Ca-Ira, vaisseau français de 80 canons 1781-1796
by pierre Villié and martine Acerra

Book review in INA Quarterly (Institut of Nautical Archaeology)

This very interesting book in straightforward, uncomplicated French presents a study of the archaeological data retrieved from the ship-of-line Ca Ira. The analysis is complemented by a study of some of the most important French works on naval architecture of the eighteenth century. The vessel was built at Brest in 1781 as an eighty-gun ship and first christened Couronne. In 1791, in the heat of the French Revolution, it was renamed La Revolution, and in 1793, after the proclamation of the Republic, its name changed again to Ca Ira, after the line of a revolutionary poem « Ah! Ca ira, ça ira, ça ira les aristocrates on les pendra » (« All the aristocrats will hang »)

On the third of March 1796, Ca Ira left Toulon in the fleet of Admiral Martin. The ships sought to land six thousand French troops on Corsica and storm the strong British positions on the island. As a victim of unfortunate circumstances - and captain Horatio Nelson in HMS Agamemnon - Ca Ira was lost to the British fleet of Admiral Hotham only a few days later, during the battle of Cap Noli. Transformed into a hospital ship and stationed in Saint Florent on the northern coast of Corsica, the Ca Ira burned by accident in April 1796. Pierre Villié’s team found it in 1989 and spent the next five years excavating the site. This book is the result of that work.

The Ca Ira was excavated in the Gulf of Saint-Florent during five field seasons of four weeks each. The authors compare construction details observed on the wreck with theories of naval architecture propounded by Blaise Ollivier (Traité de construction, 1736), Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau (Eléments de l’architecture navale ou pratique de la constructiondes vaisseaux, 1752), M. de Duranti de Lironcourt (Instruction élémentaire et raisonnée sur la construction pratique des vaisseaux, en forme de dictionnaire, 1771), and Vial du Clairbois (Encyclopédie méthodique de la Marine, 1783-1787).


The book is divided into five chapters. The first chapter gives a cursory glimpse of the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the general revolutionary euphoria that led to the adoption of the song Ca Ira as the name of the vessel. The second chapter is a short but comprehensive account of the loss of the Ca Ira. The third chapter, written by Martine Acerra, tells the story of the appearance and development of the 80-gun French ship-of-the-line, and presents the context in witch the Couronne was designed and built. In the fourth chapter, an analysis of the archaeological data is presented. Sections of this chapter discuss the keel and false keel (p.32), the frames (p.40), the keelson and maststep (p.44), the planking (p.48), the copper sheating (p.52), the drainage system (p.54), the main mast step (p.67), the ballast (p.71), the archaeological finds, including the barrels for fresh water and the ammunition (p.73), the kitchen (p.78), and the marks of the British presence (p.79). A short fifth chapter with conclusions and a table summarising the archaeological analysis finishes the book. There is non index.

Very easy to read and presenting good illustrations - although the captions can sometimes be mistaken as titles and text - this book provides an interesting look at the eighteenth century evolution of French ship design and construction. I believe that it merit reading, both by scholars and avocational archaeologists.

For many reasons, Pierre Villié and his Tech Sub Association are a very good example oh what an independent non-profit organisation can achieve. It has trained avocational divers to perform scientifically informed work -the publication of the Calvi I wreck by this author in the Cahiers d’Archéologie Subaquatique requires mention here. The association has performed excellent work in the study and dissemination of information concerning underwater cultural heritage and deserves credit for those accomplishments.

 Felipe Castro in INA Quarterly 27.2 /3