  • 120 ft 0 34 in (36.6 m) (keel)
Beam: 40 ft 8 in (12.4 m)
Depth of hold: 17 ft 6 in (5.33 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Full rigged ship
Complement: 350
  • Upper deck: 22 x  12-pounder guns
  • Lower deck: 22 x  24-pounder guns
  • QD: 4 x  6-pounder guns
  • Fc: 2 x  6-pounder guns

Construction and commissioning

She was first ordered on 16 October 1775, named on 13 November 1775 and laid down at Portsmouth Dockyard in January 1776.[2] She was reordered in May 1785, ten years after having first been laid down, and construction began at Sheerness Dockyard on 7 May 1785. Work was at first overseen by Master Shipwright Martin Ware until December 1785, and after that, by John Nelson until March 1786, when William Rule took over.[2] She was launched from Sheerness on 24 April 1790, and was completed by 26 May 1790. She was commissioned for service in June that year under her first commander, Captain John Blankett.[2]


The China fleet of East Indiamen left Macao on 21 March 1791. Leopard and Thames escorted them as far as Java Head.[3]

French Revolutionary Wars

On 24 October 1798, Leopard captured the French privateer vessel Apollon, which was under the command of Captain La Vaillant. On 22 August 1800 Leopard captured Clarice.[4]

Because Leopard served in the navy's Egyptian campaign (8 March – 8 September 1801), her officers and crew qualified for the clasp "Egypt" to the Naval General Service Medal that the Admiralty issued in 1847 to all surviving claimants.

Napoleonic Wars

Leopard left Britain on 30 March 1806 as escort to a convoy that included Asia, Lady Burges, Lord Melville, Lord Nelson, and Sovereign. During the night of 20 April Lady Burges wrecked on a reef off Boa Vista, Cape Verde. Boats from the convoy were able to rescue 150 of the 184 people on board; 34 or 38 drowned. Leopard left the convoy at Latitude 9°N, and arrived at Spithead on 8 June.[5]

The Chesapeake-Leopard affair

In early 1807, a handful of British sailors—some of American birth—deserted their ships, which were then blockading French ships in Chesapeake Bay, and joined the crew of USS Chesapeake. In an attempt to recover the British deserters, Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, commanding Leopard, hailed Chesapeake and requested permission to search her. Commodore James Barron of Chesapeake refused and Leopard opened fire. Caught unprepared, Barron surrendered and Humphreys sent boarders to search for the deserters. The boarding party seized four deserters from the Royal Navy–three Americans and one British-born sailor–and took them to Halifax, where the British sailor, Jenkin Ratford, was hanged for desertion. The Americans were initially sentenced to 500 lashes, but had their sentence commuted; Britain also offered to return them to America.

The incident caused severe political repercussions in the United States, and nearly led to the two nations going to war.[6]

Leopard escorted a convoy from Portsmouth on 6 May 1808.[7] Leopard left the convoy on 28 July at 35°S 7°E.[8]

She then was part of the convoy assigned to Josias Rowley in the Mauritius campaign of 1809–11 in the Indian Ocean.


In 1812, Leopard had her guns removed and was converted to a troopship. On 28 June 1814 she was en route from Britain to Quebec, carrying a contingent of 475 Royal Scots Guardsmen, when she grounded on Anticosti Island in heavy fog. Leopard was destroyed, but all on board survived.

Leopard in fiction

In Patrick O'Brian's novel Desolation Island, the fifth book of the Aubrey–Maturin series, Jack Aubrey commands Leopard on a cruise through the Atlantic and Indian oceans after the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, a voyage which included the sinking of the fictional Dutch ship of the line Waakzaamheid, and a disastrous collision with an iceberg. In the sixth book, The Fortune of War, the ship is left at a British station in the Dutch East Indies, unable to support her complement of guns. She is called the "horrible old Leopard" in the fourth book in the series The Mauritius Command, and in other books in the series, and ends its days as a store ship sailing from the English Channel to the Baltic.[9]

Game developer Lucas Pope based the layout of the titular ship in his game Return of the Obra Dinn on the layout of HMS Leopard.[10]


  1. "No. 21077". The London Gazette. 15 March 1850. pp. 791–792.
  2. Winfield. British Warships in the Age of Sail. p. 107.
  3. Lloyd's List №2326.
  4. "No. 15567". The London Gazette. 15 March 1803. p. 291.
  5. Marshall (1829), Supple., Part 3, pp.134–136.
  6. The Chesapeake / Leopard Affair of 1807 Archived 15 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  7. Lloyd's List №4290.
  8. Lloyd's List №4310.
  9. The Letter of Marque, O'Brian, Patrick (1988)
  10. Pope, Lucas (28 May 2014). "Topic: Return of the Obra Dinn [Releasing Oct 18]". TIG Forums. Retrieved 20 February 2019.


  • Marshall, John (1823–1835). Royal naval biography, or, Memoirs of the services of all the flag-officers, superannuated rear-admirals, retired-captains, post-captains, and commanders, whose names appeared on the Admiralty list of sea officers at the commencement of the present year 1823, or who have since been promoted ... London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown.
  • Winfield, Rif (2007). British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793–1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth. ISBN 1-86176-246-1.
  • Winfield, Rif (2005). The 50-Gun Ship: A Complete History (3rd edition). Mercury Books. ISBN 1-84560-009-6.
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