The Leeward Islands Campaign – May-July 1780
Following the disappointing Battle of Martinique on 17 April, Admiral Sir George Rodney had remained on patrol off that island for some time to prevent the French fleet, which had put into Basseterre, Guadeloupe, from returning to its principle Leeward Islands base at Fort Royal. But whereas the shattered British fleet struggled to remain at sea with its ships requiring replenishment and repair, and the sick and wounded needing treatment ashore, the sheltered French were amply supplied by rogue British merchants operating out of St. Eustatius. The latter was a situation which in due course Rodney would address, but for now he had to deal with the threat posed by the French fleet and their canny commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Louis-Urbain de Bouënic, the Comte de Guichen.
With his flagship Sandwich in particular need of repair, and with his own gout-ridden ill-health none the better for the frustration of his missed opportunity at the Battle of Martinique, Rodney was eventually obliged to retire the bulk of his fleet to Chocque Bay, St. Lucia. He left behind the nervous Commodore Thomas Collingwood with his broad pennant aboard the Terrible 74 to patrol with four other sail of the line off Fort Royal, whilst the fleet’s frigates were sent to lookout for the French.
The death of Captain Hon. Henry St. John of the Intrepid at the Battle of Martinique, and the return home of the sickly Captain Samuel Uvedale of the Ajax with despatches aboard the Pegasus 28, Captain John Bazely, had given Rodney the opportunity to shuffle his officer corps. Over a few weeks Captain James Ferguson of the Venus 36 was appointed to replace St. John aboard the Intrepid 64, Captain John Leigh Douglas moved from the Terrible 74 to the Venus, Captain Archibald Dickson moved from the Greyhound 28 to the Terrible, Captain William Fooks moved from the Deal Castle 24 to the Greyhound, and Captain James Hawkins was posted captain out of the prize sloop San Vincente into the Deal Castle. Captain Uvedale was replaced aboard the Ajax by Captain John Symons of the Brune, who in turn was replaced by Captain Francis Hartwell of the Sphinx 20, with his place going to Captain Lord Charles Fitzgerald whose cutter Tapageur had been wrecked on St. Lucia a few weeks previously.
On 6 May, Rodney’s patrolling frigates sent news that de Guichen’s fleet had been spotted to windward of Martinique, the French admiral having gone to sea with the apparent intention of attacking St. Lucia, and if that was not possible of returning to Fort Royal. Rodney immediately set sail with nineteen weather-beaten sail of the line and a couple of 50-gun vessels to seek the enemy out and offer battle. After four days spent beating up against the wind the British sighted the French off the southern tip of Martinique, and on the same day were joined by the Triumph 74, bringing Rodney’s strength in sail of the line up to twenty. Strict instructions were given to his officers to avoid the fiasco that had been the Battle of Martinique, including one to the effect that any signal not properly and promptly adhered too would lead to the offending captain’s removal. Rodney also decided to raise his flag aboard the frigate Venus 36 so that he could the better manage any engagement, and he kept his other frigates in readiness for the delivery of his personal rebuke to any errant captain.
Unfortunately, despite Rodney’s best endeavours, it was de Guichen with his superior and well-fitted fleet of twenty-three sail of the line who held the weather gage, and over several days the French admiral appeared to delight in dashing down upon the hopeful if weathered British during the afternoon, and then hauling away before any action could commence. Two could play at that game, and when on the 15th Rodney ordered his fleet to make sail away as if in flight from the French, de Guichen bore down upon the British with greater alacrity. Soon the French van was abreast of the British centre, and a sudden veering of the wind to the south-east allowed the British van under Rear-Admiral Rowley to tack and get to windward of the French.
Rejecting an engagement, de Guichen’s ships wore in line and fled under chase, but unfortunately a second change in the wind by six points of the compass presented the French with the weather gage once more, just as Rodney was about to bring them to action. Nevertheless the British van led by the Albion, Captain George Bowyer, and the Conqueror, bearing the flag of Rowley, were able to get into action with some fifteen of the enemy’s centre and rear on the opposite tack after 7 p.m. Whilst Rodney’s centre and rear conserved their powder and shot, the French were less inclined to do so, and although a good deal of their cannon fire proved harmless British losses rose to twenty-one men killed and one hundred wounded before the guns fell silent.
