‘Duckworth’s action off San Domingo, 6 February 1806’ by Nicholas Pocock, 1808. The large ship right of centre, with her mizzenmast falling, is the 120-gun L’Imperial, engaging Duckworth’s 74-gun Superb.
In the aftermath of Trafalgar, the British squadrons off the coasts of France and Spain resumed their blockade. The combined fleet had been beaten at Trafalgar but Spain was still allied with France and there was still a powerful French fleet in Brest – which had missed the entire Trafalgar campaign – a smaller force in Rochefort and another combined force of French and Spanish ships in Cadiz. The French and Spanish still had a colonial presence in the Caribbean and the East Indies, and Napoleon still had ambitions for a significant campaign in the eastern Mediterranean which, in his eyes, had only been temporarily frustrated by Nelson’s great victory at the Nile. Moreover, British colonial possessions and the arteries of British trade remained isolated and vulnerable.
British economic security, therefore, still had to be maintained by preventing French and Spanish forces from making any threatening moves. Napoleon also had to shore up his own colonial possessions and that could only be done with, or via, the exercise of seapower. Guadeloupe and Martinique were now relatively secure but Saint Domingue was a problem. This once-thriving French colony had fallen to a slave revolt in 1791 and there had been fierce fighting ever since. The charismatic ex-slave leader Toussaint L’Ouverture had been defeated and shipped back to prison in France. However, his powerful position had been seized by another impressive leader, Jean Jacques Dessalines, who, after a successful campaign, proclaimed the new, free Republic of Haiti, the first post-colonial, black-led nation in the world. Then, mimicking Napoleon, Dessalines declared himself Emperor of Haiti with the power to anoint his successor and, among other innovative laws, banned white people from owning property. Napoleon was deeply unhappy with the loss of such a valuable colony and was determined to send troop reinforcements to strengthen the weak position of his forces on the island.
As the autumn of 1805 turned to winter, therefore, the British task of containing French seapower was a complex and demanding one. In the filthy winter weather it soon also became a grim one, particularly off Brest. The coastline of Brittany is plagued by fog at all times of year and its waters run with fierce and challenging currents over hidden rocks. The great fetch of Biscay allows Atlantic swells to rear up and toss ships mercilessly in the teeth of the prevailing south-westerly winds. Keeping the sea ceaselessly throughout the winter was all but impossible and, on 13 December 1805, the blockading British ships headed for home.
The cold and exhausted British sailors took their weather-beaten ships to Torbay in the belief that the weather would provide more than the level of discouragement needed to keep the demoralised French in port. It was a bad misjudgement. A powerful fleet, consisting of 11 ships of the line, four frigates, a corvette and two dispatch vessels in two separate squadrons under the combined command of Contre Admirals Jean-Baptiste Willaumez and Corentin de Leissègues, was waiting for just such an opportunity. They broke out and headed first west and then south. Initially Willaumez steered for the South Atlantic and Leissègues for San Domingo, but both had detailed orders to attack British trade once their primary tasks had been completed.
Almost immediately they stumbled into a British convoy, whose escort raced back to Britain with the shocking intelligence that a large French force was loose. The Admiralty quickly ordered two separate squadrons to sea to search them out, one under Rear-Admiral John Warren and the other under Rear-Admiral Richard Strachan. Duckworth, meanwhile, was off Cadiz and he heard from a separate source that the French were at sea. He wrongly assumed that it was the French squadron from Rochefort but their specific identity had little relevance to his next move. He had clear orders to blockade Cadiz but what should he do now? Should he pursue the enemy and negate those orders? If so, would his absence from Cadiz simply make it more likely that another enemy squadron would get to sea unnoticed, destination unknown?
It would have been wrong to assume that Duckworth would catch up with, or even find, the enemy squadron. Once past the familiar landfalls and regular traffic of the European Atlantic seaboard, it was far more likely that a French squadron, intent on escape, would disappear. It was not a matter, therefore, of weighing up the disadvantages of abandoning Cadiz with the advantages of finding and then catching an elusive enemy squadron. There was always a great deal of uncertainty in the finding, chasing and defeating of any enemy.
