Battle of Negapatam – 6 July 1782
Following the Battle of Providien in April, the British East Indian squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes had undertaken repairs at Trincomale whilst its adversary, the French squadron under Commodore Pierre André de Suffren, had sailed further down the coast of Ceylon to Dutch-controlled Batticaloa, from where it could protect an expected incoming supply convoy.
In the French camp there remained the lack of cohesion between Suffren and several of his captains that had been evident at the Battles of Sadras and Providien, and in particular the commodore had come to mistrust his senior captain, Bernard-Marie Boudin de Tromelin of the Annibal, whose contrariness had infected the other uncooperative officers. Accordingly, when Suffren received despatches from the governor on the Isle de France instructing him to return and collect troops under the command of the Marquis de Bussy for transportation to India, he decided to disobey them, as he did not believe that his captains could be trusted in his absence. Given that the recalcitrant French officers’ imperviousness to naval hierarchy and discipline was based largely upon their aristocratic entitlement, it was of some irony that the junior lieutenant of humble background who delivered the despatches was the 35-year-old Louis Thomas Villaret-Joyeuse, for he would quickly rise to high command in the Republican and Napoleonic navies once the old aristocracy had been swept away in the French Revolution.
Having explained himself by letter to the governor at the Isle de France, Suffren sailed north from Batticaloa on 3 June for the Danish possession of Tranquebar, which was strategically placed between the main British base at Madras and Hughes’ squadron at Trincomale. Two weeks later he set off from Tranquebar, and on 20 June he arrived at Cuddalore, which had been taken by French troops six weeks before. Here he agreed to a request from the French ally, Hyder Ali, to attempt the capture of Negapatam, which was a key port on the coast some eighty miles south of Cuddalore, and which also lay between Madras and Trincomale. His compliance towards the Sultan was to some degree compensation for the local French general’s refusal to undertake an attack on Negapatam by land. Being aware that British reinforcements under Commodore Sir Richard Bickerton were imminently expected to arrive in India from England, Suffren wasted little time in loading his transports with siege materials and two thousand four hundred troops before putting to sea.
By now Hughes had gained some intelligence of his enemies’ objectives, and having emptied the hospital at Trincomale of all the fit men he could muster, he left that port on 23rd June with eleven sail of the line for Negapatam. Thus when the French squadron consisting of twelve sail of the line and six other vessels arrived off Negapatam at 1 p.m. on 5 July, Hughes had already been moored in the roads for the best part of two weeks.
Suffren’s intention was to immediately attack the anchored Hughes by taking advantage of the favourable sea breeze, but a rain squall enveloped his ships as they approached at 3 p.m. and when they emerged from it the Ajax 64 had lost her main and mizzen topmasts. Taking advantage of this French setback, Hughes drove southwards throughout the afternoon and evening in order to obtain the weather gauge, and this he achieved when the southwest monsoon came off the land in his favour towards nightfall.
At daybreak on 6 July the French squadron was anchored some eight miles to leeward in the north-east of the British, and at 5.50 Hughes raised the signal for line of battle abreast and set off for his enemy. Noting shortly afterwards that the French squadron had got underway, Hughes ordered his squadron to form in line ahead at a distance of two cable lengths, and at 7.10 he gave the signal to bear down on the enemy. Finding that the French remained stubbornly on the starboard tack, he then came about on the same course. Of the five battles between Hughes and Suffren during the East Indian campaign this one would be conspicuous in so much that it was the only one where the British admiral took the offensive.
With both squadrons now bearing south south-east on the starboard tack, and with the wind in the south-west, Hughes used the benefit of the weather gage to launch his attack, his intention being that each ship should get alongside and grapple with her immediate opponent. Both sides now had eleven ships apiece, for having failed to make sufficient repairs overnight, Captain Joseph Bouvet of the Ajax, much to Suffren’s fury, had refused to take his position in the French line despite having been specifically ordered to do so. Suffren would later ensure that Bouvet paid for what amounted to any of this gross negligence, selfish insubordination, or base cowardice.
At 10.40 the French opened fire as Commodore Richard King’s van ships moved in on their van, and the British responded five minutes later when Hughes raised the signals for battle and close engagement. Within thirty minutes the action had become general, with each ship attempting to take on her direct opponent. As was usual in such circumstances, the forward ships got into closer action than those in the rear, whilst on the French side two of their vessels towards the rear, the Vengeur 64 and Artésien 64, disobeyed the signal to close with the British despite repeated instructions to do so.
For the French this state of affairs left the Flamand 50 to engage both the Hero 74 and the Exeter 64, the Annibal 74 to fight the Isis 50, the Sévère 64 against the Burford 68, the Brilliant 64 against the Sultan 74, and the two flagship, Héros 74 and Superb 74, against each other. The Sphinx 64 initially opposed the Monarca 68 although the latter’s cannon fire was handicapped by her position on the starboard quarter of Superb, and whilst the Petit Annibal 50, and to a lesser degree the Vengeur and Artésien, were able to engage at long range with the Worcester 64, Monmouth 64, Eagle 64 and Magnanime 64, the Bizarre 64 and Orient 74 in the French rear were unable to join the engagement despite their best efforts to do so.
By 12.35 the outgunned Flamand had been forced out of the line, although in pressing ahead she was able to avoid any further punishment from the Hero and Exeter, as they were too damaged to follow. The Brilliant, which had lost her mainmast to the fire of the Sultan, temporarily bore up before dropping away to leeward of the French line. Signalling the Sphinx to take his place, Suffren then brought the Héros up to protect his disabled compatriot.
