As Patrick O’Brian states in the introduction to that book, the events described in The Mauritius Command are closely based on fact. Just how closely is apparent from the following excerpts from part 5 of W.L. Clowes’ The Royal Navy. Peter Davis has helpfully added reference numbers to the novel in [..] (not sure which edition unfortunately). Contains MAJOR SPOILERS so please be warned!
Excerpt from The Royal Navy, A History From the Earliest Times to the Present Day
By William Clowes
At the close of 1808, four French 40-gun frigates, the Venus, Manche, Bellone, and Caroline, had escaped unobserved from various ports in the French empire, and had sailed for Mauritius, with orders to avoid all British warships, and to harass commerce . The Caroline, Lieutenant J. B. H. Feretier, proceeded to the Bay of Bengal, and there, on May 31st, 1809, sighted the Indiamen Streatham, 30, John Dale, master, Europe, 30, William Gelston, master, and Lord Keith, 12, Peter Campbell, master, of whose force and character full particulars had been obtained from an American skipper. The three Indiamen formed line of battle as well as they could, but a great distance separated the two most powerful ships, the Streatham and the Europe. The Caroline attacked the sternmost of the three, the Europe, and, after half an hour’s sharp fighting, left her in a disabled state. The French frigate then made sail ahead, engaged the Streatham, which had not as yet fired a shot, and, in an hour, disabled her and compelled her to strike. The Lord Keith remained, but the Caroline could not secure her without sacrificing one or other of the two craft that had been already engaged. Accordingly, after firing a few shots at her, the Frenchman returned to the Europe, and resumed action. The Europe at first answered the fire, but soon attempted to escape. She was speedily overhauled and captured by the Caroline, after that ship had placed a party on board the Streatham . The British vessels were indifferently manoeuvred, and were in consequence beaten in detail. In force, three weakly-manned, heavily-laden, and encumbered Indiamen were, however, no match for one powerful frigate.
On August 14th (1809), the Otter, 18, Commander Nisbet Josiah Willoughby, discovered three French vessels at anchor under the batteries of Riviere Noire, in Mauritius, and sent in her boats at night, under Lieutenant John Burns, to cut them out. One of the three vessels was boarded and carried; but the alarm was given, and the batteries opened a heavy fire. The prize was found to be so firmly secured to the shore that she could not be brought off, and had to be abandoned. The British boats then retired, with a loss of 1 killed, 1 wounded.
In September, Commodore Josias Rowley, in concert with Lieut.-Colonel Henry S. Keating, commanding the British garrison at Rodriguez, a small island which, being eastward of Mauritius, had been previously occupied as a base for the British blockading squadrons off Reunion and Mauritius, determined upon a conjoint expedition for the capture of St. Paul, the only good harbour in the island of Reunion . The vessels engaged were
Raisonnable, 64, Commodore Josias Rowley.
Sirius, 36, Capt. Samuel Pym.
Boadicea, 38, Capt. John Hatley
Nereide, 36, Capt. Robert Corbett.
Otter, 18, Commander Nisbet Josiah Willoughby.
Wasp (East India Co.’s Schooner), -, Watkins.
A force of 368 troops was embarked . On September 21st the Nereide disembarked the troops, and 236 seamen and Marines under Commander Willoughby, at Pointe des Galets, five miles from St. Paul. The men advanced rapidly, seized the causeway over the Etang de St. Paul, captured three batteries with but trifling resistance, and turned the guns on the shipping in the harbour, where lay the French 40-gun frigate Caroline . Two other batteries completely dominating the harbour were carried in quick succession, while the British squadron in the bay stood in close, poured a heavy fire into the Caroline, and finally anchored off the town. The Caroline, Grappler, 16, and the Indiamen Streatham and Europe, had cut their cables when the British squadron approached, and had, in consequence, drifted ashore. They were all got off without injury by the seamen of the squadron, and St. Paul, with 125 guns of all kinds, fell into the hands of the British.
The naval loss was 7 killed, 18 wounded, and 1 missing. The place was taken by surprise from the land, in spite of strong defences which fronted towards the sea. As the roads ran along the coast, and troops moving by them could be attacked by the fire of the British ships, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the French to recover the ground which they had lost. The British force was re-embarked, after destroying the fortifications and guns, but, on the 22nd, as French troops could be seen approaching from the hills to the south of the town, a party of Marines and seamen was again landed under Willoughby. It destroyed a government store-house, containing silk to the value of 500,000 Pounds Sterling , and re-embarked. On the 23rd, terms were arranged with the French, by which all public property was to be surrendered, and the British were to be unmolested in removing it. On the 28th, the British withdrew from St. Paul, carrying with them their prizes.
