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14-gun Rhode Island Colonial Navy Brig TARTAR, 1745

After the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, in order to avoid squandering money in the national treasury, the British made a strenuous effort not to get involved in any wars, no matter how outrageous the provocation. Finally, however, war broke out with Spain in 1739, and Admiral Edward Vernon (the man who had recently invented “grog”) was assigned a large fleet to attack Spanish Caribbean ports. He sacked Portobelo and Chagres in Panama, but needed more soldiers to attack Cartagena, Colombia. Virginia Governor Gooch was in charge of raising 3000 men in America (including George Washington’s older brother Lawrence, who became Vernon’s aide, hence the new name of his Virginia plantation, “Mount Vernon”). Rhode Island’s contingent of men was backed up by the 12-gun Rhode Island Navy [single-masted] sloop Tartar. Her first captain in 1740 had been John Cranston; next in 1741 was Benjamin Wickham; Philip Wilkinson commanded her in 1743-4. Incompetence and death by tropical diseases ended the disastrous attack on Cartagena in mid-May 1741, only hours before the Spanish would have surrendered, so the sloop returned home. War then broke out with France in March 1744. Massachusetts Governor William Shirley believed that the French were on the verge of invading and conquering all of British America in order to solve their long-standing national deficit, so he planned to use 4200 New England amateur soldiers aboard 90 transports, guarded by small armed vessels under the command of Commodore Edward Tyng, to attack the French fortress-city of Louisbourg, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (then the third-largest seaport in North America); he wanted to persuade the French to delay or even cancel their invasion. The plan worked, and, with help from a few Royal Navy ships under Commodore Peter Warren, and from architect Peter Harrison (who supplied the complete plans of the fortress, drawn while he had been a prisoner there), Louisbourg was taken on 16 June 1745 – a big surprise on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result of the capture of Louisbourg, the French delayed their invasion of North America until 1747, when it was defeated at sea in two separate battles by British Admirals George Anson and Edward Hawke. The New England colonies had built small warships to assist in the Louisbourg operation, and the Rhode Island Navy’s useful contribution, as a result of a major 1744 rebuild of the 12-gun sloop, was the 14-gun [2-masted] brig Tartar and her wartime crew of up to 100 (including many free Blacks and Indians), along with 300 soldiers sailing on transports. Some of her 6-pounder cannons survive at the Newport Historical Society. She appears in a primitive sketch of the fleet near Louisbourg, and is described in prose. The Palladian stern and quarter-gallery windows on our reconstruction reflect the fact that ship-captain/architect Peter Harrison (1716-1775) was active in Newport in 1744, is known to have designed ships there, and is believed to have redesigned Tartar at no charge so that she was the handsomest vessel of her size in the world.

The Colonial Navy Brig Tartar

As the New England fleet neared Louisbourg, Tartar, commanded by Daniel Fones (1713-1790) of North Kingstown, spotted through the fog the powerful 670-ton French 36-gun frigate La Renommee (commanded by Guy Francois de Coetnempren Comte de Kersaint); she was comparable to the French frigate L’Hermione that toured the East Coast in 2015. On the brave initiative of Fones, the tiny brig left the convoy of transports, engaged the surprised frigate, and led her away in a lop-sided chase-battle on 3 April that enabled the rest of the fleet to escape through the fog and arrive safely; meanwhile, Fones used his brig’s speed and agility to escape in somewhat damaged condition at nightfall. It is no exaggeration to say that had Tartar not prevented that French frigate from destroying the American invasion force at sea, the French would have permanently captured all of British America and India! The USA would be speaking French today. Warren was so impressed that he then rented both brig and crew for a few months of service in the Royal Navy. At the 1748 peace conference, France was forced to return nearly all of captured India in exchange for Louisbourg. Tartar was sold out of the colony’s service in 1746, but she was operated as a privateer for 2 years with Fones as captain. Next, she is believed to have been placed in the Caribbean trade, where she would have brought back molasses (for making rum), sugar, coffee, ginger, chocolate, and mahogany. Louisbourg, incidentally, is being beautifully restored by Parks Canada to its 1744 appearance, so that visits by the historic ships of Colonial Navy are likely to be an exciting regular feature there. Cartagena’s historic port still looks much as it did when Tartar attacked the place, and so ships of Colonial Navy can be expected to visit there as well. There was no more important ship in the history of British colonial America than the brig Tartar. She measured 65 feet (20 metres) long on deck and 21 feet beam.

Colonial Navy Inc. (non-profit, tax-exempt) plans to build a full-sized operational copy of Tartar to take part in a year-round sail-training program with several other historic ship copies. She is to be built of cold-molded wood-epoxy laminates for strength and longevity. Our Project Director is John Millar, who built full-sized, operational copies of the 24-gun frigate Rose and the 12-gun sloop Providence, and was also an important part of building the copy of the brig Lady Washington on the West Coast. Tartar and Lady Washington are of identical size. Therefore, Millar is the right person to supervise this new ship. Contributions, which are tax-deductible, may be sent to Colonial Navy Inc., 710 South Henry Street, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185-4113. Please designate Tartar. A descendant of Captain Fones in California has kindly made a generous donation for building the brig.

Colonial Navy Inc.’s historic ship line-up: ships Batchelors Delight, General Pickering; barque Surprise; brigs Tartar, Cabot, Andrew Doria; schooner* Royal Savage; ketch Thunder;* sloop Enterprise; cutter Dolphin.

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