Moreover, if Duckworth did chase, how long should he chase for? Should he head into the Atlantic for one day, maybe two, and then return to base or to his blockade? Or should he take his pursuit further, to the Caribbean or the East Indies? Should he even pursue his enemy wherever it took him? Such liberal orders were not unheard of, but they were always issued in a specific and known strategic situation such as Nelson’s madcap trans-Atlantic pursuit of Villeneuve in the spring and summer of 1805, or his Mediterranean hunt for the French in 1798 prior to the Battle of the Nile. In both instances, Nelson had been chosen to chase, had been ordered to chase and, by chasing, had not endangered the integrity of a more broadly conceived British naval strategy. Duckworth had no such orders, however. Even if the enemy was caught and brought to battle, there was, as yet, no way of knowing if the French escape was part of another more complex scheme to draw British blockading forces away from the coast of Europe and hence enable the main strike of a new offensive to fall elsewhere. And if that was the case, then to chase the unidentified enemy squadron was to play directly into the enemy’s hands.
Duckworth was certainly placed in an awkward situation and he had no recourse to higher authority, but by no means all British naval officers would have done what he did. To understand the reasons for his decision to abandon his station and head for the mid-Atlantic, we must peer into Duckworth’s past.
Portrait of Admiral Sir John Thomas Duckworth by Sir William Beechey.
The only images of Duckworth that have survived are copies of a famous portrait made shortly after San Domingo, in which he wears the medals he received for The Glorious First of June as well as for the later battle. He is captured almost in motion, his sword tucked under his arm as if hurrying off to an urgent appointment, his eyebrows slightly raised, possibly in surprise, probably in confusion. He appears slightly ridiculous.
Duckworth was the son of a parson. His family was long-settled in Lancashire but had no titles or honours to its name. Nelson was also a parson’s son and Duckworth had seen Nelson’s star rise from plain old Horatio Nelson to the extraordinary title that is now inscribed on his tomb in St Paul’s:
The Most Noble Lord Horatio Nelson, Viscount and Baron Nelson, of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk, Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Hilborough in the said County, Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Vice-Admiral of the White Squadron of the Fleet, Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in the Mediterranean, Duke of Bronté in the Kingdom of Sicily, Knight Grand Cross of the Sicilian Order of St Ferdinand and of Merit, member of the Ottoman Order of the Crescent, Knight Grand Commander of the Order of St Joachim.
In February 1806 John Duckworth had achieved equal rank to Nelson, becoming a Vice-Admiral of the White, and had also received a KB for successful operations in 1802 against Swedish and Danish possessions in the Caribbean. However, he had also been frustrated in 1798 after the recapture of Minorca when he had made it painfully and unsubtly clear that he had expected a KB, if not a baronetcy, for his conduct. The Admiralty had been riled by his pretension ‘on which St Vincent, representing the matter to Lord Spencer, threw a sufficiency of cold water’. Duckworth had been competent at Minorca, but he had done nothing more than follow his superiors’ orders and nothing sufficiently dramatic to deserve such a reward.
Duckworth was therefore aggressively pursuing a dream of social advancement in a way that made many of his powerful political and professional superiors uncomfortable, if not irritated. In fact, he had rather a poor reputation and had already been court martialled three times.
The first two occasions, curiously, were over the same offence, though the charges were different. Serving in America in the early 1770s, he was first lieutenant of the frigate Diamond. Returning from a cruise, in which she had sailed with her guns loaded, the Diamond, according to custom, was required to fire a salute. Duckworth supervised the unloading of the cannon and counted the shot before giving the order to fire the salute, but one of the cannon had been double-shotted. The forgotten shot, fired from its gun, slammed into the hull of a nearby British ship and killed five men.
Duckworth was court martialled for neglect of duty and then, in an entirely separate court martial designed to head off action in the civil courts, was tried for murder. He was acquitted of both charges but his reputation was stained by the incident. His third court martial resulted from a decision he took during his command of the Jamaica station in 1804. Duckworth had installed a protégé as captain of a frigate and then sent it back to Britain laden with building goods for his new house just outside Exeter, apparently contravening several articles of war in the process. Yet again, however, he was acquitted, although his actions raised several troubling questions. Was he suited to high command? Was he irresponsible? Was he, even, corrupt?
His experience of fleet battle is also relevant. Duckworth joined the navy aged only 11, and served in Edward Boscawen’s flagship, Namur. Boscawen was a dashing fellow, a true precursor of Nelson. With the young Duckworth aboard in the summer of 1759, he chased and defeated a squadron of French ships off Lagos in one of the navy’s more dramatic victories. Duckworth then found himself transferred to the flagship of Edward Hawke, another fine model and another worthy precursor of Nelson. In Hawke’s service, Duckworth fought at the battle of Quiberon Bay in November 1759, a thunderous and overwhelming victory over a French fleet in coastal waters, at night, and during a storm.
