The Strange Case of the Frigate L’Indien a.k.a. South Carolina

Throughout the American Revolution, our Founding Fathers were desperate for ships that could take on the Royal Navy on equal terms. Before France entered the war, French ship designer Jacques Boux was commissioned to design a large warship. What Boux laid out was a 40-gun frigate with the structure of a 74 gun ship-of-the-line.

It was built and launched in 1778 in Amsterdam with twenty-eight Swedish made 36-pounders and twelve long 12-pounders that would out-range normal size guns of their caliber. With the ship in the water, the British put extensive pressure on the Dutch not to let it leave. Its first captain was to be John Paul Jones, but for three years, the British managed to keep the ship named L’Indien in port.

British pressure forced the shipyard to sell L’Indien to Louis XVI in 1781 who then gave it to the Duke of Luxembourg who turned it over to the South Carolina Navy in return for 25% of any prize money. Yes, the State of Carolina had authorized a Navy and it operated independent of the Continental Navy. More about them in a later blog.

L’Indien’s first captain was Alexander Gillon who was in France to buy ships for his state’s navy and he renamed her South Carolina. The heavily armed ship sailed for Charleston in late 1781 with a mixed crew of American and European seaman. Since the British occupied Charleston, Gillon took South Carolina and her prizes to Havana, Cuba.

In the spring of 1782, South Carolina joined a Spanish force that captured the Bahamas and Gillion headed north to Philadelphia. There she sat for six months and the Duke of Luxembourg replaced Gillon with John Joyner.

While in port, South Carolina was inspected by Joshua Humphreys who found it full of innovative features, particularly the design and shape of its hull. Twelve years later, Humphreys improved on Boux’s hull design when he created what would become the U.S.S. Constitution and U.S.S. Constellation.

Manned with an inexperienced crew that included eight former British and 50 Hessian soldiers that were captured during the Battle of Saratoga, Joyner took South Carolina to sea in November 1782. He didn’t make it to the Atlantic because in Delaware Bay, he ran into H.M.S. Diomede, 44 guns and two 32-gun frigates H.M.S. Quebec and H.M.S. Astraea. The British chased South Carolina for 18 hours before they boxed her in. After being bombarded for two hours, Joyner hauled down his flag.

The British didn’t think South Carolina was fit to be a warship so she was converted to a transport and 600 German soldiers back to Germany from New York in 1783. Not much is known about South Carolina’s fate other than during World War II, her bell was found in a rope mill on the Ganges River between Kolkata (then Calcutta) and the Indian Ocean. The presumption was that she was sold by the Royal Navy and used as a merchantman. The location of the bell suggests that she made at least one voyage to India.


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