HMS Phaeton (1782)

HMS Phaeton.jpg
Contemporary Japanese drawing of HMS Phaeton (Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture)
Career (UK) RN Ensign
Name: HMS Phaeton
Operator: Royal Navy
Ordered: 3 March 1780
Builder: John Smallshaw, Liverpool
Laid down: June 1780
Launched: 12 June 1782
Completed: 27 December 1782
Commissioned: March 1782
Honours and
Naval General Service Medal with clasp "27 Oct. Boat Service 1800".[1]
Fate: Sold to break up 26 March 1828.
General characteristics
Class and type: Minerva-class frigate
Tons burthen: 944 (bm)
Length: 141 ft 0 in (42.98 m)
Beam: 39 ft 0 in (11.89 m)
Depth of hold: 13 ft 10 in (4.22 m)
Propulsion: Sail
Complement: 280
  • Upper deck: 28 x 18-pounder guns
  • Quarter deck: 8 x 9-pounder guns, 6 x 18-pounder carronades
  • Forecastle: 2 x 9-pounder guns, 4 x 18-pounder carronades

HMS Phaeton was a 38-gun, Minerva-class fifth rate of Britain's Royal Navy. This frigate was most noted for her intrusion into Nagasaki harbour in 1808. John Smallshaw (Smallshaw & Company) built Phaeton in Liverpool between 1780 and 1782. She participated in numerous engagements during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars during which service she captured many prizes. Francis Beaufort, inventor of the Beaufort Wind-Scale, was a lieutenant on Phaeton when he distinguished himself during a successful cutting out expedition. Phaeton sailed to the Pacific in 1805, and returned in 1812. She was finally sold on 26 March 1828.


Early years

Phaeton was commissioned in March 1782. Within a year she had been paid off.[2]

Service in the Channel

Sir Andrew Snape Douglas

In December 1792 Phaeton was commissioned under Sir Andrew Snape Douglas.[2] In March 1793 Phaeton captured the 4-gun privateer lugger Aimable Liberté.[2]

Then on 14 April Phaeton sighted the French privateer Général Dumourier (or Général Du Mourier), of twenty-two 6-pounder guns and 196 men, and her Spanish prize, the St Jago, 140 leagues to the west of Cape Finisterre. Phaeton was part of Admiral John Gell's squadron and the entire squadron set off in pursuit, but it was Phaeton that made the actual capture.[3]

The St Jago had been sailing from Lima to Spain when the General Dumourier captured her on 11 April. In trying to fend off the General Dumourier, St Jago fought for five hours, losing 10 men killed and 37 wounded, before she struck. She also suffered extensive damage to her upper works. St Jago's cargo, which had taken two years to collect, was the richest ever trusted on board a single ship. Early estimates put the value of the cargo as some ₤1.2 and £1.3 million. The most valuable portion of the cargo was a large number of gold bars that had a thin covering of pewter and that were listed on the manifest as "fine pewter".[4] The General Dumourier had taken on board 680 cases, each containing 3000 dollars, plus several packages worth two to three thousand pounds.[5]

The ships that conveyed St Jago to Portsmouth were St George, Egmont, Edgar, Ganges and Phaeton.[6] The money came over London Bridge in 21 wagons, escorted by a party of light dragoons, and lodged in the Tower of London.[4]

On 11 December the High Court of Admiralty decided that the ship should be restored to Spain, less one eighth of the value after expenses for salvage, provided the Spanish released British ships held at Corunna. The agents for the captors appealed and on 4 February 1795 the Lords of the Council (the Privy council) put the value of the cargo at £935,000 and awarded it to the captors.[4] At the time, all the crew, captains, officers and admirals could expect to share in the prize. Admiral Hood's share was £50,000.[7]

On 28 May Phaeton took the 20-gun Prompte off the Spanish Coast.[2] Together with Ushant.[2] In February 1794 she was paid off, but the next month Captain William Bentinck recommissioned her.[2]

In 1794, during the battle of the Glorious First of June, Phaeton came to the aid of the dismasted Defence. In doing so, she exchanged broadsides with the French ship-of-the-line Impetueux.[8]

Captain Robert Stopford

Portrait of Queen Caroline, ca. 1820, by James Lonsdale

In September, Phaeton came under the command of Captain Stopford. In May 1795 Phaeton escorted Princess Caroline of Brunswick to England. Then began what would become a spectacular string of prize-taking. During Stopford's service in the Channel, Phaeton captured some 13 privateers and three vessels of war, and also recovered numerous vessels that the French had taken.[9]

Admiral Sir Robert Stopford, c. 1840, by Frederick Richard Say, from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

On 10 March 1796, Phaeton engaged and captured the French corvette Bonne Citoyenne off Cape Finisterre. She was armed with twenty 9-pounder guns and had a crew of 145 men. She had left Rochefort on 4 March in company with the French frigates Forte, Seine and Regenerée and the brig Mutine, all sailing for the Île de France with troops and military supplies.[10] Stopford took her back to England as his prize. The Royal Navy then bought her in as Bonne Citoyenne, a Sixth Rate sloop of war.

While cruising in the Channel, on 6 March 1797, Phaeton took the 18-gun privateer Actif and on 16 September the 6-gun Chasseur.[2] Then with Unite she took 16-gun Indien on 24 September off the Roches Bonnes.[2] With Unite and the 32-gun frigate Philip Charles Durham, with Phaeton, retook the 20-gun post ship Cordouan lighthouse. Phaeton fired on Charente, chasing her first into range of the guns the 74-gun Third Rate Canada, under the command of Captain Sir John Borlase Warren, with whom she exchanged broadsides. Charente grounded, but then so did Canada. Phaeton and Anson had to abandon the chase to pull Canada free. In the meantime, Charente threw her guns overboard, floated free, and reached the river of Bordeaux, much the worse for wear.[12]

With Anson, she took the 18-gun privateer Mercure on 31 August, and the 32-gun privateer Flore on 6 September after a 24-hour long chase.[13] Then on 8 October she took the 16-gun privateer Lévrier.[2] Together with Ambuscade and Action of 14 December 1798; the British would recapture her in 1802.)

On 24 November 1798, Phaeton captured the French privateer brig Resolue (or Resolu). Resolue was armed with 18 guns and carried a crew of 70 men. She had previously captured the English merchant ship General Wolfe, sailing from Poole to Newfoundland and an American sloop sailing from Boston to Hamburg. Stag later recaptured the American.[14]

On 6 December, Phaeton and Stag captured the French privateer brig Resource. She was armed with 10 guns and carried a crew of 66 men. She had sailed from La Rochelle two days previously and was sailing for the African coast.[15] Ambuscade shared in the prize money for both Resolu and Resource.[16]


In July 1799 Captain Sir James Nicoll Morris took command of Phaeton and sailed with Lord Elgin, of the eponymous Elgin Marbles, for Constantinople.[2] Elgin would be Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. In May 1800 she participated in the blockade of Genoa as part of Lord Keith's squadron. The Austrian general besieging the city, Baron d'Ott, particularly appreciated her fire in support of the Austrian army.[17]

Francis Beaufort

On 25 October 1800 Phaeton chased a Spanish polacca to an anchorage under a battery of five heavy guns at Fuengirola, where she joined a French privateer brig.[18] The following night the brig escaped while the polacca tried twice, unsuccessfully, to escape to Malaga. On the night of the 27 October, Francis Beaufort led Phaeton's boats on a cutting out expedition.[Note 1] Unfortunately the launch, with a carronade, was unable to keep up and was still out of range when a French privateer schooner, which had come into the anchorage unseen, fired on the other boats. The barge and two cutters immediately made straight for the polacca and succeeded in securing her by 5 am.[18] The captured ship was the San Josef, alias Aglies, of two 24-pounder iron guns, two brass 18-pounder guns as stern chasers, four brass 12-pounder guns and six 6-pounder guns. She was a packet, carrying provisions between Malaga and Velilla. She had a crew of 49 seamen, though 15 were away, and there were also 22 soldiers on board to act as marines.[18]

The boarding party suffered one man killed and three wounded, including Beaufort who received, but survived, 19 wounds.[Note 2] The Spanish sustained at least 13 wounded.[18]

Once Morris was sure that his men had secured the prize he sailed Phaeton in pursuit of a second pollaca that had passed earlier, sailing from Ceuta to Malaga. Phaeton was able to catch her under a battery at Cape Molleno. While Phaeton was returning to pick up Beaufort, his men and their prize, the French privateer schooner sailed past, too far away for Phaeton to intercept.[18]

The British immediately commissioned San Josef as a British sloop-of-war under the name Calpe, the ancient name for Gibraltar. Although it would have been usual to promote Beaufort, the successful and heroic leader of the expedition, to command Calpe, Lord Keith chose instead George Dundas who not only was not present at the battle, but was junior to Beaufort.[19] In 1847 the Admiralty awarded the survivors to that date of the boarding party the Naval General Service Medal with clasp "27 Oct. Boat Service 1800".

