A sixth rate warship on the stocks circa 1740.
Friday, March 06, 2020 Charleston County Library

The presence of British warships in Charleston harbor was not confined to a few isolated events during the American Revolution. Between 1720 and 1775, a succession of royal frigates was stationed here to protect the colony’s valuable trade and to assist His Majesty’s government. Their activities form an important part of South Carolina’s maritime history that is not well remembered on these shores. To jog the collective memory with an overview of this nautical topic, let’s cruise back in time and survey the colonial horizon with an archival spyglass.

Charleston was not only the first town established in the English colony of South Carolina; it was also the first and principal port of this state from 1670 to the present. As such, the movement of ships in and out of Charleston harbor forms one of the principal features of this community’s rich history. Privately-owned commercial vessels have always formed the backbone of the coastal, inter-colony, interstate, and trans-Atlantic trade that brought wealth and prosperity to a portion of the people in South Carolina. During our colonial era, that valuable maritime trade attracted thieves and smugglers whose nefarious actions precipitated government intervention. Dozens of British warships once sailed into Charleston harbor, but their visits were not evenly spread across our colonial calendar. Rather, the local presence of royal warships was largely confined to our years as a royal colony. To understand the reasons behind this fact, we need to review the naval policies in place during the earliest days of the Carolina colony.

South Carolina was created as a proprietary English colony, a privately-owned real estate venture granted by King Charles II to a group of eight lordly men. As I discussed in a recent program (see Episode No. 139), proprietary colonies existed under the indirect care of the crown government. The king and his ministers were interested in the welfare of various proprietary colonies, but they trusted the proprietors who actually owned them to administer and defend those territories. In this management scheme, ships of the Royal Navy rarely visited the ports of proprietary colonies. Large ships of the line and smaller naval vessels might call at various colonial ports during the execution of a wartime mission, or whenever they needed provisions or repairs, but the English (and later British) Navy did not call at proprietary colonies on a regular basis unless there was some exceptionally strategic reason for doing so.

If and when pirates or enemy privateers harassed the merchant ships sailing into and out of proprietary ports like Charleston, it was up to the provincial assembly pay private citizens to outfit vessels to disperse the attackers. In contrast to this ad-hoc system of coastal protection, those colonies under the direct administration of the crown, like Virginia, Jamaica, and New York, benefited from the regular presence of his Majesty’s warships. The Lords of the Admiralty designated permanent postings, or “stations,” at such royal colonies, and sent a succession of small warships, commanded by post captains, to patrol their respective coastlines. Such vessels occasionally sailed along the Carolina coast in the course of their normal duties and when sailing home to England, but they rarely took the time to cross the treacherous sandbars guarding the entrance to Charleston harbor.

During the proprietary era of the South Carolina colony, from the arrival of the first English settlers in 1670 to the Revolution of 1719, only a handful of warships of the Royal Navy crossed the bar and anchored in Charleston harbor. The paucity of documentary records from these early years of our history makes it difficult to reconstruct a precise list of such warship and the dates of their visits, but recently I’ve been working on this topic. I’ll mention a few examples to illustrate the irregular nature of the Royal Navy’s presence in proprietary-era Charleston.

His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Richmond, a twenty-four-gun frigate under the command of Captain James Dunbar, sailed from England to Bermuda to Charleston in the spring of 1680. Her mission was civil rather than military in nature, however, for the Richmond carried a cargo of forty-six French Protestant or Huguenot settlers. When they disembarked at Oyster Point on April 30th, 1680, they formed the first wave of what become a tide of French Huguenot immigrants to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. The Richmond sailed for Barbados a month later, in late May, and continued her normal duties patrolling his Majesty’s valuable West Indian colonies.[1]

The HMS Swan, another twenty-four-gun frigate, sustained serious damage during an engagement in the Caribbean Sea in early 1707. Following the powerful current of the Gulf Stream, the Swan limped northward under the temporary command of Henry Blinston and anchored in Charleston harbor in late March. Here she received two new masts, a new bowsprit, and various provisions before sailing for Barbados in late April. Four months later, in August 1707, the Swan foundered in a hurricane and all hands were presumed lost at sea.[2]