On November 2nd, the British sloop Victor, 18, Commander Edward Stopford, was chased in the Bay of Bengal by the French frigate Bellone, 40. The British vessel had her masts and rigging badly damaged, and was compelled to strike, having had 2 wounded .
In the course of (1810), beginning in April, a most important series of operations began in the Indian Ocean. The ultimate result of these was the capture of the last remaining French bases in those waters Reunion and Mauritius. The French ships on the station were the Venus, Bellone, and Manche, all of 40 guns, to which must be added the Minerve (ex Minerva), also of 40 guns, which had been captured from the Portuguese , and the brig Entreprenante. If James can be believed, to complete the crew of the Minerve the French had recourse to prisoners taken from the various British ships captured, a large number of whom were Irish Catholics. The British squadron, which comprised the Leopard, 50, Iphigenia, 36, Magicienne, 36, and some small craft, was unable to maintain a strict blockade. Late in April, it was reinforced by the Nereide, 36, Commander Nisbet Josiah Willoughby (actg. Capt.). The Nereide proceeded to Riviere-Noire on the south coast of Mauritius, off which was to be her cruising ground. There, on April 24th, she discovered the French frigate Astree, 36 , also newly arrived, at anchor under the batteries; and she opened fire on her at long range without much effect. On the 30th, she observed a large merchantman at anchor under the batteries of Jacolet, and in the evening sent in her boats, Willoughby himself taking command, to capture the ship. In spite of the fire of two French batteries, the boatparty landed, stormed the first battery and spiked its guns, and then drove back a detachment of French militia, capturing from them two field pieces. Day broke and revealed to the British the second battery beyond the river Galet, which, it could be seen, was held by a strong body of French militia. The British seamen, however, boldly swam the stream or forded it, carried the second battery and drove the militia before them in ignominious flight. Returning, they found that the garrison of the first battery had rallied. Willoughby immediately threatened its line of retreat, whereupon it ran, leaving him leisure to destroy the signal-station, to carry off the schooner Estafette, and to examine the merchantman, which proved to be American and was for that reason not touched . The British loss was only 1 killed and 7 wounded. Of the French, three officers were made prisoners.
Willoughby, a few weeks later, was most severely wounded by the bursting of a musket whilst exercising his men on Flat Island, an islet to the north of Mauritius, which was used by the British squadron as its base. His jaw was fractured, and his larynx was laid bare, but happily he recovered. He will soon be again met with.
Early in the summer of 1810, elaborate preparations began to be made for the capture of Reunion, or, as it was then called, Bourbon. Large numbers of British and Indian troops, together with transports, were assembled at Rodriguez; and on June 24th, the Boadicea, 38, Captain Josias Rowley, and Nereide, 36, Captain Nisbet Josiah Willoughby, from off Mauritius, arrived to escort the expedition. On July 3rd, they sailed again ; and on the 6th, made a rendezvous, about 50 miles from Reunion, with a small squadron which, under Captain Samuel Pym, of the Sirius, 36, had previously been cruising off Mauritius. This squadron consisted of the Iphigenia, 36, Captain Henry Lambert, and Magicienne, 36, Captain Lucius Curtis, besides the Sirius. At the rendezvous the troops, 3650 in number, were divided, and arrangements were perfected; and on the 7th, the ships bore away for the different points of disembarkation. The first brigade, under Lieut.-Colonel Frazier, was to land at Grande Chaloupe, about six miles west of St. Denis, the capital, and the remaining three brigades, under Lieut.-Colonels Henry S. Keating (senior officer), Campbell, and Drummond, were to be thrown ashore at Riviere des Pluies, about three miles to the eastward. In the afternoon, while the enemy, who had about 600 regulars and 2700 militia in the island, was distracted by a demonstration off Ste. Marie , Frazier, with 950 men and some howitzers, was landed at Grande Chaloupe without opposition; and Lieutenant John Wyatt Watling, of the Sirius, occupied a height which protected the force from molestation during the following night. At Riviere des Pluies, on the weather side of the island, conditions were less favourable; and, although Willoughby, still suffering from his musket accident, effected a landing with a few seamen and about 150 troops, the operation was not carried out without the drowning of four people in the surf, and the loss of several boats . Further disembarkation at that point was therefore abandoned for the time. Willoughby, and Lieut.-Colonel M’Leod, who was in command of the detachment of troops, occupied, and spent that night in, Fort Ste. Marie .
