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Portsmouth Builds Rare HMS America in 1749


HMS America exhibit

First pork barrel project

Then came the Siege of Fort Louisbourg. In 1745 England was at war with France. In support of the Motherland, 3,000 New Englanders successfully took over the strategic French fort in Nova Scotia. William Pepperrell of Kittery helped British Gen Peter Warren win the day, which is why their life-sized portraits still hang inside the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

"The British Navy very much liked having their ships built at home because it was big business," Rob Napier says. "They were loathe, I think, to send shipbuilding contracts outside of southern England."

But amazingly, they did exactly that. As a nod to the impressive colonial victory at Louisbourg, Portsmouth was given the contract to build HMS America. Col. Nathaniel Meserve, who had been instrumental to Pepperrell in the victory at Louisbourg, received the commission. Another ship, HMS Boston, was built nearby in 1748 and survived four years.  

The British Navy sent its agents to oversee the project and it has been speculated that one of them, possibly familiar with the English tradition, may have built the model for Meserve. This theory, Napier says, may account for the fact that the Portsmouth model -- built from local wood  in the wilds of colonial America --is less refined and ornate than those made by master model makers for the British Admiralty. This also makes our model very rare.

"This is a real British dockyard model," Napier says, "built on this side of the Atlantic, which makes it stunningly unique. It is very unlikely that there is another authentic British dockyard model built in the United States."

When Meserve died of smallpox in 1758 at the second siege of Louisbourg. the model was located in a glass case in his West Front Room. Worth 50 pounds according to Meserve's will, it was among the most valuable items in his house. Shipbuilders George Boyd and George Raynes continued the North End shipbuilding tradition into the 19th century.

The model of HMS America, however, fared better than the ship. Apparently built from green wood, the warship was a disappointment to the British Navy and no more commissions followed. The real HMS America saw no significant action. The model ended up in the possession of Gov. John Langdon, also a shipbuilder, who later built the Ranger that made history in the hands of John Paul Jones.

Portsmouth built a second warship named Americaunder John Langdon in 1782, but that is a sad story for another day. That ship too was a disappointment. Assigned to Capt. John Paul Jones, the 74-gun USS America was instead gifted by Congress to the French at the end of the American Revolution. It has been suggested, jokingly, that Jones and Langdon may have taken the name from the model of the HMS America. That is pure speculation, but what we do know, is that the two men disliked one another intensely.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018 
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