During the early days of the Yemasee War in the late spring of 1715, the HMS Success sailed down the Atlantic coast from her post in Virginia to provide assistance to the white settlers of South Carolina. Between May of 1715 and April of 1716, Captain Samuel Mead took this twenty-gun ship on excursions to Boston and Virginia to ferry muskets and other military supplies back to Charleston. One month after the Success sailed back to Virginia, Captain Thomas Howard brought the HMS Shoreham down from Hampton Roads for an extended visit to South Carolina. Precisely one year after arriving, having done very little besides resting at anchor in the harbor, Captain Howard and the Shoreham left Charleston in May 1717 and returned to her station in Virginia.[3]

On each of the aforementioned occasions, and a few others like them during the first fifty years of South Carolina’s existence, warships of the Royal Navy called at Charleston only when a specific occasion mandated such a visit. They occasionally brought people and emergency supplies, received emergency repairs, and maintained a brief presence during a time of alarm. The capital and principal port of South Carolina was not part of the normal jurisdiction of the British Navy, however, and that fact was not a secret. When the navy began sweeping pirates from their comfortable nests among the Bahama Islands in 1716, some of those ruthless corsairs began looking for fresh prey along the coastline of the two Carolinas. In 1718, the people of Charleston watched a number of pirate ships capture merchant vessels just outside the bar, and the notorious Blackbeard even held a number of ships and townsfolk for ransom in the harbor (see Episode No. 91). Letters were sent to England begging the proprietors of Carolina and the king to send maritime assistance to Charleston and to make South Carolina a regular station for his Majesty’s warships.

During the years 1718 and 1719, several international factors delayed the arrival of warships to patrol the coast of South Carolina. As I described recently in Episode No. 140, the proprietors of the Carolina colony were disinclined to send any assistance because of a petty power struggle with members of the elected assembly in Charleston. The British Admiralty was too busy watching Spain’s movements in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean to divert valuable sea power to pacify the tiny population of a peripheral colony. The outbreak of the War of the Quadruple Alliance in Europe in late 1718 eclipsed Carolina’s cry for naval protection, but Charleston’s bloodless coup d’etat of December 1719 succeeded in opening the eyes of British government. At the request of the crown, the Lords of the Admiralty created a new, permanent post initially called the “Carolina Station.” From the spring of 1720 to the autumn of 1775, the port of Charleston served as the regular base of operations for a succession of more than sixty warships of the British Navy.

South Carolina’s first station ship was the HMS Flamborough, which sailed from Nassau, in the Bahamas, to Charleston in May 1720 and remained here until mid-July 1721. A week before the Flamborough’s departure, the HMS Blandford arrived as her replacement. The Blandford was joined by the HMS Phoenix in late 1723, and remained on the Carolina station until she was relieved by the HMS Scarborough in the summer of 1724. And so on, in succession, the people of Charleston witnessed the arrival and departure of more than sixty royal warships over a period of fifty-five years. The last of these vessels, the HMS Tamar, exchanged a few shots with an American schooner in November 1775, and then sailed away to New York with South Carolina’s last royal governor.[4]

I hesitate to provide an exact number of ships on the South Carolina Station for two reasons. First, some of the vessels posted here received orders to transfer to other ports, and those vessels were occasionally ordered back to Charleston. I don’t think we should double-count such cases. Second, some ships that were technically stationed elsewhere, such as North Carolina, Virginia, and the Bahamas, called at Charleston periodically for repairs and supplies. Some of those neighboring warships touched at Charleston just briefly, while others visited for extended periods of time on a regular basis. A few vessels technically posted elsewhere visited Charleston so frequently that the Admiralty chastised them for neglecting the safety of their home ports. In light of all these circumstances, the task of counting these station ships can get rather muddled. To simplify the matter, I’ll offer the following conclusion: From the spring of 1720 to the end of 1775, there was always at least one—and sometimes as many as five—British warship(s) sitting in Charleston harbor or patrolling the Carolina coastline.[5]

