Sometimes the quirks of technology can reveal something really interesting! While compiling a list of objects in our Collection related to submarines, our Collections Management System threw me a curveball. For some unknown reason, my search caught a watercolor showing British ships anchored in Saint-Florent bay in Corsica around 1795. While I’m no expert, I’m pretty confident the Royal Navy didn’t use submarines during the French Revolutionary War.1 If they did, then this image shows them submerged and without periscopes! At any rate, I was intrigued that the object record contained so little information despite the specificity of the scene. I began researching the story behind the image and it ended up being really interesting!
It all started on February 1, 1793, when revolutionary France declared war on Great Britain. The British immediately began assembling the various fleets they would need to fight the French. Throughout May and June, Lord Hood, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet, gathered 15 ships-of-the-line and nine frigates at Gibraltar. On June 27, Hood sailed the fleet to Toulon, France, and instituted a blockade to lure the French Mediterranean fleet out for a fight. A short time later, the British blockade was joined by 24 Spanish ships-of-the-line under Admiral Juan de Langara. Faced with such a powerful force, it’s no surprise the 17 French ships (including two 100-gun vessels) weren’t willing to leave the safety of the port.