The Alexander is captured by Admiral Nielly’s Squadron – 6 November 1794
In the early hours of 6 November, the Alexander 74, Captain Richard Rodney Bligh, and the Canada 74, Captain Charles Powell Hamilton, were homeward bound after escorting a Mediterranean convoy to Cape St. Vincent, when some two hundred miles to the west of Ushant they sighted a squadron of nine vessels to windward. At the time the British ships were steering on a north-easterly course with the wind in the west.
Unsure of the strangers’ identity, the two British ships shortened sail and tacked to larboard to seek clarification, and by 4 a.m. they were just over half a mile distant from the other vessels. Still unable to ascertain the squadron’s nationality, the Alexander and Canada loosened their studding sails and let out the reefs in their topsails, and as they began to move ahead the other ships followed suit, allowing Captains Bligh and Hamilton to conclude that they had fallen in with an enemy. At 5 a.m. more sail was rushed aloft, and the two British ships began to bear away towards the east.
The strangers would prove to be a French squadron under the orders of Rear-Admiral Joseph Marie Nielly consisting of five 74’s, these being the flagship Marat, the Tigre, Droits de l’Homme, Pelletier and Jean Bart, together with three frigates, the Fraternité 40, Charente 36, and Gentille 36, and a corvette, the Papillon. This force had put to sea a few days earlier intending to intercept a valuable convoy that was known to be bound from Portugal to Britain.
With dawn breaking, the Canada moved up on the Alexander’s larboard bow and she began to shape a more northerly course than her consort. The chase now split into separate groups, with two ships of the line and two frigates in pursuit of the Canada, and three ships of the line and one frigate in pursuit of the Alexander. At 7.30 Nielly hoisted British colours in an attempt to sow some confusion, but when the French came within range of the Alexander and Canada forty-five minutes later the British ships ran up their own colours, and so with an action imminent the French ships replaced their British flags with the tricolour.
The opening stages of the engagement saw the Alexander fire her stern chasers at the leading French vessel which responded with her bow guns. At about 9 o’clock the Canada began to engage Nielly’s Marat in the same manner, having cut an additional two ports in the wardroom so as to have four stern-chasers at Captain Hamilton’s disposal. Shortly afterwards Bligh signalled the Canada to close with him and form a mutual defence, but although Hamilton did his best to comply, his pursuers recognised his intention and surged up to prevent the Canada altering her course. By slackening her stays and taking out the wedges from her masts, Hamilton’s command gradually began to make good her escape from her pursuers, and it soon became evident that her consort, the dull-sailing Alexander, would become the centre of the French attention.
The Alexander had been launched in the autumn of 1778 and had seen action with the Channel Fleet during the latter stages of the American War of Independence prior to being laid up for seven years during the peace. She had a nominal crew of six hundred men, and her commander, 57-year-old Captain Bligh, had joined her earlier in the spring, having been unable to obtain employment at the start of the war despite being initially destined for the Excellent 74. A distant cousin of Captain William Bligh of the Bounty, and a godson of Admiral Lord Rodney, he had been promoted master and commander in 1762 but had waited an abnormally long period of fifteen years before achieving post rank in December 1777. As evidence that luck had not always been his friend, Bligh had been serving with Rear-Admiral George Montagu’s detached squadron at the time of the Battle of the Glorious First of June five months previously, and unbeknown to him, as he now faced an overwhelming French force, he had already been promoted rear-admiral on 4 July in accordance with his seniority.
