A wreck of the French East India Company identified at the bottom of a port in the Antilles
ARCHEOLOGY – The remains of Lyons have been studied for two years in a cove on the island of Antigua. 18th century merchant shipe century, the sailboat was thrown into the storm of the American War of Independence and then captured by an English frigate after a fierce battle.
The Caribbean depths of Antigua’s Tank Bay are not only home to speckled seahorses and butterflyfish. They also envelop a ship, whose robust carcass has been resting for more than two centuries in the mud of this tourist cove. of the Lesser Antilles. The presence of an underwater structure was identified in 2013, during a hydrographic survey carried out on the south coast of the island. Troubled waters once protected the site’s secrecy. Ten years later, archaeologists finally see it clearly: it was the wreck of the Lyonsa former ship of the French East India Company, sunk in 1778.
The ship which rests approximately five meters deep in the harbor classified by Unesco of English Harbour, would be the only wreck of the Company known to date. “It’s a huge vessel, 45 meters long and fairly well preserved, especially on the entire starboard side of the hull. The remains are in an area fairly close to the mangroves, which means the salinity of the water has kept it away xylophagous worms»says archaeologist Jean-Sébastien Guibert, lecturer at the Martinican campus of the University of the West Indies.
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In collaboration with the National Parks of Antigua, the American University of East Carolina and the Association Archeologie Petites Antilles, the researcher excavated the wreckage last fall, a year after a first tighter campaign which had made it possible to square the site. The team made up of 26 specialists, including ten American students, already had a good clue about the identity of the ship which is still at the bottom of the port of Antigua and Barbuda. A map. Not a treasure map, in vellum battered and seasoned by adventure, but a military map, expertly drawn, in 1783, in an office of the British Admiralty. An O – rather than an X – indicated, in a corner of the cove, “LyonsFrench ship of 40 guns». The wreckage had to be reported to local navigators. A few centuries later, it enchants historians.
From the spice trade to the English blockade
Anxious to put a story on the name of this wreck, but also to verify that it is indeed the Lyons, the researchers go through the archives to find a trace of the ship. The vessel is said to have been built in Lorient in 1762 for the French East India Company. Initially armed with 22 guns, it was launched under the name of Beaumont– a model of the ship is presented at the museum of Dieppe. His first expeditions led him to The meeting, in China, in Bengal. In 1774 the Beaumont was bought by two slave shipowners from Saint-Malo, renamed in Lyons then ceded again in 1777, this time to a certain Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont. Steward invalidities, the man is more focused on powder than on spices. Above all, he sympathizes with the cause of the Thirteen Colonies then with the revolutionaries of the New World, with the bursting of the american war of independence.
Under this new patronage, the former ship of the French East India Company is armed with 40 guns and heads for the American coasts to break through the blockade imposed by England on its renegade colonies. If he sails alongside the squadrons of Louis XVITHE Lyons is not ceded to the Royal Navy. Its captain at the time, Jean Michel, was even tempted to become a corsair. “His mission was off the beaten track and straddled trade and military activity. It seems that when he returned, he even considered receiving a letter of marque“says Jean-Sébastien Guibert.
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THE Lyons was however intercepted on November 3, 1778, while sailing – loaded with tobacco – towards the metropolis. A Royal Navy-flagged frigate, HMS maidstone, looms on the horizon. A duel ensues off Cape Henry and the strategic bay of Chesapeake, where the fleet of the Count of Grasse will inflict a decisive setback on the English forces, three years later. THE Lyons and the maidstone maneuver, exchange volleys of guns. Smoke and gunpowder sing for nearly fourteen hours until this ballet on the high seas ends with the surrender of the French ship. Bloodless, the maidstone escorts his catch and what remains of his crew back to Antigua. The two ships reach the port of English Harbour, where there was a naval base at the time.
A ship from beyond the grave
“The two ships were in very bad shape after their engagement, notes Jean-Sébastien Guibert. The English captain thus had to make a stopover in the West Indies, for lack of certainty of braving the Atlantic and reaching London in one piece.The French ship is stripped to the bone, meticulously dismembered and then scuttled in a corner of the cove. During their underwater surveys, archaeologists indeed noticed traces of this dissection operation before reuse. All the cannons disappeared ; and the furniture collected by a sediment vacuum cleaner is reduced to a few shards of ceramics, a flint, a few fragments of smoking pipes or even a musket ball.
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Despite everything, several clues allow the researchers to accredit their identification of the wreckage. “These remains predate the 1780s because the hull is not reinforced with copper lining, says Jean-Sébastien Guibert. The typology of the objects collected in our three surveys also indicates that we are on a wreck from the second half of the 18th century.e century“.
The exam by dendrochronology wooden remains taken from the site should make it possible to refine, in the coming months, the dating of the wreck and to remove the last doubts about it. In the meantime, the researchers are delighted to have found so many clues that support their hypothesis. “This kind of quite exceptional wreck should make it possible to document the French naval construction of the time. It is widely known through theoretical texts and models, but authentic specimens remain extremely rare.remarks Jean-Sébastien Guibert. Funded in particular by the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and by the Department of Memory, Culture and Archives of the Ministry for the Armed Forces, this research should continue in the coming years.