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Last month Deep Maps research assistant, Michael Waldron penned a wonderful post on the 220 year anniversary of the 1796 December storm and its role in scuppering the attempts at a French landing on the West Cork coast.

This failed landing was famously depicted in the contemporary caricature ‘End of the Irish Invasion; – or – The Destruction of the French Armada‘ by James Gillray (c.1756-1815). Gillray’s work however, erroneously attributes the failure of the French invasion to the efforts of William Windham (1750-1810), Henry Dundas (1742-1811), William Grenville (1759-1834),and British Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806), who are depicted as the storm clouds.


End of the Irish Invasion; – or – The destruction of the French Armada (1797) by James Gillray. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Only 19 of the ships that launched from Brest in 1976 made the return journey to France, due in part to damages incurred during the storm, and to the deliberate sinking of vessels at the hands of their own crew. The ‘La Surveillante’ met such an end and was scuppered on 2 January 1797 (WWW1) off the coast of Bantry Harbour and Whiddy Island. The ‘La Surveillante was an iphigénie-class 32-gun frigate of the French Navy that most notably defeated the English frigate, the HMS Quebec, in a single-ship action in the American revolutionary war.


Battle between the French frigate La Surveillante (R) and the British frigate HMS Quebec (L), Auguste-Louis de Rossel de Cercy (1736-1804). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ‘La Surveillante’ was rediscovered in 1979 (exactly 200 years after it’s decommissioning, in the aftermath of the tanker Betelgeuse’s explosion at the Whiddy Island Terminal (WWW2).

Between 1998 and 2000, geophysical surveys were conducted by INFOMAR (Integrated Mapping for the Sustainable Development of Ireland’s Marine Resource) over the site of ‘La Surveillante’ to:

  • accurately relocate the wreck-site
  • delineate the extent of the wreck site
  • map the seafloor and subsurface lithologies in the wreck-environs
  • provide basemaps for more detailed diver investigations (Quinn et al. 2002)

3D and plan view multibeam images of the extent of the ‘La Surveillante’ wreck (WWW2)

Surveys of the site revealed a NE-NW aligned wreck at a depth of 30m. Many of the ships original features were still visible during initial data collection including the galley area, bow, stern post and copper sheathing along the extent of the wreck.

Copper sheathing was employed in ship building during the 18th century to protect the under-water hull of a ship from the corrosive effects of salt water and from biofouling*. This copper detail was previously commented upon in the Breton song ‘Chanson du Pilote’, collected by La Villemarqué in 1845 (WWW1):

‘Revetus de cuivre brilliant

Qo’on dirait d’or ou d’argaent blanc’


‘And I think it not improper

Her Hull sheathed in yellow copper,’

Other features identified in the wreck included canons, cannonballs and an inverted anchor which are highlighted in the below bathymetric survey.


Bathymetric survey of La Surveillante shipwreck (WWW4)

The wreck of the La Surveillante is a designated national monument. Diving in this area is subject to licencing conditions.

Orla-Peach and Michael


*Biofouling or biological fouling is the accumulation of microorganisms, plants, algae, or animals on wet surfaces.




Quinn, R, Breen, C, Forsythe, W, Barton, K, Rooney, S and O’Hara, D (2002) Integrated geophysical surveys of The French Frigate La-Surveillante (1797), Bantry Bay, Co. Cork, Ireland. JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL SCIENCE, 29 (4). pp. 413-422.

WWW1 – http://chrsouchon.free.fr/surveile.htm

WWW2 – http://www.infomar.ie/data/Shipwrecks/Box32/pdfs/LaSurveillante_Final.pdf

WWW3 – http://chrsouchon.free.fr/levierf.htm

WWW4 – http://www.shannonresponse.com/home/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=35&Itemid=124


Further Reading: