The Battle of Trincomale – 3 September 1782
Whilst the British East Indian squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes had licked its wounds at Madras in the weeks after the Battle of Negapatam on 6 July, the French squadron under Commodore Pierre André the Bailli de Suffren had endeavoured to effect what repairs they could in the unprotected roadstead off Cuddalore. Indeed, such was the paucity of resources available to Suffren that he had been compelled to authorise the dismantling of prize vessels and the destruction of buildings to furnish his weather-beaten and battle-weary ships with the timber they required.
Yet even as he was pouring out his woes in a letter to the governor of the Ĭle de France, the indomitable Suffren was working on a plan that would discomfort his enemy and provide him with the necessary resources to harbour and maintain his squadron. His aim was to capture the port of Trincomale on Ceylon which Britain had taken from the Dutch in January, and which Hughes had used to his advantage on several occasions since..
On 25 July Suffren, who notwithstanding the desperate condition of his ships must have been in low spirits given the continued insubordination of so many of his captains, was boosted by the news that his local ally, Hyder Ali, was travelling to Cuddalore to meet him. A glorious three-day pageant ensued, at the culmination of which the French commodore received further good news with the advice that reinforcements from France had arrived at Point de Galle on the south-west tip of Ceylon, having broken their voyage at the Ĭle de France. These consisted of the Illustre 74, Saint Michel 64 and the ex-Indiaman Elizabeth 50, which had been renamed the Consolante 36, in addition to nine transports conveying eight hundred troops from Europe and other military supplies and provisions.
On 1 August Suffren departed Cuddalore to rendezvous with his reinforcements, and thereafter to undertake his attack on Trincomale. After arriving at Batticaloa eight days later he was joined by the newcomers on the 21st, and the next day his squadron consisting of fourteen sail of the line sailed for Trincomale to arrive off the port that evening. Two thousand four hundred troops were landed on the 25th, the batteries opened against the British fort on the 26th, and after a sustained bombardment over the next five days the garrison surrendered on the 30th. Trincomale was then formally occupied by the French on 1 September, although at least the defeated British army commander was able to negotiate a safe passage to Madras for his men.
In the meantime, the frigate Coventry 28, Captain Andrew Mitchell, had arrived at Madras after fighting a bloody but indecisive action with the French frigate Bellone 32 on 12 August. This engagement had finished within sight of the French anchorage at Batticaloa, and Mitchell had immediately rushed north to advise Hughes of the French squadron s presence in Ceylon. Realising the danger not only to Trincomale but also to the safety of his expected reinforcements under Commodore Sir Richard Bickerton, the vice-admiral departed Madras on 20 August with a squadron of twelve sail of the line that had been repaired as best as it could. Regrettably the British were frustrated by contrary winds and only arrived off Trincomale on the night of 2 September. Come the next morning Hughes saw the French colours flying above the fort and his worst fears were realised.
In the French camp the arrival of Hughes’ squadron off their newly conquered base led to a further argument between Suffren and the disaffected captains led by his second-in-command, Bernard-Marie Boudin de Tromelin. The captains were all for remaining secure in the anchorage and not putting Trincomale at risk, but once the Bellone returned from a reconnaissance with the advice that the British squadron only numbered twelve sail of the line Suffren insisted that the French take advantage of their numerical superiority to inflict a mortal blow on their enemy.
At 6 a.m. on 3 September Suffren’s fourteen sail of the line together with the Consolante, three frigates and a fireship slipped their anchorage and stood towards the south-east so as to obtain the weather gauge before edging down toward the British at 8.20. Being determined to stand away from Trincomale in order to obtain sea-room before engaging, Hughes remained on the starboard tack for the next three hours and headed east south-easterly in a stiff south-westerly monsoon wind that was blowing off the shore, his ships two cable lengths apart. During this period the French ships, with some commanded by dissentient captains who had not wanted to fight in the first place, remained in poor order, so that Hughes would later suggest that Suffren appeared hesitant, sometimes edging down towards the British before bringing up, whilst all the time signalling to his errant ships. In fact, it was only at midday that Hughes became convinced that the French intended to engage at all.
The British commander-in-chief had typically dressed his ships in line ahead, with the intention being that each vessel would engage a single French opponent, albeit that the French numerical superiority would leave some of his vessels open to an engagement with more than one enemy. At 2 p.m., being some twenty-five south-east of Trincomale, he saw the French haul to the wind on the starboard tack and start bearing down from their position to windward. A half-hour later Suffren signalled for his ships to engage at pistol shot, and he emphasised the order by firing a gun. The single report was inadvertently taken as the signal to open fire by the crew of his flagship, and then by the rest of his squadron, and within five minutes the action had become general.
In coming about, seven French ships had fore-reached on their consorts and moved well ahead of the French centre, the prime culprits being the Sphinx 64 and Petit Annibal 50, which should have been in the latter division. This error left Suffren’s van overloaded and his centre weakened, but also meant that as the battle began to unfold it was the forward and rear ends of the British line that suffered through the excess numbers in the French van and their additional number of ships in the rear. Fortunately, either through the French ships’ poor positioning or their captains’ continued failure to adhere to Suffren’s battle plans, the action at either end of the line took place at long range rather than the close quarters desired by Suffren. Even so, the Worcester 64 in the very rear of the British line was battered by the Consolante and Vengeur 64 and was only rescued when the Monmouth 64 backed her sails and forced the damaged Vengeur to drop away with a fire burning in her mizzen top. Meanwhile in the van the disabled Exeter 64 was forced to drop out of the British line after receiving the overpowering fire of the half-dozen advanced French ships, whilst the Isis 50 lost her captain, Hon. Thomas Charles Lumley.
