The ‘Leopard’ Incident, 1807

In 1807, writes C.E.S. Dudley, when the British were enforcing their world-wide blockade against France, a short action took place off the Virginian coast that led to violent controversy.

On June 22nd, 1807, the British warship Leopard engaged the United States frigate Chesapeake in a short action. The engagement was a source of violent controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain and the United States there were public demands for war. It was only after prolonged negotiations that the two governments patched up an agreement designed to prevent future incidents of a similar kind.

The Leopard, commanded by Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, formed part of a flotilla operating from the Virginian coast under the orders of Captain Douglas of H.M.S. Bellona. The flotilla’s main task was to enforce the worldwide British blockade against France in accordance with the Orders-in-Council of early 1807; but it had an additional responsibility to search vessels suspected of harbouring deserters from the Royal Navy. In June 1807, Captain Douglas had two particular undertakings in hand: to intercept two French warships sheltering inside United States territorial waters near the port of Norfolk in Chesapeake Bay, and to search the Chesapeake.

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