July 15, 1782

The Narrows

From Shipwrecks and Nautical Lore of Boston Harbor by Robert F. Sullivan:

The historic French seventy-four gun Magnifique was wrecked while entering Boston Harbor on August 15, 1782. Often confused with the unsubstantiated loss of a British pay ship, the Magnifique, launched at Brest on March 18, 1749, was rated first class. She was 170 feet long, and fully manned with a crew of 750 men. Serving as a flagship on several occaisions, she distinguished herself in combat against the British. During 1782, the Magnifique was in the Marquis of Vaudreuil's squadron, commanded by Captain Macteigne.

Boston Harbor pilot David Darling, blamed for the towering man-o'-war's wreck was reduced to sexton and undertaker at New North Church. Bostonians treated him as a pariah for the embarassing incident, and children would scribble on the church door, 'Don't send this ship ashore, as you did the 74.' Darling has been castigated by historians over the centuries for his poor navigation, and one famed chronicler indicated that French sailors died because the wreck was so disastrous.

The captain's official letters, however, reveal that a sudden shift in wind and tardy reaction by the crew caused the ship to ground on a shoal off the northwest end of Lovell's Island. No evidence whatsoever suggests that pilot Darling was off course. Further, the Magnifique came to rest on the bar without even shaking. She did not plow into bristling rocks, tearing out her bottom and then sliding into the depths forever, as some contemporary writers would have us believe. She stranded about an hour before low tide just where other French warships occaisionally grounded without mishap. By the next high tide, though, the aging Magnifique had filled, and her decks were under harbor waters.

The French sailors and mariners had to abandon ship, and saving her cannon (thirty thirty-six pounders, thirty eighteen pounders, fourteen eight pounders) became the salvagers' mission. Efforts to refloat the ship seem not to have been especially energetic. Some bureaucrats promptly decided that our nation should compensate France for the Magnifique, and offered the new America, also a seventy-four, then on the stocks at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Darling clearly was mocked because many saw the offer as both a blow to their patriotic pride and as a drain on the fledgling nation's pocketbook.

Captain John Paul Jones, greatest naval hero of the times, had supervised building of the America, which was to be the first seventy-four-gun ship in our arsenal under his command. So disillusioned was he at losing his vessel that he resigned his commission and sailed off with the French fleet when it left Boston Harbor. The Magnifique wreck's ramifications were far-reaching and tainted with political intrigue.

The America, commanded by Captain Macteigne, formerly of the Magnifique, eventually sailed, armed with the latter's cannon. Most historians assert that the America was captured by the British. The original America, however, was scrapped at Brest, and a second, French-constructed vessel of the same name was the actual casualty. It is even said that the British Admiralty assumed they had taken the Portsmouth-built ship.

Antiquarians generally believe that the lost Magnifique is now beneath the dry part of Lovell's Island. Although the shoal named Seventy-four Bar seems to have formed over the hulk, bearings taken to the wreck site indicate no radical topographical change since the mid-1800s, when she was last seen. At that time, cannon balls and other artifacts were recovered."

Robert F. Sullivan, Shipwrecks and Nautical Lore of Boston Harbor