Romney v Sibylle – 17 June 1794
On 1 June a convoy of seven Dutch and one English merchantmen departed Naples Bay for Smyrna, the modern-day Izmir in Turkey, under the orders of Captain Augustus Montgomery of the Inconstant 36, who also had in company the Leda 36, Captain John Woodley, Tartar 28, Captain Thomas Francis Fremantle, and Romney 50, Captain Hon. William Paget.
Fifteen days later, being off the island of Argentierra, the modern-day Kimolos in the Greek Cyclades, Montgomery obtained intelligence that a French frigate and three merchantmen had been observed between the nearby islands of Tinos and Mykonos. Suspecting that the Frenchmen were on a course for the island of Chios, Montgomery ordered the Romney to take the convoy under her care whilst he sought out the enemy with the Inconstant, Tartar and Leda. At daylight the next morning, being in sight of Chios but finding no sight of the French, Montgomery hauled his wind to rejoin his convoy.
Later that morning, the 17 June, the Romney and her convoy were steering between the islands of Tinos and Mykonos when they had come upon the French frigate and the three merchantmen at anchor close inshore of the latter island. Signalling the convoy to close with Montgomery, whose command was by now in sight from his masthead, Paget hauled his wind and sailed into the Mykonos Roads to drop anchor within a cable length of the enemy man-of-war.
The French frigate was the admirable Sibylle 36, and she was flying the broad pennant of Captain Jacques Mélanie Rondeau. Upon receiving a demand from Paget to surrender his vessel to the Romney, the commodore gamely replied that, notwithstanding the disparity in force between the two vessels, he would adhere to an oath never to strike his colours. This valiant statement of intent was somewhat mitigated by a subsequent suggestion that Rondeau was aware of the Romney being short-handed, and that the British two-decker had crew numbers inferior to his own.
The thirty-two year old Romney had seen service as the flagship of the North American and Newfoundland stations during the early part of her career, and had flown the broad pennant of the controversial Commodore George Johnstone from 1779 – 81, participating in his ill-managed Battle of Porto Praya during the latter year. She carried twenty-two 24-pounder cannon on her lower gun deck and an equal number of 12-pounders on her upper gun deck, in addition to six 6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, equating to a broadside weight of metal of four hundred and fourteen pounds. She was reportedly seventy-four men short of her normal complement, having two hundred and sixty-six men aboard, and her twenty-four year old commander, the son of the Earl of Uxbridge, was a post captain of just sixteen months seniority, with the Romney being his first post command.
Her imminent opponent, the Sibylle, had only been commissioned in 1792, and she carried twenty-six 18-pounder cannons on her gun-deck and sixteen 8-pounders on her quarterdeck and forecastle in addition to two 36- pounder carronades, equating to a broadside weight of metal of three hundred and thirty four pounds, although this was bolstered by the transfer of an 18-pounder across her deck to a spare port. Allowing for the fact that the French pound was heavier than the traditional British pound, contemporary historians were to declare that her actual broadside weight of metal was in the region of three hundred and eighty pounds. Her crew numbered approximately three hundred and eighty men at the commencement of the action, and her commander was an experienced officer in his early forties.
By the time that the French commodore’s refusal to submit had been delivered, the Sibylle had manoeuvred into a berth between the Romney and the town of Mykonos, requiring Captain Paget to warp ahead so that the inhabitants would not be at risk from his own fire. At one o’clock in the afternoon he brought his command abreast of the Frenchman, and having set springs on his cable he let fly a broadside which was steadfastly returned. For the next seventy minutes the action continued unabated until Rondeau was left with no option but to surrender. The Romney’s first lieutenant, William Henry Brisbane, was sent to take possession of the Sibylle, and prize crews were also placed aboard the merchantmen.
Casualties in the action were not inconsiderable, with the Romney suffering eight men killed and thirty wounded, two of whom died shortly afterwards, and the Sibylle losing fifty-three men killed, including her second lieutenant and captain of marines, and one hundred and three wounded, nine of whom did not long survive. Many of the French crew avoided being taken prisoner by swimming ashore when it became apparent that they would have to strike their colours.
That afternoon Captain Montgomery fell in with a merchantman who advised that Paget had discovered the French, and leaving the convoy under the care of the Tartar he hastened for Mykonos, reaching it on the next morning to find the Romney already in custody of the enemy vessels. Putting to sea again, by 30 June the whole convoy and the prizes were reunited in Smyrna Bay.
Sadly neither Captain Paget nor Lieutenant Brisbane lived long enough to reach England and revel in their success. Just three months after the action Paget died off Minorca when his wounds re-opened, although it is unclear whether these fatal injuries had been incurred in the action with the Sibylle or were those inflicted by a would-be assassin’s knife in Constantinople a decade earlier. He was interred with military honours at Gibraltar. Brisbane, the son of Rear-Admiral John Brisbane and brother of the future Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Brisbane and Commodore Sir James Brisbane, was promoted commander for his role in the Sibylle’s capture, but he died whilst commanding the prison ship Aurora at Gibraltar on 29 November 1795.
The Romney saw another ten years of largely undistinguished service before she was wrecked off the Texel under the command of Captain Hon. John Colville in November 1804 due to pilot error, her crew being saved by the Dutch. Despite some fears that the Turks might try and impound her at Smyrna, the Sibylle was bought into the Navy and enjoyed another forty years service, initially in the East Indies where she memorably captured the French frigates Forte 38 in March 1799, although sadly with the death of her brilliant Captain Edward Cooke, and the Chiffone 38 in August 1801 when commanded by Captain Charles Adam.