The Battle of Fort Royal – 29 April 1781
Whilst Admiral Sir George Rodney remained at St. Eustatius to stock-take the booty from his capture of the Dutch island, his second-in-command, the skilful Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, was detached southwards on 12 February with eleven ships of the line to rendezvous with six already off Martinique, the whole comprising the major part of the British Leeward Islands fleet. Hood’s orders were ostensibly to intercept the Rochefort squadron of ten sail of the line under Charles-Auguste Levassor de la Touche Tréville, which having been spotted in the Bay of Biscay on a course for the West Indies on New Year’s Eve was suspected to be heading for the main base on Martinique, Fort Royal.
For a month Hood patrolled to windward of Martinique, which is to say to the east, where he had the greatest opportunity of preventing any French attempt to enter Fort Royal. But with no sign of the enemy, Rodney then amended the instruction to his junior admiral by ordering him to patrol to leeward, or to the west of Martinique, as he felt that Hood would be better employed preventing four French sail of the line already in Fort Royal from sailing out to attack the British possessions. He also believed that in this position Hood could detach his ships south to St. Lucia for replenishment and repair, and still have time to recall them before any French fleet coming in from the west could enter Fort Royal. Hood maintained that in stationing his ships to leeward of Fort Royal, Rodney was forgoing the possible interception of any incoming French fleet so as to protect his St. Eustatius treasure trove from the Martinique squadron. The younger man would prove to be right, but Rodney, whose gout was particularly distressing at this time, and whose flag-captain, Walter Young, lay on his deathbed, could not be dissuaded.
On 28 April a French fleet did arrive off Martinique, but instead of de Tréville’s Rochefort ten sail of the line it was in fact the totally unexpected Brest fleet of twenty sail of the line, two 50 gun ships and three hundred transports carrying 6,000 troops. The naval element of the force was under the command of the unusually tall 57 year-old Vice-Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse-Tilli, who was flying his flag aboard the world’s largest man of war, the Ville de Paris 110, and who had left his home port on 22 March in company with Captain Pierre de Suffren’s East India-bound squadron.
At 7 a.m. the British frigate Amazon 32, Captain Hon. William Clement Finch, which was patrolling off Point Salines on the southern tip of Martinique, discovered the French fleet further to the south of the island, and at 9 a.m. her signal reporting its presence was repeated to Hood by the Russell 74, which with over one hundred sick men aboard had just left the British fleet in order to return to St. Lucia. The latter vessel now went about and rejoined Hood, who as per his instructions from Rodney was well away to the leeward and westward of Martinique.
Being determined to get into action whatever his numerical and positional disadvantage, and being aware that his copper-bottomed ships sailed more proficiently than the French, Hood ordered his ships to beat to windward, and he formed a line of battle ahead at 10 a.m. At this point the French fleet was not visible to the British fleet, but the Amazon could be seen from the flagship Barfleur’s masthead, and the frigate now went about and sailed off to the south once more to reconnoitre de Grasse’s force. At noon Captain Finch came back within signalling distance to report that the French fleet was superior to Hood’s, and a couple of hours later he came aboard the Barfleur himself to advise the admiral that he had counted at least nineteen enemy sail of the line, two vessels possibly armed en-flute, and an unknown number of frigates attendant on a convoy. Not unexpectedly he also advised that the enemy fleet was on a northerly course heading for Fort Royal.
With the winds being particularly light it was not until sunset that the leading French ships could be seen from the mastheads of the British fleet. Rear Admiral Drake was then summoned aboard the Barfleur to be apprised by Hood of his desire to get to windward by daybreak, and thus to be in a position to cut off the French approach to Fort Royal. To that end Hood stood the fleet to the north whilst despatching Captain Finch to reconnoitre the French once more. In the event however, although Rodney would later accuse Hood of wasting the opportunity to get to windward, it would simply prove impossible to do so in the prevailing unfavourable conditions.
Come daybreak there was no sign either of the French, or of the Amazon, but just before 9 a.m. the frigate rejoined company, and soon afterwards the French fleet could be seen forming a line of battle as they passed through the channel between Diamond Rock and Point Salines. Having failed to weather de Grasse, Hood nevertheless signalled his fleet to prepare for action, and shortly afterwards he was joined by a 64-gun vessel, the Prince William, which he had summoned the previous evening from St. Lucia – at least Rodney had proved correct in his belief that ships despatched to St. Lucia could easily be recalled. Both sides then hoisted their colours, and Hood tacked to the north at 10.35 so that he was heading in the same direction as the French as they sailed up the coast for Fort Royal, their convoy hugging the shoreline and the men-of-war forming a protective barrier out to sea.
Once the French van was abreast of the British centre it opened fire at 11 a.m., but considering the range too distant Hood did not reply. Only at 11.20, when the British tacked once more to the south, were the fleets close enough for some of the French fire to hurtle over the British masts, and five minutes later Hood made the signal to engage, whereupon the French rear and British van exchanged broadsides as they passed each other on opposite tacks. At 11.40, being satisfied that their convoy was safe, the French wore to the south, and although Hood ordered his rear to close with his centre he could not get close to de Grasse, so instead he brought to under topsails in an effort to induce the French to close with him.
By now, with the French holding the weather gauge, the four blockaded ships in Fort Royal had been able to slip their cables and join their fleet, and at 12:30 the action became general, if still long-range, with the two flagships, Bretagne and Barfleur, exchanging broadsides. Unfortunately for Hood, who began filling his sails again at 1 p.m. to keep up with his enemy as they passed by, the action was to remain long-range as de Grasse was clearly intent on rejecting a full scale battle. By 1.30., having estimated that only ten per cent of the French shot was reaching the Barfleur, Hood ordered his flag captain to cease firing.
