Centurion v Cybele – 22 October 1794 – and the Unwarranted Dismissal of Captain Mathew Smith
At the end of August 1794, and having taken on six months provisions and water, the British men-of-war Centurion 50, Captain Samuel Osborn, and Diomede 44, Captain Mathew Smith, sailed from Madras for the Isle de France with instructions to instigate a blockade of the island with the intention of curtailing the commerce-raiding activity of the French frigates and privateers. The two captains were acting under the orders of the temporary commander-in-chief in the East Indies, Commodore Henry Newcome of the Orpheus 32, in lieu, or so they believed, of Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner, who had been expected to take up the post when the three British vessels had sailed from England in the previous November. In actual fact, Gardner’s expedition had already been aborted and the new commander-in-chief, Commodore Peter Rainier, would only arrive at Madras after the Centurion and Diomede had departed for the Isle de France.
After visiting the uninhabited French island of Rodriguez to take on wood and water, the two vessels were some twenty-five miles to the south-east of the Isle-Ronde on the north-east coast of the Isle de France, when between 10 and 11 o’clock on the morning of 22 October the Centurion received a signal from her consort warning of two, then three, and finally four, sail in the west which were proceeding on a northerly course in the easterly wind.
Both parties immediately steered for each other, enabling the strangers to be identified as three ships and a brig – they would prove to be the French frigates Prudente 36, flying the broad pennant of Commodore Jean-Marie Renaud, and the Cybèle 40, Captain Pierre Julien Tréhouart, together with the corvette Jean Bart 20 and the brig Courier 14. A couple of smaller vessels were also in attendance but would take no part in the forthcoming engagement. Responding to anxiety ashore over food supplies and a possible slave rebellion, the French squadron had been sent out from Port-Louis to break the British blockade. Being cognisant of their identity and force, it was understood that a defeat of the British ships was unlikely, so the French intention was to disable the Centurion and Diomede and drive them back to India.
The Centurion, which had been launched twenty years previously, had a nominal complement of three hundred and fifty men and a reputed broadside weight of metal of four hundred and fourteen pounds, mostly comprising her twenty-two 24-pounder and twenty-two 12-pounder cannons. Her commander, the 40 year-old Samuel Osborn, was a post captain of twelve years seniority and one of three brothers who would all achieve flag-rank, The Diomede had been launched in 1781, she had a nominal crew of two hundred and eighty men, and had been originally designated a broadside weight of metal of two hundred and eighty-five pounds, primarily consisting of twenty 18-pounder and twenty-two 9-pounder cannons. Captain Smith was of a similar age to Osborn, but crucially was nine months his junior on the captain’s list, and apparently a mutual enmity that existed between the two officers was more extreme on Smith’s side.
The Prudente had been launched in 1790, had a nominal complement of three hundred men, and a broadside weight of metal of approximately one hundred and eighty-eight pounds, mostly 12-pounder cannons, whilst the five year-old Cybèle had been designed for a crew of three hundred and twenty-four men and a broadside of approximately three hundred and ninety pounds, mostly being 18-pounder cannons. All the French ships carried additional men who had been taken aboard on the Isle de France.
Ignoring the private signals that ran up the Centurion’s halliards, the French commodore formed his squadron in line of battle a cable length apart with the Prudente leading the Cybèle, followed by the Jean-Bart and Courier. In turn the two British ships came down from to windward with the Centurion ahead of her consort. Osborn’s plan was to train the bulk of his broadside on the Prudente and the remainder on the Cybèle, whilst the Diomede would engage the Cybèle and the Jean-Bart.
The French raised their colours at 3.29 and opened fire at half-musket shot, and with the action becoming general the Prudente was apparently beaten out of the line after receiving three broadsides from Osborne’s command. In turn the Centurion suffered some significant damage, whilst the Diomede in her station astern remained mostly un-harmed. At 4 p.m. the French commodore signalled his consorts to make sail out of cannon-shot to leeward with the apparent intention of repairing what damage had been incurred and then attempting to seize the weather-gauge. In the act of adhering to this signal, the Cybèle ranged alongside the Centurion and brought down her mizzen-topmast and fore-topgallant-mast. However, although the French commodore and the two smaller vessels continued to bear away to leeward whilst maintaining their fire, the Cybèle was unable to join them due to the calms caused by the gunfire and she was now compelled to fight an engagement with her larger opponent.
Up until this point the Diomede had maintained her position astern of the Centurion whilst subjecting the French line to what could best be described as a sporadic and desultory fire. In the official letter that Osborn would compose after the engagement to ‘Rear-Admiral Gardner, or the Senior Officer Commanding His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels at Madras’, he advised that he could not signal the Diomede to make all possible sail and join him as the appropriate signal flags could not be found. Thus the battle now became a duel between the Centurion and the smaller Cybèle. At 5.15 the Centurion shot away her opponents’ main-topgallant-mast, but with the benefit of a rising light air the Cybèle was enabled to bear up before the wind and join her consorts, who had wore ship in an attempt to beat up from their position to leeward to support her. At 5.45 she lost her fore-topmast, but shortly afterwards was taken in tow by the commodore and the French headed away to the west.
