Rainbow v Hancock and the recapture of the Fox – 8 July 1777
The brand new American frigate Hancock 34, Commodore John Manley, and her consort the Boston 24, Captain Henry McNeill, had not been long at sea when they captured the British frigate Fox 28 off the Newfoundland Banks on 7 June. Such impudence on behalf of the rebels could not go unchallenged, and the commander-in-chief at Newfoundland, Vice-Admiral John Montagu, wrote to Vice-Admiral Lord Howe at New York asking for two frigates to assist in the protection of the fisheries. Meanwhile, the senior officer at Nova Scotia, Captain Sir George Collier of the Rainbow 44, departed Halifax at 3 a.m. on 6 July in company with the brig Victor 18, Lieutenant Michael Hyndman, to seek out the two enemy frigates.
At 4.30 that afternoon Collier came in sight of four sail on a south-westerly course which would prove to be the two American vessels, the captured Fox, and another prize, this being a sloop laden with coal that had been taken that morning and was in tow of the Hancock. Despite the fact that the Rainbow and Victor had been spotted they managed to remain in contact with the rebels overnight, not least because the Boston and Fox were required to take in sail to keep company with the dull-sailing Hancock and her unfortunate prize.
At dawn, being some forty miles south of Cape Sable, a strange sail appeared on the Rainbow’s lee bow, but although she failed to answer the recognition signals and crossed the Rainbow to settle on a course in the wake of the Americans Collier did not give over his pursuit, for by now one of his men had clearly identified the Hancock. Captain Manley, suspecting Collier’s frigate some six miles astern to be the ship of the line Raisonnable, at last saw reason, set fire to the prize sloop, and ordered his squadron into a line of battle.
Just before 11 a.m. the Boston exchanged fire with the strange vessel which was in fact the British frigate Flora 32, Captain John Brisbane, and which had run up the red ensign and fired two cannon to signal her nationality to Captain Collier. The smaller American vessel came out the worst from this exchange of bow and stern-chasers, and Captain Brisbane, no doubt thinking she would be an easy capture for the Victor, immediately turned away in pursuit of the Fox which had fled towards to the east. In the event the Boston had only suffered one man killed and another wounded, and there would be some dismay that she did not attempt to provide any meaningful support to her consorts but instead stood away from them to the north. In actuality it was no surprise that the two American commanders had parted company so quickly, for they were known to be on exceedingly bad terms with one another.
Throughout the afternoon and night the Rainbow closed in on the surprisingly dull-sailing Hancock which continued her course to the south in foggy interludes, and by 4 a.m. Collier was able to bring the American within range after Manley erroneously shifted her water casks in an effort to improve her trim. Four hours later, after continually discomforting the Hancock with his bow-chasers, Collier brought the Rainbow alongside and demanded Manley’s immediate surrender in return for quarter. A sudden gust of wind gave the American hopes of escaping, but after an exchange of broadsides the Rainbow brought her to again, and following a brief action in which the Hancock’s foremast was disabled the rebel’s colours were struck shortly after 8.30.
First Lieutenant Thomas Haynes went aboard to take possession of what would prove to be a very fine new frigate, and to shake hands with Captain Patrick Fotheringham, late of the British frigate Fox, who with forty of his men was still a prisoner aboard the American. Upon being brought aboard the Rainbow Manley could not hide his dismay at having been taken by a 44-gun vessel, rather than the 64-gun vessel he had supposed her to be. Had he kept in company with the Boston and Fox he might at least have been able to put up a decent fight, particularly as the Victor, having fallen behind, had been unable to get into action and had allowed the disabled Boston to go free. His demeanour could best be summed up with his reply to Collier’s polite observation that in having the rim of his hat shot away the American had suffered a narrow escape. ‘I wish to God it had been my head!’ he cried.
Meanwhile, following a long chase that caused her sailing master to caution Captain Brisbane that they were in danger of leaving their station, the Flora had come up with the Fox. Despite damage to her fore-topmast from the prize frigate’s stern chasers the British frigate was able to respond effectively with her own bow-chasers, and once she got alongside there was no option but for the small prize crew aboard the Fox to surrender at 4.30 p.m.
Independently the British frigates and their prizes returned to Halifax, with the Flora and Fox arriving a day or two before Collier. Manley’s pendant was packaged off to the Earl of Sandwich, who on 22nd August joyfully passed it on to the King. There was some surprise in British circles that the Hancock had been caught for she was deemed to be a swift sailor, as the experienced Collier explained in delighted terms to his superior, and the summarisation was that Manley had handled her poorly. She was bought into the Navy, being renamed the Iris and placed in the capable hands of Captain Samuel Clayton. The Fox was refitted under the orders of Captain Fotheringham and manned for a return voyage to England where he would face a court-martial for her original loss. Sadly she was not to remain long in the British service, for she was captured by the French Junon 32 off Ushant on 10 September 1778 when commanded by Captain Hon. Thomas Windsor.
On the American side Commodore Manley and his captain, Daniel Watters, were sent as prisoners aboard the frigate Syren 28, Captain Tobias Furneaux, to New York from where they were eventually exchanged in the following April. After loitering at the mouth of the Sheepscott River, Maine for several weeks Captain McNeill of the Boston faced a court-martial in the following June on charges of not assisting his commodore. He was found guilty, and dismissed the service.