On 16 May 1801, boats from Phaeton and Naiad under the direction of Naiad's first lieutenant, entered the port of Marín, Pontevedra, in Galicia in north west Spain. There they captured the Spanish corvette Alcudia and destroyed the armed packet Raposo, both under the protection of a battery of five 24-pounders. Alcudia, commanded by Don Jean Antonio Barbuto, was moored stem and stern close to the fort. Her sails had previously been taken ashore so the boats had to tow her out but soon after a strong south-west wind set in and it was necessary to set her on fire. Only four men from the two British ships were wounded.

Phaeton then returned to Britain and was paid off in March 1802.

East Indies

In July 1803 Captain George Cockburn recommissioned Phaeton for service in the Far East.[2] On 2 August 1805, under Captain John Wood, she fought the 40-gun Sémillante, Captain Léonard-Bernard Motard, in the San Bernardino Strait off San Jacinto, Philippines, together with the 18-gun Cruizer class brig-sloop Harrier, Captain Edward Ratsey. After exchanges of fire first with Harrier and then with Phaeton, Sémillante took refuge under the guns of a shore battery. Unable to dislodge her, the two British vessels eventually sailed off, each having suffered two men wounded. Sémillante was reported to have suffered 13 killed and 36 wounded. After resupplying at San Jacinto, Sémillante intended to sail for Mexico in March 1805 to fetch specie for the Philippines; the encounter with Phaeton and Harrier foiled the plan. Motard returned to the Indian Ocean, operating for the next three years against British shipping from Île de France.[20]

In October 1806 Captain John Wood took command of Phaeton. Then in July 1808, Captain Fleetwood Pellew succeeded him.[2]

Nagasaki Harbour Incident

Captain Fleetwood Pellew commanding Terpsichore against Dutch vessels in Batavia Road, 24 November 1806. Drawn at Madras, May 1807

After the French had conquered the Batavian Republic and Napoleon begun to use its resources against England, Royal Navy ships started to prey on Dutch shipping. In 1808, Phaeton, by now under the command of Captain Fleetwood Pellew, entered Nagasaki's harbour to ambush a couple of Dutch trading ships that were expected to arrive shortly.

Phaeton entered the harbour on 4 October under a Dutch flag. As was the custom, Dutch representatives from the Nagasaki trading enclave of Dejima rowed out to welcome the visiting ship, but as they approached, Phaeton lowered a tender to capture the Dutch representatives. The Phaeton demanded that supplies (water, food, fuel) be delivered to her in exchange for the release of the Dutch employees. The Phaeton also fired cannons and muskets to press her demands, and threatened to destroy the Japanese and Chinese ships in the harbour.

Dejima and Nagasaki Bay, circa 1820. The view includes two Dutch ships and numerous Chinese trading junks.

The meager Japanese forces in Nagasaki were unable to intervene. At the time, it was the Saga clan's turn to uphold the policy of Sakoku and to protect Nagasaki, but they had economized by stationing only 100 troops there, instead of the 1,000 officially required for the station. The Nagasaki Magistrate, Matsudaira Genpei, immediately ordered troops from the neighbouring areas of Kyūshū island. The Japanese mobilized a force of 8,000 samurai and 40 ships to confront the Phaeton, but they could not arrive for a few days. In the meantime, the Nagasaki Magistrate decided to respond to the ship's demands, and provided supplies.

The Phaeton left two days later on 7 October, before the arrival of Japanese reinforcements, and after she had learned that the Dutch trading ships would not be coming that year. She also left a letter for the Dutch director Hendrik Doeff. The Nagasaki Magistrate, Matsudaira, took responsibility by committing suicide by seppuku.

Following the attack of the Phaeton, the Bakufu reinforced coastal defenses, and promulgated a law prohibiting foreigners coming ashore, on pain of death (1825–1842, Muninen-uchikowashi-rei). The Bakufu also requested that official interpreters learn English and Russian, departing from their prior focus on Dutch studies. In 1814, the first English-Japanese dictionary (6,000 words) was written by the Dutch interpreter Motoki Shozaemon.

