The Capture of Captain Sir William Sidney Smith off Le Havre – 19 April 1796
The frigate Diamond 38 arrived on the French Atlantic coast in 1795, whereupon her enigmatic captain, Sir William Sidney Smith, began making so much mischief that he quickly earned the nickname ‘le lion de la mer’ from his weary enemy. Smith was a restless yet brilliant egotist who had dabbled in the affairs of Sweden, undertaken intelligence missions, and led the force of volunteers who had attempted to destroy the French fleet at the evacuation of Toulon three years earlier, despite being without a commission at the time. During the earlier peace he had taken the trouble to visit the coast he was now patrolling, and he had spent hours familiarising himself with it. He was thus well qualified to spread his disruption.
Smith made it his purpose not to allow any shipping to move on his patch without capturing or investigating it; however, on 18 April his luck expired when his frigate anchored in the outer road of Le Havre, and he ordered his boats to intercept a Swedish vessel that was attempting to enter the port. At the time, the Diamond’s first lieutenant, Richard Harrison Pearson, was ill and under the care of the surgeon, the second lieutenant was absent having been sent home with dispatches, and the third lieutenant had been left behind in Portsmouth, and so after a brief consultation with the sailing master, whose expertise as a pilot was deemed too valuable to risk, Smith decided to lead the boats himself.
Not long after putting to the water, the Diamond’s boats discovered a prolific privateer lugger, the Vengeur 10, anchored in the inner roads under the protection of a ten-gun battery. The Vengeur, armed with ten three-pounder cannons and a crew of forty-five men, was a vessel Smith had been seeking for some time, as she had proved to be most successful in infiltrating British convoys at night, boarding a merchantman, and then remaining with the convoy incognito until dashing her prize into port before the escort could react. Aware that a low stock of supplies would soon force the Diamond to return to England for replenishment, Smith decided to seize the moment, and at 8 p.m. he sent a cutter back to the Diamond seeking further arms and ammunition to allow him to attack the privateer.
At 10 p.m., in the calm darkness, a party of fifty-two men in five boats, with Smith leading the force in a two-oared Thames wherry, set off for the Vengeur. Once in sight of the lugger, the oarsmen briefly rested whilst Smith finalised his plan of attack, and then circuitously rowing inshore of their target, they began their final approach from the direction of Le Havre in the hope that they could delay the privateer’s resistance by being seen as nothing more than harmless fishing boats heading out to sea. The ploy worked in so much that when the boats were identified as an enemy at about 2.30 a.m., they had already rowed to within a half-pistol shot of the lugger.
Despite their surprise, the French crew managed to let off a cannon shot, but then their deck was swarmed as two of the boat parties boarded over one quarter, two over another quarter, and Smith’s men from the wherry went over the stern. Complete control was quickly asserted, the French crew were driven below, and guns were placed at the hatches. Meanwhile, Smith forced his way into the cabin where he found four officers loading their pistols. Advising them of their hopeless situation, they agreed to surrender. The whole attack had lasted no more than ten minutes with the reported loss of one Frenchman killed and no British casualties.
The assault may have been a complete success, but Smith had reckoned without the French cutting their cable in the darkness. The Vengeur began to drift, and apart from a light kedge that was totally ineffective for the purpose of holding her, there was not an anchor to be found. Despite attempts to hoist sail and tow her out with the boats, the flood tide carried the lugger towards the River Seine and some two miles above Le Havre, where she became pinned by a light wind on the northern shore of the estuary near Harfleur. Smith took to his boat once more to return to the Diamond, but daybreak revealed the plight of his prize to the French ashore, and at 6 a.m. a large lugger, four gunboats, and other armed vessels carrying troops put off from Le Havre pier. Determined not to lose his prize, Smith put back for the lugger with the intention of keeping the French at bay until the tide turned, or a change in the wind came to his rescue.
Once aboard the Vengeur, Smith ordered the prisoners into the launch so that they could be sent ashore on parole to Honfleur on the south bank, yet even whilst the disembarkation was taking place the first shots were received from the shore, and then the French lugger moved in to the attack. Managing to get some steerage way out of the Vengeur, Smith resisted the lugger’s assault, but soon the other boats surrounded the prize and opened up a blaze of musketry. With the calm airs and meagre depth of water preventing any possibility of the Diamond coming up the river to the rescue, it was a foregone conclusion that the Vengeur would be re-taken, and following a three-quarter hour engagement Smith was obliged to surrender. Upon the French boarding, it would later be claimed that they initially refused to offer quarter, but the British seamen reportedly formed a group around their captain and the assailants hesitated from making any further attack. Smith’s impeccable French helped diffuse the tension, he surrendered his sword to the enemy’s commanding officer, and the affair ended with a chivalrous shaking of hands.
