Skip to main content
Related Content
Document Type
  • Ship History
Wars & Conflicts
File Formats
Location of Archival Materials

Ariel I (Sloop of War)

(SlpW: t. 435; l. 108'; b. 30'; cpl. 45; a. 16 9-pdr. sb.)


An airy and playful spirit who served Prospero, a wizard and the deposed Duke of Milan, who is the leading character in Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. As he carries out the sorcerer's commands, Ariel finds great fun in making sport of humans and in playing pranks upon Caliban, Prospero's deformed, sluggish, ill-humored, and treacherous slave


In the spring of 1780, while Commodore John Paul Jones was in command of Alliance, Benjamin Franklin, then one of the American commissioners at Paris, ordered him to load that frigate with munitions and military stores which he had acquired for Washington's Army and had assembled at L'Orient for shipment to the New World. Since more materiel of war was stored at that port than Alliance could hold, Franklin asked the French Minister of Marine for the use of the prize Ariel to carry the surplus. Soon thereafter, that sloop of war arrived at L'Orient for loading.

Built on the north bank of the Thames River, Ariel had been launched on 7 July 1777 by the Perry Shipyard in the Blackwall district of London's Poplar municipal borough. Early during her service in the Royal Navy, she conducted patrols in the Irish Sea. Then, commanded by Capt. Thomas MacKenzie, RN, she headed west across the Atlantic for duty along the coast of England's rebellious American colonies. While cruising off the shore of South Carolina, Ariel, rated as a 20-gun sloop of war although she then carried 26 9-pounder smooth-bore cannon, encountered the French frigate Amazone on 10 September 1779 and, after a long and fierce battle, was forced to surrender. Condemned as a lawful prize, the former British warship became the property of the French Navy, but apparently saw no service before she was placed at Franklin's disposal.

Meanwhile, Jones had left L'Orient, and journeyed to Paris to obtain funds with which to pay Alliance's crew back wages and long overdue prize money. During Jones' absence from his ship, Capt. Pierre Landais arrived in L'Orient. Franklin had recently relieved this erstwhile commanding officer of Alliance from command of that frigate for his disobedience to orders during a recent cruise of Jones' squadron and for his incompetence and disloyalty during the historic and heroic battle between the squadron's flagship, Bonhomme Richard, and the British frigate Serapis. Landais, prompted by Arthur Lee, a fellow commissioner but enemy of Franklin, seized command of Alliance on 13 June 1780. He sailed in the frigate on 8 July, bound for America with Lee and his suite on board as passengers but without most of the desparately needed military cargo which he left in L'Orient.

Since Landais' bizarre behavior had deprived Jones of Alliance, Jones assumed command of Ariel. He had the ship rerigged to improve her sailing qualities and removed 10 of his 26 guns to make room for more cargo. However, Ariel's sailing was also long delayed by loading the ship and by the need to obtain other vessels to carry the surplus cargo which Ariel could not hold. The ship, accompanied by merchantmen Luke and Duke of Leinster which Franklin had chartered to take care of the surplus supplies, departed L'Orient on 5 September, but they were held up in Groix Roads for over a month by contrary winds. The trio of ships finally put to sea on 7 October; but, the following day, one of the most severe storms in the history of the French coast broke and wreaked great havoc in the area, destroying many ships. Ariel lost all of her masts, sprang leaks, and suffered much other damage. Only Jones' superb seamanship enabled her to stay afloat and then to limp back into Groix Roads under a jury rig on the morning of 12 October.

Luke, faster and less damaged than Ariel, also managed to get back to port, but sailed independently before Ariel's repairs could be completed and was captured by a British warship. No record has been found of Duke of Leinster after her sailing on 7 October, so it is quite possible that she foundered during the hurricane.

More than two months passed before Ariel was seaworthy once more. She finally got underway again on 18 October. Since much of his ship's battery had been left in France, Jones followed a southern route in the hope of avoiding interference by the Royal Navy.

However, in this strategy, he was only partially successful. When his ship had reached a point some 200 miles north of the Leeward Islands, a lookout reported a large ship which soon began to approach Ariel. Rather than risk his only partially armed ship and the vital cargo and dispatches which she was carrying, Jones reluctantly had Ariel take to her heels. Jones hoped that she would shake off her pursuer during the night, but the stranger was in full sight when daylight returned the following morning, closer than she had been when last seen the previous evening.

Ever resourceful, Jones then shifted to a new plan. He would try to pass Ariel off as a warship of the Royal Navy. When his pursuer reached hailing distance of Ariel, Jones demanded that her captain identify himself and his ship which proved to be the 20-gun British privateer Triumph commanded by John Pindar. Jones then ordered the privateer's captain to come on board Ariel with documents to verify his statements. When Pindar did not do so, Jones opened fire and forced his surprised enemy to surrender following a short and one-sided struggle. However, after Triumph had struck her colors, Pindar maneuvered his ship to Ariel's weather bow while the latter was lowering a boat for a prize crew and then quickly sailed away from the slower American ship.

This engagement was John Paul Jones' last battle in the cause of American freedom, but he soon had to deal with trouble of another sort, a budding mutiny. After uncovering a plot to take over the ship by the English seamen whom he had enlisted from among British prisoners of war in France to fill out a crew built around survivors from Bonhomme Richard, he clapped a score of the troublemakers in irons. The rest of her voyage to the Delaware capes was uneventful, and Ariel finally reached Philadelphia with her badly needed military stores, which included 437 barrels of gunpowder, 146 chests of arms, a large quantity of shot, sheet lead, and much medicine, on 18 February 1781.

At the beginning of March, Ariel, still in port discharging her cargo, fired a salute to celebrate Maryland's ratification of the Articles of Confederation activating the new Nation's first central government.

Early in June 1781, Jones turned Ariel over to the Chevalier Anne-Cesar de La Luzerne, the French minister to the United States, who manned her with a French crew for the voyage back to France. She apparently served the French Navy until she was lost in 1793.

Published: Thu Jun 18 11:48:19 EDT 2015