By now, as later claimed by Osborn in his official letter, the Centurion had received almost the entirety of the enemy’s shot, and with the lost of the two upper masts, not to mention her sails and rigging in tatters, she was unable to undertake any sort of effective pursuit; indeed such was the damage aloft that there was every possibility of her losing her masts, and thus Osborn could do little but keep her head to the sea. The Diomede did make chase of the French but her shot proved ineffective. By the time that darkness had closed in, and being unaware of any damage that might have been caused to the Diomede, although in his official letter he suggested that none was apparent, Osborn signalled Smith to rejoin him. His suspicions were confirmed when Smith sent an officer on board the Centurion to report that the Diomede was indeed free of damage. Come the following morning, the French were nowhere to be seen.
The Centurion lost three men killed and twenty-four wounded in the engagement, whilst the Diomede suffered no casualties at all. The Prudente suffered losses of fifteen men killed, including her first and second lieutenants, and twenty men wounded, including the commodore. The Cybèle lost twenty-two men killed, including her first lieutenant, and sixty-two wounded, and the Jean-Bart had one man killed and five wounded.
Following the French squadron’s return to Port Louis it was reported that three of the vessels had suffered little damage, but that the Cybele had appeared a mere wreck with four feet of water in the hold, and that she had been beached to prevent her sinking. It was also claimed that the heroic Captain Tréhouart had been borne aloft on the shoulders of the sans-culottes from the beach to the Assembly to be acclaimed by all and sundry, yet reports that Commodore Renaud had been imprisoned and could expect the guillotine would prove to be fallacious. Tréhouart, a thirty-five-year-old veteran of the battles between Suffren and Hughes in the East Indies during the American War of Revolution, had to date enjoyed the French rank of lieutenant, but to honour his bold engagement with the superior Centurion he was officially promoted captain by the French governor.
Meanwhile the British ships were forced to throw over their blockade and repair to India, as the French had intended. The Centurion reached Bombay on 29 December in a considerably damaged state, and the Diomede entered Madras a week or so later. Their departure from the Isle de France facilitated the re-supply of the island by American ships from Madagascar, and it also allowed for the renewed commerce-raiding activity of the privateers and frigates.
In early January 1795 the Indian newspapers printed Osborn’s official letter describing the action. Its underwhelming account of the Diomede’s participation and support of the Centurion was an abomination to Captain Smith, and he wrote to Osborn on 19 January demanding an explanation. In a response from Bombay dated 14 February, Osborn expressed his view, one which had apparently been confirmed in two conversations after the action, that Smith had done everything ‘you thought would promote the goal of His Majesty’s service’. Rather than calm matters, Osborn then escalated the dispute when on 1 April, yet having still made no public condemnation of Smith’s part in the engagement, he requested a court-martial to examine the conduct of the two ships in order to prove the validity of his original official letter.
Before the court-martial could be convened, the Diomede struck an uncharted rock and sank whilst still under Smith’s captaincy during the invasion of Trincomale on 2 August, thus by the time a date was set for the hearing most of his officers had left the East Indies station and were not available to provide witness. With the Centurion’s officers’ testimonies being heavily balanced towards a justification of what could be viewed as a disappointing performance by their own vessel, Smith, who had not been informed of any charge against him, soon found himself a scapegoat. Only the Diomede’s lieutenant of marines was available to provide evidence on his behalf, and his defence rested on his claim that he had followed orders in remaining in a line of battle, and that the only signal he had received from Osborn during the engagement had been the one of recall at the end of the day. It was nevertheless still a shock to him, and indeed to many impartial observers, when the court found him guilty of disobeying orders and sentenced him to be dismissed from the service.
In April 1798 Smith returned to England to appeal the sentence, and after a review by the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General, and the Admiralty Counsel, the court-martial’s verdict was found to be unwarrantable, thereby facilitating his restoration to the captain’s list. Even so, he was unable to secure any further employment despite the endorsement of the influential Captain Sir William Sidney Smith and a handsome letter of support from Vice-Admiral Rainier once that officer had returned home in 1805.
By the time that Captain Tréhouart and the Cybèle returned to France in 1797 he was enjoying the rank of commodore, and following his death in 1804 he was posthumously awarded the légion d’honneur. Commodore Renaud survived him by a mere few months, for although his frigate, the Ville de Milan 40, captured the British frigate Cleopatra 32, Captain Sir Robert Laurie, on 23 February 1805, he was killed in the latter stages of the action. Two days later both the Ville de Milan and her prize were run down by a heavier British squadron.
The Centurion returned to England in 1804 and she thereafter saw another thirteen years of service as an auxiliary vessel, the Prudente later became a privateer but was captured by the Daedalus 32, Captain Henry Lidgbird Ball, in 1799, and the Cybèle was destroyed at the Sables d’Olonne in 1809 by Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Stopford’s squadron.