The Battle of Cape St. Mary – 30 May 1781
On 3 May the frigates Flora 36, Captain William Peere Williams, and Crescent, 28, Captain the Hon. Thomas Pakenham, having previously been detached from Vice-Admiral George Darby’s fleet at Gibraltar on a mission to deliver funds to the British army at Minorca, left Port Mahon to return to England. At dawn twenty days later off the south-eastern coast of Spain they found themselves in the company of a Spanish squadron of eight vessels including a 74 gun ship of the line, four xebecs, an armed ship and two bombs. The Spanish being to windward immediately gave chase.
The Flora was a relatively new frigate carrying twenty-six 18-pounder cannon on her gun deck, ten 9-pounder cannon on her quarterdeck and forecastle, and six 18-pounder carronades. She had distinguished herself in the capture a year before of the French frigate Nymphe 32 after a fierce engagement, and her normal complement was two hundred and seventy men. The Crescent had been commissioned in 1779, had a crew at this time of one hundred and eighty-nine men, and boasted an armament of twenty-four 9-pounders on her gun deck, and four 3-pounders on her quarterdeck.
By 9 a.m. the Spanish had divided their force, with the smaller vessels heading inshore whilst the sail of the line and two 36-gun xebecs maintained their chase. Two hours later one of the xebecs had closed to within gunshot of the Crescent, and a running engagement was maintained over the next three hours until Captain Williams, being concerned that a lucky shot might disable Pakenham’s frigate aloft,
dropped back and placed the Flora between her and the enemy. His smart gunfire allowed the Crescent to make good her escape, and later in the afternoon the xebec brought too in order to affect repairs and await the sail of the line. During the night the two British frigates successfully altered course to throw off the stubborn pursuit, and at 5 a.m. on the 29th, five days later, they arrived safely at Gibraltar. The only casualties were one man killed and one wounded aboard the Flora as a result of a cannon exploding.
It was by no means the end of their excitement however, for having observed two strange sail to windward before entering Gibraltar, the frigates received a visit from the senior naval officer on the Rock, Captain Roger Curtis of the Brilliant 28, and soon afterwards sailed towards Cueta on the Barbary Coast to investigate. In the Straits they came up with the Dutch frigates Castor 36, Captain Pieter Melvill van Carnbee, armed with twenty-six 12-pounders and ten 6-pounders with a crew of two hundred and thirty men, and the Briel 36, Captain Gerardus Oorthuijs, mounting twenty-six 12-pounders, two 6-pounders and eight 4-pounders with a crew of two hundred and thirty men.
The Dutch frigates were perfectly willing to accept an engagement, but when they saw the British frigates exchanging signals they assumed that reinforcements were being summoned from Gibraltar, so instead they turned away for the Barbary Coast under easy sail before luffing up and letting loose several long-range shot. To this the Flora and Crescent made no response, but instead stood away, for a freshening gale combined with the squally conditions suggested that it would be more practical to defer an action until the following morning.
Come daylight and much calmer conditions on 30 May, the British frigates moved in to attack with the weather gauge, and at 4.30 they opened fire on the Castor which was ahead of her consort. The Dutchman responded with her larboard broadside and musketry before bearing up in the hope that she and the Briel could double upon the Flora. Williams was not having that, and in firing a broadside that ripped through the Dutch upper works he threw her sails aback, thereby preventing the Castor’s attempt to weather him.
By 5 o’clock a close engagement had commenced, with the Flora taking on the Castor, and the Crescent engaging the larger Briel at the distance of a cable length, whilst also receiving the occasional shot from the Castor’s starboard cannon. After two and a quarter hours of raging battle the Flora had shot away her smaller opponent’s main and fore-yards, torn her rigging and sails to shreds, and raked her fore to aft three times. With a number of cannon unusable, seven feet of water in the hold, and the magazine half-flooded, Captain Melvill had little option but to surrender. The Flora had suffered nine men killed and thirty-two wounded in the engagement to the twenty-two killed and forty-one wounded aboard the enemy.
Not such good fortune attended the overwhelmed Crescent however, for her mizzen and main masts were both sent tumbling inboard amidst great confusion just minutes after her consort had triumphed. The Briel now manoeuvred behind her stern, and with the wreckage of the masts blocking her waist and preventing the use of all the guns before the stump of her main-mast the Crescent lay at the mercy of the enemy’s raking guns for half an hour. Repeatedly the gallant Captain Oorthuijs called out in trying to persuade Pakenham to surrender, and with the Flora unable to immediately come to his aid, and with his frigate unable to beat up against the wind to lay alongside the Dutchman, the British captain was eventually forced to strike his colours. The engagement had lasted two hours twenty minutes and resulted in casualties on board the Crescent of twenty-six men killed and sixty-seven wounded, whilst the Briel had lost twelve men killed and forty wounded. Many of the wounded on all four vessels would later succumb to their injuries.
Before the Briel could work alongside to take possession of the Crescent Williams was able to get enough steerageway on the Flora to chase the Dutchman off. Any hope of the Flora then running down the Briel was negated by the distressed state of both the Crescent and Castor which were taking on water, not to mention the damage to Williams’ own frigate. Oorthuijs eventually reached Cadiz, without his mainmast, which the British see fall that afternoon. Curiously, during the action the British frigate Enterprise 28, Captain Patrick Leslie, had been in sight, but she had not felt constrained to leave the convoy she was escorting at the time.
The five days after the battle were spent busily refitting the Castor and Crescent, and as the latter was considered to be a Dutch prize belonging to the Flora Captain Pakenham refused the command. Lieutenant John Bligh, the senior lieutenant of the Flora, was therefore at the helm when on 19 June the three badly damaged frigates emerged from a squall off Cape Finisterre whilst chasing a privateer that had been shadowing them, only to be met by the French frigates Friponne 32 and Gloire 32. Williams attempted to form line of battle, but with the dismasted Crescent and Castor under jury-rig there was little that he could do either to defend them, or to hide their distressed condition. The French frigates, recognising the strength of their position but still flying British colours, came on regardless and after a conference with his officers Williams ordered his two charges to go their separate ways. The Flora made good her escape, but the Castor with only seventy-five seamen aboard, and those largely engaged in keeping the prize afloat, was taken without firing a shot at 1 p.m. Later during the night the Crescent, also being well short of her full establishment, suffered the same fate.
Although Captain Williams did not face any public criticism for his failure to prevent the French capture of the Crescent and Castor he was never re-employed. It was later said that he withdrew his services voluntarily in response to the establishment’s disapproval of his remaining with his wife in Devon rather than appearing at Court, although his political persuasion may also have contributed to his exclusion. Historians did subsequently criticise him for his failure to risk an action with the two French frigates however. For his part Captain Pakenham was highly praised by the court-martial into the initial loss of the Crescent and he was honourably acquitted.