Blanche v Pique – 5 January 1795
Having undergone a refit at Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the late summer of 1794, the frigate Blanche 32, Captain Robert Faulknor, returned to her station in the Leeward Islands. Here she was ordered to cruise off the French island of Guadeloupe following its evacuation by the British on 10 December; this being just eight months after the heroic Faulknor had led the storming of the well defended Fleur d’Epée during the capture of the island. Joining company with the Quebec 32, Captain Josias Rogers, the Blanche proved such a menace to the French authorities on Guadeloupe that they resolved to deploy their superior frigate Pique 38, Captain Daniel de Monconseil, (or as he had become to be known, Citizen Conseil), against either British frigate should the opportunity arise.
Captain Rogers soon learned that the Pique was at anchor in Pointe à Pitre, the chief port in the centre of Guadeloupe which lay between Grand Terre and Basse Terre on the southern coast, and seeking to challenge her to a duel he took the Quebec inshore within range of the town’s defences on the afternoon of 2 January. Although the Pique hoisted her topsails and raised her anchor in response she did not venture out that evening, and when she did make a move the next morning she promptly withdrew upon discovering that the Blanche was still off the island. Surmising that the French captain was simply posturing, and aware that his frigate was required for duties elsewhere, Rogers sailed off to the westward on 3 January, leaving Faulknor to take the Blanche in towards Pointe à Pitre at 6 p.m. that evening and to drop anchor about four miles offshore.
At daylight on the clear morning of 4 January, the Blanche found the Pique lying at anchor outside the harbour mouth, and at 7 a.m. the French frigate was seen to get underway with a schooner in company. Faulknor hoisted sail in turn at 8.30 and bent a course for the enemy before hoving to when it became evident that the two French vessels were favouring the protection of the shore batteries and Fort Fleur d’Epée. A distraction then appeared in the form of a schooner which was proceeding along Grande Terre, and hoisting sail once more, Faulknor made off to intercept this vessel. At about 11 a.m. he fired a warning shot which brought the stranger to, and upon boarding her she proved to be an American schooner on the last leg of her voyage from Bordeaux to Pointe à Pitre with a cargo of wine and brandy.
Upon the Blanche taking the schooner in tow and bearing away for the Islands of the Saintes, she came under fire from a battery at Le Gosier to the east of Pointe à Pitre on Grand Terre, but the shot fell short. At about 2 p.m. the Pique raised her own colours and fired four shots at the Blanche from her position on the opposite tack, to which Faulknor responded by firing a shot to windward. Thirty minutes later the Pique tacked towards the Blanche, but when Faulknor shortened sail to await the Frenchman the latter tacked once more at 3.30 and bore away to seek sanctuary under the batteries on Grand Terre. Captain Conseil’s trepidation was no doubt occasioned by his concern that the Quebec might still be in the vicinity, whilst it is also possible that he had been attempting to lure the Blanche away from Pointe à Pitre to facilitate the expected arrival of a troopship.
Faulknor now concluded that the French frigate had no intention of coming out, and so with the schooner in tow he began to steer southwards under topsails and courses for the Island of Marie-Galate. At about 4 p.m. the Blanche hove-to once more and took the American crew out of the schooner to replace them with her own men, at which stage the Pique could still be seen sheltering close into Grand Terre. Two hours later the Blanche with the American schooner in tow wore away for Dominica under easy sail, but then at about 8.30 it was perceived that the Pique was standing towards the frigate and her prize, although she was still about six miles astern. Faulknor now cast lose the American schooner and tacked towards the enemy, and with a full clear moon illuminating the scene the Frenchman, apparently confident that she was facing but one opponent, maintained her course. The two frigates bore down upon each other on opposite tacks, and at 12.15 a.m. with the island of Marie-Galante about three miles to the south, the vessels exchanged long-range broadsides.
The Blanche had been launched in July 1786 and was on her second tour of duty in the Leeward Islands. She carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannon on her gun-deck, and six 6-pounder cannon and six 18-pounder carronades on her quarterdeck and forecastle, giving her a broadside weight of metal of two hundred and twenty-eight pounds. She had a crew on this day of one hundred and ninety-eight men, and her commander, the 31-year-old Robert Faulknor, was a post captain of less than one year’s seniority whose Herculean deeds in the previous year’s Leeward Islands campaign had unhappily been tarnished, not least in his own troubled mind, by an ill-tempered sword thrust at a British seaman who had inadvertently interjected during Faulknor’s heated argument with an army officer, resulting in the poor man’s death.
The Pique had been launched eight months before the Blanche and had left France for the Caribbean in April 1794. Although her nominal armament was twenty-six 12-pounder cannon on her gun-deck and eight 6-pounder cannon on her quarterdeck and forecastle, historians subsequently credited her with a broadside weight of metal of two hundred and seventy-three pounds. It seems probable that she had a crew of two hundred and seventy-nine men aboard, and her captain, Citizen Conseil, was an officer who had entered the Republican Navy from the French merchant marine.
Following the early exchange of long-range broadsides on opposite tacks, the Blanche, having almost reached the wake of the Frenchman, tacked to renew the action at 12.30, and with both ships now on the larboard tack she was up within musket-shot of her enemy’s starboard quarter a half-hour later. The Pique attempted to take advantage of the weather gage by wearing ship so as to rake the Blanche at musket-shot range from ahead, but Faulknor wore his ship in turn, and the two vessels began to slug it out, broadside to broadside.
