The Engagement between the 'Surveillante' and HMS 'Quebec', on October 6th 1779

Captain Charles Louis Du Couédic de Kergoaler

Steersman-in-Second Le Mang

Du Couédic de Kergoaler, gravure In La Villemarqué's book the song "Kanaouen al Levier" is preceded and followed by the argument and notes hereafter:

The American Independence war is well-known to have raised in France a surge of enthusiasm which also extended to Brittany...
The first single-ship fight took place in January 1780 (rem: La Villemarqué's mistake: in fact, on October 6, 1779) off Ushant Island between the French frigate La Surveillante, manned by a Breton crew under Captain du Couédic de Kergoaler and the British frigate, HMS Quebec, under Captain Farmer. It lasted for three hours and a half.

No sooner had the Bretons stepped on the English frigate than a fire started there, as well as a leak on board the 'Surveillante'. The French jumped back on their ship, rushing for the pumps. The English were no more considered as enemies. Captain du Couédic sent the only boat left to him to rescue them. The latter joined the French in their efforts to save their ship. Back in Brest harbour, they were treated as shipwrecked sailors, not as prisoners...

Kergoaler died of his wounds in Brest on January 17th 1780...
What the bard tells us about the gallant helmsman Le Mang, born at Kervignac, near Hennebont, is thoroughly correct. The priest who pronounced his funeral oration relates the event in this words:
"...I shall recall above all the honours bestowed by the Monarch on a man who seemed to be born to obey but whose intrepidity showed that he deserved to rule. When he perceived the flag torn off by the enemy's hits, he restored it in spite of the danger, and on a vessel where he held the lowest rank, he raised himself to be the last stay of honour."
When the Convention issued a by-law disposing that whoever had received decorations from the old regime had to hand them over to the government, the gallant Breton repaired to the Committee of Public Salvation with his medal and a hammer.
"-Citizens, he said, you asked me for my medal, but I guess you meant the gold of it: here it is!" And he crushed the coin with his hammer and threw it before the feet of the Convention men. "As to the honour it represents, it belongs to me and no one shall take it off me!" Then he went out, leaving the Committee dumbfounded by his sublime audacity.
Le Mang died as a vice-admiral...


'The engagement between the Quebec Frigate and Surveillante Frigate' Artist George Carter, Engraver J. Caldwell, Publisher George Caldwell & Co , date 1780 In 1780, in London, the Publisher George Caldwell advertised an engraving by J.Caldwell -often copied since then- after a painting by George Carter of the engagement between the two frigates.
There is a comment to the engraving that reads thus: "The Quebec frigate, Captain George Farmer, in company with the Rambler cutter, while cruising off Brest fell in with the Surveillante, and after a determined action caught fire and blew up. Captain Farmer and about one hundred men perished."
Source: catalogue "".

George Carter presented Madam du Couédic with the first copperplate engraving and this dedication:
Allow me, while recalling the painful memory of so illustrious and so rightfully beloved a husband, to represent him in the most decorous instant in his life. If upon the one hand I revive your grief, upon the other hand I trust that this attempt at perpetuating an action that made his name imperishable will be your sweetest solace. This homage is justly due to you and posterity shall know that this tribute was paid by a foreigner and an enemy. Gallant Du Couédic's glory shall thus appear all the more conspicuous. This was my purpose and I shall deem it fulfilled, if you care to accept this sketch of the noble and grand picture with which this hero presented all Europe, when combating a foe worth of him."


