June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
No American ships were involved, yet on its outcome hung Great Britain’s recognition of our independence
Nowadays tourists visit the West Indies by air, and sooner or later most of them avail themselves of one or other of the local services that, originating in Puerto Rico, hop from island to island southeastward along the chain of the Lesser Antilles to Trinidad and Georgetown, on the coast of British Guiana. During the brief passage from Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe to Roseau in Dominica—a scant hundred miles—the tourist might well spare a glance through his window down at the blue Caribbean. Should he do so he will find himself flying over a basin of water some fifty miles by twenty, delimited by Guadeloupe and Dominica to the north and south, by Marie Galante to the east, and the group of the Saintes to the west. The scene is very beautiful, dominated by the towering heights of the Grande Soufrière and Morne Diablotin; and it was there that 69 ships of the line fought the battle which ended in a staggering defeat for America’s Revolutionary War ally, France, and yet, oddly enough, contributed powerfully to the final recognition of American independence.
It was April, 1782, six months alter the surrender at Yorktown, and now the Comte de Cirasse, the French admiral whose fleet had played a decisive’ part in that event, was back in the West Indies (lushed with victor), determined upon delivering the final blow that would compel England to make peace. He was a man of sixty, courtly and gallant, and of vast naval experience, having served at sea since his early teens and taken honorable part in a do/en naval actions. Now lie had 35 ships of the line under his command; on board, besides very large dews, he had the nearly 6,000 troops that had been conquering the British islands one by one.
He had sailed out from Fort-de-France in Martinique some days before, and he planned to head for Cuba, where he would be joined by a Spanish squadron with a Spanish army; and to get these sluggish allies on the move he had on board “twenty-six chests of gold and silver,” about half a million dollars. From Cuba the combined fleets would move upon Jamaica and capture that island, the richest Caribbean possession left to the British Crown and almost the only one alter the recent French conquests. Then the British N’avy would be deprived of its base and the British nation of an important source of wealth.
Opposing him was the most successful sailor of the day, Sir George Rodney, in command of a fleet scraped together by desperate measures and sent out at a moment when the British situation seemed quite hopeless: when Gibraltar had been under siege literally for years, and when command of the Channel—with all that implied—could be seized by the French government whenever that not too enterprising body could summon up the resolution to do so. England was stubbornly rel’using to swallow those two pills and was risking; total destruction lor the sake of national pride.
Rodney was a man of temperament; he was suspected of having more than once paid undue attention to his own interests rather than to those of his country. He was chronically short of money; at this moment he was entangled in a score of lawsuits arising from his highhanded seizure of British property at the capture of St. Eustatius a year earlier; he had spent the winter of 1781–82 at home defending himself from his enemies, for at that time, with party passions running high, he was perilously close to suffering the fate of Admiral Byng, who, 25 years earlier, had been court-martialed and executed after a disastrous encounter with the French. The firing party or the block might well await Rodney if he met with defeat now.
Yet all the same, at the age of 63, he was the best admiral in the British service, a strict disciplinarian, a man who had devoted a good deal of original thought to the problems of naval warfare, and he had to his credit a recent victory over the Spaniards at St. Vincent, when in a night action fought in a gale ol wind he had managed to close with a greatly inferior force and destroy it—a battle in striking contrast with the other hall’ dozen recent (lcet actions that had ended in mere indecisive cannonades. He was a man who would not only fight but who was mentally ready to seize any advantage. Moreover, in two recent severe skirmishes he had taken his opponents’ measure.
De Grasse had left Fort-de-France without the intention of fighting. In the spirit of French naval thought at the time, he saw no need to expend valuable lives and risk damage to his precious ships when union with the Spaniards would give him such an overwhelming advantage that he could achieve his objective without the British daring to fight. He had headed toward Cuba, and Rodney, starting alter him from the only available anchorage, Gros Islet Bay in St. Lucia fifty miles to the south, could hardly hope to catch him. But he had hurried his llect in pursuit, and his dogged determination resulted in his being presented with the opportunity it merited.
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.
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.