Three Negapatam Naval Battles

Negapatam, Battle of June 25, 1746

Also known as the Battle of Fort St. David, this action A between French and English forces during the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION, 1739-48, took place between Negapatam and Fort St. David on the east coast of India. A small English squadron, commanded by Commodore Edward Peyton, was cruising off the Coromandel coast on June 25. It sighted a small enemy squadron commanded by Admiral the Comte Mahe de la Bourdonnais. The more powerful English force, which consisted of six ships, including the 60-gun Medway, seemed incapable of taking decisive action. The engagement, which began at 4 P. M. was constrained by a lack of wind, but the English commander proved ineffective. The French were able to withdraw from a potentially dangerous situation with less damage than their opponents. Peyton also withdrew from the area, and the French were able to capture the Indian city of Madras.

Line of Battle

Royal Navy

HMS Medway

HMS Preston

HMS Harwich

HMS Winchester

HMS Medway’s Prize

HMS Lively (1740)

France

Achille, 72 guns

Bourbon, 44 guns

Phénix, 44 guns

Lys, 40 guns

Neptune, 40 guns

Saint-Louis, 36 guns

Duc d’Orléans, 36 guns

Insullaire, 30 guns

Renommée, 30 guns

Bertrand Francois, Comte Mahe de La Bourdonnais, 1699-1753

French naval commander, born in St. Malo. Beginning J’ his career at sea in the service of the French East India Company, he distinguished himself at an early stage when, in 1723, he played a leading part in the capture of Mahe on the Malabar coast. After a brief period in Portuguese service, he was appointed governor of Madagascar and Mauritius in 1734. As the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION, 1740-48, began, La Bourdonnais returned to France and was given another sea command. His new fleet was ordered to India, where he scored several successes against the British. He prevented Mahe and Pondicherry from falling into enemy hands and, in 1746, blockaded and captured Madras. The English, anxious to recover the city, paid La Bourdonnais 9 million livres to relinquish control. His acceptance of this bribe led to a serious dispute with Joseph Dupleix, governor-general of the French Indies, with accusations and counteraccusations being made. On his return to Madagascar, he found that Dupleix had replaced him as governor. When he finally arrived in France, he was accused of failures in administration; after spending two years in prison awaiting trial, eventually he was acquitted.

HMS Yarmouth (70), Pocock’s command in 1758-9

Negapatam, Battle of August 3, 1758

Some three months after their engagement in the Indian Ocean at CUDDALORE, in April 1758, the English and French fleets met again off Negapatam on the east coast of India. This second battle, on August 3, 1758, was an inconclusive as the first and had little or no impact on the course of the SEVEN YEARS’ WAR, 1756-63. Vice Admiral Sir George Pocock, who had seven British ships of the line under his command, returned to the fight on July 27, appearing off Pondicherry, which was held by the enemy. A French squadron of nine ships of the line, under the command of Admiral the Comte d’Ache, left Pondicherry the following day and was pursued southward for a few days. Eventually the French were brought to battle off Negapatam on August 3, and in fierce fighting they sustained particularly heavy casualties. The Comte d’Ache’s tactics were wholly defensive, and the French squadron made good its escape to the north as soon as possible.

Anne Antoine, Comte d’Aché (23 January 1701, Marbeuf – 11 February 1780) was a French naval officer who rose to the rank of vice admiral. He is best known for his service off the coast of India during the Seven Years’ War, when he led the French fleet at the Battle of Cuddalore and Battle of Pondicherry. He also failed to provide adequate naval support to French troops attempting to capture Madras in 1759. After he received rumours of a British attack on the major Indian Ocean naval base Mauritius he did not go to the aid of the French forces in Pondicherry which was being besieged by the British. Pondicherry, the French capital in India, subsequently surrendered leaving Britain dominant in the continent. After the war he retired to Brest where he died in 1780.