The 'Quebec' and 'Surveillante' in Action, Artist: Robert Dodd, date 1781, Oil on canvasThe London National Maritime Museum has an oil painting dating from 1781 by Robert Dodd, for which this description is given:
"The British and French frigate action represented in this painting was desperately fought. The frigates were accompanied by cutters, the ‘Quebec’, 32 guns, by the ‘Rambler’, 10 guns, and the ‘Surveillante’, 36 guns, by the ‘Expedition’, 10 guns. Both frigates sighted each other at dawn off Ushant and the ‘Quebec’, being up-wind of the ‘Surveillante’, ran down on her, while the Frenchman sailed close to the wind to await her. Close and furious action ensued for over three hours, after which both the damage to the masts and the heavy swell combined to bring down the masts of both vessels.
Whereas in the ‘Surveillante’, the masts fell over the side, in the ‘Quebec’, they fell forward, over the decks and guns. It became difficult for the ship to fight, and the firing of her guns on the quarter-deck started a fire in the sails and tackle lying there, which quickly took hold. As the fire raged through the ‘Quebec’, efforts were made by both the British and French to rescue the crew. The ‘Rambler’, which had been in action with the ‘Expedition’ and had been disabled aloft, sent a boat. The ‘Expedition’ rejoined its frigate. One of the difficulties in rescuing the crew was the heavy swell. The ‘Rambler’s’ boat saved a master’s mate, two midshipmen and fourteen sailors, while the ‘Surveillante’ saved the First Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant of marines, the surgeon and 36 of the crew. 13 more were saved by a passing Russian ship, but the other 127 were lost.
The ‘Quebec’ is portrayed in the right of centre, dismasted and with her quarter deck blazing. On the left the ‘Surveillante’ is also dismasted.
One of her boats is getting away and a naked sailor climbs up a rope ladder hanging over the ‘Surveillante’s’ stern. In the left foreground lies the wreckage of spars and sails with sailors clinging to them, while on the right the ‘Rambler’s’ boat picks up survivors. The ‘Expedition’ is in the right background stern on, and the ‘Rambler’ is very distant, under ‘Quebec’s’ stern. Captain Farmer of the ‘Quebec’ was last seen in the bow, sitting on one of the anchors. He was killed when she blew up.
The artist was one of the principal recorders of the naval side of the War of American Independence in engravings or paintings."

What shall we say about the comments of the British art gallery "Art Marine" ( on another 1800 engraving inspired by the same Robert Dodd painting?
"On October 6th 1779 the British 32 gun frigate Quebec (Captain Farmer) and a small cutter, Rambler, were cruising off Ushant when they spied, and came under fire from, the French 40-gun Surveillante. Quebec did not return the fire until the two ships were within point blank range. Then the battle commenced. After 3 ½ hours of continuous firing, both ships were dismasted and virtual wrecks. On board the Quebec the sails which lay about the deck were not cleared away and caught fire and, despite all the crew's efforts the entire ship was gradually set engulfed in flame until, at about 6.00 pm she blew up. The Rambler cutter had also been in action and was disabled but tried to take survivors off the Quebec until she was beaten off by the heat. A few British sailors were taken on board the Surveillante, but most were lost."
In this description the French ship is credited with 40 guns against 32 for her antagonist and if the rescue of the British sailors by the 'Surveillante' is mentioned, the important casualties and the part played by the cutter "Rambler" are emphasized.
Source: .

However, we should point out that our British neighbours have no monopoly for chauvinism.
Here is a description of the same engagement given by the French site "Histoire et Figurines", ascribing to the British a firing power that is not equal but superior to their opponents'.
"On October 4th 1779, the 36 gun frigate HMS Quebec was sent by the British Admiralty to survey the area off Brest. At the same time Du Couédic left Brest heading for Portsmouth. Both frigates were accompanied by cutters, the 'Surveillante' by the "Expédition", 10 four pound guns, under lieutenant Roquefeuille, and the 'Quebec' by the 'Rambler', 10 guns, under lieutenant George)."


Note: the question marks are for reconstituted, illegible words.

Gazette de Williamsburg: 12 février 1780 page 2 colonne 3 - Editeur: Dixon "About eight leagues from Ushant, there was a bloody engagement between the frigate La Surveillante and the Quebeck, both of equal force. They both lost all their masts. The French frigate only saved her bowsprit, she availed herself of her advantage(?), to board the Quebeck, and having thrown in a shower(?) of hand-grenades, the remaining part of the exhausted crew were on the point of jumping on board, when they observed a flame sore and fast(?) . They immediately disengaged by cutting away the remains of the bowsprit and saved 43 of the British and two officers. Having got to some little distance by the means of their oars, the English frigate blew up. The Surveillante was carried into Brest having had the greatest part of her crew killed and wounded. The Capt. M. de Coedic, received 3 shots, 2 in his head not dangerous, and one in the body which we fear is. The second in command was killed and the 6th officer on board only was capable of carrying her into port, the others having been either killed or wounded. To him the brave Capt. Coedic gave up the command of the frigate after the engagement, for during the action he would not be taken from the quarterdeck and suffer their attention to be taken up with him.

