Dutch Capitulation in Saldanha Bay – 17 August 1796

by | May 8, 2024 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


Having been ordered by the second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet, Rear-Admiral Robert Man, to collect two troopships at Gibraltar and escort them to Barbados, Commander Charles Brisbane of the sloop Moselle 16 had not been long at sea when he came upon an unknown squadron of eight sail near Madeira steering south. Suspecting them to be a Dutch force from the year-old Batavian Republic bound for the Cape, which colony had been captured by an expedition under Vice-Admiral Sir George Keith Elphinstone the year before, he decided to shadow them. Risking Admiralty admonition by sending the unattended troopships on their way, Brisbane observed the enemy over several days, and having decided that their likely destination was indeed the Cape, he rushed ahead to warn the British authorities there.

The Dutch force consisted of the Dordrecht 68, Revolutie 68, Van Tromp 54, Castor 44, Braave 32, Sirene 24, Bellona 20, and Havick 18, and was commanded by 49-year-old Rear-Admiral Engelbertus Lucas. Its mission was to sail for the Dutch East Indies and hold them for the new Batavian Republic, but it also had instructions to visit the Cape on route, and if possible, attempt the recapture of the colony should the British force prove to be inferior.

After sailing from the Texel on 23 February in company with another Dutch squadron bound for the Caribbean, the combined force had only escaped capture in the North Sea by a squadron under Captain Henry Trollope following the arrival on the scene and the subsequent prevarication of Rear-Admiral Thomas Pringle, who had somehow persuaded himself that five attendant Dutch East Indiamen were in fact all 50-gun vessels. Even Lucas admitted that Trollope’s force of three 64’s, a 56-gun vessel, and three frigates could have easily defeated him, regardless of whether Pringle had joined an attack or not.

Sir George Keith Elphinstone, Viscount Keith.

On 29 February a powerful squadron of six sail of the line and three frigates sailed from St. Helens under the command of Rear-Admiral Henry Harvey to undertake a search for the Dutch off Cape Clear. Such was the haste to put to sea that four of his captains were withdrawn from the court martial of Captain James Norman of the Medusa 50, who was on trial at Spithead on charges of misconduct relating to his stewardship of the Jamaica convoy at the end of the previous year. By the time of the squadron’s return to Portsmouth four weeks later, having failed to find the Dutch, Captain Norman had been found guilty, reprimanded, and reduced to half pay for the remainder of his life.

Meanwhile, after parting company with one of its frigates, the Jason 32, off the Shetland Islands on 8 March, the combined Dutch force had sailed around the north of Scotland before turning south into the Atlantic. Once the two forces separated, Lucas’ squadron spent a month watering and provisioning in the Canary Islands and then resumed its voyage south at the end of May. Days earlier, and following a refit at Trondheim in Norway, the Jason had sailed again for Surinam, but on 4 June her men mutinied, confined their officers, and sailed to Greenock in Scotland where they surrendered to the authorities. The frigate’s plight would be symptomatic of an expedition which would be plagued by mutiny, drunkenness, ill-discipline, and most importantly of all, a lack of secrecy.

At about the same time that Lucas was recommencing his voyage from the Canary Islands, Vice-Admiral Elphinstone arrived back on the Cape station from Madras where he had first heard accounts of the Dutch expedition, barely a month after it had sailed from the Texel. That news of the expedition had so speedily reached the sub-continent reflected the lack of secrecy attending it, and for the same reason the authorities at the Cape were presented with a stream of intelligence, including direct from the Admiralty through various sources including the frigate Carysfort 28, Captain Hon. John Murray, which arrived in April to collect a convoy. Taking account of this knowledge of the Dutch squadron’s strength, Captain William Essington of the Sceptre 64 was ordered to the Cape with troop transports, and on 28 July, the erstwhile hesitant Admiral Pringle, newly appointed as the commander-in-chief of the East Indies, arrived with the Tremendous 74 and Trident 64, having left Spithead on 1 May. Another vessel which came in on 28 July was the Moselle with Captain Brisbane, who having seen the Dutch squadron with his own eyes could confirm the accuracy of the intelligence to Elphinstone.

On 3 August a strange squadron was spotted in the offing at Saldanha Bay, and their presence was reported within a few hours to Elphinstone at Cape Town. Two days later, he received confirmation that the strangers were the expected Dutch ships, but his preparations to put to sea were inhibited by the weather and the fact that his flagship, the Monarch, had her main mast out at the time. On the next evening he did put to sea with his squadron, and acting on information from an officer who had come out from the shore with reports that the strangers had been seen off False Bay, he set a south-westerly course. For several days thereafter the squadron battled winter storms which even the vastly experienced Elphinstone claimed were the most tempestuous that he had ever encountered, and one of his ships, the Ruby 64, registered five feet of water in her hold. A return to Simon’s Bay proved inevitable, and spurred on by a south-easterly breeze, Elphinstone brought his ships to anchor on the 12th. No sooner had he arrived than the master-attendant came out to report that the Dutch squadron had in fact entered Saldanha Bay to the north-west, and that by all accounts it was still there.

Anxious to put to sea at once, Elphinstone was again thwarted by the awful weather which saw the Crescent drive ashore, and which on rising the next day to a tempest cast the Tremendous loose from two cables at great fear of her being lost. Torn between the safety of his ships and the possible lost opportunity of confronting the enemy, it was not until the 15th that Elphinstone was able to set off once more, and at sunset the next day his force arrived off Saldanha Bay where his advanced frigate, the Crescent, reported that the Dutch squadron was indeed moored in the bay.

With his line of battle somewhat extended and the night coming on, Elphinstone decided not to attack that night, but instead, safe in the knowledge that he had a vast superiority in both firepower and manpower over the enemy, he anchored within gunshot and sent across Lieutenant Francis Holmes Coffin of the Monarch with a flag of truce and a letter proposing that the Dutch surrender to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. Admiral Lucas sent a verbal response to the effect that his decision would be conveyed at daybreak, and accordingly, at 9 o’clock on the 17th, a Dutch officer presented himself aboard the Monarch with terms for his squadron’s capitulation. By 5 p.m. agreement had been reached, although with the weather still proving turbulent, it was not until the next day that the Dutch ships were taken into possession.

Captain Aylmer of the Tremendous 74 was sent home with Elphinstone’s dispatches announcing the capture of the Dutch squadron, and he reached the Admiralty on 3 November. To his credit, Elphinstone acknowledged that had Lucas commanded a sufficient force, he would undoubtedly have put up a fight, but that the intelligence from the Admiralty had been such that the force arraigned against the Dutch had made their capitulation inevitable. The authorities in the Batavian Republic did not share his view of the outcome however, and on his return to the Netherlands, Lucas was ordered to face a court martial. Sadly, he died on 21 June 1797, just days before the trial was due to commence, but a subsequent inquiry laid the blame for the disaster squarely at his door.

Meanwhile, in October 1796, Elphinstone resigned the command of the Cape to Rear-Admiral Pringle who completed the campaign for the year by dispatching the Crescent 36, Captain John William Spranger, Brave 36, Captain Andrew Todd, and Sphinx 24, Commander Francis Coffin, to capture the French settlement at Foul Point, Madagascar, together with five merchantmen on 2 December.

Vice-Admiral Elphinstone’s Squadron:

Monarch 74 Vice-Admiral Sir George Keith Elphinstone
  Flag Captain John Elphinstone
Tremendous 74 Rear-Admiral Thomas Pringle
  Flag Captain John Aylmer
America 64 Captain John Blankett
Ruby 64 Captain Hon. Henry Edwyn Stanhope
Stately 64 Captain Billy Douglas
Sceptre 64 Captain William Essington
Trident 64 Captain Edward Osborn
Jupiter 50 Captain George Losack
Crescent 36 Captain Edward Buller
Sphinx 24 Commander Andrew Todd
Moselle 16 Commander Charles Brisbane
Rattlesnake 16 Commander Edward Ramage
Echo 16 Commander John Turnor
Hope 14 Lieutenant John Alexander