Leander v Mystery Ship of the Line – 19 January 1783
Captain John Willett Payne had been in command of the Leander 52 for but a few short weeks when at 1 p.m. on 18 January, whilst escorting a cartel in the Leeward Islands, a larger vessel was seen bearing down from to windward before hauling away in a southerly direction. After observing her for some time Captain Payne concluded that she was an enemy 74-gun ship of the line, yet notwithstanding the difference in firepower he decided to undertake a chase of the stranger.
First commissioned in the summer of 1780, the Leander carried twenty-two 24-pounder cannon on her lower deck, twenty-two 12-pounder cannon on her upper deck, and eight 6-pounders on her quarterdeck and forecastle. Her nominal crew was three hundred and fifty men, and her new thirty-year old commander enjoyed a reputation as a fine and brave seaman, notwithstanding the fact that his reputation as a philanderer was as measurably notorious, indeed so much so that it was alleged that at this time he had already taken the virginity of a teenage ‘model and dancer’ who would become Lady Emma Hamilton.
By midnight the Leander had got within range of the chase which then hove too. This allowed the smaller British ship to come up on her lee bow at a distance of some eighty yards, with her quarter abreast of her opponent’s main-mast. Over the next couple of hours the two ships tore into each other, and in the course of this furious engagement the enemy, whom Payne believed to be flying Spanish colours, attempted at least one boarding manoeuvre that was repulsed. In particular, the carnage wrought on the Leander’s poop deck was such that a seaman by the name of Simon Smith felt obliged to call out to Captain Payne that he was in need of assistance, as he was the only man still standing at that station.
With her rigging in tatters and her sails, masts and yards badly damaged the Leander was soon manifestly unmanageable, but her enemy too had suffered greatly, especially from the shot in her hull. At one point she attempted to slide under the Leander’s stern in order to rake her fore and aft, but Payne was just able to place his starboard beam across the enemy’s larboard bow and prevent her from doing so. Such was the proximity and fury of the duel that on three separate occasions a fire had to be extinguished aboard the Leander which had been caused by burning wads pitching over from the stranger.
Gradually the stranger’s fire began to slacken and soon she dropped a half mile astern. Nursing casualties of a dozen men wounded in addition to the seven men killed during the engagement, the British felt little fooled, and they were convinced that the enemy would resume the action in the fast approaching dawn. However, when a new beautiful day arrived the enemy was nowhere to be seen and such was the confusion as to her whereabouts that some of the officers even wondered whether she had sunk.
With the new day it was possible to examine the enemy’s shot impaled in the Leander’s hull, and discovering the balls to be French 36-pounders the officers came to the apparently unarguable conclusion that their opponent had been a 74-gun ship of the line. Her pock-marked timbers also bore testimony to the fact that she had come under a significant amount of musket fire, and that her enemy must have had a number of troops aboard. This led Payne to suggest that the enemy ship was part of the Marquis de Vaudreuil’s squadron which had retired to Cap François after the Battle of the Saintes with the Marquis de Bouillé’s army.
Following the action the Leander loitered for a day and night between Guadeloupe and Antigua in the hope of discovering the whereabouts of her enemy before eventually returning to English Harbour, Antigua. Here she was speedily refitted, but sadly all bar two of her dozen remaining casualties, both of whom were amputees, died. Meanwhile the commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands station, Admiral Hugh Pigot, examined the shot holes in her hull for himself and in his letter to the Admiralty he confirmed Captain Payne’s assertion that the Leander’s opponent had indeed been at least a 74-gun vessel.
As to the identity of the stranger, it was soon propounded that she might not have been a Spaniard but rather a Frenchman, with particular suspicion falling upon the Couronne 80, which was rumoured to be undergoing repairs at Puerto Rico. This was certainly Admiral Pigot’s belief, although later reports suggested that she had in fact been the Pluton 74, Captain Albert de Rions. The authorities at Martinique were contacted under a flag of truce by Pigot but were unable to throw any light upon her identity, although a suspicion mind may have surmised that they did not wish to admit to one of their vessels being roughly handled by a smaller opponent.
The Leander remained in commission until 1806, seeing a great deal of service during the peace as a flagship in the Leeward Islands, at Halifax, and in the Mediterranean, being present at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798, and most famously fighting a magnificent action several weeks later against another French ship of the line, the Généreux 74, which nevertheless culminated in her capture. Upon being taken by the French to Corfu she was impounded there a year later by Russian and Turkish forces and returned to British colours, whereupon she again excelled in capturing the French frigate Ville de Milan 40 and her prize, the Cleopatra 32, in February 1805.