Friday 18 November 2016

Frigate Duel 1782: HMS Santa Margarita and L’Amazone

In reading about warfare in the Age of Fighting Sail one is invariably impressed by the aggression and sheer bloody-minded will to win that characterised the Royal Navy. These were the factors that regularly brought victory even when the odds seemed stacked against British ships and the enemy, usually French or Spanish, never seems to have had the same single-minded focus on prevailing. Only in the War of 1812, when Britain again confronted the United States, did the Royal Navy consistently encounter enemies with the same ruthless commitment to victory.

HMS Pomone - a typical frigate of the time
Color lithograph by T. G. Dutton after painting by G.F. St. John
These thoughts came to me this week when leafing again through the Victorian classic, “Deeds of Naval Daring” by Admiral Edward Giffard (1812-1867), and came on an action I had not previously known of. This was a duel between equally-matched British and French frigates, HMS Santa Margarita, an ex-Spanish prize, and the French L’Amazone. As an aside I might mention that Giffard gives the date as 29th July 1781, whereas a note on the National Maritime Museum’s website clearly identifies it as occurring exactly one year later, in 1782. It’s notable that Giffard also referred to the “Santa Margaretta” rather than “Santa Margarita”.  The difference in naming is not significant but that of the date is. Built for the Spanish navy in 1774, the Santa Margarita had been captured off Lisbon in November 1779. Take into British service, she was refitted in 1780/81 and sent in June 1781, under the command of Captain Elliot Salter, to join a squadron off the American coast

In September 1781, French success in the Battle of the Virginia Capes was to be the deciding factor in ending the American War of Independence as it cut odd supplies to British forces at Yorktown and necessitated their surrender. The final peace-treaty would not be signed for another year and a half but the war was effectively decided from that point. The outright British victory over a French fleet at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782 was a hollow one that had no impact on the outcome.

Notwithstanding this, a French naval squadron was still operating off the American coast in July 1782 under Admiral de Vaudreuil (1724-1802), who had taken command of the remainder of the French fleet after the Saintes battle. It was this force that Salter in the Santa Margarita, on detached service, was to run into off Cape Henry, at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, on 29th July.  Salter had initially spotted a frigate only – apparently a 36-gun unit like his own vessel – and gave chase. As Santa Margarita neared her quarry eight French ships-of-the-line were seen bearing down on her. Salter turned to fly, caught as he was between the French squadron and a lee shore, and the frigate he had initially chased now turned and came on after him. With their superior speed both frigates outran the heavier units but Santa Margarita appears to have been the faster of the two. By mid-afternoon the French unit – which proved to be L’ Amazone – decided to give up the chase and return to the squadron. Given the very powerful French force in the area Salter might have been well-advised to continue on and to complete his escape. Instead he came about and followed L’Amazone. Once again Santa Margarita’s superior speed proved its value and within two hours both ships were within gunshot.

The opening broadside came from L’Amazone – one suspects that in accordance with French practice it may have been aimed at Santa Margarita’s masts and rigging. Salter held his fire however and manoeuvred so as to rake his opponent – a devastating action that sent fire down the enemy’s central axis – and followed up by taking his ship “within pistol shot.” What is shocking to the modern reader is that the close-range slugging match that followed lasted an hour and a quarter. One can only imagine the hell of noise and smoke, injury and death that followed. Fighting a sailing warship demanded more than a single team, but rather a team of teams, each one – especially the individual gun crews and the marines in the tops – each fighting its own battle and yet still an integral part of the larger team. Continuous exercising would have been one factor to guarantee this level of efficiency in action but one suspects that morale was even more important, and in this the British crews usually seem to have had the edge.

HMS Santa Margarita (l) in action with Pomone. She appears after passing under her stern to rake her
Painting by Robert Dodd (1748–1815) and / or Ralph Dodd (circa 1756-1822) with thanks to Wikimedia Commons

Badly shattered, with seventy killed, and slightly more wounded from a crew of three hundred, with both main and mizzen masts toppled overboard, with several guns dismounted and with four feet of water in the hold, L’Amazone struck her colours. Santa Margarita took her prize in tow. Salter’s crew worked through the night to repair L’Amazone’s damage sufficiently to sail her away. A start was made on transferring her surviving crew to Santa Margarita as prisoners – a process hindered by the boats of both ships having been destroyed or damaged in the fighting.  At dawn however the French squadron was seen approaching. There was no option but to abandon L’Amazone. Salter’s preference would have been to burn her but, with large numbers of French prisoners still on the crippled ship, common humanity prevented it. By now faced with overwhelming force Santa Margarita once again made use of her speed and escaped. Her casualties were five dead and seventeen wounded. As in so many of such actions one is stuck by the disparity in casualties – perhaps because Santa Margarita managed to rake her opponent.

A pleasing aspect of the account given by Giffard is that it includes extracts from Salter’s official report. He gave considerable credit to the French captain, who was killed early in the action, and even more to the second-in-command who took over, the Chevalier de Lepine. This gentleman “did everything that an experienced officer could possibly do, and did not surrender until he himself and all his officers but one, and about half the ship’s company were either killed or wounded.” After listing L’Amazone’s damage Salter characterised it as “a situation sufficiently bad to justify to his king and country the necessity of surrender.” One suspects that had the outcome been reversed, the French captain’s report would have been equally generous of spirit. 

I have been unable to find out any more about Elliot Salter, other than that he died in 1790, how, or at what age or rank, I do not know. Would any of this article’s readers be able to shed some light on the career of this intrepid officer?

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This latest novel runs in parallel in time with the action of the earlier Britannia’s Spartan, and concentrates on the adventures of Nicholas Dawlish’s wife Florence while she is at home in Britain while he and his cruiser are in Korean waters. Dedicated to the welfare of seaman’s families, and especially to those of her husband’s crew, Florence intends to spend the months of separation caring for them. But a chance encounter is to plunge her into the maelstrom of vice, cruelty and espionage that is the corrupt underside of complacent Late-Victorian society. And if Florence is to survive - and to save innocent victims- she must face evil head-on, deal with conflicts of loyalty and employ guile as her most powerful weapon.

This volume also includes the long short-story Britannia’s Eye, which casts a new light on Nicholas Dawlish’s relationship with his uncle, an invalided naval officer who made him his heir. But Nicholas was never to know - or even guess - the truth about what his uncle had really been…

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