Orpheus v Duguay-Trouin – 5 May 1794
Towards the end of November 1793, the busy frigate Orpheus 32, flying the broad pennant of Commodore Henry Newcome, set sail from Portsmouth for the East Indies in company with the Centurion 50, Captain Samuel Osborn, and the Resistance 44, Captain Edward Pakenham. The despatch of the three vessels to the Indian Ocean, in addition to the Diomede 44, Captain Matthew Smith, which had put to sea some weeks earlier, was intended to give the British a presence in those waters, given the return home in the previous year of Commodore Hon. William Cornwallis, who had left just a solitary sloop on the station.
After departing the Cape and entering the Indian Ocean, the three vessels anchored off the island of Rodrigues on 5 April to wood and water, then ten days later set off to the west to cruise off the Isle de France. On the stormy morning of 5 May they were some twenty miles to the north-east of Round Island, which itself was some fourteen miles to the north of the Isle de France, when the Orpheus was alerted by signal from the Centurion of one, and then by the Resistance of two, unknown vessels which were approaching before the wind. The strangers would prove to be the French ship Duguay-Trouin 34, which as the East Indiaman Princess Royal 30 had been captured in the previous September by three large French privateers in the Straits of Sunda, and, it was assumed, the corvette Vulcan. The British ships maintained their station for as long as it took the strangers to run down upon them, and they then gave chase. Outstripping her consorts, the Orpheus was able to get within range of the Duguay-Trouin at about 11.45, whereupon she fired a gun and hoisted her colours, to which the Frenchman responded in kind.
The Orpheus had been launched in 1780, and after service in the latter stages of the American War of Independence had been laid-up for most of the peace. She carried an armament of twenty-six 12-pounder cannons on her gun-deck, and had six 6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, together with six 18-pounder carronades, equating to a broadside weight of metal of two hundred and twenty-eight pounds. Her normal complement was two hundred and twenty men, but a lieutenant, two midshipmen and twenty men were away on a Danish ship which she had earlier impounded. Her commander, Captain Newcome, had seen much service and an early promotion to captain whilst serving in the East Indies in the latter stages of the American war of Independence, and he had been appointed to the Orpheus in December 1792.
Since her capture and re-naming, the French had refrained from changing the appearance of the Duguay-Trouin by not so much as a coat of paint in the hope that she would be able to lure any unsuspecting British vessels into her clutches. She had some four hundred people aboard, her commander was Captain Julien Tréhouart des Chesnais, and she boasted an armament of twenty-six 12-pounder cannon on her main deck, in addition to two 9-pounder cannon on her quarterdeck and another six 4-pounder pop-guns on her quarterdeck and forecastle, equating to a broadside weight of metal of one hundred and seventy-two pounds.
In a sea that was turbulent, and with the weather continuing to be rough, the Orpheus soon made good use of her heavier armament, and within ten minutes of opening fire on the Duguay-Trouin she was able to bring her to close action and really make her superiority tell. Such was the force of her first broadside that she reportedly took down nine men, and with her second she accounted for a further ten. Assuming a position at noon off the Duguay-Trouin’s starboard quarter that was so close that Captain Newcome felt it likely they should run her aboard, the Orpheus poured in broadside after broadside. At one point the French colours were shot away, whereupon Captain Tréhouart courageously hailed the Orpheus, instructing her to ‘fire away’, for he had not surrendered, and his pendant was still flying. Not until 1.05 pm, with the shore at the time being three or four miles distant and the Centurion and Resistance only three miles astern, did the French succumb, and Captain Tréhouart, who had been thrice wounded, only struck to the British frigate when his men would no longer obey his commands. Meanwhile, the other French vessel was able to make good her escape into Port Louis.
The Orpheus suffered casualties of one midshipman killed and nine men wounded in the engagement, as opposed to twenty-one men killed and sixty wounded aboard her opponent. Although he had began the engagement with only one hundred and ninety-four men and boys, Newcome’s significant inferiority in numbers to the four hundred souls aboard the Duguay-Trouin was negated by the fact that the latter had a great deal of sickness aboard, carried many passengers, and was desperately short of provisions and water. Great credit could therefore be afforded the Frenchman for holding out so long against a seasoned opponent, and with a defeat inevitable given the proximity of the Orpheus’ consorts.
Such was the condition of the heaving sea that it was only with difficulty that the Duguay-Trouin could be boarded and prisoners taken off. Once the privations of her passengers and crew were discovered Captain Newcome humanely sought out the nearest anchorage he could find where provisions might be available. Arriving at Mahé in the Seychelles, he found a French settlement which proved little willing to assist, thereby placing him under the necessity of summoning and taking possession, which was effected on 17 May by Lieutenant William Goate. Three hundred prisoners were landed to take on water and vegetables, of whom one hundred and forty took the opportunity to flee into the woods and sixty were too sick or wounded to be re-embarked. Happily, Captain Tréhouart was able to recover from his wounds.
Before leaving the Seychelles on 1 June the brig Olivette was captured and a vessel carrying four hundred slaves from Mozambique was run down by the Resistance. On the afternoon of the 18th the squadron anchored with their prizes in the Madras Roads, whereupon Newcome wrote to the governor of the Isle de France seeking the release of an equivalent number of British prisoners for those he had released at Mahé.
Captain Newcome’s victorious dispatch dated 25 July reached the Admiralty on 7 January 1795, and to celebrate their achievement the Orpheus’ first lieutenant, John Broughton, was promoted commander. In due course he would reach flag rank, but sadly Captain Newcome was not so fortunate, as he died in Madras in 1797. The Orpheus under the command of Captain Thomas Briggs would be lost on a coral reef near Jamaica ten years later whilst in company with another vessel that was able to take her crew off, and the Duguay-Trouin, which had suffered a great deal of damage to her bowsprit and knees, was bought back into the merchant service before in 1799 she again fall into French hands when a privateer captured her off Sumatra.