Extract of a letter from L'Orient, dated October...1779, to a Gentleman in this city."

(It is remarkable that the American gazette did not mention the heroic deed of the British captain who chose to perish on board his ship).


In December 1796 General Lazare Hoche ordered a formidable French armada of 47 ships to leave Brest, carrying almost 15,000 troops and 15,000 seamen to help Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen liberate Ireland from British rule. Appalling winter weather dispersed the fleet.Nevertheless 19 ships with 6,500 troops, including Tone, were off Bere Island in Bantry Bay by Christmas Eve. But a landing proved impossible: savage easterly gales blew the ships out to sea.
The French headed for home on January 3rd, leaving behind them the veteran frigate La Surveillante. Too storm-battered to return to France, she was scuttled off Whiddy Island on January 2nd, 1797.
The vessel was relocated exactly 200 years later, lying in 23 m depth on the seabed, when clearance operation were carried out in the aftermath of the tanker Betelgeuse's explosion at the Whiddy Island terminal.
The wreck of the SurveillanteThe wreck has been designated a National Monument for Ireland in 1985.
Between 1998 and 2000 a series of geophysical surveys were conducted to determine the wreck -site's location and extent and map its environment by means of sophisticated equipments. The raising of the ship's bell confirmed the wreck's true identity.
The sonar picture opposite was kindly contributed by a parent to the gallant Captain, Mr Olivier Du Couëdic.
(For more information:

These surveys led to the conclusion that the wreck should not be raised. They pointed out, instead, the importance of in-situ conservation of the site.
As far as our story is concerned, they confirm two facts set forth in Le Mang 's song
: the frigate had her hull sheathed with copper and had 32 guns in spite of the British -but not American- comments mentioning 36 or 40 guns.
In 1765 at Bordeaux, the shipwright Guignace built La Belle Poule, establishing the standard for his later frigates, including 'La Surveillante'. Research on La Belle Poule by the French maritime historian Jean Boudriot has enabled a 1 to 6 scale model to be built, which is the star exhibit in Bantry Museum. By 1780 only 12 French Navy Ships, all frigates, are known to have had their hulls sheathed with copper. One of these was la Surveillante, coppered during a refit in May 1779. This fact is confirmed by the Breton song collected by La Villemarqué.
The Bantry 1796 French Armada Exhibition Centre located in the Great House "Bantry House" has lots of exhibits relating to the 1796 expedition.


Le Chateau de Kergoaler a Scaër (Finistère)"Searching for information on my forefathers' estates, I was linked by chance to your interesting site.
May I introduce myself?
I must admit that my name doesn't sound very much Breton. I claim nevertheless Breton ancestry and Breton kindred, as my mother was Anne du Couédic, descended in direct line from the eldest of Charles-Louis, (the "Brave" captain of 'La Surveillante') 's three nephews. My grand-father, Colonel Count Louis du Couédic was a prominent figure in Saint Brieuc, where he died in 1964. As for me I spent the best part of my boyhood in this lovely town which earned me the nickname "Saint-Brieuc bairn". More talented for literature than for music, I have embarked on writing memoirs out of that time of my life. My wife owns a villa at Vieux Bourg de Pléhérel near Cap Fréhel. No wonder then if my feelings as an adoptive Breton and historian were keenly appealed by your site:
- A small mistake crept into your text: the fight took place on the 6th and above all the 7th of October 1779 -and not in January 1780. We commemorated the two hundredth anniversary of this victory at the National Maritime Museum (in the Palais de Chaillot) where 400 descendants of the protagonists -among them 40 Saxons- had gathered together. One of my uncles had a beautiful medal coined by the National Mint on that occasion.
This summer, in Morlaix, a lot of china plates was sold by auction. These plates had been issued by the Indies Company and were adorned with the blazons of the Captain of the 'Surveillante' and his wife. The latter, being his cousin, had the same coat of arms as her husband.
My uncle on the maternal side, Bertrand du Couédic and I entertained the (naive?) hope to purchase these plates... These items should be the pride of some museum in Brittany or of the National Maritime Museum, should they not? What a pity!..."

  • Version française de la présente page

  • More about Captain Farmer and HMS Quebec (in English)

  • "Son al Levier" e brezhonek - The Song of the Pilot (in Breton)

  • The Song of the Pilot (in English + French)