The vessels serving on the Carolina station in the eighteenth century were not the large ships-of-the-line that carried multiple rows of cannon and hundreds of sailors. Charleston, like other colonial stations, hosted a succession of smaller vessels designed for maneuverability, speed, and cruising distance rather than firepower. In the British Navy’s system of ranking warships by the number of guns or cannons they carried, these three-masted, ship-rigged, twenty-gun cruisers were generally called sixth-rate frigates (although the term “frigate” took on a more specific meaning in the middle of the eighteenth century). Sixth-rate station ships were often paired with slightly smaller unrated vessels known as sloops-of-war. Carrying anywhere from eight to sixteen carriage guns and a crew of less than a hundred men, two-masted sloops-of-war were generally rigged either as a snow or a ketch. That’s an important feature that distinguishes the military sloop-of-war from the more familiar civilian sloop—the smaller single-masted vessel preferred by most pirates and privateers.

Although they lacked sufficient firepower to batter an enemy armada, sixth-rate frigates and sloops-of-war were ideally suited for patrolling shallow coastal waters and chasing down suspicious vessels. Their small size, compared to the massive ships-of-the-line carrying up to a hundred heavy cannon and five hundred men, also enabled station vessels to sail over the shallow sandbars generally found at the mouth or entrance to natural harbors. Before the advent of modern jetties and dredging techniques that created permanent commodious ship channels in harbors like Charleston, Beaufort, Savannah, and elsewhere, the process of sailing into and out of a natural harbor required a sound knowledge of the local underwater landscape, the rhythm of the tides, and the habits of the prevailing winds. The captains of his Majesty’s warships on the Carolina station always paid a skilled harbor pilot to command their vessels over the bar, and were usually obliged to wait until high tide to make the attempt.

For example, Captain George Anson was stationed in Charleston between 1724 and 1735 in a succession of sixth-rate warships called the Scarborough (1724–28), Garland (1728–30), and Squirrel (1732–35). These vessels were nearly identical twenty-gun ships, each measuring 106 feet along the gundeck, more than twenty-eight feet in breath, carrying approximately 375 tons burthen, and sailed by a crew of 130 men and boys. Captain Anson always experienced some difficulty in traversing the shallow maze of sandbars at the entrance of Charleston harbor, but, with the help of skilled pilots, he usually made it over the bar without incident. In contrast, Commodore Anson did not attempt to traverse the bar when he passed by Charleston in June 1739 with the HMS Centurion. That fourth-rate, 1,000-ton ship carried sixty heavy guns, a crew of 365 men, and sat too low in the water to risk the notoriously difficulty sandbar. Similarly, the large fifty-gun British warships that attacked Charleston in 1776 and again in 1780 were obliged to off-load their cannon temporarily in order to get over the bar and into the harbor.[6]

The principal duty of the warships stationed in South Carolina was to cruise along the coastline two or three times a year, from Cape Fear to the Savannah River, for the protection of the merchant ships sailing into and out of Charleston. These cruises averaged around four or five weeks in duration, and occasionally included diversions to nearby colonial ports. Before embarking on a cruise, the station ships usually displayed a certain flag or some other signal to notify all the merchant vessels in the harbor of her intention to put to sea. The captains of merchant vessels would then visit the post captain to discuss the formation of a convoy outside the bar. With the clock ticking, so to speak, ships carrying goods and passengers destined for northerly ports like Philadelphia, New York, Boston, or England, would scramble to prepare for sea. Once the members of the pre-arranged convoy had assembled outside the bar, the warship would escort the civilian vessels approximately one hundred leagues (three hundred nautical miles) to the northward—to the eastern edge of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina—before turning back to cruise towards Georgia.

Station ships also provided assistance to merchant vessels in distress. If an incoming ship, loaded with sugar, rum, or African captives, got stuck on the bar at the entrance to Charleston harbor, the post captain would often order a squadron of crewmen to deploy the ship’s boats and rush to their aid. His Majesty’s sixth-rate frigates carried two boats—a twenty-seven-foot pinnace that rowed with eight oars and a seventeen-foot yawl that rowed with six—that were normally stowed on the deck in the ship’s waist.[7] While the warship remained at anchor in the harbor, the captain and crew regularly used these boats, which included auxiliary sails, for general transportation and to ferry provisions to and from the ship.

