Ulysses v Surveillante – 5 June 1781
Enjoying a fresh breeze and in fine weather, the Ulysses 44, Captain John Thomas, was cruising to the north of Saint-Domingue, some six or seven miles from the North Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands, when at six o clock on the evening of 5 June two sail were discovered in the west. Releasing a schooner that she had spent most of the afternoon chasing, and which had proved to be a prize taken by a privateer from Kingston, Jamaica, the Ulysses set off to identify the strangers.
The two vessels were the French frigate Surveillante 32, Captain Le Chevalier de Villeneuve Cillart, and an unidentified brig, bound from Rhode Island to Cap Fran ois. Launched in May 1778, the Surveillante had played an active part in the capture of the Ardent 64 off Plymouth during the Channel Fleet Retreat in August 1779, and two months later had fought an epic engagement with the Quebec 32, Captain George Farmer, which had resulted in the latter vessel blowing up. She was designed to carry a broadside weight of metal totalling 174 pounds, with her armament consisting of twenty-six 6-pounder cannon and six 6-pounders, and her usual complement was two hundred and eighty-eight men. Amongst her lieutenants as she came in sight of the Ulysses was the future Napoleonic admiral, the 25 year-old douard-Thomas de Burgues de Missiessy.
The Ulysses had been launched in July 1779 and she carried twenty 18-pounder cannon on her lower gun deck, twenty-two 9-pounder cannon on her upper gun deck, and two 6-pounder cannon on her forecastle, giving her a broadside weight of metal of 285 pounds. This was somewhat superior to the Surveillante, although her design complement of two hundred and eighty men was on a par with the French frigate. She had come out to the West Indies at the beginning of 1780, and during the Great Hurricanes that had swept through the Caribbean that October her captain, Thomas Dumaresq, had been forced to run her to Jamaica under her foremast alone, and with all her upper deck guns having been thrown over the side. She had emerged in the spring of 1781 after a long refit, and under a new captain, John Thomas, who was in his thirtieth year, and although a prot g of Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington had only received his lieutenant s commission in September 1777 before being posted captain just over two years later.
At about 8 p.m. the Ulysses came up with the two strangers, and firing a shot at the frigate she hailed her to clarify her identity. Captain de Villeneuve Cillart responded by hoisting French colours and returning fire, whereupon the Ulysses unleashed a full broadside and a brisk action began. But no sooner had the Ulysses wore ship and fought her way alongside the Surveillante than at 8.30 Captain Thomas was felled and taken below decks with multiple wounds. The action continued at musket shot and sometimes even closer, but within a further quarter hour Thomas was joined below by the sailing master, Mr Richards, who was also suffering from multiple wounds.
Back up on deck the British vessel s rigging was being torn to pieces, and at 9 p.m. her main-yard came crashing down on to the booms. At about the same time the wheel was hit and the tiller rope shredded in two places, leaving her unmanageable, and within the hour the mainsail and a topmast sail caught fire and had to be cut away aloft. Still the battle raged on until at about 11 p.m. the first lieutenant, Mr Woolridge, was carried below with a severe wound to his arm. By now the Ulysses lower masts were seriously compromised, the mainstay shrouds and running rigging were shot to pieces and the mainmast was in danger of falling.
Severe that the injuries to the Ulysses and her senior officers had been, the French frigate had in turn suffered badly, and shortly after midnight the fire of the Surveillante began to slacken and she made her way off. Clearly the Ulysses was in no position to renew the engagement, although the French would later claim that a ball near the waterline had impeded their chance of victory, and that the British ship, on fire aloft, had managed to escape in the night whilst the French frigate was undertaking repairs. For her part the brig had kept her wind, and although she had struck her colours after receiving a broadside from the Ulysses she had made off when it had become evident that the British vessel was in no position to hoist out a boat and take possession.
Casualties on board the Ulysses from this indecisive engagement numbered ten men killed including a midshipman, and forty-seven wounded, including the captain who would have his leg amputated, her first lieutenant, sailing master, and lieutenant of marines. French losses were reported as eleven men dead and forty-two wounded.
Special thanks to Mike Contratto for providing inspiration and material for this article.