Wreck of a feared 18th century French pirate ship found off Plymouth

The wreck of a feared French corsair which terrorised English ships during the 18th century has been discovered 60 miles off the Devon coast.


With 25 guns and a plunder-thirsty crew, La Marquise de Tourny was the scourge of the British merchant fleet about 260 years ago.

For up to a decade, the French frigate menaced sailors under a form of state-sanctioned piracy designed to cripple British trade.

But the 460-ton vessel from Bordeaux suddenly vanished in the mid 18th century, and mystery has surrounded its whereabouts ever since.

Now, marine archaeology firm Odyssey has confirmed the discovery and identification of La Marquise – 100km (62 miles) southeast of Plymouth in the English Channel.

It is the only privateer – a warship authorised by a country’s government to attack foreign shipping – of the period to have been found and examined archaeologically off the UK.

The historic wreck was identified by the ship’s bell – it names the vessel in Latin and dates its launch to 1744.

The bell is decorated with French fleur-de-lis motifs, a cross of calvary and a dolphin.
Although the wreck – found within deep international waters – is poorly preserved and shows major signs of damage from trawlers, the finds include 25 iron cannons up to 3.2 metres (10.4ft) long.
Historians believe La Marquise de Tourny was made to attack trade during the War of the Austrian Succession.

This e ferocious colonial struggle was fought between England, Spain and France from 1739 to 1748 for control of trade between the Caribbean, America and Europe.

Archaeologist and historian Dr. Sean Kingsley, who has studied the wreck, said: “Other than three French privateers found off Canada and France, the Marquise de Tourny is the only other corsair of this age known in the world.

“It is a rare symbol of the mid-18th century need to fuse business with warfare at a time when naval fleets were small.

“Many sea captains dreamed of finding enemy ships stuffed with treasure and becoming rich beyond their wildest dreams. In reality, the art of privateering was fool’s gold.

“In the war of 1739 to 1748 our new research shows that while the English seized 3,316 enemy ships, the French and Spanish in turn captured 3,493 English vessels – it was ultimately a lose-lose situation for the economy of Europe that ended in a political stalemate.”

Greg Stemm, Odyssey’s co-founder and chief executive officer, said: “The Marquise de Tourny is one of our most important discoveries in the English Channel.

“Odyssey is committed to exploring and investigating such deep-ocean shipwreck sites, such as the Marquise de Tourny, as part of our ongoing mission to bring the mystery and history of shipwrecks back into the light of day for the benefit of the public and academic communities.”

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