The long-distance action between the Alexander and her pursuers continued until 11.00 when the Jean Bart came up with Bligh’s ship and brought her to close action; however, within a half-hour the Frenchman was beaten off and taken in tow by a frigate. The next vessel, the Tigre, was more circumspect but still lost her main topmast, main-yard and mizzen-topmast as the Alexander tenaciously fought for her survival. Only when a third sail of the line joined the Tigre did the French began to gain the upper hand, and for two hours the Alexander was subjected to a constant battering with the result that by 1 p.m. she was little but a floating wreck. By this time her lower masts were shot to pieces, her rigging was in shreds, her sails had been torn asunder, and her hull was leaking so badly that the pumps could no longer stem the tide. She had already suffered an estimated forty casualties although Bligh could not confirm this figure as many dead men had been thrown over the side, and among the wounded were the lieutenant of marines, the boatswain, and the pilot. As those ships which had been chasing the Canada had by now left over that pursuit and borne down upon the Alexander, Captain Bligh was left with no other option than to call a conference of his officers, and this decided that he should haul down the colours,
Once they came aboard the Alexander the French plundered her without hesitation or conscience. Her crew was dispersed across all of Nielly’s squadron, making an estimation of her casualty figure even more impossible, and when the victorious ships arrived at Brest on 7 November the Alexander’s men, who had been allowed to retain but the clothes they stood in, were treated with equal hostility by the populace. Imprisoned with an English lady and her two daughters, they were barely given enough provisions to survive upon, and were obliged to sleep on straw without blankets in bare cells. To make matters worse their supply of water was restricted after one prisoner threw himself into the well as a means of putting an end to his sufferings. During the next three months their diet consisted of nothing more than black bread and horse-bean soup with the occasional salt fish. Many men were to succumb to gaol-fever, and they were to languish in conditions of misery for a further seven and a half years until the Peace of Amiens in 1802.
The newly promoted Admiral Bligh fared little better than his men, for although he wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty from aboard the Marat in Brest Harbour on 23 November describing the loss of his ship and claiming to be well looked after, and although initial reports indicated that he and his officers were allowed two days of liberty on parole with daily visits to the market for fresh provisions, the actuality was far different. Bligh found himself confined to a hulk in the harbour with a diet consisting totally of salt herrings served on paper, and without the benefit of a fire in what was one of the coldest winters for years; indeed, the season was so severe that reports from Paris claimed that the Seine had frozen over. Some concern for his situation was expressed by Captain Jean François Renaudin, late of the Vengeur 74, who had been exchanged in September for Captain James Cotes of the Thames following the Battle of the Glorious First of June, even though Cotes would not be allowed to leave France for another six months, but eventually only an application to Vice-Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret-Joyeuse, the naval commander at Brest, resulted in better conditions and parole for Bligh and his officers, and in early February came news that the admiral and the Alexander’s senior marine officer, Major Watkin Tench, had been sent to Quimper on parole.
In the meantime, on 8 November, and having outran her pursuers over an eleven-hour chase, the Canada had passed Torbay on her way to Portsmouth and taken the opportunity to impart the dreadful news of the Alexander’s loss to Admiral Lord Howe. The commander-in-chief had immediately put to sea with his Channel Fleet of twenty-one sail of the line, but by then the Alexander’s defiance had already obliged the French squadron to return to Brest for repairs, and she had thus saved from possible capture the Portuguese convoy commanded by Captain Hon. John Rodney, the Mediterranean convoy under Vice-Admiral Phillips Cosby, and the homeward bound Victory 100, carrying the weary Admiral Lord Hood into what would eventually prove to be an enforced retirement.
In January 1795 Bligh’s fourteen-year-old son George Miller Bligh and the Alexander’s purser returned to Plymouth aboard a neutral Hamburg vessel, and although the newspapers gleefully heralded their ‘escape’, their arrival was concurrent with a decree from the French Convention that all women and children under the age of twelve should be repatriated, so it was possible that the younger Bligh had been allowed to fall into this category. On 17 March however, one of the Alexander’s lieutenants, Richard Goddard, did make good his escape from Brest, and upon reporting to the Admiralty he advised that he had not seen Admiral Bligh since the previous December.
Towards the end of March 1795, the sloop Jane left Plymouth with the French captains of the Atalante 32, Espion 18, and Tourterelle 28 to be exchanged for Admiral Bligh and Commander William Hugh Kittoe, the latter officer having been captured in command of the Espion on 22 July 1794, just eight months before the British had retaken that vessel. On 5 May, following his release, Bligh took passage to Plymouth aboard a Danish ship with Major Tench and two midshipmen, and five days later they were transferred to a Cawsand pilot boat off Rame Head to be landed at the Barbican. Bligh was subsequently acquitted at the court martial into the loss of his ship aboard the Glory 98 at Portsmouth on 27 May, and two months later he raised his flag at Portsmouth aboard the Salisbury 50. As for the Alexander, she did not remain long in French hands, for just weeks after Bligh’s return she was recaptured at the Battle of Lorient on 23 June 1795.