Battle of Cuddalore – 20 June 1783
The failure to recover the port of Trincomale in Ceylon during September 1782 had resulted in Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes’ fleet entering Madras in October before retiring to Bombay to refit, there being no port on the Coromandel Coast of eastern India which could provide shelter during the monsoon season. Even during the voyage around to Bombay the British encountered severe storms, and the Hero 74, Monmouth 64, and Sceptre 64 were forced into Goa to refit after being damaged. The fleet eventually re-united at Bombay in December, having been joined by reinforcements from England consisting of five sail of the line under the command of Commodore Sir Richard Bickerton, albeit that these vessels were scurvy-ridden. Sadly the reinforcements had not included Hughes’ intended successor, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, who after visiting Rio de Janeiro in December had been presumed lost at sea with his flagship, the Cato 60, Captain James Clark.
The recently promoted French commander-in-chief in the Indian Ocean, Vice-Admiral Pierre André de Suffren, had wintered with his fleet at Achin on the western tip of Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies. Learning in early January 1783 of the death of his ally in India, Hyder Ali, he had rushed back to the French base at Cuddalore on the Coromandel Coast where he hoped to strike a new accord with Hyder Ali’s son, Tipu Sultan. Equally importantly, he sought to rendezvous not only with the new French army commander-in-chief, the Marquis de Bussy, but also with two of his ships that had been sent to cruise in the Bay of Bengal. Finding neither at Cuddalore, he sailed for Trincomale, and after reaching that port on 23 February he met with his missing ships and was also joined two weeks later by de Bussy, who had come out from France with two thousand three hundred troops on thirty-two transports, escorted by three sail of the line and a frigate. Without delay these troops were escorted to the Coromandel Coast, and on 19 March they were landed some twenty miles south of Cuddalore at Porto Novo, the modern day Parangipettai. By early April Suffren was back at Trincomale where he began to refit his ships following their several difficult voyages.
Meanwhile on 20 March Hughes’ fleet consisting of eighteen sail of the line had sailed from Bombay to return to the Coromandel Coast with the intention of assisting Lieutenant-General James Stuart’s army, which was to march south from Madras and besiege Cuddalore. On 10 April, having entered the Bay of Bengal, Hughes learned from a recaptured prize that the bulk of the French fleet was at Trincomale, but that two sail of the line and two frigates were blockading the main British base at Madras. Hastening to the latter place, he anchored in the roads on 13 April, and although the four French men of war were no longer there he was advised that they had been seen off the city the day before. He therefore despatched a small squadron under Captain Andrew Mitchell of the Sultan 74 to hunt them down. In the meantime the Sceptre 64, Captain Samuel Graves, which had been detached from the fleet on the 11th to chase a strange sail, had ran down the French corvette Naïade 20, Captain Louis Thomas Villaret-Joyeuse, and captured her after a two hour struggle of infinite credit to the French commander, a man who would later become a senior admiral in the French Republican and Imperial Navy.
On the 16th Mitchell’s squadron returned to Madras having failed to find the four French men-of-war, although it did bring with it a convoy from England under the escort of the Bristol 50, Captain James Burney, which it had met at sea. Sadly this happy arrival was tarnished three days later when an East Indiaman, the Duke of Athol, caught fire, and in attempting to assist her six naval lieutenants and some two hundred seamen were killed when she blew up. This loss of manpower would be felt the more by the British fleet when coupled with the number of seamen who were falling ill to scurvy and disease.
On 2 May, despite the fact that his ships were short of water, Hughes put out of Madras to seek the French fleet and attempt to intercept any reinforcements. He left behind three storeships under the protection of a small squadron commanded by Captain Christopher Halliday of the Isis 50, which were preparing to sail for Cuddalore to supply Lieutenant-General Stuart’s army once it arrived there, this force having marched out of Madras in the third week of April. Two weeks later Hughes learned from some neutral Portuguese ships that Suffren was still at Trincomale, so anxious to ensure that the French did not slip past him into Cuddalore he hugged the coastline on his voyage south. Still there was no sign of the enemy, and on 25 May the British fleet sailed past Trincomale in a southerly direction whilst Suffren, wary of being drawn away from his base in case it was attacked, stayed put. Deciding that an attack on Trincomale was out of the question, Hughes nevertheless remained in its vicinity with his frigates keeping watch on the French.
On 1 June Hughes was advised that the Fendant 74 with two frigates and two storeships had slipped out of Trincomale, and surmising that they would head for Cuddalore he immediately set sail to protect Captain Halliday’s squadron. The British fleet was seen by the French when it reappeared off Trincomale heading northwards, and according to their sources Hughes apparently feinted as if to attack the port before departing. Although the Fendant and the two frigates were seen by the British and chased on the night of 3 June they were no longer in sight by the next morning, and on the 9th Hughes anchored at Porto Novo from where he hoped to provide protection to the army which had arrived at Cuddalore five days earlier and had set up camp south of the town.
During their weeks at sea Hughes’ men had succumbed to scurvy and sickness in increasing numbers, particularly with Commodore Bickerton’s squadron, and the fleet’s attempts to obtain fresh water had proved fruitless. The situation was so bad that the admiral found it necessary to send some six hundred men for hospitalization at Madras aboard the Bristol and the storeship San Carlos, Commander William White. It was in this reduced state that on 13 June Suffren arrived in sight to the south with fifteen sail of the line, having rapidly responded to a request from the Marquis de Bussy to save his besieged army.
As soon as the British outlying frigates reported the French approach Hughes raised anchor and sailed towards Cuddalore to anchor about five miles from the besieged works. The French fleet at this time was some twenty miles to the south. Over the next two days Hughes remained in this position whilst unfavourable winds kept the French at bay, but when the breeze swung around on the 17th Suffren set a course for the British fleet. Hughes now decided to set sail in line of battle ahead to meet the French in the expectation of a light breeze that would favour his plan of attack. Crucially however the breeze failed to materialise, and it was with horror that the British, both at sea and on land, saw Suffren audaciously move in at 8.30 that evening to take up the very anchorage off Cuddalore that Hughes had vacated hours earlier.
Without firing a cannon the wily Suffren, who had recently lost so many men to a plague that he had been forced to burn one infected vessel, had secured the very objective he had set out to achieve. Conferring with de Bussy, and being fully aware of the scurvy that was decimating the British fleet, he decided on a plan to drive Hughes away so that his seamen could then be spared to assist the besieged army ashore. Embarking twelve hundred army gunners to assist with his cannon, and being confident that having rid his ranks of the captains who had subverted his command during the previous four battles of 1782 he would be loyally supported, he weighed anchor on the 18th and set out to attack Hughes.
Suffering from sickness, having lost so many men in the Duke of Athol disaster, and being so short of water, the British situation was far from favourable, but rather than return to Madras Hughes decided to accept Suffren’s challenge. Over the next two days he tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain the weather-gauge, so finally on the late afternoon of 20 June, with the wind refusing to veer away from the west, and with his fleet heading northwards on the larboard tack, he succumbed to the inevitable and allowed Suffren to attack him.
Adhering to an instruction from the King of France, who had suffered the capture of the Comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes and had no wish to see another commander-in-chief taken prisoner, Suffren removed his flag to the frigate Cléopàtre and directed the battle from her. Having abandoned his tactic of concentrating on his enemy’s rear, perhaps because his captains had habitually failed to get to grips with that plan, he bore down in line ahead on a parallel course to the British, and at a little after 4 p.m. his leading ship opened fire with a single shot at extreme range.
For the next twenty minutes the French continued to fire before the British opened up and the action became mutual at point blank range. The Flamand 50 attempted to break through the British line but was hit hard by the Exeter 64 and Inflexible 64, and her captain, Périer de Salvart, died in making this worthy attempt. Hughes flagship Superb 74, the Monarca 68 and the Burford 70 became engaged with Suffren’s erstwhile flagship Héros 74 and her consort, the Illustre 74, the Sultan 74 took on the Argonaute 74, the Africa 64 fought the Petit Annibal 50, the Magnanime 64 engaged with the Vengeur 64, and the Bristol 50 and Monmouth 64 found themselves up against the Hardi 64. At the rear the Inflexible 64 and then the Gibraltar 80 engaged the Fendant 74, whilst the Defence 74 and the Sphinx 64 exchanged fire. The remaining ships were less heavily engaged.
At 5.30 a fire broke out in the Fendant’s mizzen topmast and she began to drop out of the French line. Commodore Bickerton in the Gibraltar attempted to take her place, but the Flamand moved up to cover her consort and soon the heroic Fendant was able to extinguish the fire and regain her position. Thereafter the engagement continued until about 7 p.m. when darkness descended and the French hauled their wind. The British had lost ninety-nine men killed and four hundred and thirty-one wounded, and the French one hundred and two men killed and three hundred and eighty-six wounded. One lucky survivor was Commodore Richard King of the Hero, who had a speaking trumpet shot out of his hand but was not wounded.
The battle had been inconclusive yet there remained the question over which fleet would be able to get inshore of the other so as to support its army in the siege of Cuddalore. Initially the current carried the French northwards towards Pondicherry where they anchored some twenty-five miles from Cuddalore. Early the next morning the British fleet was in sight, but it soon became apparent that it was no longer a threat, for with the Isis and Gibraltar badly damaged, and with water supplies so precariously low, Hughes had decided to return with his sickly fleet to Madras. He arrived there on the 25th, having by his account hundreds of men on the sick list, many of them terminally. Suffren then sailed into Cuddalore on 23 June where he returned the twelve hundred men he had borrowed from the army as well as double that number of sailors to help resist the siege.
The French admiral had earned a moral victory in so much that with Hughes forced to withdraw from the siege of Cuddalore the British army was left unsupported and at great risk. But Lieutenant-General Stuart did not have to fret for long, for on 27 June the frigate Medea 28, Captain Erasmus Gower, left Madras for Cuddalore with news of January’s cessation of hostilities. Shortly after delivering this information the Medea departed for England with a duplicate of Hughes’ despatches, the armed transport Pondicherry being sent home with the originals, and under the care of Captain Gower it was the copies that arrived first at the Admiralty on 9 January.
So the great campaign between Hughes and Suffren came to an end. Although neither officer had earned a decisive victory both had greatly distinguished themselves – Hughes by his stoic defence and Suffren through his brilliantly innovative tactics. On the voyage back to Europe the two fleets met at the Cape and the British captains wasted little time in rushing aboard Suffren’s flagship to congratulate him on the excellence of his battle plans, flawed though they had been by the indecisiveness and conservatism of his officers. It was perhaps fortunate for the British that Suffren would not live to fight another war against them, for after returning to France in 1784 he died four years later at the age of 62.
Ship’s participating and casualties:
|Superb 74||Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes||12+41|
|Captain Henry Newcome|
|Hero 74||Commodore Richard King||5+21|
|Captain Theophilus Jones|
|Gibraltar 80||Commodore Sir Richard Bickerton||6+40|
|Captain Thomas Hicks|
|Cumberland 74||Captain William Allen||2+11|
|Defence 74||Captain Thomas Newnham||7+38|
|Sultan 74||Captain Andrew Mitchell||4+20|
|Monarca 68||Captain John Gell||6+14|
|Exeter 64||Captain John Samuel Smith||4+9|
|Burford 70||Captain Peter Rainier||10+20|
|Eagle 64||Captain William Clark||4+8|
|Worcester 64||Captain Charles Hughes||8+32|
|Inflexible 64||Captain Hon. John Whitmore Chetwynd||3+30|
|Magnanime 64||Captain Thomas Mackenzie||1+16|
|Sceptre 64||Captain Samuel Graves||17+47|
|Africa 64||Captain Robert M’Douall||5+25|
|Monmouth 64||Captain James Alms||2+19|
|Bristol 50||Captain James Burney||0+10|
|Isis 50||Captain Christopher Halliday||3+30|
|Active 32||Captain Thomas Troubridge|
|Juno 32||Captain James Montagu|
|Medea 28||Captain Erasmus Gower|
5 x 74 guns: Héros, Annibal, Argonaute, Fendant, Illustre;
7 x 64 guns: Artésien, Ajax, Brillant, Hardi, Sévère, Sphinx, Vengeur;
1 x 60 guns: Saint Michel;
2 x 50 guns: Flamand, Petit Annibal;
Frigates: Consolante 40, Fine, Cléopàtre, Coventry.