Destruction of the 'Droits de l'Homme', 13 January 1797

In the summer of 1796 the French conspired with Irish dissidents to send an expedition to Ireland to assist an uprising there, by which it was hoped to detach it from the United Kingdom. Owing to various delays it was mid-December before a well equipped army of 18,000 was embarked for Bantry Bay. Extremely bad weather over Christmas meant the troops could not be landed and the enterprise was abandoned. Some of the ships went as far as the mouth of the Shannon before heading for their French bases, including the ‘Droits de l' Homme’ which had been partly disarmed to act as a troop carrier. She was nearing Brest when she was spotted by the British frigates 'Indefatigable' and 'Amazon'. The running fight lasted from 1730 on 13 January until the early hours of the next morning when land was sighted close ahead. The 'Indefatigable' beat clear but the 'Amazon' was so damaged aloft that she was wrecked. All but six of her crew were saved and made prisoners. The 'Droits de l’Homme' was less fortunate. She had already had over 200 killed and wounded in the fight, was disabled and ran on a sandbank in the Bay of Audierne. For three days she pounded on the bank with the big seas washing through her, before the weather abated enough for boats to get out to her. Some of her crew and the many soldiers aboard tried to swim ashore, but few reached it safely. Altogether about a thousand soldiers and sailors died in the wreck.

In the left centre of the picture the 'Droits de l’Homme’ is shown running in a heavy sea, while astern of her the ‘Indefatigable’ is raking her. In the right background the ‘Amazon’ is coming up under a press of sail, so this scene shows the fight in its earliest stage. The painting was probably copied from the aquatint by Edward Duncan after W. J. Huggins. It is signed ‘E.Colls’ and is one of a pair. The second, which when acquired by the Museum was mistakenly identified as showing the stranded ‘Droits de l’Homme’ with the ‘Indefatigable’ clawing off, was taken from a Nicholas Pocock painting of another scene altogether. That one (also a better picture, BHC0532) shows the ‘Endymion’ rescuing a French ship from going ashore on the Spanish coast about 1803.

Object Details

ID: BHC0482
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Colls, Ebenezer
Events: French Revolutionary Wars, 1792-1802; French Revolutionary Wars: Destruction of Droits de l'Homme, 1797
Vessels: Droits de L'Homme (1794); Indefatigable (1784)
Date made: After 1797; 19th century
People: French Navy; Royal Navy
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 685 mm x 965 mm

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