Duckworth was thus blooded, very early on, in a type of naval warfare that emphasised spontaneity, intense violence and overwhelming victory. In the subsequent years, however, he took part in only one of the numerous fleet battles of the War of American Independence or the Revolutionary or Napoleonic Wars when he commanded the 74-gun Orion at The Glorious First of June. Crucially, however, he missed Trafalgar, the greatest battle of his generation, through no one’s fault but his own. Just before the battle, he had been appointed to replace the Earl of Northesk as Nelson’s third in command, but had refused to sail until his favourite band of musicians arrived, an extraordinary self-indulgence. So Duckworth had a record of thirsting for glory; he had experience of battle resulting from dramatic chases launched by fleet commanders in spur of the moment decisions; and he was frustrated at missing Trafalgar.
Duckworth’s flag captain, Richard Keats, was also frustrated. He had had an impressive fighting career in frigates and frigate squadrons and had fought with great skill during an impressive victory over the French and Spanish on 12 July 1801 at the Battle of Algeciras. He had, however, fought in none of the major large-scale fleet victories so far described. This must have grated for such a talented and aggressive officer who was highly regarded by Nelson. Indeed, at a meeting with Keats in the days before Nelson left for Cadiz before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson promised him the prestigious position of being his ‘second’ in any forthcoming battle, and a surviving order of battle issued before Trafalgar confirms this. The Superb is listed as second in line, astern of the Temeraire and immediately ahead of Nelson’s Victory. After Nelson’s chase of Villeneuve, however, Keats had been sent home to refit the Superb. She was ready in time to participate in Trafalgar but she had been chosen as Duckworth’s new flagship and so her departure from Portsmouth was delayed as he waited for his band. So Keats missed Trafalgar solely because of his association with Duckworth. This is likely to have been a cause of the subsequent falling out between the two men. When they finally sailed together for Cadiz, they barely spoke and occasionally communicated in writing to avoid contact with each other.
Moreover, there were several other frustrated officers in Duckworth’s squadron. Foremost of these was Rear-Admiral Thomas Louis. As a young officer, Louis had seen significant fleet action during the American War at the Battle of Ushant in 1778 and at Rodney’s celebrated destruction of a Spanish squadron in the Moonlight Battle of 1780. Louis had then served in Nelson’s Mediterranean squadron at the Battle of the Nile. Nelson considered Louis a close friend and his ship, the 80-gun Canopus, formed an important part of Nelson’s fleet as it whiled away the time off Cadiz just before the Battle of Trafalgar. Then, on 11 October, 10 days before the battle, Nelson ordered Louis to Gibraltar to secure water and supplies for the fleet and to escort an eastward-bound troop convoy past the Spanish naval base of Cartagena. Louis was horrified and reproached Nelson: ‘You are sending us away, my Lord – the enemy will come out, and we shall have no share in the battle.’ Nelson characteristically turned the curse of unwanted duty into a compliment and replied: ‘I look upon Canopus as my right hand, and I send you first to insure your being here to help to beat them.’ But the Canopus did not return in time for the battle and Louis never saw his friend again.
Among Duckworth’s other captains, Captain Pulteney Malcolm of the Donegal, the nephew of the famous naval warrior Thomas Pasley, had missed every single major battle of his time, as had the young Captain Samuel Pym of the Atlas, while Robert Stopford of the Spencer had fought at The Glorious First of June but had missed everything since. Indeed, the only captain in Duckworth’s squadron with significant recent battle experience was Edward Berry in the Agamemnon.
Duckworth, his flag captain, his rear-admiral and most of his captains were therefore champing at the bit to fight the French, wherever they could be found. And so, when Duckworth heard news of a nearby French squadron causing havoc among British convoys between Madeira and the Canary Islands, he immediately abandoned his post off Cadiz and chased. Having found nothing, he made his way back towards Cadiz, frustrated again. On that return journey, however, he heard news of yet another French squadron, which he erroneously believed to be the Rochefort squadron but which was, in fact, Willaumez sailing from Brest and bound for South America. Duckworth hared off after him, chasing another rumour.
The Goose Chase
This time Duckworth did find his prey, which he chased for 30 hours until his flagship was within only seven miles of the enemy. Both fleets were by now very strung out, with the sternmost of the British fleet as much as 45 miles behind Duckworth, who was in the lead. Although this was a significant distance, it was not unusual for a chasing fleet to find itself so spread out and there was a solution to the tactical problem it posed.