In the centre the French squadron’s failure to take up their correct positions had left the British with a numerical superiority, and whilst Suffren’s flagship Héros 74 received severe damage at the guns of Hughes’ Superb 74, her seconds, the Illustre 74 astern and the Ajax 64 ahead, were roughly handled by a crescent of vessels formed around them, these being the Burford 64, Sultan 74, Eagle 64, Hero 74 and Monarca 68. Hughes later reported that at 3.28 the Illustre lost her mizzenmast and the Ajax her fore and mizzen topmasts. At about the same time Suffren signalled to the Saint Michel 60 and de Tromelin’s Annibal 74 requesting assistance, but these ships either chose not to obey or simply could not do so, and whilst the Brilliant 64 did come to his aid it was from a disadvantageous position.
By 4 p.m. the battered Ajax had been replaced in her position by the Artésien 64, but still the reduced French centre was in a desperate state, and although Suffren’s advanced ships were being towed around by their boats the light winds were preventing them from making much headway towards the battle. But just when all seemed lost for the gallant French commodore, and indeed even as he was apparently considering blowing his own ship up to take several of the enemy with him, the wind shifted to the east south-east at 5.35. Safe in the knowledge that his van ships would soon pick up the wind and join him, Suffren continued to resist his attackers to such an extent that when his flagship ran out of shot, he continued to fire his cannon using powder only so that the British would not discover his vulnerability.
Meanwhile Hughes had been forced to wear his fleet when the wind changed direction, but although the action continued unabated the hitherto under-used French van was now approaching on the same tack with the benefit of the weather gauge, and they were unleashing their fire on the British ships as they came abreast of them. At about 6.20, according to Hughes’ later report, the Worcester lost her main topmast, and although the Héros lost her mainmast and shortly afterwards her mizzen the French van soon arrived to pass between their battered consorts and the enemy. This reinforcement enabled Suffren to gather his fleet together, and at 7 p.m. he sailed off to the south with the British rear seeing him on his way with a sustained fire over the next twenty minutes.
During the battle the French lost eighty-two men killed and two hundred and fifty-five wounded, including the captain of the Consolante, whilst the British suffered casualties of fifty-one men killed and two hundred and eighty-three wounded. In addition to Lumley, Captains Charles Wood of the Worcester and James Watt of the Sultan suffered wounds in the battle from which they would not recover.
Given the damage the British had incurred there was no question of Hughes pursuing the French, and having attempted to form a line of battle ahead on the larboard tack he was forced through the darkness of the night and the disabled state of several ships to order them to lie-to at midnight. Come dawn there was no sign of Suffren, so with the Eagle, Monmouth, Burford and Superb making water, and with the French in occupation of Trincomale, Hughes returned to Madras on the 9th where the desperate state of his ships convinced the authorities to recall their troops rather than depend on the navy for the port’s defence.
In order to escape the Bay of Bengal before the north-east monsoon season developed, Hughes departed Madras on 17 October for Bombay where he expected to find Bickerton, having surmised that the commodore would not attempt to enter the Bay of Bengal himself due to the lateness of the season. In the event Bickerton did arrive at Madras with five sail of the line four days after Hughes had departed, but realising that he could not remain there whilst Suffren’s much larger squadron was at large he put to sea again. After reaching Bombay on 28 November, he was joined a few days later by Hughes.
The French re-entered Trincomale the day after the battle but whilst putting into the harbour the Orient 74 struck a rock and was lost. Suffren then turned his attention to those captains who had let him down by being unable to understand, or more sinisterly had been unwilling to understand, his novel tactics. On 13 September the ringleader de Tromelin, together with Armand Philippe Germain de St. Félix of the Artésien and de la Landelle-Roscanvre of the Bizarre, was arrested and despatched to the Ĭle de France. Having been deprived of two convoys that had been captured on their voyage out from France by Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington off Brest and Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt in the Bay of Biscay, Suffren next had to seek assistance from his Dutch allies. Forsaking Trincomale on 30 September, he visited Cuddalore on the 4th where the Bizarre was also lost by grounding, and on 7 November arrived at Achin on the western tip of Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies where he planned to winter.
British Squadron and Casualties
|Superb 74||Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes||4+52|
|Flag Captain Henry Newcome|
|Hero 74||Commodore Richard King||1+17|
|Captain Charles Hughes|
|Sultan 74||Captain James Watt (fatally wounded in action)||4+43|
|Monarca 68||Captain John Gell||6+22|
|Exeter 64||Captain Robert Montagu||6+19|
|Worcester 64||Captain Charles Wood (fatally wounded in action)||6+16|
|Sceptre 64||Captain Samuel Graves||2+23|
|Magnanime 64||Captain Charles Wolseley||3+17|
|Eagle 64||Captain Ambrose Reddall||8+14|
|Monmouth 64||Captain James Alms||0+3|
|Burford 64||Captain Peter Rainier||4+38|
|Isis 50||Captain Hon. Thomas Charles Lumley (Killed)||7+19|
|San Carlos SS 22||Captain John Samuel Smith|
4 x 74 guns: Héros, Annibal, Illustre, Orient:
7 x 64 guns: Artésien, Ajax, Brillant, Bizarre, Sévère, Sphinx, Vengeur:
1 x 60 guns: Saint Michel;
2 x 50 guns: Flamand, Petit Annibal:
Frigate: Consolante: Pourvoyeuse 36, Bellone 34, Fine 34.