Master of the Seas of the Two Indies: the Naval Career of Admiral Sir George Pocock

Negapatam, Battle of July 6, 1782

Following the Battles of SADRAS and PROVIDIEN, the naval engagement off Negapatam was the third battle between British and French naval forces in the Indian Ocean during the latter stages of the AMERICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE, 1775-83. After the Battle of PROVIDIEN, April 12, 1782, Admiral Sir Edward HUGHES and his squadron of 11 ships of the line had completed their voyage to Trincomalee in Ceylon, where he disembarked troop reinforcements. The French force, which also consisted of 11 ships of the line, commanded by Admiral Pierre de SUFFREN, had returned to the Coromandel coast near Madras. Suffren then landed troops at the coastal town of Cuddalore, with the objective of retaking Negapatam, some 60 miles away, which was held by the British. Hughes, who was aware of the enemy’s intentions, sailed for Negapatam. The two opposing squadrons clashed on July 6. Fighting was intense but, like the two earlier engagements, did not produce a clear outcome. However, the French were unable to land at Negapatam and Suffren was forced to withdraw to the north while the British entered the city.

Detail of a 1794 map of south India and Ceylon.

Anglo-French Rivalry in Indian Ocean, (1780–1783)

During the War of American Independence, the French attempted to overthrow British dominance in India. Command of the sea was a vital ingredient, but, in five bloody battles, attempts to seize control by Admiral Pierre André de Suffren were frustrated by the dogged defense put up by Sir Edward Hughes.

By 1760 the British had secured a dominant position in India. There was still the danger of an attack by France and dissident local princes. When the East India Company seized the remaining French bases on the outbreak of the American war, it provoked such action. In 1780 the nawab of Mysore, Haidar Ali, supported by French troops and ships from Mauritius, invaded southern India. Based on Madras, a small army under Sir Eyre Coote held the hordes of Haidar Ali at bay, while Sir Edward Hughes countered the efforts of the cautious French Admiral d’ Orves. By 1782 the British had been successful in defending their own bases while reducing those of the French, including Trincomalee in modern Sri Lanka.

Rear Admiral Suffren then arrived to take command. One of the French navy’s most original and aggressive tacticians, he immediately sailed in search of his enemy. The two squadrons first met at Sadras, near Madras, on 17 February 1782. Hughes, to leeward, formed his nine ships into a tight line of battle heading west. Suffren, sailing south with 11 ships, determined to destroy the British rear. While his own division engaged them from windward, he ordered Tromelin’s to “double” Hughes’s line and attack from behind. Owing to disaffection or incompetence, Tromelin disobeyed and remained effectively out of the action. After two hours, a furious Suffren abandoned the engagement.

On 12 April the two squadrons met again off Providien near Trincomalee. Hughes kept his 11 ships in a tight line of battle, while Suffren swept down from windward, attacking his center with 12 ships in crescent formation. There followed a hard-fought engagement that lasted until a change of wind enabled Hughes to retreat. The British completed repairs in Trincomalee, then took up position before Negapatam, anticipating a French attack. On 6 July Suffren appeared. Having the weather gauge, Hughes formed in line, prevented the French from maneuvering, and the battle became, once more, a bloody and indecisive duel.

The British were refitted in Madras but, hearing that Suffren was attacking Trincomalee, sailed—too late—to the rescue. Hughes appeared off the port with 12 ships on 3 September, and Suffren hurried out with 14 to meet him. The British withdrew seaward, the French following in ragged formation. Hughes then formed in line to receive them, but Suffren’s van overshot and reversed his numerical advantage. Lack of wind prevented the mistake from being corrected, and the result, once more, was a bloody but indecisive battle.

The next six months were dominated by action on land, which culminated in the siege of a French army in Cuddalore. Then Suffren and Hughes—the latter now numerically superior as a result of reinforcements from England—appeared to give support and, on 20 July 1783, the two exhausted and badly manned squadrons met for the last time. Although their fighting spirit remained undiminished, neither could achieve more than a sterile engagement in line. The arrival of news that the war had ended put a stop to further conflict. Suffren returned to France a hero, even though his failure to win command of the seas had doomed the attempt to overthrow British power in India.