By 2.30 the Blanche had moved ahead of her opponent, but in throwing her helm to larboard so that she could rake the Pique she lost her damaged main and mizzen masts over the starboard beam. Her lack of momentum brought the Pique’s bowsprit crashing on board the British frigate’s larboard quarter where it became enmeshed, and from this precarious position the French launched an attempt to board and overwhelm the Blanche with a superiority of numbers. Although the assault was made in a most disciplined and seamanlike manner, Faulknor’s men were able to prevent their enemy getting aboard, and the raking fire from the Blanche’s larboard quarterdeck cannon and any of the aftermost main-deck guns that could be brought to bear poured into the Pique’s starboard bow, adding to the musketry of the marines in causing a great number of French casualties. In response the Pique was only able to respond with a few of her quarterdeck guns which had been run in amidships fore and aft, and with the musketry from her fighting tops.
The brutal engagement continued into the dead of night when, being without the power to manoeuvre his vessel, Faulknor resolved to bind the two ships together at 3 a.m. By this time he had already received a wound to his arm and was keeping it bent to prevent a loss of blood; however, as he jumped forward to lash the Pique’s bowsprit to his capstan he was shot twice by a musketeer, and one of the balls entered his heart, killing him instantly. The two ships temporarily drifted apart as the lashings came loose, until the Pique, which by now had lost her fore and main masts, drifted across the Blanche’s stern and her bows rammed into the Blanche’s starboard quarter. This time, under volleys of musketry from the Pique’s forecastle, desperate hands succeeded in the task of tethering the French frigate’s bowsprit to the stump of the Blanche’s main mast.
Under the command of her first lieutenant, Frederick Watkins, the Blanche began paying off before the wind, and in so doing she dragged the Pique around with her. Musketry from the British marines prevented any French attempt to cut the lashings, yet nevertheless the Pique’s musketry and the fire from her quarterdeck guns was causing enough havoc on the British quarterdeck to keep the result of the duel in the balance. The engagement only swung fully in favour of the British when two twelve-pounder cannons were hauled aft, and with firemen standing by with buckets of water the Blanche’s carpenters blew a hole in her upper transom beam to allow both guns to be trained on the French frigate’s bows.
At 3.15 the Pique’s mizzen mast went by the board, but the French bravely sustained the relentless fire from the Blanche’s improvised stern-chasers for a further two hours until men on her forecastle called out to surrender at 5.15. Watkins ordered the Blanche’s second lieutenant, David Milne, to take possession of the Pique with ten seamen, yet this was a task that proved anything but straightforward, for the jolly boat capsized because it’s tackles had been shot through, and an attempt to haul themselves along the towing hawser only saw the weight of the men drag the rope down with them into the sea. Eventually Milne was obliged to swim over to the defeated frigate with several men and to clamber up the Pique’s fallen foremast onto her forecastle, from where he walked forward to the gangway to accept the French commander’s sword.
During the action the Blanche had lost eight men killed including her captain and a midshipman, William Bolton, and suffered twenty-one men wounded, whilst the Pique had lost an incredible seventy-six men killed and one hundred and ten wounded. At 8 a.m. the Blanche was joined by the Veteran 64, Captain William Hancock Kelly, which had been alerted by the flashes of gunfire, and she provided assistance by towing the captured Pique to the Islands of the Saintes where Captain Faulknor was buried. Later that day Lieutenant Watkins wrote to the commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Benjamin Caldwell, advising him of the capture of the Pique and the sad loss of Captain Faulknor. Lieutenant Milne was sent off to deliver this letter to Caldwell at Martinique.
As a reward for his role in the victory Lieutenant Watkins was promoted commander, and by 26 April he had been posted captain. On the same day, 26 April, Lieutenant Milne was promoted commander, which was more than compensation for having been overlooked by Caldwell for the role of first lieutenant aboard the Blanche following Watkins’ initial promotion. The Pique’s captain, Citizen Conseil, was later taken to Portsmouth where he remained for the best part of a year, and following his exchange he returned to Guadeloupe as the commandant of the island of Saint-Martin, from which position he retired in 1800.
The heroic death of the gallant Captain Faulknor was lauded by both sides of the House of Commons, with a debate being opened by General Richard Smith on 4 April, whose motion for a monument in Faulknor’s honour was seconded by Hon. Charles Grey and then eloquently supported by the leading Whig politician, Charles James Fox. Issues of precedent saw the motion defeated, but Faulknor was later accorded a memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1803. In the meantime the general public had also been captivated by his sacrifice, with an ‘interlude’ entitled ‘The Death of Captain Faulknor’ being presented at Covent Garden in May 1795, and an etching and engraving depicting his death being published in 1800.
Her defeat of the Pique was undoubtedly the highlight of the Blanche’s career, and indeed it could be said that her time thereafter was far from happy. Faulknor’s successor, Charles Sawyer, lasted only a year before he was removed from his ship and dismissed the navy for homosexual activities with members of his crew, his replacement, d’Arcy Preston, enjoyed a glorious frigate action with Commodore Horatio Nelson against the Spanish in December 1796 but within weeks was replaced by the unpopular Henry Hotham, and under that officer’ successor, John Ayscough, the Blanche was wrecked in the Texel in 1799.
The Pique was bought into the Navy and the command initially given to Captain Lancelot Skynner, but in January 1796 the promoted David Milne became her captain. His tenure survived the Spithead Mutiny in 1797, and he was still her commander when she was wrecked in an engagement with the frigate Seine 40 off the French coast on 29 June 1798. Compensation for Milne came with his posting to the Seine after she had been obliged to surrender to the Pique’s consorts, and after eventually rising to flag rank he enjoyed stints as the peace-time commander-in-chief on the North American and Plymouth stations. Meanwhile Captain Watkins returned to England from the West Indies in 1801, and apart from a brief employment in the Napoleonic War he spent his last fifty years in retirement, having risen to the rank of admiral,