Sercey’s Frigate Squadron v Arrogant & Victorious – 9 September 1796

by | Jun 14, 2024 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


It had long been the new French Republic’s intention both to attack British commerce in the Indian Ocean and to protect and establish its revolutionary movement on their possession, the Isle de France; however, the dispatch of an expedition had been delayed by a general lack of resources, the loss of three ships at the Battle of Groix and planning for the forthcoming invasion of Ireland. It was only in October 1795 that it was deemed feasible to assemble a force for an expedition, and to that end, a frigate squadron began forming at Rochefort under the command of 42-year-old Rear-Admiral Pierre-César-Charles-Guillaume Sercey.

At first beset by a lack of supplies, the sailing of the squadron was further hindered when a storm on 3 February 1796 wreaked havoc on its anchorage in the Aix Roads, causing the frigate Cocarde-Nationale 36, Captain Jean Marthe Adrien l’Hermitte, to hit a rock and force her return to dock. When the remainder of the squadron eventually got to sea on 4 March, it consisted of the flagship Forte 38, Captain Hubert Laloup de Beaulieu, the Régénérée 40, Captain Jean Baptiste Philibert Willaumez, the frigate Seine 42 but armed en-flute, Lieutenant Julien-Gabriel Bigot, and the corvettes Bonne Citoyenne 20, Captain Mahé de Labourdonnais, and Mutine 18, Captain Pomiès A force of eight hundred troops under the command of General François Louis Magalon was also embarked, along with two commissioners from the French Directory, René Gaston Baco de La Chapelle and Etienne Laurent Pierre Burnel, who would supervise the political aspect of the expedition, and in particular would oversee the abolition of slavery on the Isle de France.

Three days after sailing, the squadron ran into a storm in the Bay of Biscay which saw the two corvettes badly damaged. Refusing to wait whilst they effected repairs, the political commissioners insisted on the expedition proceeding on its course. Left to their own devices, the Bonne Citoyenne headed for Spain but was captured off Cape Finisterre on 10 March by three frigates under the command of Captain Hon. Robert Stopford of the Phaeton 38, whilst the Mutine, which had sustained a cracked mizzenmast, made for Ferrol, and eventually reached Lorient on 28 July.

Pierre Cesar Charles de Sercey

On 17 March the remainder of Sercey’s squadron anchored off Santa Cruz de La Palma in the Canary Islands, where it was joined twelve days later by the Vertu 40, sent out as a reinforcement under the command of the Cocarde-Nationale’s erstwhile captain, Jean Marthe Adrien l’Hermitte. The squadron then set off for the Indian Ocean on the 31st, and once in those waters it began accumulating prizes, initially a British whaler, then a Portuguese Indiaman, and a British East Indiaman. Whilst later in chase of an American merchantman bound from Batavia to the Isle de France, the French fell in with the sloop Sphynx 20, Captain George Brisac, off Cape Agulhas to the south-east of Cape Town, and that vessel only managed to make good her escape by throwing her guns overboard.

On 18 June, with a British blockading force having recently left the area, Sercey arrived at Port Louis on the Isle de France to land the troops and join forces with the frigates Prudente 36, Captain Charles René Magon de Médine, and Cybèle 36, Captain Pierre-Julien Tréhouart. The islanders quickly made it plain that they had no truck with any revolutionary spirit that involved emancipating their slaves, and so the authorities ordered the two commissioners of the French Convention to be taken to the Philippines aboard a corvette, the Moineau, although once at sea the politicos prevailed upon the captain, Citizen Tailleau, to carry them back to France. Meanwhile, after Captain Latour had assumed command of the Seine on her cannon being reinstated, Sercey’s enlarged squadron of six frigates proceeded to sea on 14 July in company with a privateer, the Alerte, to cruise between Ceylon and the Coromandel Coast.

Although his ships soon began taking more prizes, it did not take long for Sercey’s plan of action to be compromised, for in deciding to pursue her own course towards Tranquebar, the modern-day Tharangambadi, the Alerte, which was under instructions to obtain details of British forces and merchant ships, was captured by the frigate Carysfort 28, Captain Thomas Alexander. Crucially, the privateer captain failed to destroy all of his papers, and these revealed to the enemy both Sercey’s strength and intentions. Cloak and dagger then supplanted smoke and gunfire as Captain Alexander, sensible of the weakness of the British forces in the area and knowing that a number of heavily laden merchantmen were due to sail home, managed to plant false intelligence to the effect that a powerful squadron was lying in wait for Sercey on the Coromandel Coast. On learning of this sham threat, the French admiral put about and crossed the Bay of Bengal to head for Achem, the modern-day Aceh, on the western end of Sumatra.

At 6 a.m. on 8 September, some eight leagues to the west of Point Pedro on the northern tip of Sumatra at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca, and whilst Sercey’s squadron was in the process of taking stores out of a prize, two large sail appeared to leeward in the north-east. Unsure as to their identity, the admiral formed a line of battle behind his flagship, the Forte, and after dispatching his prize to safety, he put about at 10 a.m. to investigate. In light north-westerly airs the two sets of vessels slowly converged, and at noon the French ran their colours up.

