- Historic Sites
The Battle Of The Saintes
No American ships were involved, yet on its outcome hung Great Britain’s recognition of our independence
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
Two ships of De Grasse’s Meet collided with each other during the night of April 10, 1782, as they sailed along the coast of Guadeloupe, and De Grasse saw that he either had to endure their loss or turn and fight to save them. Pride and policy both dictated that he should fight. Round he came, and at dawn on April 12 Rodney, on the deck of his flagship Formidable , received the signal from his scouting lrigatcs that the enemy was bearing down upon him. Ue was just clear of Point Jacques in Dominica; Dc Cirasse was coming down between Marie Galante and the Saintes to cover the retreat ol his injured vessels into Pointe-á-Pitre.
It was a lovely West Indian day, with bright sun and a gentle wind from the east and only the most moderate swell. Both fleets had the wind abeam, the French being to windward. Formed in the rigid line ahead that was the natural fighting formation for fleets with broadside fire, they headed toward each other, 36 British and 33 French, the French being larger and better found. Leading ship overlapped leading ship and burst into a thunder of gunfire. Two, three, or four broadsides were exchanged before the guns no longer bore as the ships crept past each other, and there was a minute’s silence. Then the leading ship of each Meet was opposite the second in line of the enemy, so that lour ships were exchanging broadsides, and then six, and then eight, in a crescendo of gunfire.
It Called lor a stout heart to run such a gantlet in the leading ship, with the prospect of more than thirty such encounters. The British line was led by a man who bore an honored name—Rear Admiral Sir Francis Drake, a collateral descendant of the great Elizabethan, with his flag flying in the Princessa . His interpretation of the- signal for “close action” that Rodney had hoisted was to lead the line down within a hundred yards of the Kreuch line, close enough for the marines on board to try for lucky shots with their muskets.
The French suffered more severely than the British during this cannonade. The mere fact that the Kreuch ships carried larger crews meant a greater slaughter in those crowded wooden hulls, and the French had troops on board as well, helpless targets. In addition the British enjoyed two advantages as a result of recent technical improvements which they had introduced—as weaker naval powers have so often done in history—in an attempt to balance numerical inferiority. The gun mountings and gun ports had been improved so that the guns bore through a larger angle fore and aft; in consequence the British ships had the French ships under fire for a longer period while passing. In addition most of the British ships mounted “carronack’s”: light, wide-bore, short-range weapons in addition to their guns, with a tremendous smashing effect (they were called “smashers” before the name “carronade” was officially adopted) at the range Sir Francis Drake selected.
Under the impulse of the gentle breeze the two lines moved steadily along each other, the volume of (ire increasing with every minute. The wind rolled the smoke slowly away in a dense fog that enshrouded the low lying Saintes to leeward; anxious watchers on Morne Diablotin could sec the whole western half of the basin completely covered. Hut no watcher there could form an adequate mental picture of what was going on in those lovely ships creeping over the blue water.
The losses were frightful, as was to lie expected when the conditions were ideal for gunnery, and an unusual honor made itself apparent soon after the battle opened. For during a battle the dead were treated with scant respect; there was no room to spare for them on those crowded decks, and the shattered corpses were flung overboard. Here in these tropical waters the blood attracted the sharks from far and wide, and all down the line the monsters, plainly visible in the clear Caribbean water, were surging and snapping as they fought for their horrid food.
The ordeal continued; each line was ten miles long, and the ships in the gentle bree/e were hardly making two miles an hour. It was well over two hours—it was about ten o’clock—before the leading British ship was alongside the rearmost French ship and the lines were opposite each other, or nearly—the British rear under Sir Samuel Hood had not received as much wind as the van and had straggled somewhat.
With the two lines level it wax to be expected that the two commanders in chief, in their flagships at the center of each line, would be opposite each other. But just before this encounter could take place, when Rodney, peering through the smoke, could see De Grasse’s Ville de Paris looming up on his starboard bow, the wind displayed some of the freakishness to be expected in those waters. It veered a little southerly, in consequence taking the French ships aback without discommoding the Hritish. It was inevitable that the French quartermasters should put their wheels over so as to keep their ships under command.
Rodney saw the Ville de Paris ’s bows swinging toward him while the shut in the wind made it possible Tor him to turn the Formidable to break the French line. There was only a moment in which to decide, and” he made the decision. The Formidable swung ponderously round and broke the line, followed by Tour or five ol the ships behind her; at the same time Rodney’s signal, soaring up over the smoke, called on Sir Francis Drake to tack and close with the French rear.