The Battle of Porto Praya – 16 April 1781
In December 1780 Britain declared war upon the Netherlands and plans were set afoot to attack the Dutch colonies. Prominent amongst these was the Cape of Good Hope, a vital staging post for ships making the voyage to and from the rich British and Dutch East Indian possessions.
Lord Sandwich, the first lord of the Admiralty, wanted the capable and respected Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland to lead the secret mission to capture the Cape, but this officer had only recently volunteered his services after resigning in protest at the ministry’s treatment of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel three years previously, and political necessities now conspired against him. Inserted to the command instead was the controversial Commodore George Johnstone, a ministerial toady who was so arrogantly outspoken in parliament that the government was happy to send him out of the way. The fact that Johnstone also had a large number of votes to offer the government in return for their favour of him no doubt aided his otherwise undeserved appointment, but it would soon become apparent that this incompetent bully was totally unsuited for the mission assigned him.
Departing Spithead on 13 March in company with Vice-Admiral George Darby’s Channel fleet bound for the relief of Gibraltar, Johnstone’s squadron consisting of a 74-gun vessel, a 64, three of 50 guns, three frigates and several smaller men-of-war, was subsequently detached with the East India convoy consisting of up to thirty other vessels, including transports carrying Colonel William Medows’ three thousand troops.
Reaching Praya Bay on the island of St. Jago amongst the Portuguese Cape Verde islands on 11 April, Johnstone decided to water and take on fresh supplies. Before departing London he had been advised that a French expedition was being prepared to act against him, and he had since received further intelligence that the brilliant Bailli Pierre André de Suffren’s squadron of two 74 gun and three 64-gun ships, together with a corvette and seven transports, had departed Brest in company with the West Indies fleet of Admiral François Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse, on 22 March, and that after separating off Madeira it too was heading south. Upon arriving in the Cape Verde islands this intelligence had been confirmed by the governor, who reported that he had been asked to victual the French, and that they were expected daily.
Incredibly, the British commodore failed to take sufficient care over the berthing of his fleet, it later being stated that his reckless dispositions would scarcely have been adequate in a peacetime situation. His own flagship, which should have been on the outer ring of the anchored fleet with the other major vessels, was surrounded by the smaller men-of–war and merchant vessels, and she was in no position to offer them any support in the event of an attack. The frigate Diana, the bomb ketch Terror, and the fireship Infernal were left to their own devices, being anchored some distance away from their consorts, and not one vessel had been sent out of the anchorage on patrol.
On 16 April Suffren, four of whose vessels were copper-bottomed, arrived off the eastern point of the south-facing bay with the intention of watering his own ships. As the Artésien headed for the mouth of the harbour she reported the presence of a fleet at anchor, and realising Johnstone’s basic error, and correctly surmising that many of the British seamen would be ashore collecting supplies, Suffren decided to attack at once. Sure enough, Johnstone had fifteen hundred men who were away from their ships with watering parties, fishing, loading cattle, or simply relaxing ashore, and he would be unable to get them all back before the action commenced. Furthermore, aboard his ships the decks were choked by un-stowed water casks, livestock and provisions. Fortunately for Johnstone however, although the French enjoyed a superiority in firepower, Suffren’s captains would prove to be as ignorant of their brilliant commander’s intentions as the British commodore was of his profession.
When at 9.30 a.m. the Isis 50 reported that seven sail were in the offing to the north-east, Johnstone was actually in a boat attempting to bring some order to his chaotic anchorage. Hastening aboard his flagship, he ordered by signal all the men ashore to return to their ships, and he reinforced this instruction with signal guns and the despatch of a boat inshore. Rather than instruct his captains to slip anchor, he then gave orders for them to undertake the lengthier process of weighing. Wasting even more precious time, he set off for Captain Evelyn Sutton’s Isis, which was anchored someway to leeward of her consorts, and enjoyed a clear view of the approaching ships over the eastern promontory. Having satisfied himself that they were indeed French, he jumped into his boat once more and regained the Romney, taking the opportunity to hail each Indiaman that he passed with the advice that battle would shortly be joined.
At 10.45 the French line became visible to the anchorage as Suffren brought his two 74’s followed by the three 64’s around the eastern point in line ahead. With springs on their cables clearly visible, it was obvious that he intended to transgress against the Portuguese neutrality and make an immediate attack; indeed he had already ordered that should the Portuguese seek to intervene then they too should be fired upon. Ignoring the Diana, Terror and Infernal, Suffren hoisted the French colours aboard his pendent ship Hèros, took in her courses, and fired twice at the Isis before the wind took him up towards the Monmouth 64. Now the Hèros’ fire became general, but with the spring on her cable failing to curb her momentum she eventually anchored about a third of a mile away from the British Hero 74. After firing both broadsides she was then obliged to drop astern and engage the Monmouth 64 when her consort the Annibal, which had astonishingly failed to clear for action, crossed her bows.
