The Battle of Martinique -17 April 1780
On 27 March 1780 the new commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands, Admiral Sir George Rodney, arrived at St Lucia from Europe with reinforcements of four sail of the line to bolster the number of ships under the command of the superseded Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker to twenty. It was not a happy arrival however, for Rodney was so ill that he had to be carried ashore, and his general well-being was helped neither by a disappointment with Parker’s unsatisfactory appraisal of the situation on the station, nor by the quality of many of the unimaginative ‘old school’ captains he inherited.
Thirty miles away the 69 year-old Vice-Admiral Louis-Urbain de Bouënic, the Comte de Guichen, having left Brest during February in command of fifteen sail of the line and eighty-three merchantmen, had arrived at Martinique on 22 March to succeed Vice-Admiral Charles Henri Jean-Baptiste, Comte d’Estaing in command of the French West Indian fleet. His reinforcement brought the French fleet strength up to twenty-three sail of the line, a force which was considered sufficient to facilitate the capture of Barbados or St. Lucia.
Following his arrival in the Leeward Islands with Rodney, Captain Samuel Uvedale of the Ajax was despatched with three other vessels to discover whether rumours of de Guichen’s arrival were true, and this officer soon returned with the confirmation. The British commander-in-chief was thus prepared when on the evening of 13 April de Guichen set off to escort a Santo Domingo-bound convoy out of harm’s way before sailing to attack Barbados with three thousand troops supplied by the governor, François Claude Amour, the Marquis de Bouillé. Being immediately alerted to the French departure, Rodney put to sea with his twenty sail of the line in addition to a 50-gun ship and several frigates, and with the unkind north-easterly winds allowing de Guichen to make little headway he was able to race up on his enemy from St Lucia.
By the 16th the French fleet was in sight to the north-west in the lee of Martinique, and it was apparently intent on sailing between that island and Dominica. During the evening Rodney formed his ships in line ahead on the starboard tack whilst keeping station on de Guichen, and at daybreak on the 17th it could be seen that the French were forming a line of battle on the port tack, being to leeward and westward of the British, and were now sailing in the opposite direction towards the south south-east. The wind at this time was in the east, and between the opposing lines which were now converging to within twelve miles of each other were two British frigates that had been detached to observe the French movements. Rodney was perfectly positioned, and at 6.45 he signalled his intention to cut off the enemy rear and concentrate all of his force upon it, to which instruction the affirmative signal was received from all the ships in his fleet.
At 7 a.m. Rodney ordered his ships to close up to within one cable’s length of each other, and at 8.30 signalled his fleet to bear downwind in line abreast upon the enemy. The canny de Guichen appeared to understand his counterpart’s intention of cutting off the rear of his line, and he ordered his fleet to wear in turn, thereby inverting his line so that the rear became the van. This manoeuvre also meant that his fleet began heading in a northerly direction on the starboard tack, and in making it the ships which had been leading his line were now required to crowd on sail so as to close the gap on the new van.
His initial thrust thwarted, Rodney immediately hauled on to the larboard tack so as to be on the opposite course to the French once more. In undertaking his own evolutions he now realised that he would have to be content with his ships being two cable lengths apart, and several vessels were called to order by individual signals to bring about that state. At 10.10, with his flagship being abreast of de Guichen’s, the signal was made to wear ship and join the same starboard tack as the French. Again he seemed perfectly positioned to fulfil his plan of slanting down upon the new, extended, French rear and of cutting it off from its consorts.
But it was now that his concerns about the ability and imagination of his captains came home to roost. The ship at the very rear of the fleet which would of necessity be the first to go about was the Stirling Castle 64, and her captain, Robert Carkett, was a typical old-fashioned officer, albeit one who had risen on merit from the lower deck rather than been promoted through family influence. For ten long minutes Carkett pondered on the signal whilst trying to make sense of it, and only when it was repeated with his flag did he act. This was a portent of the problems to come, and although Rodney’s appraisal of the qualities of his subordinates was to some extent justified, in his usual haughty and contemptuous manner he had failed to effectively communicate his plans to them. The captains were men who had been schooled under the standard and rigid Fighting Instructions, and their experience in the Seven Years War and before had witnessed senior officers being brought to court-martials as a result of misjudgements at battles such as those of Toulon, Minorca and even Ushant just two years previously. As a result the captains were a concoction of the wary, the robotic, and the intransigent.
By 10.30 the British fleet had finally gone about and both forces were heading north with the French line some ten miles long, and the British, who retained the weather gauge, having a line about six miles in length. At 11 a.m. Rodney signalled ‘prepare for battle’ and at 11.50 for every ship to ‘bear down and steer for her opposite in the enemy’s line, agreeable to the 21st article of the Additional Fighting Instructions’. Shortly afterwards the signal for ‘close action’ was hoisted. All the captains had to do was follow the, albeit lengthy, protocols attached to the 21st article in the Fighting Instructions, and Rodney’s intention to cut off the enemy’s rear and bring about a comprehensive defeat of the French would be fulfilled.
That some of his officers were still not in cohesion with Rodney quickly became evident when the van, led by the misguided Stirling Castle, chased up the ten-mile long French line to close on their van, rather than adhere to his signal to attack the ships immediately opposite them, which in this instance were in the French centre and rear. On this occasion Captain Carkett totally misinterpreted Rodney’s signal, no doubt being confused by its confliction with the earlier 6.45 signal to engage the enemy’s rear. As far as he was concerned the enemy ships that had been in the rear at 6.45 were now making up the French van, and he believed the ‘opposite in the enemy’s line’ to be his original intended target, that being the French ship which now lead their line.
