- 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
It was the first time after a century of formal naval warfare that such a maneuver had been attempted, and in the paper warfare that ensued plenty of claimants came forward for the credit. There had been pamphlets suggesting similar action; Rodney’s captain of the lleet asserted that it was at his suggestion that Rodney gave the order; but Rodney was an intelligent man of active mind who had already given proof that he was dissatisfied with the limitations of the lormal line ahead. The most convincing proof that the maneuver had been under consideration before the battle lies in the fact that another break was achieved in the French line, farther astern, where another segment of the Hi itish line swung round and broke the French van.
The result ol all this was a melee in which the superior fighting qualities of the liritish ships plainly asserted themselves. The ships ahead of Rodney backed their mizzen topsails so as to maintain their fire upon the French center from one side, while Rodney closed with them from the other; Hood came pushing up from the rear and Drake swept round with the van. At this crisis of the battle a French seventy-four, the Diadême , sank under the crushing fire of the Formidable —it was a most unusual occurrence for those wooden ships to sink in action—and went down with all hands among the sharks.
De Grasse in the Ville de Paris , ringed round by hostile ships, fought it out to the last gasp, actually until sunset; when he surrendered his ship was totally dismasted and beaten into a wreck, and there were only three men left standing on her upper deck, De Grasse being one of them. Not one of the French attempts to break through the ring of British ships and save him was successful. The admiral commanding the French rear was a nobleman named De Bougainville, who did not shine during the action; his name is remembered in connection with a flower, with an island in the Solomons (of bloody memory), and even with a treatise on integral calculus, but not in connection with the part he played in the Battle of the Saintes Passage.
As night closed down round the battered ships the remainder of the French fleet found itself leaderless and dispersed, with the victorious British occupying the center of the vast basin, and it was only natural for the isolated fragments to hurry for safety. The remains of the rear squadron had a safe retreat open to them under the guns of Pointe-á-Pitre; other ships reached the open sea via the passage between Marie Galante and Dominica, and a few, mindful of the original destination of the fleet, threaded their way through the Saintes for Cuba. These stood no chance against an intelligent and active enemy; for Rodney sent Hood, with such of his ships as were seaworthy, to cut off their retreat, and a week after the battle five French ships entering the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and San Domingo ran straight into his arms, so that the list of prizes now assumed a respectable length.
A quarter of the French fleet had been captured or sunk; it was not a victory of annihilation like those Nelson was to gain later, and only three thousand Frenchmen had been killed. But it was a decided victory, in a stand-up fight between equal forces, decisive in that it made Jamaica safe and permitted the step by step reconquest of the other British West Indian possessions, and it was intensely gratifying to the British public, not merely on this account but because of the less important circumstances that made better publicity.
The “twenty-six chests of gold and silver” formed the theme of innumerable newsletters as well as added appreciably to Rodney’s prize money. The capture of the French commander in chief was a feat unequaled in recent warfare. The French flagship, the Ville de Paris , was reputed to be the largest and most powerful ship in the world, and she was now in English hands; the British public learned how she had been a free gift from the municipality of Paris to the French government (at least as free a gift as such things could ever be under the ancien régime ) and had cost the unprecedented sum of half a million dollars.
All this delighted a public that so far had merely been exasperated by half-hearted actions like those off Ushant and Grenada and the Chesapeake and utterly depressed by defeats like Saratoga and Yorktown. No matter that six months later a hurricane destroyed most of the French prizes, including the Ville de Paris , and one or two British ships as well. The mood of the British public had changed, and peace was possible. With the public self-esteem re-established, American independence could be recognized, and the minor points regarding treatment of the loyalists and the delimitation of the Canadian border could be conceded gracefully, and even in the hotly disputed question of the right of American fishermen to dry their fish on the shores of British North America (which more than once nearly wrecked the conference) the newly complacent British yielded to the vigorous diplomacy of Franklin and Adams.
That was how the Battle of the Saintes Passage at the expense of the French enabled peace to be made between America and England; it is something worth remembering by others than tourists.