Pierre Andre de Suffren de Saint Tropez, 1729-88

One of France’s greatest naval commanders, Admiral Suffren gained his formative experience during the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION, 1740-48, entering as a garde de la marine, or midshipman. After fighting off Toulon in 1744 and at Cape Breton in 1746, he was captured by British Admiral Edward HAWKE in 1747. Released at the end of the war, Suffren spent some time in the service of the Knights Hospitallers of Malta. He continued in membership of this order throughout his career and gradually progressed up its ranks. During the SEVEN YEARS’ WAR, 1756-63, Suffren was captured once more by the British when the Ocean, the ship in which he was serving, was seized off Lagos, Portugal, by Admiral Edward BOSCA WEN in 1759. During the AMERICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE, 1775-83, he first saw service in North America and the West Indies, where he commanded a French squadron that fought Admiral John BYRON at GRENADA in 1779.

In 1781 Suffren was dispatched to the Indian Ocean in command of a squadron of five ships that was to operate against the British fleet in the East Indies. En route he attacked a British squadron anchored off the Cape Verde Islands and thus neutralized a potential threat to the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope. Suffren’s squadron was enlarged to 11 ships of the line when he arrived at Mauritius because of the death of Admiral d’Orves, who commanded a force of six ships also operating in the area. With a strengthened fleet Suffren began an epic 18-month struggle against larger forces under the command of Admiral Sir Edward HUGHES off the coast of India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). With great skill and determination, but with no permanent base, he engaged the British in five separate battles from SADRAS, February 17, 1782, to CUDDALORE, June 20, 1783. His greatest achievement was the capture of the British base of TRINCOMALEE, Ceylon, on August 22, 1782, with the loss of only one ship of the line throughout the entire campaign. Suffren returned home as a hero but died shortly afterward, possibly as the result of a duel.

Sir Edward Hughes, (1720–1794)

British admiral who achieved fame by resisting French attempts under Admiral Pierre André de Suffren de Saint-Tropez in 1782 to seize control of the Indian Ocean, and thus of the subcontinent itself. Born in Hertford, England, in 1720, Hughes joined the navy and saw action in many of the principal naval encounters of the period. He was at Vernon’s capture of Porto Bello (1739) and Cartagena (1741), the Battle of Toulon (1744), and the seizures of Louisbourg (1758) and Quebec (1759). He was a fine seaman with such a marked concerned for his crews that Suffren’s men mocked him with the nickname “Mère Hews.”

The climax of Hughes’ career came when, as a vice admiral, he commanded British naval forces in India during the War of American Independence. In 1780 the French and their local ally Haidar Ali made a determined attempt to overthrow British power in southern India. Small British and French armies became locked in a desperate struggle for the coastal bases that were vital to local control. Hughes played a key role in providing support and supply, in blockading the enemy, and in preventing any blockade by them. In January 1782 he captured the French base of Trincomalee.

Then in 1782 Hughes faced a dangerous opponent with the arrival of the new French commander in chief, Rear Admiral Pierre André Suffren. One of the French navy’s few aggressive tacticians, Suffren immediately went on the offensive, meeting dogged resistance from Hughes in five hard-fought battles off southern India of Sadras, Providien, Negapatam, Trincomalee, and Cuddalore before peace in 1783 put an end to the confrontation between the two exhausted and battered squadrons.

Hughes and Suffren were alike in both determination and girth, being short and fat with notorious appetites and substantial bellies. But there the resemblance ended. Suffren was an original thinker, who attempted to circumvent the prevailing doctrine that the line of battle was sacrosanct in ways that his subordinates either could not understand of were unwilling to follow. Hughes, by contrast, while he exploited the tactics of the line of battle with skill and gallantry, made no attempt to experiment and never would have considered doing so. He had been appointed to India because he was “safe,” and his record justified the choice. His stubborn, if unoriginal, tactics frustrated Suffren’s attempts to seize command of the seas and ensured the maintenance of British hegemony in India. Hughes returned to England in 1785 to receive the thanks of Parliament and to enjoy the £40,000 a year he is said to have amassed in India. He died as a full Admiral of the Blue at his estate in Luxborough, Essex, England, on 17 February 1794.

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