On the 8th, the Boadicea disembarked Keating and some troops at Grande Chaloupe; and the Iphigenia and transports landed some more; but, in the meantime, Frazier had been so active that Colonel Ste. Susanne, the military commander, asked for a truce. At 6 P.M., the island capitulated, the conquest having cost the victors only 22 killed and drowned, and 79 wounded . It fell to the Sirius to take possession of the shipping in the bay of St. Paul. On the 9th, the privateer brig Edward, of Nantes, made sail and put to sea to escape; but the frigate’s barge, under Lieutenant William Norman, rowed hard after her for nearly twelve hours, and, catching her, boarded and carried her most gallantly, having 3 men slightly wounded. She had dispatches for France on board. Mr. Robert Townshend Farquhar, who had been sent out for the purpose, assumed the post of governor of Reunion.
Immediately after the surrender of Reunion, the Sirius returned to her station off Mauritius, where her boats, under Lieutenants William Norman and John Wyatt Watling, destroyed a schooner which was aground, covered by two field pieces and 300 men. In retiring, the British lost 1 killed and 1 wounded.
Towards the end of July, in addition to the Sirius, 36, Captain Samuel Pym, the Iphigenia, 36, Captain Henry Lambert, Nereide, 36, Captain Nisbet Josiah Willoughby, and Staunch, 14, Lieutenant Benjamin Street, cruised off Mauritius. In the Nereide were 12 Madras artillerymen, 50 grenadiers of the 69th Regt., and 50 of the 33rd Regt., the whole under Captain Todd of the 69th. These had been put on board by Lieut.-Colonel Keating, with a view to co-operating in a projected attack on Ile de la Passe, a small island off Grand Port on the south-east side of Mauritius, which it was intended to use as a base for political agitations as well as for military operations in the colony. Accordingly, on August 10th, having left Lambert, in the Iphigenia, off Port Louis, on the west coast, Pym, with the other vessels, proceeded off Grand Port, and, that evening, in terrible weather, tried to effect a landing on Ile de la Passe. The boats, however, lost their way, or fouled one another; and the attempt had to be abandoned . On the following morning Pym picked up his people, and, to lull suspicion, bore away and rejoined Lambert off Port Louis. It was there arranged that the frigates should return to the eastward by different routes, the Sirius going round by the longer or northern way, and the Nereide, accompanied by the Staunch, beating up from the south end of the island, so that the enemy should not readily perceive that any organised movement was in progress . Lieutenant Henry Ducie Chads, with two boats, was temporarily lent by the Iphigenia to the Sirius.
The Sirius reappeared before Ile de la Passe on August 13th, when, however, the other craft were still far to leeward. Anxious to effect a surprise, Pym decided not to wait for his consorts, and in the evening sent in five boats, containing 71 officers and men under Lieutenants William Norman, John Wyatt Watling, and Henry Ducie Chads, together with Lieutenants (R.M.) James Cottell and William Bate. The attack was most successful, although the enemy opened fire before the boats had landed . Norman fell, shot through the heart as he was endeavouring to enter a battery; but Watling took his place, carried the work in spite of a determined resistance, and then crossing the islet, joined hands with Chads, who had been similarly successful on the south-east side. Thereupon the French garrison, of about 80 regulars, surrendered, having inflicted a loss of 7 killed and 18 wounded.
On the following morning the Nereide and Staunch arrived, and Pym, giving charge of Ile de la Passe to Willoughby, sailed to rejoin the Iphigenia off Port Louis. Willoughby garrisoned the place with 50 of the grenadiers, under Captain Todd, and at once began preparations for further attacks.
On August 17th, Willoughby landed at Canaille de Bois, near Grand Port, with about 170 seamen, Marines, and soldiers, for the purpose of distributing among the inhabitants of Mauritius a proclamation of Governor Farquhar, of Reunion. He moved twenty miles into the enemy’s country, and, incidentally, attacked and carried a fort at Pointe du Diable, spiking eight guns and two mortars, blowing up the magazines, and carrying off a 13-in. mortar. The French made little resistance, and caused no loss to the British; and Willoughby returned to his frigate in the evening. On the 18th he again landed and destroyed the signal station, etc., at Grande Riviere, in face of a body of seven or eight hundred Frenchmen. Soon afterwards the Staunch left him, and proceeded to Port Louis. On the 19th and 20th further expeditions were made on shore, the inhabitants being tolerably friendly, and the enemy’s troops not interfering.
