Magicienne v Sibylle – 2 January 1783
An escorted British convoy of thirty-eight vessels carrying troops, displaced loyalist families from the Carolinas, and over four thousand negroes belonging to the latter, was in passage to Jamaica when on the morning of 2 January it discovered a French convoy of sixteen ships and two men of war to the north-east of San Domingo. The British escort was commanded by Captain William Knell of the Emerald 32, and it otherwise consisted of the Endymion 44, Captain Edward Tyrell Smith, the Magicienne 36, Captain Thomas Graves, and the sloop Hornet 14, Commander Francis Tinsley.
The French convoy, which had left Cap François six days previously with various ships destined for Marseilles and Boston, was under the escort of the Sibylle 32, Captain Théobald-René, the Comte de Kergariou Locmaria, and the Railleur 14, Captain de Hebert. When the French were first sighted at dawn by the Endymion Captain Knell detached that ship and the Magicienne in chase, and at about 9 a.m. the Endymion was able to get up and capture a store-ship that had become detached from the convoy. Having briefly taken in sail to lower her barge and assist her consort in taking possession of the capture, the Magicienne was then ordered to resume the chase.
By this time another five vessels from the French convoy had hauled their wind and were standing towards the Magicienne. Noting that two of these were clearly men-of-war, Captain Graves took in sail once more to allow his ill-sailing consort, which was then about five miles in arrears, time to come up. Three of the French vessels then bore up, leaving the men-of-war to hoist their colours and await the Magicienne, and it became immediately apparent that the French commodore’s intention was to give his charges time to make good their escape.
As soon as the Magicienne came within range the two French men-of-war wore ship and set sail, the Railleur being to larboard of the commodore. Whilst suffering the fire of the French stern chasers Graves hoisted more sail and fired his own bow-chasers, and gradually the Magicienne hauled in the Frenchmen. At 12.20 he was able to bring the smaller vessel to action, and given the one-sided state of this affair it was no surprise when the Railleur soon ceased firing; indeed it appeared that she had in fact struck her colours but in the general confusion Graves could not be sure, and as his main target was the larger Sibylle he did not waste time seeking to take possession.
The French-built Magicienne had only been commissioned for the navy by Captain Graves in the previous year, having been captured by the Chatham 50, Captain Andrew Snape Douglas, off Boston on 2 September 1781. She nominally carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannon on her upper deck and six 6-pounder cannon on her quarterdeck and forecastle, equating to a broadside of 174 pounds. Her normal crew was two hundred and twenty men, although there may have only been one hundred and ninety aboard at this time. The 35-year-old Graves was an experienced officer from a prominent naval family, who some years earlier had suffered horrific burns when American rebel forces had attacked his grounded schooner in the Charles River.
Her imminent opponent, the Sibylle, was five years old and had the same nominal armament as the Magicienne, that is to say, a broadside of 174 pounds, although she carried a superior crew of two hundred and seventy-five men. During the previous October she had gallantly attempted to protect the Scipion 74 from the London 98 and Torbay 74, and following the wrecking of the former ship in Samara Bay it was believed that she had taken many of the prime seamen from the Scipion aboard her. Her commander, de Kergariou, was also experienced, being 43 years-old and a veteran not only of the Seven Years War but of constant employment throughout the years of peace.
The duel that followed would last an hour and three quarters, and it would prove to be a ferocious one. After getting up on the Frenchman’s larboard quarter Graves took his frigate alongside the Sibylle and the engagement proceeded at such close quarters that the gunners were able to belabour their opponents with pikes and rammers from the touching gun ports, thereby not only inflicting personal injury but also preventing the opposing cannon from being fired. The Railleur briefly came within range and with colours aloft fired a single broadside before taking off, whilst the sluggish Endymion, despite her best endeavours, struggled to get within cannon shot.
At about 2.15, and just as Captain Graves felt that he was getting the upper hand, the Magicienne’s mizzen and main topmast toppled over, and although a furious volley of langridge shot almost immediately brought down a dozen men on the French deck, including de Kergariou, the British frigate’s fore and main masts then fell within the next five minutes. At this point the French would normally have scented victory, but with the larger Endymion approaching the scene the Sibylle’s senior lieutenant, Charles Gabriel Morel d’Escures, had no option but to set sail, and he did so under fire from those cannon that Graves could still bring to bear.
At 3.30 the Endymion lumbered passed the disabled Magicienne, but despite the Sibylle having lost her main-topgallant mast she was still some two miles ahead, and although the deficit gradually reduced by half a failing wind then allowed the French frigate to make good her repairs. As soon as the breeze picked up the restored Sibylle easily outpaced her pursuer, obliging the exasperated Captain Smith to give up the chase at 8 p.m.
As a result of the action the Magicienne had suffered casualties of nineteen men killed and thirty-one wounded, whilst the French had lost thirteen men killed and thirty-seven wounded. During the night of 2 January the dismasted Magicienne drifted away from her consorts, and there followed several weeks of concern for her survival before she finally reached Jamaica under her own efforts on the 17th. Captain Graves’ conduct in the engagement was lauded by all bar the commander-in-chief at Jamaica, Rear-Admiral Joshua Rowley, who apparently was ‘cold and languid’ in his reporting of the action.
The Magicienne would enjoy a long if marginally inauspicious career in the British Navy which would culminate with her unfortunate grounding and destruction during the Mauritius Campaign of 1810. Of far less longevity was the career of the two French vessels, for the Railleur was destined to be captured by the Cyclops 28, Captain Brabazon Christian, off the American coast on 11 January, whilst the Sibylle would run into the Hussar 20, Captain Thomas Macnamara Russell, with a most controversial outcome on 22 January.