Wednesday, January 05, 2005

 

Welsh shipwreck linked to French folly

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Times Online
By Simon de Bruxelles



Napoleonic invasion was doomed from the start
THE discovery of a Napoleonic wreck off the windswept coast of West Wales is expected to rewrite the history of the last invasion of Britain.

Divers who found the previously undocumented warship off Strumble Head in Pembrokeshire believe that it carried part of a rag-tag French force that advanced on Fishguard 207 years ago.

The warship, which is still awaiting official identification, lies beneath 30 metres (98ft) of water in an area notorious for wrecks. It was discovered by the Pembrokeshire Scuba Diving Club last year.

Two amateur divers, Richard and Rebecca Hughes, found it by chance but because of strong currents and poor weather were unable to return to explore further until this summer.

Mr Hughes, the club’s diving officer, said: “Strumble Head has a legendary reputation for wrecking trading ships and is just as dangerous today as it was hundreds of years ago. Conditions are rarely favourable for diving but it was an extraordinarily clear day when we discovered it.”

Among the artifacts spotted on the seabed by the Hugheses were copper keel pins, three cannon, including a swivel gun, and part of the ship’s hold. The items have been provisionally identified as French and could re-write history as there is no record of any of the fleet which carried the would-be invaders being lost at sea. Despite the lack of documentary evidence, Mr Hughes said: “It is highly likely because it is so close to the site of the invasion.”

The attack on February 22, 1797, was the last time a foreign invader set foot on the British mainland. Originally the force of 1,400 men, carried in four ships, was supposed to land near Bristol, then England’s second-largest city, burn it to the ground and march north to Chester and Liverpool.

The Directory, France’s hastily convened revolutionary government, hoped that rural people would rise up and overthrow the ruling class in a fit of revolutionary fervour. However, they were not prepared to commit much in the way of resources to the ill-fated expedition, which was largely made up of pardoned criminals and returned prisoners of war.

Instead of sailing up the Bristol Channel the fleet was blown off course and landed in Cardigan Bay, in southwest Wales.

The mission was doomed from the moment the unruly mob discovered the cargo of a Portuguese merchantman which had run ashore laden with barrels of wine. After a looting spree which included plundering the silver plate from a local church, many of the invaders were too drunk to fight. Within two days, the invasion had collapsed.

According to legend, the intoxicated French mistook hundreds of Welsh women dressed in traditional costume of scarlet tunics and tall stove hats for British redcoats and threw down their arms.

The finds have sparked interest from a number of official bodies, including the historic buildings agency Cadw, which plans to send a specialist archaeological team to the site in the new year.




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