After Nagasaki

Pellew was confirmed in his rank of post captain on 14 October 1808, and went on to see action in the Invasion of Île de France in 1810 and the reduction of Java in 1811.[21]

In May, Phaeton escorted the second division of British troops, commanded by Major-general Wetherall, from Madras to Prince of Wales Island, and then on to Malacca.[22] Once the expedition reached Batavia, Phaeton and three of the other frigates patrolled for French frigates known to be in the area.

On 31 August a landing party from Phaeton and Sumenep on the island of Madura, off Java. The British lost three men killed and 28 wounded.

Pellew sailed Phaeton home in August 1812, escorting a convoy of East Indiamen. For his services he received a present of 500 guineas and the thanks of the East India Company.[21]


In 1816, Capt. Frances Stanfell sailed Phaeton from Sheerness, bound for Saint Helena and the Cape of Good Hope.

In April 1818, Capt. W. H. Dillon commissioned Phaeton. In the autumn of 1818 Lieutenant John Geary, who had joined Phaeton at her re-commissioning, faced a court martial.[Note 3] The charges were that he had concealed two deserters from the band of the 18th Regiment of Foot. More formally, the charges were: "Inveigling musicians from one of the Regiments in garrison and with practicing deception towards the officers who were sent on board to search for them."[23] The board found him guilty. He was severely reprimanded and dismissed from Phaeton.[24] Robert Cavendish Spencer, late of Halifax. She was paid off in September 1822. She was immediately recommissioned under Captain Henry Evelyn Pitfield Sturt. She sailed for Gibraltar and Algeceiras and was paid off some three years later.


Phaeton was sold on 11 July 1827 to a Mr. Freake for ₤3,430, but the Navy Office canceled the sale, "Mr. Freake having been declared insane." She was finally sold on 26 March 1828 for ₤2,500 to Joshua Cristall for breaking up.[2]

In popular media

The Nagasaki Harbour Incident plays a role in the novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

See also

  • Anglo-Japanese relations


  1. ^ Fortuitously, Beaufort had served with Stopford on ^ In November 1801 the Navy awarded Beaufort a pension of £45 12s. 6d. per annum for his wounds.
  2. ^ This was at least Geary's second court martial. In 1810 he was captain of Mullett when he was found guilty of not having done his utmost to follow orders to sail to South America. At that time he was severely reprimanded.


  1. ^ London Gazette: no. 20939. p. 246. 26 January 1849.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Winfield (2008), p.138.
  3. ^ Marshall (1824), Vol. 2, Part 1, p.170.
  4. ^ a b c Naval Chronicle, Vol. 1, pp,217-8.
  5. ^ Marshall (1823), Vol. 1, Part 2, p.757.
  6. ^ Annual Register, accessed 6 October 2008
  7. ^ The European Magazine and London Review, Vol. 27 Jan-Jun (1795), p.136.
  8. ^ James (1837), Vol 1, 158.
  9. ^ United service Magazine (1847), p.639.
  10. ^ London Gazette: no. 13876. p. 267. 19 March 1796.
  11. ^ James (1837) Vol 2, 94.
  12. ^ James (1837) Vol 2, 203.
  13. ^ James (1837) Vol 2, 239.
  14. ^ London Gazette: no. 15085. pp. 1154–1155. 1 December 1798.
  15. ^ London Gazette: no. 15092. p. 1238. 22 December 1798.
  16. ^ London Gazette: no. 15121. p. 318. 2 April 1799.
  17. ^ James (1837) Vol 3, 9.
  18. ^ a b c d e London Gazette: no. 15310. p. 1280. 11 November 1800.
  19. ^ James (1837) Vol. 3, 55.
  20. ^ James, Vol. 4, p. 153
  21. ^ a b Laughton (1895). "Pellew, Sir Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds (1789-1861)". Dictionary of National Biography. p. 271. 
  22. ^ James (1837) Vol 6, 26.
  23. ^ a b Hedderwick (1957), p.90-1.
  24. ^ Marshall (1835), Vol. 4,Part 2, p.368.
  • Gardiner, Robert (1994) The Heavy Frigate. (London: Conway Maritime Press).
  • Hedderwick, Janet B. (1857) The captain's clerk. (Hutchinson).
  • James, William (1837) Naval History of Great Britain 1793 - 1827. (London).
  • Stewart-Brown, R. (1932) "Liverpool Ships in the Eighteenth Century". (Liverpool: The University Press of Liverpool).
  • Winfield, Rif (2007) British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714 - 1792, Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley. ISBN 978-1-84415-700-6.

External links


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