The Cannon Canon
When first commissioned, Frolic was equipped with two nine pound cannons, weighing close to 1700 pounds each. At some point Captain Faucon decided these were too heavy for an over-sparred vessel like the Frolic, particularly as they were mounted forward. With a light cargo in her hold, the weight of the cannons forward affected her handling. As Thomas Layton writes,
Some time prior to the Frolic’s final voyage, Captain Faucon replaced the two nine pounders with a pair of six pound cast-iron cannons. Each fired a 3.67 inch iron ball. Each cannon weighed approximately 1100 pounds. Thomas Layton reports these were defensive weapons, and were likely to have been used to fire langrage, which would be effective in repelling pirates who might attempt to board the vessel. Frolic’s speed remained her best defense against any enemy.
Piracy was a well-known hazard for all who sailed the South China Sea and was a particular concern near the Sunda Straits (near Singapore and through which the Frolic passed on her voyages from Bombay to Hong Kong). It remains so to this day. Entire fleets of pirates preyed on opium clippers, and that was the business chosen by Frolic’s owners, the Augustine Heard Company of Boston.
It seems reasonable to conclude that for a time Frolic sailed with no cannons at all. Prior to her fitting with the two six pound cannons, John Heard (the Heard Company’s representative in China) wrote as follows to Augustine Heard in Boston:
(J. D. D. is John James Dixwell, majority owner of the Frolic, brother of Augustine Heard Company partner George Dixwell and Boston businessman.)
The cannon was manufactured by Cyrus Alger & Company of Boston, also a major supplier of naval cannons and field artillery for the Civil War.
There is no record the cannons were ever fired against an enemy.
Divers rediscovered the wreck of the Frolic in the mid-1950s, off property owned by the Freitos (variously spelled Freitos, Freitas or Fratis) family. During the summer of 1958, Louie Fratis identified the submerged cannon. Over the next several years, he and other recreational divers explored the site, recovering many smaller items.
The first effort to raise the cannon was made by local diver Jim Kennon in 1966. He employed a balsa raft, which sank in the attempt
The next attempt took place that same year, and was made by Louie Fratis (who was employed by State Parks at the time) and a friend who was a State Parks Ranger. The Fratis family owned a crane with a 25-foot boom his family had once used in their wrecking business to drop a 3000 pound concrete block on automobiles. Louie positioned the crane on a bluff above the Frolic wreck such that its boom extended out over the edge. He used a Parks Department boat to ferry three large truck tires, chain and compressed air to the site. Underwater, they tied the inner tubes to the cannon and inflated them. On the first attempt, they overinflated the inner tubes, and the cannon rose too rapidly, broke the surface and nearly capsized their boat. On the second attempt, it broke free from the chain. The final attempt was successful, and they floated it to where it could be attached to the crane. They then hoisted it up the bluff.
At this time Louie still believed he was diving the wreck of a Chinese junk.
Mr. Fratis tried twice to interest government authorities in his find. He was rebuffed first by State Parks, and finally by the Maritime Museum in San Francisco. He stopped diving the site in 1970.
The cannon was stored in Louie Fratis’s garage until the garage was destroyed by fire. In 1996, he donated it to the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino, where it was put on display in the garden just south of the museum building.
The fifth recovery of the cannon occurred in November of 2003. An intrepid group of PCLK volunteers, aided by an almost-too-small tractor, hand dug it from the garden of the Kelley House, where it had lain half-buried since its donation. It was raised on to the bed of a truck and delivered to the shop of one of our volunteers, where a display case was fabricated. From there, it was transported to the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse.
With assistance from the Califorinia State Park’s Historian’s Office, a grant was obtained in 2004 to send the cannon to Indiana University where it was treated to prevent further oxidation. In 2007 the cannon was returned, covered with Plexiglass and delivered to its new home at the lighthouse where it is currently being displayed. It is on long-term loan from the Kelley House.
Condition, Restoration and Cool Facts
- Prior to its restoration the cannon was in relatively poor condition. It is a massive, iconic artifact from a ship engaged in dangerous trade. Its surface was marked by rust and possible encrustation. the surface was quite colorful, with brick red, deep brown and black tones.
- The barrel itself is largely closed due to rust and crusting. A tape measure extends into the bore only about 13 inches past the muzzle.
- It is heavy, probably around 1100 pounds.
- The Restoration treatment process, at Indiana University, stopped the rust creating oxidation and created the uniforum black color that we see today.
- The case now holding it is of a torsion-box design, and transfers the cannon’s weight evenly to all its component members. It has ribs and plywood reinforcement to allow the attachment of casters. The new casters are 5″ diameter, 2″ wide industrial-rated and will support 600 pounds each. The case is archivally sealed to prevent intrusion of corrosive vapors and is humidity controlled and monitored.
- Langrage is mixed metal shot consisting of musket balls, nails and the like which could be fired from a larger bore weapon to provide a shotgun-like effect damaging to personnel. Langrage fired from a cannon like the Frolic’s would be effective in repelling borders.
- Dr. Sheli O. Smith reports a brief mention in correspondence from Captain Faucon once sailed too close to a reef and scraped the bottom of the ship. She wrote, “This may have been poor seamanship but I am rather inclined to believe that he was using a common tactic of sailing close to a reef to avoid ambush from pirates.”
- Dr. Layton reports that there are small iron cannon balls and squarish lead pellets in the Frolic collection at the Mendocino County Museum. These may have been intended for use as langrage.
- The second cannon from the Frolic is located at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits.
- Other than vacuuming and removing snails, no efforts at conservation were made prior to obtaining a conservation grant (below), our goals were to protect the cannon, prevent further deterioration, and display it to the public as a part of our Frolic education program.
- Following the dive on the wreck of the Frolic, the cannon was sent for a three-year restoration process. State Parks applied for and obtained funds to restore and preserve the cannon at the Indiana University, one of the premier centers for marine archeology in the country. Around mid-August of 2004, the cannon was shipped to the Mathers Museum at Indiana University, where Professor Charles Beeker and his team performed the restoration work.