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HMS Phaeton was a 38-gun, fifth-rate frigate of the Minerva class of the Royal Navy, most noted for her intrusion into Nagasaki harbour in 1808. John Smallshaw built Phaeton in Liverpool between 1780 and 1782. She participated in numerous engagements during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars during which service she captured many prizes. Francis Beaufort, inventor of the Beaufort Wind-Scale, was a lieutenant on Phaeton when he distinguished himself during a successful cutting out expedition. Phaeton sailed to the Pacificmarker in 1805, and returned in 1812. She was finally sold on on 26 March 1828.

Service in the Channel

In 1793 the Phaeton, under the command of Sir Andrew Snape Douglas, was part of Admiral John Gell's squadron, when she captured a French privateer and her Spanish prize, the St Jago, 140 leagues to the west of Cape Finisterremarker. The upper works on St Jago were shattered and she had lost 10 of her crew killed and 37 wounded while defending herself against the French, who held her for 11 days before Phaeton retook her. St Jago s cargo, which had taken two years to collect, was the richest ever trusted on board a single ship. The cargo was worth between ₤1.2 and £1.3 million as it consisted of many bars, described as pewter in the manifest, that turned out to be gold thinly coated with pewter.

The ships that conveyed her to Portsmouthmarker were HMS St Georgemarker, HMS Egmont, HMS Edgar, HMS Ganges and HMS Phaeton. The money came over London Bridge in 21 wagons, escorted by a party of light dragoons, and lodged in the Tower of Londonmarker.

On 11 December the High Court of Admiralty decided that the ship should be restored to Spain, less one eighth of the value after expenses for salvage, provided the Spanish released British ships held at Corunna. The agents for the captors appealed and on 4 February 1795 the Prize Court put the value of the cargo at £935,000. At the time, all the crew, captains, officers and admirals could expect to share in the prize. Admiral Hood's share was £50,000.

In March 1793 Phaeton captured the 4-gun privateer lugger Aimable Liberté. On 14 April, she took the 44-gun Général Mourier. On 28 May she took the 20-gun Prompte off the Spanish Coast. Together with Weasle she took two privateers in the Channel in June - the 10-gun Poisson Volante and the Général Washington. On 27 November she and Latona took the 38-gun Blonde of Ushantmarker. In February 1794 she was paid off, but the next month Captain William Bentinck recommissioned her.

In 1794, during the battle of the Glorious First of June, Phaeton came to the aid of the dismasted HMS Defence. In doing so, she exchanged broadsides with the French ship-of-the-line Impetueux.

Captain Robert Stopford

In September, Phaeton came under the the command of Captain Stopford. In May 1795 Phaeton escorted Princess Caroline of Brunswick to England. Then began what would become a spectacular string of prize-taking. During Stopford's service in the Channelmarker, Phaeton captured some 13 privateers and three vessels of war, and also recovered numerous vessels that the French had taken.

On 10 March 1796, Phaeton engaged and captured the 20-gun French corvette Bonne Citoyenne off Cape Finisterremarker. Stopford took her back to England as his prize. The Royal Navy then bought her in as HMS Bonne Citoyenne, a Sixth Rate sloop of war.

While cruising in the Channel, on 6 March 1797, Phaeton took the 18-gun privateer Actif and on 16 September the 6-gun Chasseur. Then with Unite she took 16-gun Indien on 24 September off the Roches Bonnes. With Unite and the 32-gun frigate HMS Stag, she captured Découverte on 7 October, and then on 28 December she took the 12-gun Hazard in the Bay of Biscay. The next day, the 44-gun Anson, Captain Philip Charles Durham, with Phaeton, retook the 20-gun Sphinx class Sixth Rate HMS Daphne, which the French had captured almost exactly three years earlier. Out of a crew of 276, including 30 passengers of various descriptions, the Daphne, lost five men killed and several wounded before she surrendered. The Anson had no casualties.

On New Year's Day, 1798, Phaeton took Aventuree. On 19 February she took the 18-gun Légère in the Channel. On 22 March she participated in damaging the 36-gun frigate Charente near the Cordouan lighthousemarker. Phaeton fired on Charente, chasing her first into range of the guns the 74-gun Third Rate Canada, under the command of Captain Sir John Borlase Warren, with whom she exchanged broadsides. Charente grounded, but then so did Canada. Phaeton and Anson had to abandon the chase to pull Canada free. In the meantime, Charente threw her guns overboard, floated free, and reached the river of the river of Bordeauxmarker, much the worse for wear.