Disastrously the Ajax and Elizabeth followed the Stirling Castle’s example, and their error was even compounded by Rear-Admiral Parker in command of the van squadron, whose flagship Princess Royal was next in line, and who inadvertently negated Rodney’s previous signals by ordering the last three ships in his division, the Albion, Terrible and Trident, to follow his flagship up the French line rather than keep station on the centre as they had seemed inclined to do. Flying the broad pendent of Commodore Thomas Collingwood, the Grafton at the head of the centre division also took the same course, and in no time Rodney’s rear and van were almost as extended as his enemy’s. The relief these false manoeuvres brought to the officers aboard the French men-of-war was at total variance not only to the despair aboard the British flagship, but also aboard the outlying frigates whose officers had a clear view of both fleets and could thoroughly understand their admiral’s intentions.
Just before 1 p.m. a long range action commenced, and in the centre Rodney’s flagship, the Sandwich, steered for its opposite number in the enemy line which happened not to be the flagship Couronne 80 but a mere 64, the Actionnaire. Having disposed of her and her consort, the Intrépide 74, the Sandwich was attacked by de Guichen’s flagship and two powerful consorts, the Triomphant and Fendant, which had come about after being left un-molested by the errant British van. To Rodney’s fury these three vessels had also been inadequately engaged by the two ships ahead of him in the line, these being the Cornwall 74 and the Yarmouth 64, the latter of which had been unable to decide whether to follow her leader, the Grafton, or support her admiral. The result was that Captain Bateman’s ship had been taken aback in attempting the former course and been left marooned well away to windward.
To make matters even worse for the Sandwich, which was now alone to leeward of the French, she could not count upon any support from the rear, for the third ship in that division, the Montagu, had found herself on the wrong tack after receiving a devastating raking broadside on her approach to the French line, and to Rodney’s dismay the divisional commander, Rear-Admiral Rowley, who was next in line with the Conqueror, had wore to support her. The French rear then made the same manoeuvre before eventually all bar the disabled Montagu came round upon the correct course again.
For an hour and a half the Sandwich fought off the Couronne, Triomphant and Fendant, her crew gaining some satisfaction by seeing the French flagship temporarily catch fire, and taking aboard some swimmers who had entered the water to escape the flames. Eventually the Cornwall and Yarmouth rejoined her towards the end of the day, but she was obliged to disengage at 4.15 with numerous casualties, her foremast and main-yard shot down, and her pumps battling to keep her afloat. Such was the damage that she would take a whole day over her repairs before she was sea-worthy again.
In the van and rear the action broke up without conclusion when the French wore their fleet and made off to leeward, eventually sailing for Guadeloupe to be followed by Rodney. After seeing them take refuge under the batteries at Basseterre he then temporarily assumed a position off Fort Royal, Martinique, in case de Guichen attempted to return to his base. During the battle the British had lost one hundred and twenty men killed, including Captain Hon. Henry St. John of the Intrepid, and three hundred and fifty-four wounded, against French losses of two hundred and twenty-two killed and five hundred and thirty-seven wounded, the disparity being attributable to the French practice of aiming high to disable ships whilst the British aimed low to disable the enemy crews.
Captain Uvedale, having been sent home aboard the frigate Pegasus 28, Captain John Bazely, arrived at the Admiralty on 24 May with Rodney’s despatches that blithely declared ‘the defeat of the French fleet under the command of the Comte de Guichen’. The reality was much different, and deprived of what he had expected to be a glorious victory Rodney vented his wrath upon his subordinates whilst saving praise only for Captains Bowyer, Young, Molloy, Houlton and Douglas who received certificates commending their actions. Such was the veracity of his despatch home, including comments to the effect that ‘the British flag was not supported’ that the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, felt constrained to edit parts before releasing it to the public in England. To Carkett of the Stirling Castle, the oldest captain in the fleet, Rodney despatched a rancorous letter of rebuke, and in private correspondence with Sandwich he poured scorn upon the efforts of his junior admirals, Hyde Parker and Rowley. Somewhat justifiably both men resented Rodney’s disapprobation, and they wasted little time in seeking alternative employment.
Several months later Captain Bateman of the Yarmouth 64 was brought to a court martial for his failure to attack the French flagship during the initial stages of the battle. His bravery was beyond doubt as had been raised from the lower deck thirty-six years earlier for gallantry at the Battle of Toulon, but his crime was to have misunderstand his commodore’s interpretation of Rodney’s signals, and to lie too awaiting further instructions. Even so, he was found guilty of failing to support his admiral and was dismissed the service. Lieutenant Robert Taylor Appleby of the Montagu was also brought to trial by Rodney for withdrawing his ship when Captain Houlton had been incapacitated, but evidence proved that she was in fact disabled at the time and he was acquitted. Meanwhile the esteemed Commodore Collingwood could not cope with his own part in the failure, and some time later, having lost his senses, he was put aboard the frigate Brilliant 28, Captain John Ford, bound for Lisbon.
Despite all the recriminations and his despair at losing such a great opportunity to defeat the French fleet and its brilliant commander, Rodney had at least succeeded in preventing the attack on Barbados. Neither did he have to wait a long time for another opportunity, for in May he was able to seek battle with the French again.
2 x 80 guns: Triomphant, Couronne:
12 x 74 guns: Destin, Pluton, Souverain, Citoyen, Victoire, Fendant, Palmier, Intrépide, Magnifique,
Robuste, Hercule, Dauphin Royal:
8 x 64 guns: Vengeur, Solitaire, Caton, Indien, Actionnaire, Triton, Sphinx, Artésien:
1 x 60 guns: Saint Michel: