Jupiter and Medea v Triton – 20 October 1778
The Jupiter 50, Captain Francis Reynolds, and the Medea 28, Captain James Montagu, were on a cruise in the Bay of Biscay, when at one o’clock on the afternoon of 20 October, and with the wind in the west, a large ship was spotted to leeward near the Sisargas Islands, about thirty-five miles due west of Coruna. Reportedly believing her to be an Indiaman, Captain Reynolds ordered a chase, and it was only when the two British vessels were closing in on the stranger that she was identified as a man-of-war, and by then it was too late to avoid an action. At about six o’clock, with darkness falling, the two British vessels began engaging their enemy, which ship would prove to be the French sail of the line Triton 64, Captain le Comte Gaspard de Ligondés.
The Jupiter had only been launched five months previously, and she was on her first cruise. As a new ship she had the benefit of being copper-sheathed, and her armament comprised twenty-two 24-pounder cannons on her lower gun deck, twenty-two 12-pounder cannons on her upper gun deck, and six 6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, equating to a broadside weight of metal of four hundred and fourteen pounds. She carried a complement of three hundred and fifty men. Her captain, the thirty-nine-year-old Reynolds, had held post rank for sixteen years, and as the nephew and brother of the first and second Lord Ducie respectively, he had enjoyed enough influence to remain in employment throughout the peace following the end of the Seven Years War. A possible blot on his copybook related to his previous command, the Augusta 64, which had been destroyed by the Americans in October 1776 after she had gone aground during the attack on Philadelphia, although in Reynolds’ defence, he had been acquitted of any blame for this loss at his subsequent court-martial.
The Medea was another new ship, having been launched six months previously at Bristol. She carried an armament of twenty-four 9-pounder cannons on her gundeck, four 3-pounders on her quarterdeck, and a dozen half-pounder swivels, giving her a broadside weight of metal of one hundred and seventeen pounds. Her nominal complement was two hundred men, and her commander, twenty-six years old James Montagu, was a post captain of almost three years seniority, and the son of Vice-Admiral John Montagu, the commander-in-chief at Newfoundland.
Their opponent, the Triton, was a very old ship, having been launched at Toulon over thirty-years earlier in 1747. Her armament consisted of twenty-six French 24-pounder cannons on her lower gun deck, twenty-eight French 12-pounder cannons on her upper gun deck, and ten French 6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, giving her a broadside weight of metal of five hundred and ten French pounds. Her nominal complement was four hundred and forty men, and her long service had included participation in the 1756 Battle of Minorca and the July 1778 Battle of Ushant, just three months previously. Her forty-five-year-old captain was the son of the late General Count François de Ligondés, and through the marriage of his sister he was the brother-in-law of a British politician, John Beresford.
During the early stages of the action, the Jupiter attacked the Triton from to windward whilst the Medea took up a position on her lee quarter. It soon became apparent that the inferiority of the latter’s firepower meant that the frigate could contribute little to the enemy’s discomfort, and with the Frenchman skilfully bringing one broadside to bear on both British ships, the Medea was hit in her bows below the waterline by a thirty-six-pound ball which forced Captain Montagu to bring her to and attend to the leak. As a result she played no further part in the action, which now became a ship-to-ship duel between the Jupiter and the Triton.
About an hour into the action, Captain Ligondés had his right thumb shot off and received a ball in his left shoulder, forcing him below and leaving the command of the Triton with Lieutenant de Roquart. Thereafter, the two vessels slugged it out in the darkness and fresh winds until a heavy squall drove them apart. Being close in with the land, Captain Reynolds had to haul off, and in making this manoeuvre he lost sight of both his consort and the enemy. According to British sources, the engagement had lasted for about two hours and twenty minutes, whilst French accounts gave the duration of the action as three and three-quarter hours.
During this indecisive encounter, the Jupiter lost three men killed including a midshipman by the name of Law, and suffered eight men badly wounded, of whom three, including the sailing master, Mr Roberts, died the next day. The Medea lost one man killed and three wounded, whilst losses aboard the Triton were reported to be thirteen men killed and between twenty and thirty wounded, including Captain Ligondés.
Nursing her leak and otherwise reported as’ much shattered’, the Medea made for Lisbon, and she was followed to this port by the Jupiter, which had sustained a great deal of damage aloft. Even so, before she reached the Portuguese port, Captain Reynolds’ command was able to re-take the merchant vessel Concordia, which had earlier been captured by a French privateer, and which was then sent on her way to Liverpool. Meanwhile, the Triton, with fifty shot in her hull and masts, and with similar damage aloft, entered the Spanish port of Coruna.
The first news of the action to reach London came from Cork in a letter dated 16 November based on information provided by the recently arrived ‘Newcastle Jane’, which vessel had spoken the Jupiter off Cape Finisterre several days after the action. This missive claimed that the French man-of-war had been left on the rocks firing signals of distress, and with every likelihood that she would be dashed to pieces. A letter from Falmouth received a few days later provided a different perspective, for although it confirmed the Medea’s arrival at Lisbon, it claimed that the Jupiter must have been taken, thereby causing some concern over the next few days for her preservation. Once the Paris Gazette dated 27 November was consulted however, it became clear that both the Jupiter and the Triton had survived the inconclusive engagement.
As soon as they had made good their repairs, the Jupiter and Medea were ordered home with the Oporto convoy, and they made their departure from the Portuguese port on Christmas Day. Once she arrived back in England, the Jupiter’s performance in the engagement was heralded as worthy of a victory and Captain Reynolds was able to obtain a promotion to master and commander for his first lieutenant, Richard Hussey Bickerton, the son of Captain Sir Richard Bickerton of the Terrible 74. The celebration of this promotion would no doubt have been tarnished by the news that their worthy opponent, the Comte de Ligondés, had died of his wounds at Brest on 26 January 1779.
The Jupiter remained in service until she was recked in Vigo Bay under the command of Captain Henry Baker on 10 December 1808. Her most significant service came as the flagship of Commodore George Johnstone at the controversial Battle of Porto Praya in 1781.The Medea later saw action at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781 before participating in the last two battles off India between Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes and Commodore Pierre André de Suffren in 1782-3. After returning to England in January 1784, she was laid up and saw no further employment. The Triton would see action at the Battles of Martinique in 1780 and Fort Royal in 1781 before being hulked in 1787.