Although surprised by Suffren’s sudden arrival, the British fought back with a greater tenacity than their hopeless commander deserved. The third ship in the French line, the Artésien 64, was unable to work her way up to the Romney, as had been her intention, and instead came too astern of the Hèros in some of disarray. When her captain, the Chevalier de Cardaillac, was killed by a grape shot in the shoulder she drifted off to leeward, and finding herself amongst the British convoy she was able to capture two East Indiamen, the Hinchinbrook and Fortitude, before sailing out to sea again.
The other two French ships, the Vengeur and Sphinx, engaged at long range as they passed across the mouth of the bay in what appeared to be some confusion, but if it had been their intention to capture one of the rich East Indiamen then they singularly failed to do so, and in fact they received some degree of punishment in return. The bomb Terror, which had been fishing her bowsprit and was thus incapacitated, was set on fire by the French, but after cutting her cable she escaped out to sea despite losing her foremast. Less fortunate was the fireship Infernal which was captured, as was the badly holed victualler Edward.
Back in the bay, Johnstone’s negligence towards his dispositions had meant that his flagship Romney’s line of fire was restricted to two narrow corridors, and she was unable to manoeuvre on her cable as the frigate Jason was immediately to her stern. Johnstone took to his barge with Medows and went aboard the heavily engaged Hero, which with the Monmouth and Jupiter was engaging the French ships in the bay. It was later claimed that in the confined and irregular anchorage much of the British fire hit its own side, but the French certainly suffered too, and after sustaining a severe hammering over the next three quarters of an hour the Hèros and the Annibal were forced to break off the action and make for the open sea.
Having to take a longer passage back up the harbour, the Annibal received the bulk of the British cannon fire, and eventually she lost all her masts, one after the other, whilst making a retreat and that barely saw her return fire. Johnstone would later claim that she had struck her colours, and that in the general confusion several of his ships had continued to fire into her, but in all likelihood the colours were merely shot away. In any event, the fact that a disabled and outnumbered ship was allowed to escape from such a superior force confirmed Johnstone’s incompetence.
The action having ended at about noon, Johnstone returned to the Romney, but instead of immediately ordering a general chase he called his captains aboard to report on the condition of their ships. Not until 2.30 were the men-of-war ordered to cut their cables, but when the Romney set off ahead of the Jupiter the commodore noted that the Diana and Isis were making no attempt to move. Signals were made to both, yet although the Diana complied the Isis struggled to do so, despite a number of warning guns, and soon a message was received from Captain Sutton by way of the Hero to the effect that the Isis’ cable was stuck in the hawse and that she had sustained debilitating damage aloft. Johnstone would later claim that she took three hours to join his pennant, but this was disputed by many officers present who declared that she came out as soon as she could.
Outside the bay, Suffren had despatched his convoy before effecting repairs and forming his capital ships in line abreast. The disabled Annibal had rigged a jury foremast and was under tow. Johnstone formed line of battle ahead, but no sooner had he assumed a chase than the Isis reported further difficulties, and soon she lost her fore-topmast, causing another delay of some forty minutes as she effected repairs. After resuming the chase the Monmouth and Isis began to fall back, and with the sun beginning to dip towards the horizon, the sea getting heavier, and an adverse current carrying his ships away to leeward of St. Jago, Johnstone decided to return to the bay for the protection of the convoy with which he had reprehensibly failed to arrange a rendezvous. He eventually regained Porto Praya three days later, having achieved nothing bar the recapture of the East Indiaman Hinchinbrook. Meanwhile the crew of the Infernal had retaken control of their vessel during the British chase, although without their captain, Henry d’Esterre Darby, who had been taken aboard his French captor. The Fortitude and Edward were also recovered after their prize crews abandoned them.
Typically desperate to provide a scapegoat for his failure, Johnstone placed Captain Sutton of the Isis under arrest in a move that astonished most of the fleet, and in particular enraged the men of the Isis, who almost rose in mutiny. Adding insult to injury, Johnstone refused Sutton a court-martial by stating that no time should be lost in getting to sea, which given the fact that it took him another three weeks to do so was in itself a scandalous excuse. Posted captain of the Isis in Sutton’s place was Commander Hon, Thomas Charles Lumley, late of the Porto, which sloop had joined Johnstone on the day he had returned to Porto Praya, and in keeping with the general malaise had announced her arrival by colliding with the Hero at the cost of her bowsprit and foremast.
