On the 19th June 1805 Vice Admiral Lord Nelson arrived at Antigua in the West Indies in his pursuit of
Admiral Villeneuve and the Franco-Spanish fleet only to discover that they had sailed for Europe.
Lord Nelson deployed the Curieux brig sloop under Lt. George Bettesworth with dispatches to warn the Lords
of the Admiralty. On the journey to England at latitude 33 12’ north longitude 58 west the Curieux sighted
the combined fleet sailing north by west then north-north-west. Curieux was a fast vessel which enabled Lt.
Bettesworth to avoid action arriving at Plymouth on the 7th July. The dispatches enabled the Admiralty to make
strategic deployments ahead of Admiral Villeneuve’s arrival which played an important part in determining the
outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar.
The painting depicts the Curieux shortly after sighting the combined fleet. Despite the weather showing
signs of deteriorating Lt. Bettesworth is driving his ship hard under a full press of sail
close hauled on a starboard tack.
Curieux was built by Enterprise Eth’eart at St Malo to a design by Francois-Timoth’ee Pestel. She was
laid down in October 1799 and launched on the 20th September 1800 the only one of her class at the time
and the prototype for the curieux class of brigs which the French began building in 1803.
Curieux was captured by the British at Martinique on the 3rd February 1804 and commissioned into the Royal
Navy as a brig sloop armed with 8 x 6 pdr guns and 10 x 24 pdr carronades. She carried a complement of 67 men.
During her five years with the Royal Navy she captured several privateers and engaged in two notable actions.
On the 8th February 1805 she chased the French privateer Dame Ernouf for twelve hours before bringing her to action.
After forty minutes of hard fighting she took Dame Ernouf which had a crew double that of Curieux.
The action cost the Curieux five killed and four wounded. The Dame Ernouf had 30 killed and 41 wounded.
In March 1806 John Sheriff took over command of Curieux and she was re-armed with 8 x 6 pdr guns and 10 x18 pdr carronades.
On the 3rd December1807 off Barbados she engaged the 25 gun privateer Revanche. This vessel had been the slaver British
Tar and was more heavily armed with a crew of 200 men. Curieux’s shrouds and backstays were shot away and her two top masts
and jib-boom damaged. With her captain dead, Lt Thomas Muir wanted to board the Revanche but too few crewmen were willing to
follow him. Subsequently the two vessels broke off the action. In addition to her captain, Curieux had seven dead and 14
wounded. It was with some irony therefore that a subsequent court martial into why Lt. Muir had not taken or destroyed the
enemy vessel mildly rebuked him for failing to hove-to in order to repair his vessel once it became obvious that Curieux was
in no condition to overtake the Revanche.
On the 22nd September 1809 at about 0330 hrs Curieux struck a rock of Petit-Terre off the Iles des Saintes.
The rock was 30 yards from the beach in 11feet of water. She was de-stored and her guns removed to HMS Hazard which managed to
winch her off a quarter cable but Curieux slipped back and struck a reef when she bilged. The wreck was burnt to prevent it falling
into enemy hands. A subsequent court martial found the officer of the watch, Lt John Felton guilty of negligence and he was dismissed
from the service. An interesting post-script to this incident occurred on the 30th August 1860 when the Prince of Wales visited
Sherbrooke in Canada to where Felton had emigrated. The Prince exercised his Royal prerogative and pardoned Felton restoring him to his
former naval rank.
An Admiralty draft of the Curieux was taken off at Plymouth in 1805. Unfortunately the detail of the figurehead is missing and it has
not been possible to determine what figurehead she carried. I have therefore decide to show the vessel with a simple scroll.
Indeed by that period economies had been applied in the building of naval vessels particularly in respect of ship decoration and
British built brigs rarely carried any figurehead or other elaborate decorations. The quarter galleries are false.
The draft also shows the channels fixed at deck level. This was a feature of French built brigs and is evidence that the bulwarks were
lightly constructed. The French appear to have placed emphasis on speed rather than sea-keeping qualities. It is highly likely that
following capture, the Curieux’s upper works required reconstruction in order to enable them to withstand the 24 and 32 pdr carronades
fitted in British service. The channels would have been raised as shown in the painting. Indeed evidence of this fact is shown in
Nicholas Pocock’s painting of the Curieux leaving Antiqua on her return to England in 1805. He shows the channels raised above deck
level. Pocock was an experienced sailor having commanded ships. His work can therefore be relied upon to accurately reflect the
technical aspects of ships of the period.
French built ships were not highly regarded by high ranking British naval officers due mainly to their light build and inadequate
fastenings which did not stand up to the rigours imposed in British naval service. They frequently required expensive and lengthy
refits which necessitated them being taken out of service. However French ship design enjoyed a popularity among junior naval officers
primarily due I suspect to their fast sailing qualities. Contemporary Admiralty drafts of the Curieux show a sharp mid–ship section
which suggests she was capable of a good turn of speed. This was demonstrated in practise during her fast passage from Antiqua to
Plymouth in June/July 1805.
A final interesting fact about the Curieux concerns a former crew member. Lt Provo Wallis (1791 – 1892) later Admiral of the Fleet
established a record for the length of naval service in the British Royal Navy. Records show that his name was still carried on the
active list when he died at the fine age of 100years!
7th August 2017