The hulls of all ocean-going vessels accumulate various forms of bio-growth and muck that tend to slow their speed and maneuverability. To maintain their seaworthiness, all such vessels have to come out of the water periodically for a good scrubbing and resurfacing. A dry-dock, which holds a vessel upright for maintenance, is an ideal facility for such work, but there was no dry dock in eighteenth-century Charleston. Small sloops and schooners generally laid on their sides on a hard beach a low tide in order to scrub down, but larger vessels like a sixth-rate gunship required a proper careening wharf with specialized equipment, where they could safely “heave down” onto one side at a time. The details of ship careening in early Charleston could easily fill an hour of your time, so I’ll save most of that curious discussion for a later date. For the moment, however, I’ll simple observe that most, if not all, of his Majesty’s warships that careened in Charleston harbor did so at a place initially called Quelch’s Creek, which by the late 1720s became known as Hobcaw Creek, a tributary of the Wando River.

The periodic process of careening including included scrubbing, scaping, caulking, replacing planking, and paying—coating the hull with pitch, tar, and other water-resistant materials. Repairs to other parts of the ship, above the waterline, generally took place while riding at anchor in the harbor, opposite East Bay Street. Here the crew patched the sails, spliced the cables, fashioned new yards and masts, coated exposed surfaces with tar and rosin, and even scaled the guns to keep them in prime condition. Merchant ships entering the harbor commonly fired a few cannons as a mark of respect to the forts of Charleston and to his Majesty’s ships, to which the post captain always ordered a similar salute in reply. On public holidays such as the king’s birthday and the anniversary of his coronation, the royal warships hoisted aloft all their flags and colors and drank toasts of rum as they fired rounds of celebratory salutes.

In short, the continued presence of naval warships in the vicinity of Charleston harbor between 1720 and 1775 contributed to the safety and security of this community and facilitated the rising fortunes of the maritime trade flowing in and out of this port. His Majesty’s ships kept the pirates at bay, and only a relatively small number of French and Spanish privateers dared to venture along the South Carolina coastline during times of war in the 1740s and 1750s.

Beyond the success of their military objectives, the sixty-odd warships that called at the port of Charleston during the span of more than a half-century also contributed to the social and cultural fabric of this community. A number of the post captains stationed here, like George Anson, John Gascoigne, Peter Warren, and Thomas Arnold, for example, invested in real estate and retained a connection to South Carolina long after they departed the colony. Other naval officers like Lieutenant Henry Scott (the 3rd Earl of Deloraine) and Captain Lord William Campbell married local girls and planted even deeper roots in the Lowcountry.

Thanks to the robust surviving records of each of these warships, now found among the Admiralty records at the National Archive of the United Kingdom at Kew, we can actually learn a lot about Charleston during the second half of our colonial era. The captain, lieutenant, and master of each warship were required to keep a daily written log of weather conditions, activities, and geographic coordinates. Within these surviving records, we find a daily record of Charleston’s weather covering more than half of the eighteenth century. We also find descriptions of prominent landmarks in and around Charleston harbor that no longer exist, descriptions of coastal sea islands, harbors, inlets, and other geographical features not found in historic documents on this side of the Atlantic. These logbooks also provide a bit of valuable insight into any number of events that took place in and around Charleston during the “golden age” of colonial South Carolina. Anyone researching a specific event that occurred here between 1720 and 1775 should definitely consider looking into the logbooks of the warship(s) stationed in the harbor at the time to see if her officers made any valuable observations.[8]

The surviving muster lists of these British naval vessels, which include detailed information about the arrival and departure of thousands of crewmen, also represent a sort of genealogical trove. Having looked at samples of this material during a recent trip to Kew, I noted that dozens of sailors—the working-class “jack tars”—stepped away from each of those British ships and started new lives in the Lowcountry. The extant muster lists demonstrate that a good number of them deserted illegally, but many asked for and received permission to separate from his Majesty’s service in Charleston. Some were later impressed aboard other warships short of their full complement, but an untold number remained ashore and might have descendants still walking among us.[9]

One could easily write a story about each of the warships stationed in Charleston harbor between 1720 and 1775. Similarly, the story of just about every event that occurred in or around Charleston harbor in that half century preceding the American Revolution involves one of these station ships in one way or another. For these reasons, I felt it was important to provide an overview of a topic that floats in the background of so much of our history. Many thousands of vessels—big and small, sail and steam—have passed through our historic harbor over the centuries, but few were as interesting and as dynamic as the warships of the British Navy, and none left such a valuable trail of records in their wake.



