London v Scipion – 17 October 1782
The British ships of the line Torbay 74, Captain John Lewis Gidoin, and London 90, Captain James Kempthorne, were cruising to the east of San Domingo in company with the sloop Badger 18, Commander Safry Hills, when at 9 o’clock on the morning of 17 October two strange sail were discovered in the north-west by the London. These vessels would prove to be the French sail of the line Scipion 74, Captain Nicolas Henri de Grimouard, and the frigate Sibylle 32, Captain Théobald-René, the Comte de Kergariou Locmaria.
With the wind in the south the French vessels continued to stand on the larboard tack towards the London, which was appreciably closer than her consorts, but upon making the signal of recognition at about 10 a.m. they tacked and fled in full sail when they found it answered correctly. Captain Gidoin, who was the senior officer by some thirteen years, threw out the signal for a general chase, although given the leeway the Torbay would have to make up it soon became clear that any action would be between the London and the Scipion.
The London had been launched in 1766 but not commissioned until 1778. Throughout most of her active career she had been the flagship of Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves, and she had been involved in the Channel Fleet retreat of August 1779, the Battle of Cape Henry in March 1781, and the Battle of the Chesapeake six months later. She was armed with twenty-eight 32-pounders on her lower gun deck, thirty 18-pounders on her middle gun deck, thirty 12-pounders on her upper gun deck, and ten 12-pounders on her quarterdeck and forecastle. The Scipion had been launched in 1778 and had seen action at the Battles of Fort Royal, the Chesapeake, and the Saintes. She was armed with twenty-eight 36-pounders on her lower deck, thirty 18-pounders on her upper deck, and sixteen 8-pounders on her quarterdeck and forecastle.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the London closed on the French sail of the line, and at 2.24 the Scipion felt compelled to raise her colours and open fire with her stern chasers, as did her consort the Sibylle shortly afterwards. The London responded with her bow-chasers, and finding that the French shot passed overhead Captain Kempthorne also took the opportunity on a couple of occasions to yaw and fire a complete broadside at the Scipion. Even so, it was not until about 8 p.m. that the London was able to get up up to leeward of the Scipion, whereupon she hauled up her mainsail and fore studdingsail before initiating a close action fifteen minutes later.
A forty-minute exchange of broadsides between the main protagonists followed, whilst the Sibylle bravely peppered the London from a position off her larboard bow. This phase of the action ended when the Scipion’s larboard cathead crashed into the London’s starboard gangway and the two ships became entangled. Musketry now caused more casualties than cannon fire, and a large number of men were killed or wounded during the few minutes that passed before the Scipion skilfully reversed clear by backing her main and mizzen topsails.
In attempting to wear ship and resume the engagement on her enemy’s starboard bow the London was temporarily left hanging before the wind through the loss of a tiller rope. Taking advantage of this confusion, the Scipion shot down to leeward, ran astern of the British three-decker, and raked her from stern to bow with her starboard battery, doing great damage to her mizzen mast, her tiller and rigging, and bringing down a fore yardarm. When she was finally able to wear ship, the London bore down upon the Scipion’s starboard bow and renewed the engagement, whilst the Sibiylle maintained her fire from a position ahead of her consort.
The action continued thereafter until at 10.20 the Scipion ceased fire and the Sibylle took flight, leaving the officers and men of the London to assume that their adversary had struck her colours in the darkness. But then some twenty minutes later the Scipion bore up and began to ease away, only to haul up her mainsail and apparently prepare to bring to after receiving three more shot from the London. By now the Torbay had come up to her consort and Kempthorne called out to his senior officer that he believed the enemy had struck, but that the damage to his own ship precluded him from taking possession.
The Torbay then set off to rein in the Scipion which was again under sail about a mile and a half ahead, yet with the light winds providing no assistance to the pursuit Gidoin was unable to make up any leeway overnight. Come the following morning the eastern coast of Hispaniola loomed up ahead, and by 10 a.m. the Scipion was closing rapidly on Samana Bay whilst the London, which had effected repairs and rejoined the chase, was obliged to haul away from the impending shoreline. Captain Kempthorne was still desirous of securing what he considered to be his prize, but when two pilots were brought aboard from the Badger at 1p.m they refused to even consider taking the London into the bay on account of her disabled state.
Eventually it was the dangers of uncharted waters rather than the British men-of-war that accounted for the Scipion. At about 3.30 the Torbay did manage to get within range and fire a full broadside, whereupon the Scipion attempted to find sanctuary in a small bay called English Harbour. Unfortunately, in coming to anchor she hit a rock, and with her crew being removed to safety she sank later that evening.
During the action the Scipion had lost fifteen men killed and forty-three wounded including her captain, whilst inflicting casualties of eleven men killed and seventy-five wounded on the London, the latter figure including two future post captains, Lieutenants Richard Rundle Burges, and John Trigge.
The failure to capture the smaller Scipion led to Captain Kempthorne requesting a court martial on his return to Jamaica, and this honourably acquitted him of any failing. Captain de Grimouard, who had only joined the Scipion after her captain had been recalled with others following the French defeat at the Battle of the Saintes in April, was honoured for his stout defence by being created a count. Having later risen to the rank of rear-admiral he paid for his elevation to the aristocracy by being guillotined in the French Revolution during 1794 at the age of 51.