Historic presentation sword secured for National Maritime Museum

  • 3 August 2006

The National Maritime Museum, with financial assistance from The Art Fund, has added another treasure to its collection following a successful bid at auction to acquire the Macdonnell sword.

The sword, a fine Regency naval presentation sabre, was purchased at Bonhams for £12,600. The Art Fund contributed a £5,300 grant and additional came funding from the V&A/MLA Purchase Grant Fund.

The Macdonnell sword commemorates a tragic moment in maritime history when a British Royal Navy ship fought with a British postal ferry in a case of ‘friendly fire’.

The bloody naval engagement took place in the Bay of Biscay on 12 March 1814, when the British warship HMS Primrose failed to recognise the Duke of Marlborough as a Falmouth Packet ferry bound for Lisbon.

According to reports, the postal ferry’s small flags and the rather ‘slovenly manner’ in which it sailed led the captain of the warship to believe it was an English vessel under pirate control. In the battle that ensued, four men were killed and twenty-three injured.

When the tragic events became clear, the captain of HMS Primrose was admonished by a Court Martial at Plymouth for failing to use the correct private night signals in his attempt to hail the ferry. The captain of the Duke of Marlborough was praised for his ship’s bravery under the circumstances.

The Marlborough’s Captain, John Bull, and Master, William Macdonnell, were both presented with swords by the grateful surviving passengers.

The recently acquired ‘Macdonnell sword’ will be exhibited in the Museum later in the summer, and will stand alongside Bull’s sword which is already on display.

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