[1] Captain Dunbar’s 1680 logbook for the Richmond is found at the National Archives of the United Kingdom, ADM 51/3949. The number of Huguenot passengers is given in a letter from Jacob Guerard to the Navy Board, dated 14 May 1680; see ADM 106/349/216. For more details about the Richmond, see Rif Winfield, British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1603–1714: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates (Barnsley, England: Seaforth Publishing, 2009), 327.

[2] See the logbook of Captain Blinston’s command of the Swan at the National Archives of the United Kingdom, ADM 51/957. For details about the Swan, see Winfield, British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1603–1714, 393.

[3] See the logbook of Captain Mead’s command of the Success at the National Archives of the United Kingdom, ADM 51/938. Captain Howard's logbook for the Shoreham is ADM 51/4341. Some historians have asserted that the HMS Shoreham was present in Charleston harbor during the Revolution of December 1719, but at that moment she was being broken up for rebuilding at Woolwich, England; see Rif Winfield, British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714–1792: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates (Barnsley, England: Seaforth Publishing, 2007), 294.

[4] The Flamborough, commanded by Captain John Hildesley, departed from New Providence, Bahamas, on 1 May 1720 and crossed Charleston bar on 17 May. See Captain Hildesley’s logbook at the National Archives of the United Kingdom, ADM 51/357. Some authors, including W. E. May, assert that the Flamborough arrived in Charleston on 5 October 1719, but that date represents her arrival at her initial station in the Bahamas. For a brief description of the Tamar’s engagement with the Defence on 12 November 1775, see David Ramsay, The History of the Revolution of South Carolina, from a British Province to an Independent State, volume 1 (Trenton, N.J.: Isaac Collins, 1785), 49–50.

[5] For a comprehensive but imperfect list of vessels, see W. E. May, “His Majesty’s Ships on the Carolina Station,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 71 (July 1970):162–69. Mr. May’s list also appears as an appendix to P. C. Coker, Charleston’s Maritime Heritage, 1670–1865 (Charleston, S.C.: Cokercraft Press, 1987), 295–96. The source material used to construct Mr. May’s list—an eighteenth-century naval summary—is itself imperfect, but a more authoritative list could be constructed by consulting the captain’s logs of each of the vessels contained in May’s list and extracting more precise data. Note also that Mr. May’s list does not include all of the warships that called briefly at Charleston.

[6] For further details of the Scarborough, Garland, Squirrel, and Centurion, see Winfield, British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714–1792, 188, 247; 186–248; 244, 249; 121–22. George Anson 1739 logbook, found at the National Archives, ADM 51/174, shows that the Centurion remained at anchor outside Charleston bar from June 5th to the 15th, 1739, while the ship’s boats went into the harbor.

[7] W. E. May, The Boats of Men-of-War; second edition (Annapolis, Md.: National Maritime Museum, 1999), 36, 47–48, 53–54, 56, 91–92.

[8] The surviving captain’s logs held by the National Archive at Kew are cataloged under the heading ADM 51, and the master’s logs are cataloged under the heading ADM 52. By combining one of these headings with the name of a vessel and a date range to perform a Boolean search in their online catalog, Discovery, one can find the shelf location of the logbook in question. The surviving lieutenants’ logbooks are held at the Caird Library and Archive at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.

[9] The surviving ship muster lists held by the National Archive at Kew are cataloged under the heading ADM 36. By combining this heading with the name of a vessel and a date range to perform a Boolean search in their online catalog, Discovery, one can find the shelf location of the muster lists in question. These lists might be invaluable to genealogists.


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