With Anson, she took the 18-gun privateer Mercure on 31 August, and the 32-gun privateer Flore on 6 September after a 24-hour long chase. Then on 8 October she took the 16-gun privateer Lévrier. Together with Ambuscade and Stag, on 20 November she took the Hirondelle. (The French would capture Ambuscade in the Action of 14 December 1798; the British would recapture her in 1802.)

On 24 November 1798, Phaeton captured the French privateer 18-gun brig Resolue. The brig had previously captured an English merchant ship, General Wolfe, bound from Poolemarker to Newfoundland and an American sloop bound from Bostonmarker to Hamburgmarker. Stag later recaptured the American. On 6 December, Phaeton and Stag captured the French privateer 10-gun brig Ressource, which was bound for a cruise off the African coast. Six days later the two vessels recaptured the Danish brig Dorothea, which the privateer Rusee had captured while the Dane was traveling from Amsterdammarker to Tangiersmarker.


In July 1799, Phaeton, under Captain Sir James Nicoll Morris, sailed with Lord Elgin, of the eponymous Elgin Marbles, for Constantinoplemarker. Elgin would be Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. In May 1800 she participated in the blockade of Genoamarker as part of Lord Kieth's squadron. The Austrian general besieging the city, Baron d'Ott, particularly appreciated her fire in support of the Austrian army.

Francis Beaufort
On 25 October 1800 Phaeton chased a Spanish polacca to an anchorage under a battery of five heavy guns at Fuengirolamarker, where she joined a French privateer brig. The following night the brig escaped while the polacca tried twice, unsuccessfully, to escape to Malagamarker. On the night of the 27 October, Francis Beaufort led Phaeton's boats on a cutting out expedition. Unfortunately the launch, with a carronade, was unable to keep up and was still out of range when a French privateer schooner, which had come into the anchorage unseen, fired on the other boats. The barge and two cutters immediately made straight for the polacca. The boarding party suffered one man killed and three wounded, including Beaufort who received, but survived, 19 wounds. The boarding party succeeded in securing the polacca by 5 am. The captured ship was the San Josef, alias Aglies, of 14 guns. She was used as packet, carrying provisions between Malaga and Velillamarker. She had a crew of 34 seamen and there were also 22 soldiers on board. The Spanish sustained at least 13 wounded. The British immediately commissioned San Josef as a British sloop-of-war under the name of Calpe, the ancient name of Gibraltar. Although it would have been usual to promote Beaufort, the successful and heroic leader of the expedition, to command Calpe, Lord Kieth chose instead George Dundas who not only was not present at the battle, but was junior to Beaufort.

On 16 May 1801, boats from Phaeton and Naiad under the direction of Naiad s first lieutenant, entered the port of Marín, Pontevedramarker, in Galicia in north west Spain. There they captured the Spanish corvette Alcudia and destroyed the armed packet Raposo, both under the protection of a battery of five 24-pounders. Alcudia, commanded by Don Jean Antonio Barbuto, was moored stem and stern close to the fort. Her sails had previously been taken ashore so the boats had to tow her out but soon after a strong south-west wind set in and it was necessary to set her on fire. Only four men from the two British ships were wounded.

Phaeton then returned to Britain and was paid off in March 1802.

East Indies

In July 1803 Captain George Cockburn recommissioned Phaeton for service in the Far East. On 2 August 1805, under Captain John Wood, she fought the 40-gun Sémillante, Captain Léonard-Bernard Motard, in the San Bernardino Straitmarker off San Jacinto, Philippinesmarker, together with the 18-gun brig-sloop Harrier, Captain Edward Ratsey. After exchanges of fire first with Harrier and then with Phaeton, Sémillante took refuge under the guns of a shore battery. Unable to dislodge her, the two British vessels eventually sailed off, each having suffered two men wounded. Sémillante was reported to have suffered 13 killed and 36 wounded. After resupplying at San Jacinto, Sémillante intended to sail for Mexicomarker in March 1805 to fetch specie for the Philippines; the encounter with Phaeton and Harrier foiled the plan. Motard returned to the Indian Ocean, operating for the next three years against British shipping from Île de Francemarker.

In October 1806 Wood took command of Phaeton. Then in July 1808, Captain Fleetwood Pellew succeeded him.

Nagasaki Harbour Incident

After the French had conquered the Batavian Republic and Napoleon begun to use its resources against Englandmarker, Royal Navy ships started to prey on Dutch shipping. In 1808, Phaeton, by now under the command of Captain Fleetwood Pellew, entered Nagasaki's harbour to ambush a couple of Dutch trading ships that were expected to arrive shortly.

