The Navy at the Capture of Malacca – 17 August 1795
Upon receiving intelligence of the newly formed Batavian Republic’s declaration of War against Britain in May 1795, the commander-in-chief in the East Indies, Rear-Admiral Peter Rainier, immediately took steps to take possession of the erstwhile Dutch Republic’s territories on his station in the name of the Prince of Orange. Amongst these was the strategic trading post of Malacca on the southern coast of the Malay Peninsula.
A small expedition initially sailed for Malacca from Madras under the command of Captain Henry Newcome of the Orpheus 32, but deciding that this officer should be supported in his endeavour, on 16 July Rainier despatched the Resistance 44, Captain Edward Pakenham, together with a tender of the flagship Suffolk 74, and a transport, the Ewer, carrying European and Indian troops under the command of Major Archibald Brown.
It so happened that aboard the naval vessels were two young men who in time would be seen as amongst the most self-aggrandising, eccentric, reckless, foolhardy, stubborn, and bone-headed men in the Georgian Navy, these being Lord Camelford and Nesbit Josiah Willoughby. Individually the couple were a nightmare to manage; collectively they were simply a disaster waiting to happen, and sure enough, one nearly did.
The highly connected Camelford was a distant cousin of the prime minister, William Pitt, and his sense of entitlement and self-confidence knew no bounds. In March 1791, aged sixteen and having already survived the Guardian’s famous collision with an iceberg in the Southern Ocean, he had taken ship aboard the Discovery for Captain George Vancouver’s long voyage of exploration, but after a series of misdemeanours had been dismissed on the charge of insubordination by Vancouver at Hawaii on 7 February 1794. Somehow he had managed to reach Malacca in December where, by a happy coincidence, the Resistance just happened to be visiting. Fortunately, Captain Pakenham, an inventive and kindly man who was popular with his crew, took a liking to the erratic yet intelligent young nobleman, and by the beginning of 1795 Camelford was serving in the role of acting-lieutenant and displaying a desperate intention to have that position confirmed. by; after Unknown engraver; C. Bond,print,1804 or after
The Nottinghamshire-born Willoughby did not enjoy the same influential heritage as Camelford, and having entered the Navy in 1790 as a twelve-year-old boy he had not as yet courted any of the controversy that was to flare up with unwelcome regularity throughout the remainder of his career. In 1794 he had joined the Orpheus as she had begun her voyage out to the East Indies, and as the squadron made its way to Malacca he was rapidly approaching his eighteenth birthday, and in sharing Camelford’s yearning to earn his first commission he would have been looking for an opportunity to achieve it.
As soon as the expedition arrived at Malacca, Captain Newcome and Major Brown summoned the Dutch governor, Abraham Couperus, who as expected refused to submit to their terms. Within the harbour a Dutch armed ship, the Constantia, was warped into the mud before the fort from where she could contest the landing of any troops. Clearly the enterprise could not be progressed until this threat had been removed, and so Captain Newcome ordered all the armed boats of the squadron to assemble alongside the Orpheus with the intention that one of his senior lieutenants would then lead a cutting out sortie against the enemy vessel and overwhelm her crew with a superiority of numbers.
One of the first boats to reach Newcome’s frigate was, unsurprisingly, that of the eager Camelford’s from the Resistance, and here she butted up against the Orpheus’ cutter, under the command of Willoughby. No doubt fuming at the perceived delay in getting the attack underway, and straining at the leash to earn recognition and enhance the prospects of promotion, Camelford urged Willoughby to join him in making an instant attack upon the Constantia before the other boats could join the party. It is doubtful as to whether the ridiculously over-confident and lion-hearted Willoughby would have needed much persuasion by the young lord, although at over six feet tall, powerfully built, and with an educated and charming tongue, there might not have been many officers who could have refused Camelford’s entreaties to act independently.
Stealthily, and without any notice to a senior officer, the two boats eased away from the Orpheus and set a course for the Dutchman. When they had managed to put some distance between themselves and the frigate, they separated with the intention of boarding the enemy from either side. Given that the Constantia had over a hundred defenders aboard, as well as a healthy armament, this mode of attack with so few numbers was nothing short of madness, and if put into effect it was likely to result in the destruction of the whole party.
Fortunately for Camelford and Willoughby, Captain Pakenham was alerted to their designs, and he quickly ordered his men to open fire on the armed ship, even though she was well out of range and could not possibly be harmed. Sure enough the shot fell well short, but it was enough to convince the Dutch captain that resistance would ultimately prove fruitless, and that having come under fire he could haul down his colours with honour. To the relief of all, he did this just as the two boats arrived alongside his ship, and before any of the other boats had even left the Orpheus.
A disaster had therefore been averted by Captain Pakenham’s common sense, and the two eager young officers were spared for another day to inflict their not inconsiderable talents, but also their reckless abandon, on both their enemies and friends.
Meanwhile, once Major Brown’s troops had been landed and subjected to a few half-hearted shots, the remainder of the Dutch forces surrendered the same day without incurring any casualties Thereafter the British retained possession of Malacca for the next seven years to avoid it falling into the hands of the French, and when peace was declared in 1802 it was returned to the Dutch.