Massachusetts

The Wreck of the Magnifique Ends John Paul Jones’ American Naval Career

When the captain of the French ship Magnifique sailed in to Boston Harbor in the summer of 1782, he would have been received as a great friend. The British had just months before surrendered at Yorktown to the Americans and their French allies. The new independent America struggled to take shape.

John Paul Jones by Charles Wilson Peale

John Paul Jones by Charles Wilson Peale

The reality had not yet hit for the French that the end of the war would mean America would soon go back to trading with Britain.  France would then be worse off. But in 1782, the French would have thoroughly enjoyed having helped give a good kick to their British foes.

The Magnifique

David Darling, a Boston harbor pilot, travelled out to meet Captain Macteigne and the Magnifique and guide her safely to shore. The Magnifique, a 74-gun, 170-foot man-of-war, arrived in Boston from the Caribbean. She was a large ship with a proud history in battle, but by 1782 she had picked up parasites in the Caribbean that weakened her full.

As she sailed past Lovells Island in Boston Harbor, an unexpected wind shift pushed her onto a shoal. Over the years, writers have tended to embellish the details of the wreck. They suggested she grounded on jagged rocks that nearly instantly tore out her bottom. It then sank, killing sailors and forever submerging a small fortune in gold.

Unfortunately, the actual story seems somewhat tamer. Robert Sullivan in his Shipwrecks and Nautical Lore of Boston Harbor notes the captain’s official letters show the ship actually grounded in a spot where several other French ships had come to grief.  They had successfully been refloated and repaired. The accident involving the Magnifique occurred about an hour before low tide, and it seemed likely the tide might lift the vessel safely off the shoal. She would then go on her way.

Lovells Island

The grounding, however, weakened the aging hull. By the next high tide, she had taken on considerable water. Over the next several hours, the crew raced to remove, not gold coins, but cannons. And Sullivan notes the efforts to refloat the vessel seem to have been limited in urgency.

Treasure Seekers

Over the years, the rumors of gold coins have inspired countless treasure seekers to attempt salvage of the Magnifique.  But to anyone’s knowledge, the vessel has only given up cannon shot and wooden souvenirs. The ship itself, with the help of currents, wound up enlarging the sand bar on which it crashed. It now most likely belongs to part of Lovells Island.

Le Guerrier, a French warship similar to Magnifique

Meanwhile, the wreck of the Magnifique did crimp the naval careers of two men: the harbor pilot, David Darling, and, oddly enough, John Paul Jones, the hero of the American Revolution. Jones had uttered the famous words, “I have not yet begun to fight,” when the British offered him the chance to surrender.

Even though, as Sullivan reports, no evidence suggests Darling took the Magnifique off course. The ship’s captain also blamed the grounding on the slow response of the crew to the changing wind. But Darling was ridiculed and vilified for the wreck. He became sexton at the New North Church, according to historian Nathaniel Bradstreet Shurtleff. He tended the property and dug graves.

On at least one occasion, pranksters scrawled in chalk in front of the church:

Don’t you run this ship ashore,
As you did the seventy-four.

Less expected was the way the grounding would impact John Paul Jones.

John Paul Jones

Jones, a Scotsman whose daring seamanship had resulted in numerous British losses, was at the time of the grounding in Portsmouth, N..H,, overseeing construction of America. He hoped it would be his finest ship ever.

He was having America built to meet his specifications. Jones understood that the American Navy could not, and should not, build ships to try to match British gunships. Those were built for the traditional side-by-side combat with one ship firing directly at the other in close quarters until one gave way.

Instead, he built it to be lighter with less draft and flatter, broader bottom so that it would be nimbler. It would carry the guns of a man-of-war, but would be more maneuverable to strike and move. Facing legal troubles and debts, Jones believed the bounties he would collect with America would solve his problems.

Unfortunately, Congress decided that it wanted to give America to the French to replace the lost Magnifique, and it ordered Jones to deliver it to the French captain. Neither party was happy with the decision, but both participated in the show of handing off the ship.

Jones was furious that, with the loss of his ship, his American career was scuttled. The French captain, meanwhile, favoring a more traditional ship to match evenly with the British, thought the America a poorly designed and built vessel. He thought it showed how little the American’s knew about shipbuilding.

This story last updated in 2021. 

Images: Lovells Island By Chris Wood, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=997036.

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