But on the 20th the entire situation, until then apparently so favourable for a speedy conquest of the island, was suddenly changed. A strange squadron, which proved to be the French Bellone, 40, Commodore V. G. Duperre, Minerve, 40, Commander P. F. H. E. Bouvet, and Victor, 16, Commander N. Morice, with the prize Indiamen Windham and Ceylon, was sighted in the offing . Realising that if the three men-of-war should form a junction with the French vessels then in the harbour of Port Louis, the British force on that part of the station would be hopelessly overmatched, Willoughby hoisted French colours, and, by means of a hostile signal-book which he had taken, induced the headmost of the new comers to enter Grand Port. As they did so, he substituted British for French colours, and poured so heavy a broadside into the Victor, the leading vessel, that she instantly struck, and anchored on his starboard quarter . But when the Minerve, followed by the Ceylon, entered soon afterwards, she ordered the Victor to cut her cable; and this the corvette did, rejoining her consorts. Both the Nereide and the fort on Ile de la Passe fired at the advancing enemy; but an accidental explosion in the fort put a number of the men there out of action, and six of the guns were quickly dismounted by the French broadsides . At that time some of the British frigate’s boats, containing about 160 of her officers and men, narrowly escaped being cut off by the Minerve and Ceylon, which were between them and their ship; but, owing to some inexplicable mistake on the part of the enemy, they were suffered to rejoin without even being fired at.
When the Minerve, Ceylon, and Victor had passed in towards Grand Port, it looked for a few moments as if the Bellone and Windham were about to bear away for some other harbour. Willoughby, gallantly determined that he would not retire before the Minerve and Victor, was preparing to remove the remnant of the troops from Ile de la Passe, preparatory to attacking the enemy, when he perceived that the Bellone had left the Windham to proceed alone to the westward, and was bearing up after her consorts. The Nereide therefore made ready to receive her. The Bellone passed in at 2.45 P.M., exchanging broadsides with the Nereide, and killing 2 men and wounding 1, but doing less damage than might have been expected looking to the closeness of the range. At 4 o’clock Willoughby sent away Lieutenant Henry Colins Deacon in the launch, to inform Pym, off Port Louis, of the arrival of the French, and to say that with one frigate besides the Nereide, he would go in and attack them. As it happened, the Nereide, which was then to seaward of her enemies, could have herself weighed and joined the Sirius; but her Captain had been ordered to protect Ile de la Passe, and, perhaps quixotically, he decided to do so as long as possible. His subsequent defence of his charge was certainly one of the most remarkable on record.
Soon after the French had taken up their anchorage off Grand Port, Willoughby ordered his mortars on Ile de la Passe to try the range, the result being that the vessels presently shifted their billets to points somewhat further removed from the Nereide . Willoughby also sent in a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the Victor, on the ground that she had struck to him. He thus assumed from the first an undaunted attitude, while, at the same time, he did all that lay in his power, by means of works on the islet, and by rowing guard, to defend his position pending the arrival of reinforcements.
It has been mentioned that the prize Indiaman, Windham, proceeded to the westward, instead of entering Grand Port with her consorts. On the 21st, as she was about to make Riviere Noire, on the south-west of Mauritius, she was sighted by the Sirius, which chased, but failed, in consequence of the wind, in an attempt to cut her off from the protection of the batteries. Not knowing what she was, Lieutenant John Wyatt Watling volunteered to catch her and board her with the launch. He went off with five seamen, and was followed by Midshipman John Andrews, in the jolly-boat, with four men; yet, strange to say, neither boat took in her a single weapon. Watling soon discovered the approximate force of his enemy; but, having consulted with Andrews, pushed on with extra-ordinary pluck, and, arming the men with the stretchers, actually boarded and carried an Indiaman mounting 26 guns, and manned by at least 30 Frenchmen, without loss. Moreover he managed to bring her out from under the batteries.
