When Francois Thurot was defeated by British forces at the Mull of Galloway in February 1760, even the British public openly mourned the death of the feared French privateer and naval merchant captain.
At its Marine Sale on April 24 Bonhams is to offer a Derek Gardner painting depicting the French Commodore’s final sea battle, capturing the moments before his ship, the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, was taken by Captain John Elliot’s H.M.S Æolus (estimate £20,000 – £30,000).
Thurot’s defeat was a pivotal moment during the first truly global conflict – the Seven Years’ War – and contributed to Britain’s ultimate defeat of the French army. Their victory in that final battle is seen as vital in securing the supremacy of the British forces during the war, as it resulted in the capture of key regions in North America including Canada and the eastern section of French Louisiana.
Thurot’s Last Fight portrays the final encounter between Thurot and Elliot at the southern-most point of the Scottish border. The cluster of ships in the painting can be seen engaged in tense warfare, with Thurot’s ship on fire.
The final encounter between the ships ended four years of terrorism wreaked by the Frenchman on the British navy. In one year, he captured more than 60 vessels off the British coast.
On February 21st Thurot and 600 men attacked Carrickfergus, before navigating the Belle-Isle through the coasts of Northern Ireland towards the Isle of Man. After months at sea, the French fleet was depleted and was reported to be surviving on raw potatoes.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Bedford discovered the location of the French squadron and gathered all the ships he could to send them north. The naval frigates included the Æolus, Pallas and Brilliant commanded by Elliot. On February 28th, the British ships sighted the French fleet and there followed a four-hour cat-and-mouse chase from Belfast to the Mull of Galloway, where a bloody 90-minute exchange ensued between the two naval forces before Thurot’s ship was finally captured.
With his ships already badly damaged, Thurot suffered from the outset, losing his bowsprit and many men in the initial attack, before a second broadside secured victory for the British forces, killing 160 men – among them Thurot.
Thurot’s body was thrown over-board during the battle, and his corpse was found washed up on the Isle of Galloway, wrapped in a velvet curtain from the ship. He was found with his silver tobacco box, pocket-watch and ivory-poniard. The carpet has been kept at Monreith House, Dumfries, while Thurot’s watch is now in the possession of Castle Douglas. His ivory-poniard was recently exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh.
During his lifetime, Thurot was a popular figure among the British public due to his grandfather’s Irish heritage. On his death there was an outpouring of grief from the inhabitants of Galloway, Dumfries and the neighbouring Irish coast. Ballads, biographies, paintings and engravings were produced commemorating his life, and he became a martyred ‘folk hero’.
Memoirs written by Reverend Francis Durand in 1760 reveal Thurot spent a number of years living in Paddington, where he gained the affections of the English with his ‘most obliging and generous disposition’. Detailing his involvement with the Freemasons in London, Durand’s memoirs suggest the Frenchman did not want to fight against the British.
In March 1760, the Newcastle Courant described the sailor as possessing ‘the most amiable characteristics of a sailor or soldier, intrepid Courage and extensive Humanity’. A letter printed in the paper commented that ‘most people are sorry for his death’.