With the two fleets having remained in sight, and with the British having been joined by the Preston 50, Rodney’s hopes of another opportunity were raised four days later when it appeared that the French rear could be weathered. Fearing this eventuality the entire French line opened up a cannonade from some distance to windward, yet they were still unable to prevent the British van, this time led by Commodore William Hotham, from getting in amongst their rear. Once again, despite causing a great deal of damage to the French, the attempt to force a battle was repulsed, although not without the loss of another forty-seven men killed, including Captain Watson of the Conqueror, and one hundred and eighty-three wounded.
The two fleets remained in contact until the 21st, being almost one hundred and fifty miles to windward of Martinique, whereupon the French managed to effect their escape to the north around the island and from thence to Fort Royal. Rodney’s tired and leaking ships made the best of their way to Carlisle Bay, Barbados, having first despatched the badly damaged Conqueror, Cornwall and Boyne before the wind to St. Lucia.
After arriving at Carlisle Bay and landing his wounded on 22 May, Rodney furiously refitted and repaired his ships. By 7 June he was just about ready to put to sea in search of a Spanish fleet of twelve sail of the line, five frigates and eighty-three transports carrying eleven thousand troops under the command of Admiral Don José Solano y Bote. This force had been seen off Cadiz at the end of April by the Cerberus 28, Captain Robert Man, who having tracked them until 4 May had realised their intention to cross the Atlantic and had raced ahead with the warning. Further information on the Spanish fleet’s progress was brought to the Leeward Islands by Captain John Ford of the Brilliant 28, which frigate would quickly be sent back to her station off Lisbon with the disturbed and dying Commodore Collingwood. Upon learning of the imminent Spanish arrival Rodney had sent his frigates to patrol between Barbados and Barbuda, but before his fleet had even exited Carlisle Bay on 7 June he received intelligence that the Spanish had been seen two days previously, some one hundred and fifty miles to windward of Martinique.
As the British fleet raced north they sighted and captured a Spanish merchantman and a transport off Martinique the next day, and these proved to be ships that had been detached from the Spanish convoy. It soon became apparent that Solano had fled northwards towards Guadeloupe on initially being sighted by Rodney’s frigates, and the British commander-in-chief’s great fear that the Spanish would make a juncture with de Guichen now seemed probable. Finding that the Conqueror, Cornwall, Fame and Boyne were still un-seaworthy and unable to depart St. Lucia, all he could do was take his remaining seventeen sail of the line and two 50-gun ships to hopefully bottle up de Guichen in Fort Royal.
Upon arriving off Martinique Rodney’s worst fears were realised – de Guichen had put to sea with eighteen sail of the line, the rest apparently being under repair. Shortly afterwards his frigates reported that the French were off Dominica. Being anxious not to undertake a chase which would allow the remaining ships in Martinique to escort any French invasion force to St. Lucia or Barbados in his absence, he decided to remain off Fort Royal and await events. Soon news arrived that de Guichen and the Spanish force had indeed made a rendezvous on 9 July, and now Rodney retired to St. Lucia to prepare for the defence of that island, and to await up to ten reinforcement sail of the line that had been promised from North America and Europe. At least their arrival would allow him to wage a more pro-active campaign.
Again he was to be disappointed, for when the Russell 74 came in from North America on 17 June it was with the advice that she alone had been sent south by Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot. Apparently the delivery of the original Admiralty orders to Arbuthnot had been delayed when the sloop bringing them out, the Bonetta, had been forced into the Bahamas after being disabled in a storm. Scandalously her commander, Ralph Dundas, had failed to make any arrangement for the further transmission of the orders during the several months his command remained there under repair. Evidently Arbuthnot had decided that the delay in receiving the orders, together with the onset of the hurricane season in the Leeward Islands, had warranted a change of plan, and thus he had only sent the one ship south. Later in the month the Shrewsbury 74 came in to St. Lucia from England, and although her arrival was welcome, the news that she had parted company from Commodore Hon. Robert Boyle Walsingham’s squadron of five sail of the line after it had been delayed by contrary winds in the Channel suggested that Rodney’s force would not be supplemented any time soon.