Captain Pym had not then received the message sent him by the hands of Lieutenant Deacon, but, learning from his prisoners something of the situation off Grand Port, he despatched the Windham to Commodore Josias Rowley, who was at St. Paul’s Bay, Reunion, and sent the Magicienne, 36, Captain Lucius Curtis, to pick up the Iphigenia, 36, Captain Henry Lambert, and Staunch, 14, off Port Louis, and to proceed with them to Ile de la Passe, while he himself went thither by the south of the island. General Decaen, at Port Louis, seems to have got wind of these movements, for, in consequence of his communications to Duperre, the latter, on the 21st, moored his ships, with springs, in the form of a crescent off Grand Port, in a position where the ends of his line were protected by reefs. The Sirius met the launch containing Lieutenant Deacon, and, on the morning of the 22nd, arrived off Ile de la Passe, and exchanged numbers with the Nereide, Willoughby characteristically signalling, ” Ready for action. Enemy of inferior force.” . Pym, with as little delay as possible, led in to the attack, the Nereide falling into station behind him; but, having no competent pilot onboard, the Sirius unhappily piled up on a shoal on the left hand of the channel. Willoughby brought up, and went on board his consort to assist in floating her; yet this could not be effected until 8.30 A.M. on August 23rd, when the Sirius anchored near the Nereide. An hour and a half later, the Iphigenia and Magicienne were seen, and at 2.10 P.M. they also anchored in the channel. At 4.40, all four frigates weighed, and stood for Grand Port, it being arranged that the Nereide should anchor between the Victor, the rearmost ship, and the Bellone; the Sirius abreast of the Bellone; the Magicienne between the Ceylon and the Minerve; and the Iphigenia upon the broadside of the Minerve. The order of approach was, Nereide, Sirius, Magicienne, and Iphigenia. The Nereide passed in safely; but, unfortunately, the Sirius ran upon a coral rock before she got within range, and the Magicienne grounded on a bank in such a position that only three of her foremost guns would bear on the enemy, then distant about two cables. The Iphigenia promptly dropped her stream anchor and came to by the stern, then letting go her best bower under foot, and so bringing her starboard broadside to bear upon the Minerve, and at once pouring a heavy fire into that frigate at pistol shot distance. At the same time, Willoughby, seeing that the original plan of attack had failed, placed his frigate abeam of the Bellone, and not a cable’s length from her, and opened a furious cannonade upon his very superior antagonist. At 6.16 P.M., the Ceylon, thanks to the effect of the bow guns of the Magicienne and the quarter guns of the Iphigenia, was obliged to haul down her colours, though immediately afterwards she made sail in order to run ashore. A quarter of an hour later the Minerve, having her cable shot away, made sail after the Ceylon; and one or other of those ships, presently fouling the Bellone, compelled her also to cut and run aground, where, however, she lay so that her broadside still bore upon the Nereide. The Iphigenia would have followed up the Minerve, had not an intervening shoal prevented her from doing so. Shortly before 7 P.M. the Nereide’s spring was shot away, and the frigate swung stern on to the Bellone’s broadside, and was severely raked. To save herself, and to bring her starboard broadside to bear, she cut her small bower cable, and let go her best bower. The fire of the Minerve being then masked by that of the Bellone, and Duperre being wounded, Bouvet moved into the Bellone and took command. The following, from the Nereide’s log, continues the story:
“. . . Captain Willoughby severely wounded on the head. At 10, most of the quarter-deck and forecastle guns being dismounted, most of the guns disabled on the main deck, the squadron on shore and unable to render us any assistance, hulled from shipping and batteries, Nereide aground astern, Captain Willoughby ordered a boat to be sent to inform Captain Pym of our situation. At 10.30 the boat returned with orders for Captain Willoughby to repair on board the Sirius, which he declined doing. A boat was then ordered to the Bellone, to say we had struck, being entirely silenced, and a dreadful carnage on board. An officer came from the Iphigenia to know why we had ceased firing. At midnight, moderate rain, wind S.E. At 12.30 A.M. the main mast went by the board. At 1.30 several ropes on fire, which were luckily extinguished. Hoisted French colours in the fore rigging, the batteries and the Bellone still firing into us, although we hailed the latter to say we had struck. Perceiving the Union Jack, which had been nailed to the mizen mast-head, still flying, and no rigging or ropes to go aloft by, cut away the mizen mast , on which the enemy ceased firing. About 2 P.M., the Bellone’s boat boarded, spiked the guns, and took possession of the keys of the magazine. At 5 we observed the Magicienne’s quit her, she being on fire. At 11.30 she blew up. Iphigenia warping out. At 2 two French officers came on board, and committed the bodies of the slain to the deep. The Iphigenia trying to get the Sirius off. At 9, observed the boats to quit the Sirius, she being on fire. At 10 the boats came from the Bellone to land the prisoners. Wet the decks by order from the French officers, who were fearful the explosion from the Sirius should set fire to the Nereide, she being to leeward, and the wind strong…”
When she began the action, the Nereide had on board 281 souls, including 69 men of the 33rd and 69th Regiments, and of the Madras Artillery. Of these she appears to have had 92 killed, including Lieutenant John Burns, and Midshipman George Timmins, and about 137 wounded, including Willoughby, who had his left eye torn out, Lieutenant Henry Colins Deacon, Lieutenant (R.M.) Thomas S. Cox, Master William Lesby, Boatswain John Strong, and Midshipman Samuel Costerton. In all, the whole of the ship’s company, except 52 persons, was placed hors de combat. The Iphigenia lost 5 killed, and 13, including Lieutenant Robert Tom Blackler, wounded. The Magicienne lost 8 killed and 20 wounded. The Sirius, being nearly out of range, sustained neither loss nor damage; but both she and the Magicienne had to be destroyed by their people to save them from capture . The loss in the French ships was officially stated at 37 killed and 112 wounded, the Bellone being the chief sufferer.
