Aimable v Pensee 22-23 July 1796

by | Mar 29, 2024 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


At four o’clock on the afternoon of 22 July, the British frigate Aimable 32, Captain Jemmett Mainwaring, was patrolling to the south of Guadeloupe when she discovered two sail in the north-west. Upon closing to investigate, she found the strangers to be nothing more interesting than a couple of American schooners; however, any disappointment her officers and men may have harboured at not chancing upon a valuable enemy dissipated when at five o’clock, a ship flying French colours was seen coming around the rock known as Englishman’s Head, off the north-west coast of the island. This vessel would prove to be the frigate Pensée 42, Capitaine de Frégate Valteau.

Eager to force an engagement, Captain Mainwaring hauled his wind and made sail with the intention of taking his frigate inshore to prevent the Frenchman entering the inlet known as Anse a la Barqué, situated about halfway down the west coast of Guadeloupe. Such a move was to prove unnecessary however, for in displaying a resolution to accept a duel, the French vessel calmly awaited the Aimable’s approach. Assembling his officers and men, Mainwaring confirmed that they would be facing superior odds, but that it was his pleasure to lead them into battle, and at 6.35, with the two vessels on opposing tacks, a meagre wind in the east, and the sea smooth, an action commenced some three to four miles south of Deshaies, and within a mile and a half of the shore.

The Aimable had been captured from the French in the Mona Passage in 1782 following the Battle of the Saintes

The French-built Aimable had been launched at Toulon in June 1776 but had fallen into British hands on 19 April 1782 with her capture by the Leeward Islands fleet in the Mona Passage during the aftermath of the Battle of the Saintes. After arriving in England from Jamaica at the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, she had been laid up for ten years in the Medway until recommissioned at the start of the French Revolutionary War. According to British sources she carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannons on her gun deck, and six 6-pound cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, giving her a broadside weight of metal of one hundred and seventy-four pounds. French accounts state that she also carried eight 32-pound carronades. Her complement at this time was reported to be one hundred and ninety-two men and boys, and her commander, Jemmett Mainwaring, although an experienced officer in his thirty-third year, had only been posted captain fifteen days previously, on 7 July, his career no doubt having been retarded by what was described as ‘an infirmity of speech’.

The Pensée had been commissioned as the Spartiate at Le Havre in December 1794, and had been renamed the Pensée five months later. British sources have stated that she carried a mixture of twenty-eight French 18-pounder cannons, ten French 8-pounder cannons, and four French 36-pounder carronades, giving her a broadside weight of metal equivalent to three hundred and sixty-four French pounds. French sources state that her armament was twenty-six 12-pound cannons, ten six-pound cannons and six 36-pound carronades, resulting in a smaller broadside weight of metal of two hundred and ninety-four pounds. Her crew was reported to number between three and four hundred men.

Following the initial opening salvoes, both vessels wore ship and began a close action. This continued until about 7.45, when with the benefit of a freshening easterly breeze, the Aimable closed in with the intention of boarding her enemy. Crucially, as she was just within a half-cable length of the Pensée’s starboard bow, Captain Mainwaring and a lieutenant, John Wight, were knocked down at the hammock netting and their command was taken aback by a shift in the wind to the south. Seeking to effect repairs, the French frigate continued on her course to the north which allowed the Aimable to at least rake her with her starboard broadside before setting off in pursuit. At 8.10 the cannons fell silent, yet the chase continued throughout the night to the west north-west with all sails set and Mainwaring trying every trick in the book to improve his own frigate’s rate of sailing.

Come dawn on the next day, 23 July, the Pensée had built up a lead of half a dozen miles, but she had also repaired her damage, allowing her to seek a renewal of the action. At 7 a.m. she took in sail and hauled up on the starboard tack under her topsails, with her mizzen topsail occasionally being laid aback to maintain her position. Captain Mainwaring continued his approach whilst also shortening sail as the breeze became ever stronger. At 8.35, the Aimable loomed in on the Pensée’s weather quarter, and prepared to attempt another boarding manoeuvre, the intention being to lash the French bowsprit to her mainmast. At this point the two captains chivalrously saluted each other by the raising of hats, as did the other French officers.

The action recommenced at 8.40, and about fifteen minutes later the Pensée, being slightly ahead, hauled up on the larboard tack with the intention of raking the Aimable. Instead, Mainwaring managed to put his helm hard over to port, and with her flying jib scraping past the opponent’s taffrail, the Aimable raked the Pensée through her stern windows. Thereafter, the two vessels maintained a close action for another thirty minutes as they ran before the wind under topsails before the French frigate fore-reached on the larboard tack and surged ahead, all the while plying her stern chasers on her pursuer.

By ten o’clock the Pensée was safely out of range and had ceased firing, and within a further two hours, despite her wounded masts, she had restored her lead of half-a dozen miles. Recognising the futility of maintaining his pursuit given the damage to his own sails and rigging, Captain Mainwaring hauled off. Initial reports suggested that the French had suffered ninety casualties, but these were later reported in British circles as twenty-eight men killed and thirty-six wounded, the high tally being due to the British practice of firing into the enemy’s hull, which on this occasion had proved to be particularly effective given that the Pensée rode higher in the water than the Aimable whose own cannons could not be easily elevated. By contrast, the Aimable had just two casualties, this being due to the usual French practice of firing high to attempt the disabling of an opponent.

Following the engagement, the Pensée made the best of her way north to the Danish island of St. Thomas where she was soon blockaded by the Mermaid 32, Captain Robert Waller Otway. A few days later the Aimable also arrived at St. Thomas, and here she found her erstwhile opponent with her main mast out. Extending the chivalry which had been evident on the second day of their encounter, the two combatant captains then had the pleasure of dining in the company of the Danish governor.

The Aimable remained in service until early 1811, seeing further employment on the Jamaican station, the Mediterranean, the Leeward Islands, and the North Sea, and proving to be particularly adept at capturing enemy privateers. Captain Mainwaring lost his life in late 1800 when his next command, the Babet 20, was lost somewhere between Martinique and Jamaica when conveying Major-General John Knox, the governor-general designate, to the latter island. As for the Pensée, she did not see a great deal of further service, for she was refitted as a breakwater in November 1804.