Yet despite the Franco-Spanish overwhelming superiority a concerted assault on the British possessions failed to materialise. Having seen the Spanish convoy safely into Havana the allied fleet of twenty-seven sail of the line had entered Fort Royal on 19 June. There they remained until the night of 5 July, when under the watch of the ever-present British frigates they took off to the north and Guadeloupe before turning westwards and away from the theatre of operations.
Thereafter a rather more relaxed Rodney continued to receive further reinforcements, with the Centaur 74, Culloden 74 and Egmont 74 all arriving from Europe in early July, and Walsingham coming in with the Thunderer 74 and Berwick 74 in escort of a convoy on the 12th. Later in the month the Alcide 74 and Torbay 64 also joined from England.
Accepting the apparent allied withdrawal, and with the hurricane season rapidly approaching, Rodney now decided to re-deploy his fleet, although not without another re-shuffle of his captains, this one being primarily caused by the death of Captain Watson on 19 May. He shifted his flag into the frigate Venus, and after arriving at St. Kitts on the 22nd he sent a large convoy home with the Medway 60 and Centurion 50 under the orders of Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker. Commodore Hotham was left behind at St. Lucia with the Vengeance, Egmont, Boyne, Ajax, Montagu and Preston plus several frigates to defend the islands, whilst the Suffolk, Fame and Vigilant remained to escort the following month’s trade home. The badly damaged Cornwall was also left behind, and eventually in October she was scuttled at St. Lucia. Just in case the allies were planning a raid on Jamaica Rodney despatched ten sail of the line under Rowley and Walsingham to reinforce Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker, these ships being the Princess Royal which was now flying Rowley’s flag, in addition to the Albion, Berwick, Elizabeth, Magnificent, Stirling Castle and Thunderer, which all sailed under their existing captains. They were joined by three ships under new captains, these being the Conqueror, Captain Archibald Dickson, the Grafton, Captain William Affleck, and the Trident, Captain John Thomas.
By the end of August Rodney had still not gleaned any firm intelligence of de Guichen’s movements, other than that the French fleet had arrived at Haiti in July. News of a fall-out between de Guichen and Solano over the latter’s refusal to engage in any action was nevertheless received with relief. Captured correspondence indicated however that at least a dozen of the French sail of the line had been ordered to North American waters to throw their weight behind the Continental army, and when further intelligence alerted Rodney to the fact that the Chevalier de Ternay with seven sail of the line had captured Rhode Island he decided that his duty lay in reinforcing Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot with his remaining eleven sail of the line. Seven of the ships which subsequently sailed north with him were under their existing captains, these being the Sandwich, Centaur, Culloden, Russell, Shrewsbury, Torbay, and Triumph. They were joined by three ships that were under new captains, these being the Alcide, Captain Charles Thompson, Intrepid, Captain Anthony Molloy, and Terrible, Captain James Ferguson. The Yarmouth also sailed north carrying the suspended Captain Nathaniel Bateman, who somewhat to Rodney’s shame had still not been brought to a court-martial for his alleged failings at the Battle of Martinique.
In the event the intelligence indicating that a dozen of de Guichen’s fleet had been ordered to North American waters proved to be false. The French admiral, his health poor and spirit broken by the death of his son in action, had in fact escorted the sickly and uncooperative Spanish to Cuba, and after tarrying at Haiti had departed the Leeward Islands for Cadiz on 16 August with nineteen sail of the line and a convoy, leaving ten sail of the line behind at Cap François. As it happened, Rodney’s arrival in North American waters would bring about a battle – but it would be with Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot, not a superior French fleet.
Ships participating in actions of 15-21 May with killed and wounded figures