Venus v Semillante – 27 May 1793
On 19 May the twelve-pounder frigates Nymphe 36, Captain Edward Pellew, and Venus 32, Captain Jonathan Faulknor, departed Portsmouth with orders to act against the various French cruisers that were playing havoc with British merchantmen in the Channel. As was customary, the two captains agreed to pool any prizemoney which they might make, and it did not take long for their first opportunity to arrive, for the very next evening four strange sail were discovered off the Channel Islands. A chase towards the south developed, but it was one in which the Venus proved to be so laboured that she not only incurred the wrath of the exacting Pellew, but she also allowed the strangers to enter Cherbourg unmolested.
The next opportunity for the British would not be long in coming, but unfortunately the Nymphe had parted company from the Venus two days before when in the very early hours of the morning of 27 May, about four hundred and thirty miles north of Cape Finisterre, Captain Faulknor’s command discovered a strange sail. Having tacked at 3.30 a.m., the Venus waited as the other vessel came down with the wind to investigate her, and it soon became apparent that the stranger was a French frigate.
First commissioned in 1758, the Venus had captured two French frigates in the Seven Years War and had then seen much active service in the American Revolutionary War, particularly in the Leeward Islands. She carried an armament of twenty-four 12-pounders on her upper deck, and six 18-pound carronades and eight 6-pound cannon on her quarterdeck and forecastle, equating to a broadside weight of metal totalling two hundred and twenty-two pounds. With one hundred and ninety-two men aboard, none of whom were marines, she was some forty men shy of her nominal complement. Her captain, the son of the accomplished and respected Vice-Admiral Jonathon Faulknor, could claim just three years experience in command of his own vessel at sea, and had been captured by the Spanish off Gibraltar whilst on his first commission in 1781, prior to spending the greater part of the peace out of employment.
As the Venus prepared to engage there was some debate over the identity of her prospective opponent, and although at the time it was believed that she was the Cléopâtre 36, there would be much later hypothesis that she was either the Engageante 32 or Proserpine 38 before a report in the French newspaper Le Moniteur finally settled the matter. She was in fact the twelve-pounder frigate Sémillante 32, Captain Jacques Marie Dominique Gaillard de la Touche, a vessel that had only been launched eighteen months previously and was reportedly crewed by almost three hundred men and boys. She boasted twenty-six 12-pounders on her upper gun deck and six 6-pounders on her quarterdeck, equating to a broadside weight of metal totalling one hundred and seventy-four pounds, although it was later reported that she may also have been carrying a number of carronades that boosted her broadside to two hundred and seventy pounds.
At 4 a.m. the Sémillante passed the Venus to windward, whereupon the Frenchman raised a blue flag at the mizzen peak and fired two cannons in quick succession to leeward. Faulknor’s command then raised her own colours, and each frigate tried a ranging shot. At about 4.30 the Sémillante tacked and the two ships began converging upon each other, but an attempt by the Venus to get to windward of her enemy was prevented when the Sémillante kept her wind. At about 7.30 some random shots were fired by the French frigate as she closed, and within a further half hour the two vessels were near enough to begin the exchange of full broadsides.
Over the next two hours the frigates plied each other with shot, and in a fairly equal contest which saw them close to within a half-cable length by 10 a.m., and which saw the British frigate unleash up to sixty broadsides, little quarter was given. Only in the last half hour of the engagement did the Sémillante’s guns fall silent, by which time her captain and senior lieutenant had fallen, she had lost a further ten men killed and twenty wounded, was badly damaged aloft and below, and was flooding with five feet of water in the hold. She had nevertheless made her mark on her opponent, for not only was the Venus’ rigging much cut up and all her lower shrouds apart from one shot away, but her injured masts could barely carry any sail and she had lost two seamen killed and her sailing master and nineteen seamen wounded from her already undermanned crew.
With the Frenchman now taking flight, Faulknor hauled what sail he could aloft and set off in pursuit. At one point the French colours were seen to come down, but the British huzzas were soon silenced when the tricolour reappeared, and it became apparent that her flag had been shot away rather than lowered in surrender. Even so, when the Venus ranged up alongside the ailing French frigate to give her a tremendous double-shotted broadside it appeared inevitable that someone would appear on her deserted deck to strike her colours. Fleetingly the Venus fell away before attempting to manoeuvre alongside again, but at that moment a shout from above brought everyone’s attention to another ship working up from to leeward. An expectation that it was Pellew’s Nymphe soon turned to alarm when the stranger was identified to be a large French frigate, and at once the Sémillante made a private signal and bore away for her.
Given the injuries she had sustained the Venus’ situation was somewhat perilous, but she was able to set off close-hauled with the new French frigate under full sail in pursuit, and it was to her good fortune that the smooth state of the sea and the favour of the breeze enabled her to make good her escape. For her pursuer, which would prove to be Captain Jean Mullon of the Cléopâtre 36, another opportunity to prove his worth would arise on 19 June when he would fall in with Pellew’s Nymphe.
Whilst no doubt relieved at his preservation, Captain Faulknor had nevertheless seen a prize snatched from his grasp, and another opportunity of glory was never to come his way. The newspapers were commendatory of his efforts, stating that he had fought well against a larger French frigate, and contemporary historians would come to describe the engagement as a well-matched one that had been admirably fought on both sides. Captain Pellew, who fell in with the Venus on the afternoon of the 29th, was less complimentary, and in criticising Faulknor’s conduct he would describe his fellow captain as ‘thick-headed’.
The damaged Venus returned to Portsmouth for repairs on the evening of 6 June and she would thereafter remain in active service until 1807, much of it in convoy duty to Newfoundland and the West Indies. Captain Faulknor died in 1809 as a rear-admiral having been unemployed for the best part of ten years. The Sémillante would later enjoy a good deal of success against the British merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean during the years 1803-8 before she was sold to the famous privateer Robert Surcouf, under whose ownership she was finally captured by the Amelia 38, Captain Frederick Irby, in the Atlantic Ocean during the autumn of 1810.