Duckworth could continue with his chase and harry the enemy rear in the hope of disabling one or even two enemy ships. As the fresh British ships then came up, the disabled enemy ships could be overwhelmed. To attack the enemy rear was thus to put the tactical onus on the commander of the escaping fleet. Should he continue with his escape or turn to protect his rearmost ships? If he did the latter, he would almost certainly bring about a general action. To attack the rearmost ships of the enemy was therefore to challenge both the escaping admiral’s sense of honour and to test his orders. Had he been ordered to avoid battle at all costs or, if threatened, was he permitted to fight?
Duckworth, however, did nothing. With the enemy in sight, and a gap of no more than six or seven miles between the leading British ship and the sternmost of the French, he abandoned his chase. In the fluid world of orders, expectation, honour and duty, his decision to abandon the chase was undoubtedly wrong because he had lost the opportunity of explaining or justifying his abandonment of Cadiz. He later expressed his concern that his flagship would be overwhelmed if the enemy chose to turn and fight, a curious mindset for someone who had invested so heavily in such a chase.
The result of this abandoned pursuit was that Duckworth was now deep in the Atlantic, far closer to the Caribbean than to his station off Cadiz, and he was running out of water. The French fleet had escaped, its destination unknown. Duckworth therefore headed for the Caribbean, arriving at Barbados in the second week of January, and then moved his squadron further north to St Kitts, where he met with the commander in chief of the Leeward Islands, Alexander Cochrane. Duckworth’s squadron of seven ships of the line now contained no less than three flag-officers, an extraordinary concentration of high-ranking officers for such a small force.
Eight days later, the squadron which had sailed from Brest under Leissègues, and not the squadron under Willaumez which Duckworth had just chased, arrived at San Domingo and unloaded 1,800 troops to reinforce General Ferrand in his continuing war against Dessalines. Word soon reached St Kitts that the French were nearby and Duckworth, seizing an opportunity to justify his presence in the Caribbean, hared off, for the third time, after a French squadron. The general intelligence that Duckworth had received was accurate but the detail was not. He believed that the force at San Domingo was only one part of a French fleet, the rest of which was somewhere to leeward.
This gave even greater impetus to this new chase because Duckworth was anxious to get at the French before they could unite. When the fleets finally sighted each other, they were both flying at eight knots, the maximum speed possible in the conditions and eight times faster than the speed at which most of the British ships attacked at Trafalgar. It was the most dramatic attack of any of the battles of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Hitherto, they had all been ponderous, with both sides willing, if not entirely prepared, to fight. San Domingo was different, a pure chase. The French were trying desperately to escape to the safety of a nearby bay protected by shore batteries and the British were trying to stop them.
The French fleet was led by L’Impérial, an absolute monster of a ship, one of the Ocean Class of French First Rates built to inspire awe of the French military machine wherever they went. L’Impérial was larger than the mighty four-decked Spanish Santissima Trinidad and far larger than anything that the British had ever built, let alone anything in Duckworth’s fleet. The largest British ship at San Domingo was the 80-gun Canopus with a displacement of 2,258 tons, and a crew of 700. The 118-gun Impérial, in contrast, had a displacement greater by 671 tons, a crew of well over 1,000, and carried 3,265 square metres of canvas. Her sails blocked out the sun.
Laid down by the zealous revolutionaries of the early Republic, she was christened Peuple and then, in the aftermath of The Glorious First of June, became the Vengeur du Peuple in honour of the ship of that name which had fought so dramatically and sunk without surrender. In March 1805, three months after Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, she was renamed again, this time as L’Impérial, the very embodiment of Napoleonic imperial ambition, majesty and pride. She was noteworthy among her class of huge First Rates because she was the first to carry 18-pounder cannon on her third deck, rather than the usual 12-pounders, a significant increase that set the standard for all subsequent First Rates.
The British had nothing to compare. British shipbuilding policy had focused in recent years on the construction of smaller ships in greater numbers. When the fleets met at San Domingo, the entire Royal Navy had only two First Rates of more than 100 guns, the recently launched 110-gun Hibernia and the 110-gun Ville de Paris, and both were far smaller than Impérial. The navy was still waiting for her first First Rate ship of 120 guns, HMS Caledonia, which had been ordered in 1794 but had still not been completed. Indeed, in 1806, the majority of British First Rates were from an altogether different generation: Britannia (1762), Victory (1765), Royal Sovereign (1786), Royal George (1788) and Queen Charlotte (1790). L’Impérial, therefore, was a ship of an altogether greater order. She would make a fine prize indeed and would sate the thirst for glory that pervaded Duckworth’s squadron.