A French Trafalgar Veteran’s Naval Trophy of an Atlantic Single Ship Action of 1806
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Diameter: 18cm (7in)
Silver. A small French dish commemorating the single ship action of 3rd / 4th March, 1806, between the Vigilant-class French warship Observateur and an unknown British sixth rate ship of the line. The centre engraved with a Civic Crown of oak leaves and acorns, inscribed within ’Monsieur / Henri de Berc?? / Souvenir / du Combat sur / L’observateur / mars 3 et 4 1806.’ The oak wreath (derived from Roman military award to those who saved the lives of fellow citizens by slaying an enemy) further engraved at its apex with a masthead flag, canon, boarding axe and anchor; and at its base a fallen British ensign. The reverse of the dish bearing French tax mark for 1838.
On 1 March 1806 Observateur, 16-gun brig of 104 souls under the command of Lieutenant de vaisseau Jean Croizė, sailed from Cadiz in company with her sister ship Argus (Lieutenant de vaisseau Yves-François Taillard). On the 3rd they encountered a British sixth-rate - this being the same size as the fictional Jack Aubrey’s H.M.S. Surprise - causing Argus to make sail and abandon Observateur.
The lone British ship cleared for action and engaging Observateur, inflicted casualties of several killed and wounded. Yet neither side could attain dominance. The two ships became entangled in an attempt by Observateur to board the British sixth rate, but somehow the British vessel manage to break free at the cost of her bowsprit shortly before nightfall. Next morning combat resumed, but at a distance and at length the British vessel withdrew, freeing Observateur to make for Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Although Observateur was unable to determine the name of her adversary, despite retaining an Ensign that had somehow fallen aboard, Croizé was able to report that his opponent was a three masted vessel of 26-guns - the smallest type of Royal Navy warship requiring a Post Captain to command it.
A few weeks later Observateur was at Cayenne being provisioned for a cruise of four months when Croizé fell ill. Accordingly Croizé was sent on shore with his personal effects which presumably included the present dish, and Observateur sailed without him; command having devolved on enseigne de vaisseau Robert-Henri Debernes. It was a lucky turn of events, as Observateur was captured a few days later after an exchange of gunfire with the fifth-rate frigate H.M.S. Tartar and schooner H.M.S. Bacchus on 9 June 1806.
Interestingly, Croizé, the presumed donor of the present dish, was a Trafalgar veteran. In a letter of 18 October 1805, Admiral Villeneuve informed the French Minister of the Navy that he had ordered Observateur to remain at Cadiz and was dividing her officers and men between the Indomptable (80-guns) and Algésiras (74-guns). It seems likely that Croizé and Debernes were sent to Algésiras, which though captured at Trafalgar was retaken when her sailors overpowered the British prize crew and returned her to Cadiz flying French colours. Croizé’s second-in-command in 1805, Bernard Franc, was seemingly ordered to Indomptable. She was damaged at Trafalgar and wrecked on the coast near Cadiz on 24 October 1805 with the loss of over a thousand lives that included some five hundred previously rescued from Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure.
Ref: Gravière, E.J. de La, (1869) ‘Guerres maritimes sous la république et l’empire’