HMS Dolphin (1751)

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HMS Dolphin at Tahiti 1767
Career (UK) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HMS Dolphin
Ordered: 26 September 1747
Builder: Woolwich Dockyard, England
Laid down: 3 August 1748
Launched: 1 May 1751
Commissioned: June 1752
Fate: Broken up, January 1777
General characteristics
Class and type: Sixth-rate frigate
Tons burthen: 511 long tons (519 t)
Length: 113 feet (34 m) (gundeck)
93 feet 4 inches (28.45 m) (keel)
Beam: 32 feet 1 inch (9.78 m)
Depth of hold: 11 feet (3.4 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Full rigged ship
Complement: 160
Armament: Lower deck: 2 x 9 pdrs
Upper deck: 20 x 9 pdrs
Quarter deck: 2 x 3 pdrs

HMS Dolphin was a 24-gun sixth-rate frigate of the Royal Navy. Launched in 1751, she was used as a survey ship from 1764 and made two circumnavigations of the world under the successive commands of John Byron and Samuel Wallis. She was the first ship to circumnavigate the world twice. She remained in service until she was broken up in 1777.[1]


Built to the 1745 Establishment, Dolphin was originally ordered from the private yard of Earlsman Sparrow in Rotherhithe (under contract dated 7 October 1747). Following Sparrow's bankruptcy in 1748, the order was moved to Woolwich Dockyard.

Early service

Not long after her commissioning, the hostilities of the Seven Years' War had escalated and spread to Europe, and in May of 1756 Britain declared war on France of the Ancien Régime. Dolphin was pressed into service throughout the conflict, and was present at the Battle of Minorca in 1756 when a fleet under Admiral John Byng failed to protect a local garrison after losing an engagement with a French squadron (as a result of which Byng was later court-martialled and shot).

First circumnavigation

With Britain's successful conclusion of the Seven Years' War in 1763, her attentions turned towards consolidating her gains and continuing to expand her trade and influence at the expense of the other competing European powers. The Pacific Ocean was beginning to be opened up by exploratory European vessels, and interest had developed in this route as an alternate to reach the East Indies. This interest was compounded by theories put forward which suggested that a large, hitherto-unknown continental landmass (Terra Australis Incognita) must exist at southern latitudes to "counterbalance" the northern hemisphere's landmasses.

No longer in a state of war, the Admiralty had more funds, ships and men at her disposal to devote to exploratory ventures. Accordingly, an expedition was soon formed with instructions to investigate and establish a South Atlantic base from which Britain could keep an eye on voyages bound for the Pacific. Another purpose was to generally explore for unknown lands which could then be claimed and exploited by the Crown, and to reach the Far East if necessary. The Dolphin was selected as lead vessel for this voyage, and she was to be accompanied by the sloop HMS Tamar and the supply ship Florida.

Her captain was Commodore John Byron, a 42 year-old veteran of the sea, and younger brother to the profligate William Byron, 5th Baron Byron.

Dolphin's first circumnavigation was the first to take less than two years and so was the fastest circumnavigation to that date.

Second circumnavigation

Dolphin circumnavigated the world for a second time, under the command of Samuel Wallis. Her master's mate, John Gore, was among a number of the crew from Byron's circumnavigation who crewed with Wallis. The master on this voyage, George Robertson, subsequently wrote a book The discovery of Tahiti; a journal of the second voyage of H.M.S. Dolphin round the world under the command of Captain Wallis, R.N., in the years 1766, 1767, and 1768, written by her master.[2] Dolphin sailed in 1766 in the company of HMS Swallow, under the command of Philip Carteret, who had served on Byron's circumnavigation.

Dolphin dropped anchor at the peninsula of Tahiti Iti ("small Tahiti", aka Taiarapu) on 17 June 1767 but quickly left to find a better anchorage. Wallis choose Matavai Bay on 23 June. Although the Spanish had visited the Marquesas Islands in 1595, some 170 years earlier, Wallis officially took possession of Otaheiti, which he named "King George III Island". (About a year later, French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville landed at Hitiaa on the opposite side of Tahiti and unaware of Wallis's earlier visit, claimed it for the King of France.)

Early on a large canoe approached Dolphin and at a signal its occupants launched a storm of stones at the British, who replied with grapeshot. Dolphin's gunnery cut the canoe in two, killing most of its occupants. Wallis then sent his carpenters ashore to cut the eighty-some canoes there in half. Eventually, friendly relations were established between the British sailors and the locals. The relationships became particularly friendly when the sailors discovered that the women were eager to exchange sex for iron. This trade became so extensive that the loss of nails started to threaten Dolphin's physical integrity.[3]


  1. Paine, Lincoln (book). Ships of Discovery and Exploration. New York: Houghton Mifflin. p. 45. 
  2. Alibris
  3. Couper (2009), pp. 64-65, 69.


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