Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm, by Thomas Luny. Orient is depicted aflame at the centre left.
|Laid down:||May 1790|
|Launched:||20 July 1791|
|Out of service:||August 1798|
|Fate:||Destroyed by explosion at the Battle of the Nile, August 1798|
|Class and type:||Océan-class ship of the line|
|Length:||65.18 m (213 ft 10 in) (196.6 French feet)|
|Beam:||16.24 m (53 ft 3 in) (50 French feet)|
|Draught:||8.12 m (26 ft 8 in) (25 French feet)|
|Sail plan:||3,265 m2 (35,140 sq ft)|
Orient was an Océan-class 118-gun ship of the line of the French Navy, famous for her role as flagship of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798, and for her spectacular destruction that day when her ammunition exploded. The event was commemorated by numerous poems and paintings.
The ship was laid down in Toulon, and launched on 20 July 1791 under the name Dauphin Royal. In September 1792, after the advent of the French First Republic, and not yet commissioned, she was renamed Sans-Culotte, in honour of the Sans-culottes.
On 14 March 1795, she took part in the Battle of Genoa as flagship of Rear Admiral Martin. She covered the rear of the French line, exchanging fire with HMS Bedford and HMS Egmont, but lost contact with her fleet during the night and was thus prevented from taking further part in the action. In May 1795, Sans-Culotte was again renamed as a consequence of the Thermidorian Reaction, and took her best known name of Orient.
In 1798 Orient was appointed flagship of the squadron tasked with the invasion of Egypt, under Admiral Brueys, with Captain Casabianca as his flag officer. Orient also ferried the chiefs of the Armée d'Égypte, notably General Bonaparte. The fleet avoided the British blockade and captured Malta before landing troops in Egypt. Afterwards, the squadron anchored in a bay east of Alexandria, in a purportedly strong defensive position. The British squadron under the command of Nelson discovered the fleet on 1 August, and Nelson attacked at 5.40pm the same day, starting the Battle of the Nile. Nelson had his units sail between the shore and the French ships at anchor, picking them one by one in a cross-fire. Orient eventually came under fire from five ships, caught fire and exploded spectacularly at 22:30.
The number of casualties is disputed: the British reported 70 survivors, reflecting the numbers they rescued aboard their ships, and inferring considerable losses over the 1,130-man complement; however, the crew was far from complete at the time of the battle and a number of survivors might have been picked up by French ships. Contre-amiral Decrès reported as many as 760 survivors.
The explosion is also often presented as a turning point of the battle; as a matter of fact, the battle was won by the British when their reinforcements arrived at nightfall, and the interruption of the fighting was brief after the explosion.
The explosion of Orient struck the public of the time, both because of its historical signification and of its spectacular aesthetics. Its romantic load was compounded by the presence aboard of Captain Casabianca's young son, who died in the wreck, this particular detail inspired Felicia Hemans's poem Casabianca:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead
Shortly after the battle, Nelson was presented with a coffin carved from a piece of the main mast of Orient, which had been taken back to England for this purpose, he was put inside this coffin after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Between 1998 and 1999, the French archaeologist Franck Goddio led an expedition that carried out an underwater archaeological study of Orient's wreck site. Recovered artifacts included such items as coins, small arms, printing type from a printing press and personal possessions of crew members carried on board the vessel. The distribution of wreckage and artifacts on the sea floor lead Goddio to suggest that Orient was not destroyed by a single explosion, but by two almost simultaneous explosions.