Astraea v Gloire -10 April 1795
On the afternoon of 17 March 1795, a squadron of five sail of the line and three frigates under the command of Rear-Admiral John Colpoys got under way from Portsmouth and dropped down to St. Helens, prior to departing for a cruise off the French coast in protection of the British commerce. It did not take long for the force to take its first prize in the form of the French corvette Jean Bart 22, which was taken on 29 March by the frigates Cerberus 32, Captain John Drew, and Santa Margarita 38, Captain Thomas Byam Martin; however, greater rewards would soon be on offer.
On 10 April the squadron was near the mouth of the Channel when at 10 a.m. three sail were discovered in the north-west. With a fresh wind in the north-east chase was given, and by midday the strangers had been identified as three frigates. They were in fact a French squadron under the command of Citizen Canot of the Gentille 32, which was engaged in a three-month cruise out of Brest, and which had hitherto been largely unrewarding. When the French first became aware of the British squadron a boat from the Gentille was in the process of returning to the commodore after the frigate had stopped and boarded a Danish vessel, and her consorts, the Gloire 36 and Fraternité 32, were six miles away to the east north-east.
As the chase developed towards the west, the Colossus 74, Captain John Monkton, was able to get within range of the rearmost French frigate which responded to the vastly superior British sail of the line’s fire with her stern-chasers. Concluding that to remain in company made a certain capture of them all, the French frigates separated, and in response Colpoys signalled the Robust 74, Captain Samuel James Ballard, and Hannibal 74, Captain John Markham, to pursue the two enemy vessels which had set a westerly course, whilst the Astraea 32, Captain Lord Henry Paulet, was despatched after the larger of the frigates which had turned towards the north-west, and which would prove to be the Gloire 36.
The Astraea had been launched fourteen years previously and had seen service towards the end of the American Revolutionary War, participating in the capture of the Continental frigate South Carolina 40. She carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannons on her gun-deck and six-6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, giving her a broadside weight of metal of one hundred and seventy-four pounds, although it is possible that she also mounted six 24-carronades, which would have increased her broadside weight to two hundred and forty-six pounds. Her crew on this occasion numbered some thirty-eight men short of her normal complement of two hundred and fifty men, and her commander, the somewhat eccentric 28-year-old son of the Marquis of Winchester, Lord Paulet, had joined the frigate in the previous summer having returned from the West Indies as a newly posted captain.
The Gloire had been launched three years before the Astraea in 1778, and she carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannons on her main-deck and twelve 6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, in addition to four 36-pound carronades on her quarterdeck, giving her a broadside weight of metal of two hundred and sixty-four pounds. She had a crew of two hundred and seventy-five men and was commanded by François Louis Beens, who would later be described by Lord Paulet as ‘able, humane and intelligent.’
By 6 p.m. the Astraea was in a position to open fire with her quarterdeck guns, to which the Frenchman responded with her stern-chasers, yet it would be another four and a half hours before the Astraea was able to lay alongside the Gloire and bring her to close action. As was customary, the British seamen fired into hull of the French frigate to incapacitate the enemy crew, whilst the French gunners fired high in an attempt to disable their opponent, a tactic that was particularly relevant in this instance given the approach of the other ships of Colpoys’ squadron. To a degree these strategies worked for both vessels, as although casualties aboard the Gloire mounted steadily, her men continued to fight gallantly and managed to inflict a significant amount of damage aloft on the Astraea. Eventually, after an engagement lasting two minutes short of an hour, and with the approaching British vessels making her capture inevitable, the Gloire struck her colours and 26 year-old Lieutenant John Talbot was despatched by Lord Paulet to take possession of her.
Given the French tactics of firing high it was no surprise that casualties on the Astraea numbered just eight men wounded, including three seriously, of whom one later died. To Lord Paulet’s creditable regret, the French suffered at least forty men killed and wounded, among the latter being Citizen Beens, who was wounded in the head. Two hours after the action the British frigate’s main topmast went by the board, whilst her fore and mizzen topmasts were also so wounded as to be brought down on deck.
With regard to the other French frigates, the Gentille’s flight was hampered by a softening wind and a clear night sky, and she was captured by the Hannibal the next morning after a ten hour chase. Her compatriot, the Fraternité, Citizen Florinville, escaped after a brief exchange of fire with her pursuers and a thirty-hour chase, during which she jettisoned her cannon and was taken in tow by her boats. She eventually reached Lorient safely, thereby refuting reports in the British Press that she had been captured by the Artois 38 from Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren’s squadron.
On 16 April Colpoys and his squadron arrived at Portsmouth with the captured Gloire, whilst the Gentille made for Plymouth. The former vessel was bought into the Navy but remained laid up at Portsmouth for the next four years, and after going around to Deptford she was sold out of the service in 1802. Meanwhile, the Gentille was fitted out as a receiving ship at Portsmouth where she was also sold out of the service in 1802. The Astraea continued in employment, with the capture of the Gloire remaining the highlight of her career until she was wrecked in the Virgin Islands on 23 March 1808 under the command of Captain Edmund Heywood, losing four men in the incident.
Despite a brief hiatus in 1798 when he was dismissed the Navy for striking a lieutenant prior to being promptly reinstated, Lord Paulet enjoyed a long and distinguished career, eventually passing away as a vice-admiral in 1832. Lieutenant Talbot was promoted commander to honour the Astraea’s victory, and by the time he died in 1851 he had become a full admiral, earned a knighthood for his capture of several major enemy vessels, and burnished a reputation as an officer beloved by his men to such a degree that the crew of one of his commands had labelled him their ‘tender shepherd’.
Rear-Admiral Colpoys’ Squadron:
|London 98||Rear-Admiral John Colpoys|
|Captain Edward Griffith|
|Robust 74||Captain Samuel James Ballard|
|Hannibal 74||Captain John Markham|
|Colossus 74||Acting Captain John Monkton|
|Valiant 74||Captain Christopher Parker|
|Santa Margaretta 38||Captain Thomas Byam Martin|
|Astrea 32||Captain Lord Henry Paulet|
|Cerberus 32||Captain John Drew|