The Sirius blew up at 11 A.M. Her people, and some of her stores, as well as those of the Magicienne, had been removed to the Iphigenia, which, during the afternoon of the 25th, continued to warp out, but made little progress. In the evening, Pym sent off lieutenant Watling, in the pinnace, with dispatches for the Commander-in-Chief. Watling was chased by the Entreprenante, 14, which had that morning arrived off Ile de la Passe; but he escaped by pulling among the breakers, and, early on the 27th, reached St. Denis, Reunion. Continuously warping, the Iphigenia, on the 27th, reached a position under Ile de la Passe, cleared for action, and sent to the guns on the islet as many men as left her with between 400 and 500 people on board. Lambert desired to do his best to maintain the position, but, unfortunately, he was short of ammunition. Moreover, new forces were gathering against him. All the ships in Grand Port were by that time afloat, and, in addition, three fresh ships, with which the Entreprenante exchanged signals, were discovered outside. These were the 40-gun frigates Venus, Astree, and Manche, which, under Commodore Hamelin, had quitted Port Louis, then no longer blockaded, on the night of the 21st-22nd, but which had been delayed by adverse winds. At 5 P.M. on the 27th, Hamelin summoned Lambert to surrender. Lambert refused, but offered to surrender Ile de la Passe if his ship and people were allowed to retire to a British port. That night he sent Master John Jenkins, late of the Sirius, in the launch, to Reunion. On the following day, having been promised that the ship’s crew, and the garrison of the islet, should be sent to the Cape or to England, not to serve again until regularly exchanged, Lambert wisely surrendered to the fivefold superior force arrayed against him. There was some question of trying the gallant Willoughby for having distributed subversive proclamations on the island; but his bravery, and his terribly injured condition, decided his late foes not to proceed against him. The other prisoners were not well treated, nor were any of them, in accordance with the stipulations of August 28th, ever sent to the Cape or England. They were still in Mauritius at the time of its capture in the following December. The four Captains, and their officers and men, were soon afterwards tried for the loss of their ships, and were most honourably acquitted. In Willoughty’s case, the sentence ran: “The court is of opinion that the conduct of Captain Willoughby was injudicious in making the signal, ‘Enemy of inferior force,’ to the Sirius, she being the only ship in sight, and not justifiable, as the enemy evidently was superior. But the court is of opinion that his Majesty’s late ship Nereide was carried into battle in a most judicious, officer-like, and gallant manner; and the court cannot do otherwise than express its high admiration of the noble conduct of the Captain, officers, and ship’s company during the whole of the unequal contest, and is further of opinion that the Nereide was not surrendered to the enemy until she was disabled in every respect, so as to render all further resistance useless: and that no blame whatever attaches to them for the loss of the said ship.”