The strangers would prove to be the British ships of the line Arrogant 74, Captain Richard Lucas, and Victorious 74, Captain William Clarke, which had both been present at the capture of the Cape Colony in September 1795 before arriving at Madras with Vice-Admiral Sir George Keith Elphinstone in January 1796. When Elphinstone had returned to the Cape upon learning of a Dutch expedition against it, he had left the Arrogant and Victorious with Rear-Admiral Peter Rainier’s East Indies fleet to protect the trade route to China. Both 74’s carried the traditional twenty-eight 32-pound cannons on their lower gun deck and a similar number of 18-pound cannons on their upper gun deck, which in addition to armament on their quarterdeck and forecastle gave them a broadside weight of metal of 838 pounds each. Their combined total of 1,676 pounds was slightly less that the estimated 1,700 that has been attributed to Sercey’s force. Their crews would normally have numbered between five hundred and fifty and six hundred men, which again was slightly less than the French squadron, but the Victorious had previously sent away her first lieutenant and ninety men in prize crews. Both commanding officers were post captains of fourteen years’ experience, with Lucas being the senior by just three months.

Similarly to Admiral Sercey, the British captains were unsure as to the identity of the other vessels, and at 1 p.m. the Arrogant, which was some way advanced, tacked to speak her consort. An hour later the two captains were able to hail one another, and whilst Lucas suggested that the strangers were six French frigates and the detached vessel a possible prize, Clarke thought that at least two of the strangers were ships of the line, which opinion was partly indicative of the fact that the Forte was one of the largest frigates afloat. Preferring to consult in person, Lucas then went aboard the Victorious, and the two captains held a further discussion in which the senior officer’s view, and as it transpired the correct one, prevailed. Although they were marginally outgunned and outmanned by the French, Lucas and Clarke decided to keep company with the enemy and prepare to attack if the opportunity of cutting off any stragglers arose.

For his part, Sercey had by now recognised that he was in the presence of two British sail of the line, and given that his main objective was the destruction of the enemy commerce, this was not a situation he had any great desire to be in. At 2.30 p.m. he tacked and stood towards Point Pedro, to be followed in this manoeuvre by the Arrogant and Victorious, and two hours later he dressed his larger frigates in a line of battle, the Cybèle being proceeded by the Forte, Seine, and Vertu, with the Régénérée and Prudente held in reserve on their beam. By 9.30 the distance between the two parties had narrowed to three miles, at which point, and with the land looming, the two British ships had to tack and stand away. A half hour later the French line also tacked in succession away from the coast, and with the benefit of the land wind, Sercey set an east-south-easterly course.

Come dawn the next morning, the British ships came down within range of the last two frigates of the French line as it stood towards the east in light winds. Concluding that he could not feasibly avoid an action, Sercey put about at 6 a.m. in an attempt to gain the weather gauge. Having reversed its order on opposite tacks to the British, his squadron headed up into the wind on the larboard tack, and shortly before 7.30, the leading frigate, the Vertu, received two broadsides at a range of half a mile from the Arrogant, with her return fire symbolically shooting away the British ensign. The feebleness of the wind saw the French pass to windward in something of a dilatory procession, which in particular left the Vertu badly mauled before she could get out of range, and it was a full hour before the last frigate in the line, the Prudente, passed on, albeit that neither she nor the Cybèle had been able to take much part in the action. Even so, during the mutual firing that had taken place, the French gun crews had caused more than enough damage to the Arrogant and Victorious to demonstrate that the republic’s navy could perform to a respectable standard when allowed the benefit of a long cruise. Indeed, such was the damage to the masts, stays, and rigging of the Arrogant that she was unable to wear ship, whilst on board the Victorious, Captain Clark had been carried below at 8 a.m. with a dangerous wound to his thigh, leaving the senior lieutenant, William Waller, to take command.

Although the Arrogant could not put about to pursue the French, the Victorious was able to do so at 8.40 a.m. and coming around on the same tack as the enemy to fire her larboard guns, she was soon bringing the badly damaged Vertu to action once more. A signal from the Arrogant ordering the Victorious to come back about on the starboard tack remained unseen in the smoke that hung over the ships in the light wind, and the latter vessel soon found herself under heavy pressure as the rest of Sercey’s squadron offered valuable support to their beleaguered consort, with the two leading frigates posting themselves on the Victorious’ larboard bow, and the four other vessels plying their fire from her beam to her quarter at a distance of nine hundred yards. By 10.15 the British vessel had been so heavily damaged that Waller decided to wear ship and regain his own consort, which was standing ahead on the opposite tack about a mile and a half distant. The attempted manoeuvre in the prevailing calms allowed three of the French frigates to rake the Victorious whilst she was in her stays, and for half an hour she suffered a terrible battering before finding a friendly breeze from the north which allowed her to finally come about and unleash her starboard broadside.

By now, the shattered Vertu had dropped away, and deciding that there was no mileage in continuing the action, Sercey ordered her to be taken in tow by the Cybèle, although that vessel had in turn to be hauled across to the Vertu by her boats and sweeps. At 11.15, with the last French frigate out of range, the Victorious ceased firing. During the action, the British had suffered casualties of seven men killed and twenty-seven wounded aboard the Arrogant and seventeen killed and fifty-seven wounded on the Victorious, compared to forty-two men killed, including Captain Latour of the Seine, and one hundred and four wounded aboard the French frigates.

Following the engagement, Sercey headed for the Mergui Archipelago to the south of Burma to refit his squadron, whilst the Victorious was taken in tow by the Arrogant and made for Madras, which port they eventually reached on 6 October. The meeting of the two parties, which the French had not desired, and which, given the failure of the two sail of the line to act in concert, the British had clearly not prepared for, had ended on an inconclusive note, but at least the damage inflicted on Sercey’s raiding force ensured that British commerce in the Indian Ocean would be safe for the immediate future.