Quebec vs Surveillante

6th October 1779
Part of : The American War of Independence (1775/04/19 - 1784/01/14)
Previous action : Battle of Flamborough Head 23.9.1779
Next action : Tartar vs Santa Margarita 11.11.1779


Royaume de France

Ship NameCommanderNotes
Le Surveillante (32)   30 Killed, 85 wounded
L'Expédition (14)  

Great Britain

Ship NameCommanderNotes
Quebec (28) George Farmer (c.1732-1779) Sunk 129 Killed, several wounded
Rambler (10) James George (c.1729-1809)

Notes on Action


On October 6th, the Quebec, 32, Captain George Farmer, in company with the Rambler, 10, Lieutenant Rupert George, was cruising off Ushant to watch for a squadron which was reported to be leaving Brest, when at dawn she sighted the French frigate, Surveillante, 32, Lieut. Du Couedic de Kergoualer, and the cutter, Expedition, 10, Lieut, de Eoquefeuil. 2 These vessels had put out from Brest to observe a British squadron, which was supposed to be on the point of sailing for Brest. Du Couedic was a man of ebullient courage, and had vowed to the king that the Surveillante should be his chariot of triumph, or his tomb. His enemy, Captain Farmer, was fully worthy of him, though of a temper less demonstrative. The spirit of their captains inspired the crews of the two ships. An encounter between such antagonists was certain to be desperate and bloody. Neither shirked the combat; they stood eagerly towards one another; hoisted their respective flags, and fired each a long range shot as a signal of defiance. Du Couedic sailed as close to the wind as possible, whilst Farmer rapidly bore down upon him. Some time after ten in the morning the two frigates were within close range. The Surveillante had already been firing for some time, but at long range, and without inflicting much injury. Not till she was within musket range did the Quebec reply. The two then settled down to a furious battle, broadside to broadside. An hour passed and neither ship had the advantage, when Captain Farmer determined to rake his opponent. He tried to drop astern, with this object in view, but was foiled by Du Couedic's promptness and judgment. Once more the two closed. They could no longer hug the wind, but had to go before it; the masts of both ships were tottering; the fire on each side was murderous; and yet neither showed any sign of yielding. Twice, indeed, the Quebec's officers saw, or thought they saw, the French crew running from their guns, but for all that the Surveillante maintained her fire. In the Quebec the crew was dwindling fast; from seven men to each gun it had fallen to three; Captain Farmer was wounded in the finger, and his collar bone was shattered. He did not leave the deck, but bandaged his wounds as best he could, and called to his men, " My lads, this is warm work, and therefore keep up your fire with double spirit. We will conquer or die." Beside him stood his first Lieutenant, Francis Roberts, who had lost an arm. Most of the other officers were killed or disabled.

It was verging upon noon when the masts of the Surveillante went overboard. They fell to port, and did not mask her battery, nor encumber and endanger the ship. A few minutes before this Du Couedic had been twice wounded in the head by bullets. He did not, however, leave the deck. Just after the fall of the Surveillante' s masts, the Quebec's masts came down. Unfortunately for her, they did not clear the ship, but, falling fore and aft, blocked the gangways, and impeded the service of the forecastle and quarter-deck guns. The mizen-rnast sails hung down on the engaged side, and were almost instantly set on fire by the flash of the guns. Du Couedic at that moment is said, in the French accounts, to have attempted to board. His dispositions for that end were made, and his bowsprit was fast entangled in the wreckage of the Quebec's masts, when he was wounded a third time, just as he had ordered his three nephews to lead the boarding party. Smoke was already pouring up from the Quebec's sails, and her quarter-deck was beginning to blaze. The French captain, for all his wounds, directed the fire of his guns to cease, and his boats to be lowered, whilst the Surveillante's bowsprit was cut away, and the Quebec was pushed off with spars: not any too soon, for the French ship's rigging was already beginning to burn. The heat was intense. On board the Quebec, Farmer still kept his station, and refused to leave the ship whilst there was a man on board. The pumps were by his orders directed on the magazine, and thus there was no apparent danger of an explosion. The first Lieutenant was by him: the crew at his orders were jumping into the sea or saving themselves as best they could; whilst the cutter Rambler had come up to the aid of the men in the water, though the constant explosion of the Quebec's guns made the work of rescue very dangerous. Of the Surveillante's boats, only one would float, and that one was damaged in getting it out. The French crew, however, threw oars and ropes to the drowning men. At six in the evening the Quebec, with her colours still flying, blew up. When last seen, her Captain was sitting calmly on the fluke of the anchor.

His splendid gallantry was rewarded by his country in the way it deserved. His eldest son was made a baronet, and pensions were granted to his widow and his children, " to excite an emulation in other officers to distinguish themselves in the same manner, and render Captain Farmer's fate rather to be envied than pitied, as it would give them reason to hope that, if they should lose their lives with the same degree of stubborn gallantry, it would appear to posterity that their services had met with the approbation of their sovereign." l Thus died in the flower of his age a great and accomplished officer and one of those who may be said to have made and moulded our Navy for the next French war. Under him Nelson and Troubridge served, and the master was worthy of his Du Couedic died in port some months later. 1 His family were as splendidly rewarded, and a handsome monument was erected at Brest to his memory, to be defaced and destroyed in the shameful excesses of the Revolution.

The loss of both ships was terribly heavy. Of the Quebec's 195 men only 68 were saved; 17 by the 'Rambler, 13 by a passing Russian ship, and 38 by the Surveillante and of these again two died of their injuries. The French behaved with a magnanimous humanity to their prisoners. Men who had so fought and suffered, they said, must be released; and accordingly they sent them back to a British port. They are stated in one British account to have fired upon a British boat engaged in saving life. We may indignantly reject this malicious libel. The fire probably came from the Quebec's own heated guns. In the Surveillante 30 were killed and 85 wounded. In one or other category were nearly all the officers. The ship herself was in a sinking condition. She had been frequently hulled between wind and water, and was leaking heavily.She was taken in tow by the Expedition: in time jury-masts were rigged; and she succeeded in returning to Brest.

The comparative force of the two ships is disputed. According to Farmer's own letters the Quebec carried twenty-six 9-prs., and six 6-prs. This anomalous armament was due to the fact that she had struck a rock some months before; and, being compelled to throw all her 12-prs. overboard, she could only replace them with the smaller 9-prs. on reaching a British port. French writers give her thirty-six guns, but are obviously untrustworthy, as they had no means of knowing accurately. The Surveillante, by the official British version, carried twenty-eight 18-prs. and twelve small guns probably in the writer's imagination 8 or 6 prs. To get the truth, however, we must go to the French accounts, and they differ strangely. M. de Lostanges, who fought on board, gives her thirty-six guns probably twenty-six 18-prs. and ten 8-prs.: Troude and the official French account give twenty-six 12-prs. and six 6-prs. It was the impression of the Quebec's survivors that the Surveillante was greatly their superior in power and weight of metal, but men who have fought a desperate battle are naturally prone to exalt the strength of their enemy. We have, therefore, accepted Troude's statement, though even then the disparity is quite sufficient to explain the result.

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