It has been said that Captain Pym despatched the Windham to Commodore Josias Rowley, with news of the state of affairs at Grand Port. The Windham reached St. Paul’s Bay, Reunion, on August 22nd. The commodore’s Ship, Boadicea, 38, at once took on board two companies of the 86th Regiment, and a detachment of artillery, and sailed the same evening, leaving the transport Bombay to follow as soon as possible with more troops, and with stores for Ile de la Passe. The Boadicea made slow progress. On the 27th, however, she learnt more of what had been going forward off Grand Port, for on that day she picked up the Magicienne’s barge, which, under Lieutenant Robert Wauchope, had been detached with letters by Captain Lambert on the previous day. When, on the 29th, she made Ile de la Passe, she found there the Venus and Manche , which chased her back to St. Denis, Reunion, and, on September 1st ,joined their consorts, the Astree and Entreprenante, in the harbour of Port Louise The Boadicea subsequently returned to Ile de la Passe, but, seeing that, single handed, she could effect nothing, went to St. Paul’s Bay, and re-anchored there on September 11th. Desiring to take full advantage of their success at Grand Port, the French formed a squadron, under Captain Bouvet, composed of the Iphiginie (late Iphigenia), Astree, and Entreprenante, to be subsequently joined by the Victor. The three first of these, on September 9th, began a cruise off Reunion. On that same day, the Africaine, 38, Captain Robert Corbett, on her way from England to Madras, touched at Rodriguez, and heard of the misfortunes in Mauritius. Corbett, therefore, changed his route, and steered to join Rowley at Reunion. On the way thither, on the 11th, he sighted and drove ashore near Cape Malheureux, Mauritius, the French dispatch vessel No. 23. In an attempt to destroy her, the British unhappily lost 2 killed and 16 wounded, and had to retire. Corbett made St. Denis, Reunion, early on the 12th, and found in the offing the Iphigenie and Astree. These were presently chased by the Boadicea, 38, the Otter, 16, Commander James Tomkinson, and the Staunch, 14, Lieutenant Benjamin Street, which had left St. Paul’s Bay for the purpose, and which were at once recognised by the Africaine. Corbett hastily took on board a few men of the 86th Regiment, and made sail to support his friends; but towards evening, while rapidly gaining on the chase, he lost sight of his consorts. During the night, however, he sent up rockets and burnt blue lights to indicate his position; and, in the early morning of the 13th, when he found himself close on the weather quarter of the Astree, the Boadicea was only four or five miles on his own lee quarter. As the enemy was nearing the shelter of Port Louis, Corbett pluckily attacked, without waiting for the Commodore to come up. He opened fire at 2.20 A.M., and, within a few seconds, was seriously wounded, the command devolving on Lieutenant Joseph Crew Tullidge, who fought the ship bravely until a few minutes before 5 A.M., when, having suffered terribly, and the Boadicea being still far off, the Africaine struck to her two opponents . Of 295 people on board, she had 49 killed, including Master Samuel Parker, and 114 wounded, including Corbett (mortally), Lieutenants Tullidge and Robert Forder, Master’s Mates John Theed and Jenkin Jones, and Midshipmen Charles Mercier and Robert Leech. The French lost 9 killed and 33 wounded in the Iphigenie, and 1 killed and 2 wounded in the Astree. The Africaine was an utter wreck aloft. There is, unfortunately, much reason to suppose that Captain Corbett’s reputation for extreme severity had antagonised his crew, and that the men did not behave as loyally as they should have behaved. Brenton unwarrantably suggests that this gallant but harsh officer committed suicide, rather than become a prisoner.
Not long after the Africaine had struck, the Boadicea began to feel a strengthening breeze, and, coming up, passed within musket-shot of the enemy; but, instead of at once engaging, she tacked, and stood to windward to look for the Otter and Staunch. At 10 A.M. she was joined by them, and at 12.40 the three British vessels bore up with a fine breeze from S.S.E. As they approached the enemy, the Astree and Iphigenie abandoned their prize and made sail to windward; and at 5 P.M., the Africaine, after having fired a couple of guns, hauled down her French colours, and was taken possession of . On September 15th, never having lost sight of the enemy for more than a few hours at a time, Rowley’s squadron anchored in St. Paul’s Bay, and, later in the day, the Commodore, with the Otter and Staunch, put to sea again to look for the French; but, though he saw them, no engagement resulted, and Rowley returned to St. Paul’s Bay on the 18th at 5 A.M.. In the interval, the Astree and Iphigenie captured the East India Company’s armed brig Aurora, 16. On September 22nd, they anchored with her at Port Louis. Seeing that the Boadicea was, so far as her Captain knew, the only British frigate on the station, and that, besides the Astree and Iphigenie, the French had the Venus and Manche in the immediate neighbourhood,. Rowley’s recapture of the Afriouine must be regarded as a very creditable exploit.
A few days earlier, the Ceylon, 32, Captain Charles Gordon, had been despatched from Madras to join Rowley. Looking in at Port Louis on September 17th, she saw what appeared to be a considerable French force in the harbour, and, bearing up, made all sail for Reunion. Commodore Hamelin, with the Venus and Victor, promptly put to sea in chase of her. The Ceylon descried her enemies at 2 A.M., and, at a few minutes past midnight, observing that the Venus was far ahead of her consort, shortened sail to begin action. Nominally a 32-gun frigate, she actually carried twenty-four long 18-prs., two long 9-prs., and fourteen 24-pr. carronades, or forty guns in all, while the Venus mounted twenty-eight long 8-prs., four long 8-prs., and twelve 36-pr. carronades, or forty-four guns in all, so that the broadside weight of metal of the British ship was only 343 lbs. against the Venus’s 484 lbs. Moreover, the Ceylon had on board but about 295 people, including 100 men of the 69th and 86th Regiments, and the Frenchman probably nearly her full complement of 380. In spite of the disparity of force, Gordon maintained a hot fight for an hour, at the expiration of which time the Venus dropped astern, and gave him an opportunity of repairing damages, and of endeavouring to escape, ere the Victor should get up. But at 12.15 A.M., the Venus again overtook him, and the battle was renewed, until both frigates became unmanageable. At 4.30 the Victor arrived, and, placing herself athwart the Ceylon’s bows, prepared to rake her, whereupon Gordon struck. At 5.10 his ship was taken possession of. She had lost 10 killed, and 31, including Gordon himself, and Master William Oliver, wounded. The losses of the Venus cannot be specified, but were no doubt severe. Had the Ceylon realised in time that the Victor, though a three-masted vessel of imposing appearance, was only a mere shell of a craft, less formidable than the ordinary 18-gun brig, she might have sunk her with a broadside, and, perhaps, have kept her flag flying for a few hours, when, as will be seen, she would have been relieved. At 7.30 A.M. on the 18th, Rowley, who was then at anchor in St. Paul’s Bay, saw the French ships and their prize at a distance of about nine miles from the shore. The Boadicea, reinforced with 50 volunteers from the Africaine , at once got under way with the Otter and Staunch, and made sail in chase. The Victor took the Ceylon in tow, and the three endeavoured to make the best of their way to Mauritius; but they were delayed, first by the tow-rope breaking , and then by the disproportion in size between the Ceylon and the Victor. At 3.30 P.M., therefore, the prize was cast off, the Venus lay by to protect her, and the Victor, in accordance with orders, stood away to the eastward. Scarcely was the corvette out of range ere the Ceylon rehoisted her colours, Lieutenant Philip Gibbon having temporarily taken command of her, in the absence of his seniors, who had been removed to the Venus. At 4.40 P.M. the Boadicea, ran alongside the Venus, and, in ten minutes, obliged her to strike, with a loss of 9 killed and 15 wounded. The Boadicea had only 2 wounded. Rowley then put back to St. Paul’s Bay. The Venus was a fine frigate of 1105 tons, and, to commemorate Willoughby’s splendid defence at Grand Port, she was added to the Navy as the Nereide.
The force on the Cape station, where Vice-Admiral Albemarle Bertie commanded, had received so many accessions of strength by the autumn of the year 1810, that it was determined to attempt the reduction of the island of Mauritius, then known as Isle de France. At Port Louis, the chief port of the colony, lay the frigates Bellone, Minerve, Manche, Astree, and Iphigenie, the corvette Victor, the brig Entreprenante, and another brig, besides several French merchantmen. After October 19th these were blockaded by the English frigates Boadicea, 38, Commodore Josias Rowley, Nisus, 38, Captain Philip Beaver, and Nereide, 38, Commander George Henderson (act. Captain).The entire expeditionary force was ordered to assemble off Rodriguez; but, a division from Cape Town not having arrived by November 21st, it was decided to start without it. On the following morning, therefore, the fleet set sail; yet, owing to adverse winds, it did not sight its destination until the evening of the 28th. A military force of about 10,000 men, under Major-General the Hon. John Abercromby, was embarked on board the ships, which numbered about seventy sail, and which ultimately included, besides transports, the vessels named in the note. On November 29th the whole fleet anchored in Grande Bale, about twelve miles to the north-east of Port Louis; and, the approaches having been most carefully sounded beforehand, the army, some Royal Marines, and a large body of seamen under Captain William Augustus Montage, who had relinquished command of the Cornwallis to take charge of the naval brigade ashore, were landed without opposition or casualty. The force advanced on the three following days, driving back the enemy, and suffering a loss of only 28 killed, 94 wounded, and 45 missing; and on December 2nd, realising that he could make no effective stand, the French general Decaen proposed terms. On the 3rd, in consequence, the island was formally surrendered. About 1300 regular troops laid down their arms, among them being nearly 500 Irish renegades. Decaen had also under his orders fully 10,000 militia; but they were insubordinate and disaffected, and he could not count upon them. In the batteries were 209 heavy guns, all in excellent condition; and in the harbour were the men-of-war already mentioned, the late British Indiamen Charlton, Ceylon, and United Kingdom, and twenty-four French merchantmen. The old Nereide which, after so gallant a defence under Nisbet Josiah Willoughby, had been taken on the previous 23rd of August, was also recovered, but she was in so battered a condition that she could not be restored to the Navy.
Courtesy of Peter Davis.
Image: Battle of Grand Port, Mauritius, 1810, artist unknown.