Frigate action off Spain, 1781 – pt.2

(part 1) As an exercise in historical research, there's probably a lot that could be dug up about this relatively small battle. I know that, for instance, Brielle's clerk's log sits unread in the Dutch National archives and one might hope that the records of the court-martial survive in Kew. For now, here are some extracts from Brielle's captain's log, which survives in my family and I translated some time ago.

Painting by Robert Wilkins of the battle with Castor at left, then Crescent and Brielle, with Flora in the background.

Wednesday the 30th during the night watch wind SW and SSE unsteady breeze and strong gusts of wind and thick rains. Saw the English frigates to the ENE, behind us. During the day watch, the wind the wind was SE changing to SW, 7 Bft, thick with rain, can see the Castor with the looking glass coming towards us. They hailed us, but we could not understand him, had to heave to to avoid collision. Around two on the hourglass the frigates gave us a broadside which we returned.

As a reminder, the frigates involved were:

  • British - Flora (1780, 26 of 18lbs, 10 of 9lbs, 8 carr. of 18lbs, 351lbs broadside, William Peere Williams-Freeman)
  • British - Crescent (1779, from 1780: 24 of 9lbs, 4 of 6lbs, 6 carr. of 18lbs, 174lbs broadside, Thomas Pakenham)
  • Dutch - Castor (1758, 26 of 12lbs, 10 of 6lbs, 202lbs broadside - Pieter Melvill van Carnbee)
  • Dutch - Brielle (1776, 26 of 12lbs, 2 of 6lbs, 8 of 4lbs, 194lbs broadside - Gerardus Oorthuys)

The fight now began in earnest. Castor and Brielle apparently attempted to take Flora between them, but they were unsuccessful.

We were heavily engaged, but between 5 and 9 on the hourglass I saw that our commander had struck his flag and hove away together with the English frigate and stopped firing, which made me presume that the captain was either injured or dead as I could not see any damage on either of the ships and to the naked eye seemed to have their full rigging. I kept my position and encouraged my crew more and more to keep them from knowing about it [the surrender of Castor] and we kept up a heavy fire with guns, blunderbusses and were even so close that we could throw some grenades on the Englishman from our main mast and a hail of balls on both sides. The frigate that was fighting Castor at the beginning of the fight passed us by on our starboard and gave them 8 to 10 shot of 12lbs, most of which hit home and fired handguns into him as well, but they increased range again and sailed forward. We could not follow because most of our rigging and sails had been shot to splinters, our rudder was unresponsive and we had several dead and severely injured. We also got many cannonballs through our masts, topmasts and into the ship, all of 12lbs and 18lbs and much grapeshot from the frigate with which we were engaged. She came about us from ahead and aft, but did not fire strongly anymore, and we blasted him and caused great damage to his rigging and people, at which time I was hit in my left hand, but it was not important. Another bullet hit me over my head and through the edge of my English hat without hurting me. But seeing an English flag waving from Castor, I encouraged my people who continually gave our enemy heavy broadsides with a will and at 7 'o clock we shot the frigate's main and mizzen masts overboard. After which, she gave a few more shots, but shortly after she struck and hailed us, waving his hat in surrender and around 8 we drifted apart because all our rigging was in pieces and our sloops were holed through, so we could not put those out to take possession of our prize. Our main and fore mast were about to fall overboard because cordage, rigging, standing rigging and topmasts were all in pieces, pierced with balls everywhere. Our prize too drifted off, was rudderless, with his foremast and sails very helpless and the wind had gradually lessened. It had rained continually during the fight, so that muskets on both sides got wet and and finally would not fire anymore. We repaired our rigging as much as possible and hove to to the South by East, because I did not think it safe to stay close to our prize, while there were two frigates with full rigging nearby, which had not fought longer than 2 or 3 on the hourglass. We had been hit close and under our guns and at four on the hourglass during the morning our main mast fell overboard because of the heavy sea, with everything attached to it. A man hacked it all loose to get rid of it all and it was no time to claim anything, nor to come close to a fresh enemy which had recovered by now, but he did not come nearer.

Once the battle was over, it was time to take up the butcher's bill and repair the ship.

We sustained 12 dead during the fight who had arms, legs, heads [shot off] or had been shot in half, and had them thrown overboard to get such a miserable display out of sight, and had many severely injured. We were in heavy combat for 6 hours without break. All my officers, midshipmen, sailors and soldiers have all been equally courageous. On inspection, we found that our bow anchor with the two sea anchors were shot away and around the outboard and some 12lbs guns had gone from one board to the other [shot loose?] and had many shots between wind and water, but our ship was still watertight. The weather cleared during the afternoon and a SW slight breeze. Considering our course and time of day, our dead reckoning was 1/3 mile W and 181/2 miles, having Cadiz ENE at 181/2 miles, 35°38'N. In the late afternoon our foresail, which was severely holed with shot, blew away. We put a new one in place and braced the fore mast and fore spars as much as possible. The top of the fore mast had been almost shot off above the second coil and the forespar had been shot of below the crosstree. We knotted and spliced everything with cordage to keep it in place. Was reported that (?) of the injured had died.
Wind W by NW, topgallant breeze, cut the fore topgallant spar loose, which had been shot in half and was swinging to and fro violently. At 6 'o clock we could no longer see the other frigates and turned before the wind and coursed for NNE. Many handguns were missing and damaged, two blunderbusses and some guns had gone overboard with the main mast as well as 50 hammocks of the crew, most others in pieces and useless. During the first watch the wind was W..W to NW, topgallant breeze, clearing sky, nice weather, heading N with wind NE by N, high seas, rolling heavily.Discovered that we had fired altogether 1200 shot with the 12, 6 and 4lbs guns.

Though Oorthuys was unable to claim his prize, he and Mevill van Carnbee were feted as heroes in the Republic. Enough noise was made that the young John Quincy Adams, recently arrived in Leiden with his father, made a note in his diary about the news of the battle. The war was going badly and any success was worth something for its propaganda value.

Flora sailed home with her prize and the reclaimed Crescent, although Pakenham apparently refused to take command again. A few nights later, they fell in with two French frigates who took both Castor and Crescent from Peere Williams. Flora successfully escaped back to Britain, where Pakenham was tried at court-martial for losing his ship. He was cleared of all charges.

Obviously, I'm now building Crescent, Flora, Castor and Brielle for Black Seas.

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