The intense action continued unabated until about 1 p.m. when an unusually powerful south south-easterly sea breeze sprung up ahead of the two lines of battle and came tearing in on their larboard bows. Those ships that had been in the closest action in the respective vans and centres were taken aback in the confusion, causing five of the first seven British ships in their line to pay off to starboard with their heads in the west, whilst all of the French ships bar the damaged Brilliant and the Sévère fell away to larboard, their heads facing east.
The two French ships that had paid off to starboard now found themselves marooned between their own line and the four British ships that had paid off to larboard, these being the Burford, Worcester, Eagle and Sultan. The Worcester and the Eagle immediately attacked the disabled Brilliant, inflicting the huge casualty figure of forty-seven men killed and one hundred and thirty-six wounded. Nonetheless, her commander, Armand Philippe Germain de Saint Felix, was made of much sterner stuff than the disloyal contingent amongst Suffren’s captains, and despite his immense losses he refused to submit.
Unfortunately for the Sévère, the gust of wind threw her down upon the larger Sultan, and after receiving a tremendous fire from Captain James Watt’s ship and the nearby Burford, her colours came down in apparent surrender. Before the Sultan could take possession however, she was obliged to adhere to a signal from Hughes to wear ship and rejoin him, the admiral being concerned that whilst they remained on the squadron’s original tack the Worcester, Burford and Eagle were rapidly bearing down on the French squadron to larboard. Scandalously, the Sévère, which was still not flying any colours, then unleashed a raking broadside of her own at the Sultan and escaped to rejoin Suffren.
The greater part of the French squadron had by now managed to wear on to the larboard tack and Suffren began to place his lesser damaged ships to windward of the disabled ones. Hughes initially wished to order a general chase, but he had to refrain from doing so when firstly the Monarca reported that she had lost all her standing rigging and was unable to comply, and then his leading ship, the Hero, hoisted a signal of distress as she was closing rapidly inshore on the contrary tack. At 1.20 Hughes ordered his fleet to wear and stand to the west, at which stage a partial engagement was still taking place and the Eagle was suffering at the guns of two of the enemy ships. Ten minutes later Hughes made the signal for line ahead on the larboard tack and he hailed the threatened Eagle to come in line astern of the Sultan.
Over the next couple of hours the two fleets gradually collected their dispersed ships, but with so many vessels proving unmanageable because of the damage they had sustained there was little further action. By 4.30 the fighting was over and at 5 p.m. the Superb anchored between Nagore and Negapatam to be followed by Hughes’ other ships which came in as best they could, although the Worcester did not join company until the day after. Meanwhile the French anchored at 6 p.m. some four miles to leeward in the north.
During the battle the British suffered seventy-seven men killed, including Acting-Captain Hon. Dunbar MacLellan of the flagship, and two hundred and thirty-three wounded, and the French one hundred and seventy-eight men killed and six hundred and one wounded.
Come the next morning Hughes decided that the damage to his ships precluded him from resuming the chase of the French, whilst at 9 a.m. Suffren, realising that his mission against Negapatam had to be aborted, set sail for Cuddalore. An emissary from Hughes in the shape of Captain Watt of the Sultan was despatched after the French at 10 a.m. aboard the brig Rodney to claim the Sévère as a prize in accordance with the prevailing conventions of war, but having caught up with Suffren that evening Watt was unable to convince him of the legality of his capture. The French commander-in-chief claimed that rather than lowering her colours in surrender the Sévère’s halliards had simply been shot away and that her colours had then been re-hoisted. When the matter was investigated in Paris after the war a different conclusion was reached. This stated that Captain Chevalier de Villeneuve-Cillart had caused the colours to be struck, but that his subordinate officers had refused to entertain the thought of surrendering, and after persuading the captain that he was gravely wounded they had locked him in his cabin and resumed the fight. Whatever the true situation, in the heat of this particular battle it was unlikely that the Sultan could have retained possession of her prize anyway, as the other French vessels were in a position to rescue her.
Hughes remained at sea for two weeks before departing for Madras, and upon reaching that port on 20 July he welcomed the Sceptre 64, Captain Samuel Graves, which had arrived ahead of Commodore Bickerton’s reinforcements. Captain Hon. Charles Carpenter was sent home aboard the East India Company packet Rodney with his dispatches, and he reached the Admiralty in the following April.
Suffren, furious at having been once more undermined by his senior officers, stripped Captain Bouvet of the Ajax of his command and sent three other captains under arrest to the Ile de France, these being de Cillart of the Sévère, le Chevalier de Forbin of the Vengeur, and François Joseph Hippolyte Bidé de Maurville of the Artésien The latter two aristocrats were able to use their connections to escape further censure, but after the investigation into his attempted surrender of the Sévère de Cillart was cashiered by King Louis in July 1784.
Ships involved and casualties:
|Superb 74||Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes||7+19|
|Acting Flag Captain Hon. Dunbar MacLellan (Killed in action)|
|Hero 74||Commodore Richard King||12+23|
|Captain Charles Hughes|
|Sultan 74||Captain James Watt||16+21|
|Monarca 68||Captain John Gell||8+46|
|Worcester 64||Captain Charles Wood||1+9|
|Exeter 64||Captain Robert Montagu||11+24|
|Magnanime 64||Captain Charles Wolseley||2+17|
|Eagle 64||Captain Ambrose Reddall||4+9|
|Monmouth 64||Captain James Alms||0+12|
|Burford 68||Captain Peter Rainier||7+34|
|Isis 50||Captain Hon. Thomas Charles Lumley||9+19|
3 x 74 guns: Héros, Annibal, Orient:
7 x 64 guns: Ajax, Artésien, Brillant, Bizarre, Sévère, Sphinx, Vengeur:
2 x 50 guns: Flamand, Petit Annibal.