Phaeton entered the harbour on 4 October under a Dutch flag. As was the custom, Dutch representatives from the Nagasaki trading enclave of Dejimamarker rowed out to welcome the visiting ship, but as they approached, Phaeton lowered a tender to capture the Dutch representatives. The Phaeton demanded that supplies (water, food, fuel) be delivered to her in exchange for the release of the Dutch employees. The Phaeton also fired cannons and muskets to press her demands, and threatened to destroy the Japanese and Chinese ships in the harbour.

Dejima and Nagasaki Bay, circa 1820.
Two Dutch ships and numerous Chinese trading junks are depicted.
The meager Japanese forces in Nagasaki were unable to intervene. At the time, it was the Saga clan's turn to uphold the policy of Sakoku and to protect Nagasaki, but they had economized by stationing only 100 troops there, instead of the 1,000 officially required for the station. The Nagasaki Magistrate, Matsudaira Genpei, immediately ordered troops from the neighbouring areas of Kyūshūmarker island. The Japanese mobilized a force of 8,000 samurai and 40 ships to confront the Phaeton, but they could not arrive for a few days. In the meantime, the Nagasaki Magistrate decided to respond to the ship's demands, and provided supplies.

The Phaeton left two days later on 7 October, before the arrival of Japanese reinforcements, and after she had learned that the Dutch trading ships would not be coming that year. She also left a letter for the Dutch director Hendrik Doeff. The Nagasaki Magistrate, Matsudaira, took responsibility by committing suicide by seppuku.

Following the attack of the Phaeton, the Bakufu reinforced coastal defenses, and promulgated a law prohibiting foreigners coming ashore, on pain of death (1825-1842, Muninen-uchikowashi-rei). The Bakufu also requested that official interpreters learn English and Russian, departing from their prior focus on Dutch studies. In 1814, the first English-Japanese dictionary (6,000 words) was written by the Dutch interpreter Motoki Shozaemon.

After Nagasaki

Pellew was confirmed in his rank of post captain on 14 October 1808, and went on to see action in the Invasion of Île de France in 1810 and the reduction of Java in 1811.

In May, Phaeton escorted the second division of British troops, commanded by Major-general Wetherall, from Madrasmarker to Prince of Wales Islandmarker, and then on to Malaccamarker. Once the expedition reached Batavia, Phaeton and three of the other frigates patrolled for French frigates known to be in the area.

On 31 August a landing party from Phaeton and Sir Francis Drake, together with marines from Hussar, captured a fort from the French at Sumenepmarker on the island of Maduramarker, off Java. The British lost three men killed and 28 wounded.

Pellew sailed Phaeton home in August 1812, escorting a convoy of East Indiamen. For his services he received a present of 500 guineas and the thanks of the East India Company.

Post-war and fate

In 1816, Capt. Frances Stanfell sailed Phaeton from Sheerness, bound for Saint Helena and the Cape of Good Hopemarker.

In April 1818, Capt. W. H. Dillon commissioned Phaeton. In the autumn of 1818 Lieut. John Geary, who had joined Phaeton at her re-commissioning, faced a court martial on the charge of "Inveigling musicians from one of the Regiments in garrison and with practising deception towards the officers who were sent on board to search for them." He was found guilty and sentenced to be dismissed from his ship. Capt. Robert Cavendish Spencer, late of Ganymede, one of the captains on the board, thought Geary was being used as a scapegoat. Spencer shook Geary's hand and offered him a job in the future. Phaeton went on to the East Indies.

In October 1819 she was paid off and then recommissioned within the month under Captain William A. Montague, for Halifaxmarker. She was paid off in September 1822. She was immediately recommissioned under Captain Henry Sturt, and paid off some three years later. She was sold on 11 July 1827 to a Mr. Freake for ₤3,430, but the sale was canceled, "Mr. Freake having been declared insane." She was resold on 26 March 1828 for ₤2,500 to Joshua Cristall for breaking up.

See also



  1. Annual Register, accessed 6 October 2008
  2. James (1837), Vol 1, 158.
  3. United service Magazine (1847), p.639.
  4. James (1837) Vol 2, 94.
  5. James (1837) Vol 2, 203.
  6. James (1837) Vol 2, 239.
  7. James (1837) Vol 3, 9.
  8. Fortuitously, Beaufort had served with Stopford on Aquilon some years earlier.
  9. In November 1801 the Navy awarded Beaufort a pension of £45 12s. 6d. per annum for his wounds.
  10. James (1837) Vol. 3, 55.
  11. James, Vol. 4, p. 153
  12. James (1837) Vol 6, 26.

Online resources


  • Gardiner, Robert (1994) The Heavy Frigate. (London: Conway Maritime Press).
  • James, William (1837) Naval History of Great Britain 1793 - 1827. (London).
  • Winfield, Rif (2007) British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714 - 1792, Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley. ISBN 978-1-84415-700-6.

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