Mermaid v Vengeance – 8 August 1796

by | Apr 24, 2024 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


On the morning of 8 August, a small squadron of men-of-war led by the second-in-command of the Leeward Islands station, Rear-Admiral Charles Morice Pole, was lying off the Saintes, Guadeloupe, when an unknown sail appeared in the north. The frigate Mermaid 32, Captain Robert Waller Otway, was instructed to investigate, and after hauling away and setting a press of sail, she came to discover a large frigate hove-to off Basse Terre on the south-west corner of the French island. Approaching the vessel and finding his private signal ignored, Otway surmised that the stranger was an enemy, and this was confirmed at about 11.30 when it could be seen that she was flying French colours.

The unknown frigate would prove to be the Vengeance 48, and the reason that she had already hoisted her colours was that on the appearance of the Mermaid, her captain had been directed by the uncompromising governor of Guadeloupe, Jean-Baptiste Victor Hugues, who was viewing proceedings from the beach at Basse Terre, to ‘sink or bring in that corvette!’.

Launched at the end of 1794, the Vengeance carried twenty-eight French 18-pounder cannons on her gundeck, twelve 8-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, and an additional four 36-pounder carronades, giving her a broadside weight of metal equivalent to about four hundred pounds. Her nominal crew was three hundred and thirty men.

Robert Waller Otway

The Mermaid was ten years older than the Vengeance, having been launched in 1784. She carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannons on her gun deck, six 6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, and an additional six 24-pound carronades, giving her a broadside weight of metal of two hundred and forty-six pounds. Her crew at the time numbered two hundred and seventeen men, and her captain, the 26-year-old Irishman Robert Otway, was a post captain of less than one year’s seniority who was regarded as an outstanding officer in all aspects of his role by his senior officers, his subordinates, and his crew.

Firing a gun and signalling to Admiral Pole that an enemy was in sight, Captain Otway continued to close on the Vengeance, and at 11.45 his frigate started to come under fire from the shore batteries on Guadeloupe. Fortunately, most of the shot flew overhead. A quarter hour later the wind shifted and brought the Vengeance abeam to the Mermaid, allowing the inferior British frigate to deliver a broadside. With some irony, one of the shot sank the very boat which Hugues’ aide-de-camp had used to convey the governor’s stringent instructions to the captain of the Vengeance, and which had been under tow by the French frigate. The Mermaid then went about to hove-to on the starboard tack and a mutual exchange of broadsides took place.

At 12.30, the Vengeance lost her topgallant sheet and mizzen topsail. Thirty minutes later she set her main topsail and temporarily eased ahead, only for the Mermaid to regain station shortly afterwards, whereupon further fire was exchanged. At about 1.30, the French frigate attempted to come about but disastrously she hung in her stays, leaving her at the mercy of Otway’s raking broadside. Another attempt was met with the same result, and only by setting her foresail was she finally able to tack at 2 p.m. By then, the two failures and the carnage caused by the Mermaid’s raking broadsides had decisively altered the course of the engagement.

Settling into the Frenchman’s wake, and still receiving the odd shot from the shore, the Mermaid also tacked, but with the wind veering around to the north at about 2.30, she was unable to get up on her opponent. Instead, Otway wore ship and unleashed another raking broadside before hoving to on the larboard tack. The Vengeance filled her sails once more and stood on, to be followed by the Mermaid and with both ships still engaging.

At 3 p.m. the Mermaid had her fore topgallant mast shot away, and at about the same time the Vengeance tacked. Replicating his opponent’s move and setting his courses, Otway must have thought that his enemy was at his mercy; however, at 4 p.m. the Vengeance managed to reach the protection of the shore batteries where she lay becalmed. Disappointed, the Mermaid, having persisted in her pursuit despite the continuous fire of the shore batteries, fired two long-range broadsides before wearing away from the island. At length, an east north-easterly breeze sprang up, allowing the Vengeance to fill her sails, and with a new threat to the French vessel appearing in sight in the form of the heavy British frigate Beaulieu 40, Captain Francis Laforey, she made for Basse Terre. Here, a fuming Victor Hugues sent three boatloads of men to tow her to safety.

According to the testimony of Victor Hugues, the Vengeance lost twelve men killed and twenty-six wounded in the engagement, and she was badly damaged in her hull, sails, and rigging as a result of her twice hanging in her stays at the mercy of a determined and skilful opponent. Despite it later being claimed that some five hundred shot had been fired at the Mermaid, Otway’s frigate did not lose a single man, and bar a great deal of damage to her sails and rigging, she suffered just the loss of her fore topgallant mast.

The action had initially been witnessed from the shore by a Major Christmas of the 13th Dragoons, along with other British officers and men who were prisoners to the French; however, they had been thrust back to their confinement at the point of the bayonet after their support had become too raucous. Allegedly, Governor Hugues then denied the hundreds of British prisoners their water for the rest of the day, whilst in his fury at the Vengeance’s failure to defeat a smaller opponent he was said to have broken the French captain’s sword.

The Vengeance was to fight several more engagements during her career in the French service, including an inconclusive duel with the American frigate Constellation 38 in January 1800. She was eventually captured by the Seine 36, Captain David Milne, in the Mona Passage seven months later. Although bought into the Navy, she became badly damaged after going aground in 1801, and she was broken up two years later upon being deemed unserviceable.

The Mermaid remained in service until the end of the Napoleonic War in 1814, although her most successful years were in the West Indies between 1795-9, when she was a relentless prize-gatherer, and where she also participated in the captures of the French frigates Seine 42 and Loire 44. His countless captures were to earn Captain Otway a huge fortune both for himself and for the commander-in-chief of the Jamaican station, Sir Hyde Parker, but he will be best remembered for his wise counsel to that officer at the Battle of Copenhagen, where he tactfully and crucially managed to allow Lord Nelson to ‘turn a blind eye’ to Parker’s signal of recall and continue the fight against the Danish fleet to a successful conclusion.