Minerva v Concorde – 22 August 1778
News of the outbreak of war with France six weeks earlier had yet to reach the Jamaican-based frigate Minerva 32, Captain John Stott, when on 22 August she came across an unknown vessel whilst cruising near Cap François on the northern side of the island of Hispaniola. Suspecting the stranger to be a merchantman, the Minerva closed in to establish her identity. She would be in for a fatal surprise.
It is fair to say that life had involved a series of surprises for the Cornishman, Captain Stott. That he had ever made it to the rank of post captain at all had been a surprise, for having entered the navy ‘through the hawsehole’ it had been from the position of boatswain to the great Admiral Hon. Edward Boscawen that he had first been taken onto the quarterdeck and began his unlikely rise to the command of a frigate. Not long afterwards, a greater personal surprise had been sprung upon him when, after arriving home from a three-and-a-half-year absence at sea, he had discovered a pregnant Mrs Stott with a two-year-old daughter in tow. A well-publicised divorce had duly followed amidst rumours that the actual father was old Admiral Boscawen himself. Had he lived to an old age, Captain Stott would also no doubt have been greatly surprised to find that a mischievous midshipman whom he had turned out of his ship for ridiculing his mistress, young Edward Pellew, had become arguably the most accomplished officer of his age, and would eventually enter the House of Lords as Viscount Exmouth.
Unfortunately, Captain Stott did not live to see old age, for his defining surprise occurred on this day of 22 August 1778 when the strange sail he was obliviously bearing down upon to investigate proved not to be an innocent merchantman. She was in fact the French frigate Concorde 32, commanded by the forty-five-year-old Captain Armand le Gardeur de Tilly, and unlike Captain Stott the French officer was fully aware that Britain and France were at war.
The Minerva had been launched in 1759 and had enjoyed her greatest success two years later under the command of Captain Alexander Hood, when in a bloody six-hour duel she had recaptured the Warwick 60, since re-rated by the French as a 34-gun vessel. For the seven years of the peace following the Seven Years War she had remained out of commission, prior to seeing service in the Mediterranean. She carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannons on her gun deck and six 6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, and she had a nominal complement of two hundred and ten men. Stott was a post captain of twenty year’s seniority, and it said a great deal for the trust in his ability that he had remained in employment for much of the time following the end of the Seven Year’s War. The Concorde was a much newer vessel, having been launched at Rochefort just a year earlier, in 1777. Her armament was of a similar weight to that of the Minerva, although her nominal crew was reported to number three hundred and two men.
Quickly comprehending that the British frigate had not cleared for action, the Concorde opened fire with a full broadside which tore into her opponent, and she was able to despatch another devastating salvo before the Minerva could respond. When Stott’s frigate did manage to clear for action her men initially fought bravely, and as the two frigates were equally matched a closely fought engagement might have been envisaged. But then a mortal blow struck the Minerva when some powder exploded under the half-deck, leaving eighteen men killed or wounded and three guns disabled.
Thereafter the action continued in favour of the French, with the British response being further diminished when Captain Stott was carried below, having twice been wounded in the head. Later reports claimed that the ensign staff was shot away, and when the colours were re-hoisted in the mizzen shrouds they were torn away too. Soon the Minerva’s wheel was in pieces, her mizzenmast was over the side, and her other masts were on the verge of collapse. Now the British seamen started to lose their nerve and began to flee their stations. When the first lieutenant fell wounded, the remaining officers were unable to regain control, and after a two-and-a-half-hour action the decision was taken to strike the Minerva’s colours.
Not long after the conclusion of the engagement Captain Stott and his first lieutenant succumbed to their wounds. The Minerva’s remaining casualties were not established, but amidst declarations of a ‘great slaughter’ they clearly far outweighed the French list of four men killed and fifteen wounded, including Captain de Tilly’s brother, who later died of his wounds.
A tender, the Niger, which had been in company with the Minerva, was able to escape her pursuit by a guarda-costa after a shot from the French frigate inadvertently struck the latter. Her arrival at Jamaica with news of the Minerva’s loss led to the arrest of some hundred Frenchmen in Kingston, and a number of vessels were also seized. Various justifications were given for Captain Stott’s defeat, with the first reports in the Jamaican Gazette claiming that the Minerva had been surprised by a 50-gun ship flying Swedish colours, and that this vessel had hauled them down and fired a deathly broadside whilst the Minerva was still preparing to hail her. Another report claimed that the ‘sickly’ Minerva had not had enough fit men to man her guns.
The captured Minerva was taken into the French Navy as the Minerve. She did not long remain under enemy colours however, for on 4 January 1781 she was recaptured by the Courageux 74, Captain Lord Mulgrave, after a gallant resistance that only ended upon the approach of a second sail of the line, the Valiant 74, Captain Samuel Granston Goodall. The frigate was restored to British colours as the Recovery, and she was sold out of the service in 1784 after employment in the latter stages of the American Revolutionary War.
The aristocratic Captain de Tilly would later achieve the rank of admiral in the French Navy and having survived imprisonment in the Terror of the early 1790’s he died at the age of 79 in 1812.