Although there would be some dispute over the human cost of the battle French casualties were given as one hundred and five men killed and two hundred and four wounded against British losses of thirty-six men killed and one hundred and thirty wounded, the vast majority of the latter being amongst the East Indiamen. Astonishingly, Johnstone claimed in a letter dated 30 April that he had won the battle, and that when she had set off in pursuit of the French the Romney had received the ‘acclamation of the whole fleet’. The fact that his report was made in letter form to the Earl of Hillsborough, a secretary of state, and not as was customary in despatches to the Board of Admiralty, spoke volumes for the political world in which he moved. His letter was delivered by Commander George Lindsay who had been promoted to the Porto in place of Captain Lumley.
Having left Johnstone behind, Suffren was able to reach the Cape of Good Hope on 21 June where he left five hundred troops to help the Dutch defence before sailing on to the Ile de France. Johnstone followed, and whilst neither seeking out Suffren, nor attempting to attack what he now knew to be the well defended Cape, he was at last able to achieve something notable when on 1 July the Active captured the Dutch East Indiaman Heldwoltenmade and gained intelligence that a Dutch East Indian fleet was aware of the impending British arrival, and had sought sanctuary in Saldanha Bay.
On 21 July Johnstone took his fleet into the bay, and as soon as they realised escape was impossible the Dutch drove their ships ashore and set them on fire. The British seamen were not to be cheated of their prizes however, and although one vessel, the Middleburg, proved to be beyond rescue and eventually blew up after being towed out of danger by boats commanded by Johnstone himself, four ships, the Dankbaarheid, Schoonkoop, Perel, and Hoogcarspel were secured. Unfortunately only the Perel and Hoogcarspel were to reach England, which they did having been obliged to outrun enemy privateers and a French frigate in the Channel.
In the meantime, with his mission unaccomplished, Johnstone despatched the Hero, Monmouth, Isis and Active to the East Indies with Colonel Medows and the convoy, whilst he returned to Lisbon aboard the frigate Diana in order to get married.
For his part, poor Captain Sutton was carried out to the East Indies under confinement aboard the Isis, and it was only upon his return home over two years later that he was brought to a court-martial, the sitting taking place at Portsmouth in December 1783 aboard the Princess Royal 90 under the presidency of Admiral John Montagu. The charge he faced was ‘for delaying and discouraging the public service on which he Captain Sutton was ordered on the 16th April 1781: and for disobeying the verbal orders and public signals of the said Captain Johnstone, in not causing the cables of his Majesty’s ship Isis, then under his command, to be cut or slipped immediately after his getting on board in order to put to sea after the enemy, as he the said Captain Johnstone had directed, and also for falling astern, and not keeping up in the line of battle according to the signal then abroad, after the Isis had joined the Squadron and cleared the wreck of the fore top-mast when he the said Captain Johnstone bore down upon the enemy about sun-set of the said 16th of April’.
Not surprisingly Sutton was honourably acquitted, but he still had to wait many years before gaining any judicial recognition for his shameful treatment at the hands of Johnstone. Initially he was awarded damages of five thousand guineas, and this was increased to six thousand when Johnstone’s appeal failed, but he never saw a penny of the money for the miserable commodore’s early death and a ruling by the House of Lords cheated him of the award. To add to his misery he was never employed again.
Commodore Johnstone’s squadron and casualties:
|Romney 50||Commodore George Johnstone||0+7|
|Captain Roddam Home|
|Hero 74||Captain James Hawker||0+2|
|Monmouth 64||Captain James Alms||0+6|
|Jupiter 50||Captain Thomas Pasley||0+2|
|Isis 50||Captain Evelyn Sutton||4+5|
|Diana 32||Captain Sir William Chaloner Burnaby||0+6|
|Active 32||Captain Thomas Mackenzie||0|
|Jason 32||Captain James Pigott||2+7|
|Infernal fireship||Commander Henry d’Esterre Darby||1+2|
|Terror bomb||Commander Charles Wood||2+6|
|Lark 16||Lieutenant Philippe d’Auvergne||0|
|Rattlesnake 14 cutter||Commander Peter Clements||0|
|Oporto 16||Commander Hon. Thomas Charles Lumley||0|
2x74: Heros, Annibal;
3x64: Artésien, Sphinx, Vengeur;