Napoleonic Flintlocks Rise from Watery Grave

Napoleon & Sphinx-Jean-Léon_Gérôme_003Alexandria, Egypt, is a bustling, modern third-world city with few visible reminders of its past. But many archeological treasures in Alex have been spared the assault of the bulldozer and cement mixer — because they’re under water. This includes anything from Alexander’s time, later sculptures and other artefacts from the Ptolemaic dynasty of Hellenized Alexandria, and then, some reminders of later colonizers from the 19th and 20th Centuries.

This cannon is part of the scattered wreck of the burnt and sunken flagship L'Oriente.

This cannon is part of the scattered wreck of the burnt and sunken flagship L’Oriente.

Napoleon’s ill-fated 1798-1801 campaign in Egypt at first brought him land victories, and booty aplenty, some of which is still in Paris. But the French Navy was a perennial 2nd Place finisher vis-a-vis the Royal Navy, and in an 1801 battle at Aboukir Bay, the results were cataclysmic for the French: only recently has the sequence of the disaster, in which an anchored French squadron was caught napping by Horatio Nelson’s British fleet, been decoded from the clues available in the Frenchmen’s wrecks.

But the ship in question here is not one of the ill-fated ships of the line or frigates from the Battle of the Nile. It’s unclear whether the ship in question, yclept Le Patriot, was military or commercial, but it was probably commercial as there was another ship named Le Patriot in the French Navy — and not in Egypt. We don’t even know who sank Le Patriot What we do know is that the shipwreck on the sands of Alexandria Bay has yielded a lot of flintlock-era small arms, like this:


As you can see, the arms are somewhat the worse for wear after a couple of centuries in salt water. There may be nothing holding this flintlock pistol together but the encroachments of sea life.

Here’s a similarly rough long gun:


Russian underwater excavators, working in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, have found dozens of 18th century firearms near Alexandria’s harbour during an underwater search for sunken ships.

Divers with Napoleon guns

The weapons are believed to date back to the 18th century when Napoleon led an expedition to Egypt to protect French trade interests, undermine British access to India, and establish scientific enterprise in Egypt, Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh El Damaty said

Discovered Napoleon weapons from sunken ship Patriot by Luxor Times 2

El Damaty said the sunken French artillery was once on board “Le Patriot”, a ship in Napoleon’s fleet that sank near the eastern harbour of Alexandria.

The site lies close to Pharos Island, once the home of Alexandria’s ancient lighthouse, which was considered one of the seven ancient Wonders of the World. It was the third longest surviving ancient structure of the world, until it was destroyed by earthquakes in the first millennium. The rubble was later used by the Mamlukes to build Alexandria’s Citadel of Qaitbay.

El Damaty said the discovery opens the door for more research into this era.

For now, the artillery has been sent to the Restoration Centre at the Grand Egyptian Museum for further study and restoration, he said.

via Napoleon’s sunken artillery recovered from Alexandria harbour – Daily News Egypt.

A friend of ours who’s an archaeologist of sorts has a kind of mantra that he swears by: “There is always something left.”

French arms of the Napoleonic period were the equal of those of any other nation in the world, but like their peers, they had no corrosion protection to speak of, which makes stabilizing the recovered guns a very critical matter, or they’ll soon, if left out of water, flake away to nothing.

7 thoughts on “Napoleonic Flintlocks Rise from Watery Grave

  1. Expat

    I’ve long been interested in late 18th and early 19th century naval warfare. The one overriding fact then was the French had the better ships and the British the better men. The Brits always won. The Dutch had both good ships and men but too few in number. The Spanish just got in the way. After 1812, the US held it’s own, the heavy frigate USS Constitution and the later Ironclads being revolutionary.
    Now we have;
    Hope the hell the boats and guns work.

  2. Aesop

    Don’t be an arteriodactylophobe.
    Diversity is our strength.
    It must be true, or the Army CoS wouldn’t have said it, right?

    It might also go a long way to explaining why Navy’s mascot is a goat.

  3. Aesop

    Artiodactylaphobe, dangit.

    Anyways, I was wondering if someone was going to trot out “French weaponry, never been fired, only dropped once…”

    And I’m not a marine archaeologist, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once, so I’m thinking the fact that they didn’t immediately immerse their finds in salt water tanks on their boat means the guns in the pictures are rather bumbling amateurs who are shortly to be possessed of a large pile of iron oxide flakes. But I’m open to further explanation. I’d like to hope that someone would bother to conserve something retrieved at such a cost in time and trouble.

  4. Wise Cave Owl

    the French didn’t always lose. Adm. De Grasse’s squadron cut off Cornwallis’ supply-line at Yorktown, and forced his surrender to Washington…thanks to intel failure and slow communication, a Brit squadron sent to destroy De Grasse sailed right by and went down to the Caribbean looking for him; by the time the error was realized, it was all too late. Also, I think there was a fair-sized naval battle in the Indian Ocean during the Napoleonic Wars that the French won, tho w/o strategic significance.

  5. Y.

    After two hundreds years in salt-water, corrosion protections would’ve been of no use. If the metal can oxidise, corrosion protection is just delaying the inevitable.

    Perhaps something really exotic, expensive and modern might work.

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