What Was The Chesapeake–Leopard Affair?

The Chesapeake-Leopard affair sparked the War of 1812.
The Chesapeake-Leopard affair sparked the War of 1812.

The Chesapeake-Leopard affair was an engagement between the British warship, the HMS Leopard, and the American frigate, the USS Chesapeake. The crew of the British HMS Leopard ship confronted the American Chesapeake ship in search of the four of its members who had deserted the Royal Navy. This incident took place on June 22, 1807 off the coast of Norfolk Virginia. The four deserters were removed from the Chesapeake ship and tried for desertion. One of the four crew members were hanged. The British crew was under the command of Captain Salusbury Pryce while the American vessel was under the command of captain James Barron.

The Incident

The Chesapeake had left the Norfolk coast of Virginia when it encountered the Leopard. The crew of the HMS Leopard hijacked and bordered the USS Chesapeake. Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys blew a trumpet to order Barron to surrender. Barron failed to surrender, and the Leopard, therefore, fired several shots at the Chesapeake. The Leopard crew was seeking for four deserters of the Royal Navy. The attack by the Leopard crew was so sudden that it caught the Chesapeake unprepared. After encounter, James Barron, the commander of the Chesapeake surrendered the frigate to the British crew. At the time of surrender, the Chesapeake had only fired one shot. Four crew members who had deserted the Royal Army, Daniel Martin, Jenkin Ratford, William Ware, and John Strachan, were found in the Chesapeake. They were tried for the desertion of the Royal Navy. One of the four members, Jenkin Ratford was hanged. The remaining three had American citizenship, yet they were taken to Britain. The Chesapeake was set free and was allowed to go back to America. It was, however, severely damaged. James Barron, the commander, was tried and later suspended from the command. Three members of the Chesapeake crew died during the confrontation and 18 were severely wounded. Britain is considered to have emerged victorious during this affair.

Aftermaths of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair caused a lot of outrage among the Americans. The Americans were disappointed that the Chesapeake did not try hard to fight the Leopard crew. They considered the event very humiliating. There was constant calling for war against Britain. The then president, Thomas Jefferson was under constant pressure to declare war against Britain.

With the violent reactions from the Americans, the British government decided to return the three American citizens it had captured. The deserters were dropped in Boston, Massachusetts by the Schooner HMS Breaner in 1812. They also took the responsibility of taking care of the losses they had caused. They paid reparations for the damaged Chesapeake.

The Americans doubted whether the navy could defend them in case of an attack, especially from the then superior British navy. For this reason, Barron was suspended from service for five years. The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair is also considered to be one of the factors that led to the War of 1812.

Historical Significance and Legacy

The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair shaped the history and relationship between the US and the British. It is attributed to some of the significant engagements and wars including the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain and the Embargo Act that barred any relationship between the US ships and British and France ships. The affair was also responsible for the high increase of the manufacturing of weapons in the United States.


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