The Navy at the Capture of Trincomale – 26 August 1795
On 21 July Commodore Peter Rainier, the commander-in-chief of the British Navy in the East Indies, sailed from Madras with his flagship Suffolk 74, Captain Robert Lambert, the Centurion 50, Captain Samuel Osborn, and several transports carrying an army of two thousand seven hundred British and East India Company troops under the command of Colonel James Stuart. Acting on the orders of the governor of Madras, Lord Robert Hobart, the two commanders had instructions to take the fledgling Batavian Republic’s possessions on the island of Ceylon in the name of the exiled Dutch stadtholder, William of Orange. Their initial target was Trincomale on the east coast of the island, the only recognised safe harbour in the Bay of Bengal, and a strategically important base that was well situated to threaten or protect the British trade routes, dependent on its occupier.
Two days after setting out, Rainier, who was not to know that he had recently been promoted rear-admiral in England on 1 June, anchored off Negapatam where further troops embarked aboard the Diomede 44, Captain Mathew Smith, and several transports. With the men-of-war and two of the better sailing transports taking the heavier sailing vessels in tow, the fleet left the Negapatam Roads on the 25th, and by the evening of the 28th it was at anchor off Point Pedro on the northern tip of Ceylon. On the 31st it was joined by the Heroine 32, Captain Alan Hyde Gardner, aboard which frigate was the deputy adjutant-general, Major Patrick Agnew, who had previously been dispatched to advise Johan Van Angelbeek, the Batavian governor-general at Colombo, of the British intentions and had received permission by that gentleman to land three hundred troops to garrison Fort Oostenburg at Trincomale.
On 1 August Rainier’s squadron anchored in Back Bay to the north of Trincomale, and the greater part of the next two days was spent attempting to obtain the surrender of the Batavian commandant, Jan George Fornbauer. Despite Van Angelbeek’s instruction that he should avoiding the shedding of blood, Fornbauer refused to submit, claiming that the orders he was confronted with were ‘informal’. With the negotiations proving fruitless, Stuart and Rainier resolved to resort to force.
Plans were made to land the troops on 2 August, but in the course of this operation, and whilst she was working into the bay against a fierce land wind and with a heavy sailing vessel in tow, the Diomede struck an uncharted rock with such force that she rapidly started taking on water. Despite the efforts of the soldiers and sailors at the pumps she began to founder, and although the boats of the squadron were able to evacuate all the men from her, their employment in the rescue delayed the landing of the troops until the following morning. At the same time, the rapidity of her sinking meant that it was not possible to bring off any of the valuable stores aboard her.
On 3 August six hundred and fifty troops, together with two field pieces, were landed at the White Rocks, near Elizabeth Point under cover of the Heroine, which lay too as close as possible offshore. In the event the landings were unopposed, and her broadsides were not required. For the next ten days, the troops, assisted by parties of up to two hundred seamen, struggled against the land wind, raging surf, and a steep sandy beach, to get their stores ashore and transported to the Army encampment four miles away. Fortunately, the Batavian forces made no attempt to disrupt these dispositions, and by the 18th the British were able to open the trenches before Trincomale.
On 23 August a grand battery consisting of eight 18-pounder cannons and three others landed from the Suffolk’s upper deck, coupled with two ten-inch mortars, was completed within six hundred yards of the north-west bastion, and three days later its fire had created a substantial breech in the enemy defences. An initial summons was rejected, but on opening fire again, and amidst reports of mutinous conduct amongst the defenders, the white flag was shown and the garrison of six hundred and seventy-nine men, eighty-nine of whom were on the sick list, surrendered to march out that evening and lay their arms down in the battery.
During the campaign the Navy had lost one man killed and six wounded, the troops fifteen men killed and fifty-four wounded. The Navy had captured two small vessels that had been sent from Colombo laden with provisions and stores for the garrison, and a Lieutenant Pulham of the Suffolk had led a cutting-out party against a rice-laden ketch under the guns of the fort which, upon boarding, was found to have been abandoned by its crew. In total it was reported that 300,000 guineas worth of goods were impounded during the short campaign. The Batavian prisoners were subsequently embarked on a transport and one of the prizes, and they were sent to Madras under the escort of the Heroine. Commodore Rainier and Colonel Stuart’s dispatches announcing the capture of Trincomale reached the secretary of state, Henry Dundas, in London on 6 January 1796, having been carried home by the Royal Admiral.
The fall of Trincomale was soon followed by that of Fort Oostenburg and its garrison of two hundred and fifty-two men on 31 August, Baticalo on 18 September, Jaffnapatam to Captain Osborn and Colonel Stuart on the 28th, Muletivu on 1 October to Commander Benjamin Page of the Hobart 18 and a detachment of the 52nd Regiment, and the island of Manar on 5 October. Whilst engaged in the capture of Ceylon, Rainier had also despatched an expedition under the command of Henry Newcome of the Orpheus 32, supported by the Resistance 44, Captain Edward Pakenham, to take Malacca from the Dutch, and this capture was easily effected on 17 August. Further successful conquests would be made of Cochin and all the other Dutch settlements on the mainland of India by the end of the year.
For Captain Smith, the loss of the Diomede had been yet another personal tragedy, as he was already awaiting a court-martial for failing to adequately support the Centurion in an action with a French squadron consisting of the Cybèle 40, Prudente 36, Jean Bart 20 and Courier 14 in October 1794. He may have had the opportunity to redeem himself at the capture of Trincomale, as he had been designated to command three hundred seamen and marines in any storming party, but in the event such an assault had not been required. When he was eventually brought to a court-martial, he was dismissed the service, and although re-instated after returning to England he was never employed again.