In addition to Smith, a young acting-lieutenant by the name of William Knight, the clerk, two midshipmen, two young gentlemen volunteers, nineteen seamen and three servants were made prisoner. The defence of the Vengeur had seen the loss of four of the Diamond’s men killed and seven wounded.
At 10.30 the launch and one of the cutters arrived back alongside the Diamond having discharged the captured lugger’s crew to Honfleur and then escaped the fire of the gunboats. Using the medium of a fishing boat, Lieutenant Pearson wrote to the governor of Le Havre seeking information on his captain and urging that any captured men be treated with kindness. A polite response was promptly received, advising that all the prisoners were well, bar one midshipman who had been wounded in the hand and thigh, and that Smith would be treated appropriately in accordance with his rank.
Despite some claims that he had to endure the anger of a mob, Smith was later to declare in correspondence home that he and his men were indeed treated as well as could have been expected. Even so, his capture was a great coup for the French authorities in Le Havre, who wasted little time in sending a celebratory dispatch to the Minister of Marine in Paris, announcing that the ‘English incendiary who burned our ships at Toulon’ was in their hands. Claims that he had intended to burn their port were supported by a revelation that a ‘sulphured faggot’ had been discovered, and the dispatch concluded by stating that ‘National Justice’ should pronounce on the ‘crimes of this monster’. Declaring that they had not the facility in Le Havre to detain him, Smith and other prisoners were sent under guard to Rouen later in the day of 19 April.
Lieutenant Pearson’s letter to the Admiralty advising of Smith’s capture was conveyed to England by Lieutenant John Crispo of the cutter Telemachus. The news was quickly reported in the newspapers with at least one commenting that for such a celebrated officer to be lost under such largely inconsequential circumstances was ‘gallantry out of place’. Nevertheless, there was a general assumption that Smith’s incarceration would be of but a short duration, and following the capture of the Virginie 44 by Commodore Sir Edward Pellew’s frigate squadron on 20 April, it was declared that, in all likelihood, an exchange would be arranged with that vessel’s commander, Captain Jacques Bergeret.
On 25 April, Smith arrived in Paris with his ‘clerk’, John Wesley Wright, who also carried the rank of midshipman, and a servant who claimed to be a French-Canadian by the name of John Bromley. It said much for Smith’s participation in covert activities that neither man was strictly whom they claimed to be, for in time it would become clear that Wright was engaged in intelligence operations, whilst Bromley was in fact a French royalist emigree, François de Tromelin. The French authorities were not only aware of Smith’s activities at Toulon, with menacing accusations that he had been serving there as a volunteer rather than a commissioned officer, but also, thanks in no small measure to his own boasting, had suspicions of his collusion in clandestine affairs. He was also unable to satisfy them as to his motives for being captured above the town of Le Havre in possession of a ‘sulphured faggot’, and in any event, he had terrorised their coastal shipping for weeks and was therefore a prize capture. In their opinion such a man could not be released, and when Citizen Bergeret did come home on parole in the hope of arranging an exchange, he was quickly disabused of the possibility and had to make the honourable decision of returning to England in July by sailing for Cawsand Bay from Brest aboard the cartel Display.
At first, Smith and his two companions were confined in the old Prison de l’Abbaye, and although the newspapers in Britain reported shortly afterwards that they had been sent by the Directory on parole to the village of Passy near the Bois de Boulogne amidst claims that a dissident group had designs of massacring every Englishman, it seems that by 3 July Smith and Wright were closely confined in the austere Temple Prison in Paris as prisoners of state, rather than prisoners of war. An indication of the nature of their incarceration came with accounts that Smith was at least allowed provisions, and to shave himself, but that Wright was held in a separate cell. Over the next long months, rumours abated that Smith would either be tried as a spy or a pirate, and although Tromelin was allowed to return to England, Smith and Wright remained incarcerated without trial whilst constantly looking for a means of escape.
In the meantime, Captain Thomas Le Marchant Gosselin had been appointed to the temporary command of the Diamond pending Smith’s expected exchange, and two of the Diamond’s younger officers were released by the French authorities, with Midshipman James Boxer rejoining the frigate in August 1797, and twelve-year-old William Carroll being set free in the same month.