Even so, the two vans were still in contact, and over the next two hours the eight leading French ships inflicted substantial damage upon the Shrewsbury, Russell, Centaur and Intrepid, which vessels had been drawn away from the British centre as they moved out of the lee of the island. Once this engagement ceased Hood ordered his lead ship, Shrewsbury, to press on sail in another attempt to get to windward of the French, and at 4.45 he sent the Amazon back along his line with instructions for every captain to sail as close to the wind with as much sail as they could carry. It was all to no avail however, as the French retained the weather-gauge and remained up to four miles distant.
At 6 p.m. Hood received word from Drake that the already sickly Russell, having been holed below the waterline, was in a state of disrepair, and that her pumps could no longer keep the leakages at bay. Captain Sutherland was called aboard the Barfleur and ordered to make the best of his way to St. Eustatius to apprise Rodney of the situation. Thereafter nothing of note occurred that evening.
During the action the British had lost thirty-six men killed, including Captain John Nott of the Centaur and his first lieutenant, James Plowden, and one hundred and sixty-one wounded, of whom seven died shortly afterwards. French casualties were put at two hundred and sixty-nine by the British, and seventy-four by their own historians.
Come dawn Hood found that his van and the leading ships of his centre division had drifted away from his flagship in the light winds and calms. The French, who were in a ragged line of battle, appeared to seek to take advantage of this temporary disorder by steering for the van, but when Hood responded by signalling for a closer line of battle de Grasse decided that discretion was called for, and at 7 a.m. he stood off. Throughout the ensuing morning the French remained about three miles distant, and with the feeble and variable winds aiding him little Hood alternated between forming his fleet in line ahead and line abreast as circumstances dictated. At 12.25 a general chase seemed possible when a steady wind settled in from the south east, but by 4 p.m. this too had died away. With the Intrepid taking in water, and the Centaur struggling with damaged lower masts and further leaks, Hood eventually gave up any hope of forcing a full-scale battle, and at 8 p.m. he hoisted the signal to bear up.
By 5 a.m. on 1 May the French were some nine miles astern of the British, but the Torbay 74 and sloop Pacahunter were still in range of the enemy cannon, and the Torbay in particular received a great deal of damage aloft before the enemy ceased firing at 7.45. By then the Pacahunter had been taken in tow by the Amazon. Throughout the rest of the day the fleets remained out of contact, the only noteworthy happening being the loss of the Intrepid’s main topmast.
Thwarted in his ambitions, Hood placed Captain Edward Tyrrell Smith of the Pacahunter aboard the Centaur in lieu of her late captain, and departed Martinique to join Admiral Rodney on 11 May, the commander-in-chief being at sea between St. Kitts and Antigua with the Sandwich and the Triumph, having learned of the action from the Russell. By this time Rodney had also fallen in with, and helped repair, the damaged Caesar, Intrepid and Torbay, and shortly afterwards the entire fleet headed for Barbados to protect it from any possible attack by de Grasse.
An immediate consequence of the retreat to Barbados was the removal of any bar to a French attack on the other British possessions, and de Grasse wasted little time in sending the majority of his fleet against St. Lucia. Miraculously, the Panther 60, Captain John Harvey, and frigates Santa Monica 28, Captain John Linzee, and Pegasus 28 Captain John Stanhope, together with the Pigeon Island batteries erected by Rodney, successfully defended the island. After standing off and on for three days, and fearing for the safety of a smaller expedition that he had despatched to Tobago, de Grasse sailed for the latter island on 25 May. Rodney had already despatched Rear-Admiral Francis Drake with six sail of the line to hold Tobago, but on the 30th this officer was forced to flee on the approach of de Grasse. Drake returned to Barbados to join Rodney who immediately sailed south, only to learn on 4 June that Tobago had capitulated after a meagre resistance two days previously. The enemy fleets sighted each other on 9 June as they both voyaged north but neither wished to risk a battle, as Rodney was anxious to defend Barbados, and the French had more pressing objectives on the North American coast.
In effect, the campaign in the Leeward Islands now ended for the year. On 5 July de Grasse departed Martinique with twenty-seven sail of the line and a two hundred ship convoy, and upon reaching Cap François he received an urgent summons to join the campaign in North America. His departure with twenty-six sail of the line and 3,000 troops followed on 5 August. On the British side Rodney left for England in ill health on 1 August, and Hood sailed north to shadow the French ten days later.
Rear-Admiral Hood’s fleet at the Battle of Fort Royal: Casualties
|Barfleur 90||Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood||0+4|
|Commander John Knight|
|Gibraltar 80||Rear-Admiral Francis Samuel Drake||5+16|
|Captain Charles Knatchbull|
|Alcide 74||Captain Charles Thompson||1+4|
|Shrewsbury 74||Captain Mark Robinson||6+14|
|Russell 74||Captain Andrew Sutherland||6+16|
|Alfred 74||Captain William Bayne||0+2|
|Invincible 74||Acting-Captain Richard Hussey Bickerton||2+4|
|Resolution 74||Captain Lord Robert Manners||1+8|
|Montagu 74||Captain John Houlton||0+4|
|Centaur 74||Captain John Neale Pleydell Nott||10+26|
|Monarch 74||Captain Francis Reynolds||0|
|Terrible 74||Captain James Ferguson||0|
|Ajax 74||Captain John Symons||3+4|
|Torbay 74||Captain John Lewis Gidoin||1+27|
|Princessa 70||Captain Sir Thomas Rich||0+3|
|Intrepid 64||Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy||1+23|
|Belliqueux 64||Captain James Brine||0|
|Prince William 64||Captain Stair Douglas||0+6|
|Amazon 32||Captain Hon. William Clement Finch||0|
|Lizard 28||Captain Edmund Dod||0|
|Pacahunter 14||Captain Edward Tyrrell Smith||0|