Commodore Hamelin’s cruise

Jacques Félix Emmanuel Hamelin

Commodore Jacques Hamelin had not had an especially fruitful cruise in the Venus so far, but he was about to make life more difficult for the squadron than ever.

On 10 November a trio of Indiamen, 185 days out of Portsmouth bound for Calcutta, were midway across the Indian Ocean and, at a position of Lat 00° 56’S, probably preparing for the high jinks of Crossing the Line. It was a pleasantly mild day for these latitudes and, having left the Ile de France in their wake weeks ago, those on board may have been looking forward to their arrival in Bengal after what had been a long but entirely trouble-free voyage. That evening a sail was sighted – as it transpired, the Rattlesnake, an 18-gun sloop from Madras.

Commodore John Stewart of the Windham received a lieutenant on board and, after initial relief that the Navy had not come to press his crew, listened gravely to a report that two French frigates were in the vicinity. Stewart sent messages across to the other Indiamen, Charlton and United Kingdom. ‘I have reason to apprehend our meeting an Enemy of superior force,’ he wrote. Over the next week each ship exercised her great guns as they passed north until, on 17 November, they reached 06° 03’N – east of Ceylon and just a few degrees south of where the Caroline had intercepted Dale’s fleet in June.

At dawn of a thin calm morning, 18 November, three strange sail were sighted about twelve miles distant. They were Hamelin’s Venus, the 40-gun Manche, and the corvette Creole. Despite these absurdly one-sided odds, Stewart decided to attack. He addressed the crew from the quarterdeck, pointing to the Manche and telling them that she was to be their prize. She was too heavily armed for a straight fight, of course, but she was some distance ahead of Venus and Creole and Stewart said he intended to get in close and board her before the others came up.

The plan was breathtaking in its effrontery. The Manche’s 38-pounder carronades were not known as ‘smashers’ for nothing and at close quarters Windham would be quickly reduced by good gunnery to a splintered ruin. In the matter of numbers, the frigate had twice as many hands as the Indiaman. Stewart was putting his faith in a detachment of about 200 troops spread among his three ships.

His speech was reportedly cheered by the men before they went to their stations. A passenger similarly circumstanced wrote: ‘I could not help admiring the alacrity of the seamen – one would have thought by their looks and cheerful bustle that they were preparing for some jovial entertainment or grand festival.’ The response of the Windham’s passengers is not recorded. Those who were hustled below included a gentleman named Hunter, his sister, Mrs Scott – described as ‘a worthy Scotch lady of the old school’ – two sisters, the Miss McCargs, and two other young ladies, the Misses Barton and Button.

Stewart’s fellow captains watched all this aghast. Although he had ordered them to follow him into action, they did so with obvious reluctance and as Windham closed with the Frenchman, it was seen that Charlton and United Kingdom were not coming on at the same pace. Not to put too fine a point on it, they had shortened sail and fallen some miles behind.

Over the next two hours Windham exchanged heavy fire with Manche whose aim, fortuitously, was found wanting, so many balls hummed harmlessly overhead. But Stewart could not get close enough to board. Each time the Windham neared her, the frigate bore up and made sail. Eventually, Captain Dornal de Guy, perceiving his foe’s determination, wore round on the starboard tack to evade him one last time before breaking off at noon to rejoin the Venus. Four of the Windham’s crew were dead and the Indiaman had sustained a battering but it had been a gallant little action. Captain William D’Esterre of the United Kingdom wrote in his log that Stewart had ‘behaved most nobly’.

Windham remained in the background of the cannons blazing redly in the night as the French frigates set off in pursuit of less troublesome quarry, the other Indiamen. Stewart, in no position to come to their defence and perhaps feeling let down, tried to make his escape. At 11 p.m. on a still, clear and bright night, the Windham bore away to the north-west.

Now it was the United Kingdom and Charlton that had their hands full. ‘The French frigates and corvette were standing after us with all sail, bearing very fast,’ D’Esterre wrote. ‘At half past 12am Sunday morning commenced action, both frigates firing on us.’ In less than an hour both Indiamen had struck, United Kingdom with three men dead. The two captains were taken on board the Manche. In the meantime, Venus set off in pursuit of the Windham.

Stewart managed, despite the damage to his ship, to elude Hamelin for the rest of that day. Brought up from the orlop, Mrs Scott and the other ladies observed the desperate efforts made to escape: guns were cast overboard to lighten the load and running repairs made to rigging as the Windham raced on and on, into the night. And through the next day and night. Then yet another. Somehow, a damaged Indiaman was staying ahead of one of the fastest frigates afloat, thanks to the skill of her captain and the energy of her crew.

These exertions were followed admiringly from the Venus’s quarterdeck, where her officers were drawn to the spectacle in a spirit of fraternity. Hamelin remarked that ‘every credit was due to Windham’s captain’ while his juniors marvelled: ‘They did not conceive it possible that any ship could have escaped for so long.’

The Windham East India Man, PY8454

Only on the morning of 22 November – four days after the French were first sighted – did Hamelin bring Windham to bay. Stewart had retained a few guns, so that even then he was capable of a last gesture of defiance. A volley thundered out. The balls passed over the Venus. An answering fire brought the Company’s colours fluttering down.

Stewart still had one more lesson for his foes. A prize crew went across to Windham while her captain, passengers and crew were welcomed on Venus by Hamelin. Two weeks later they caught up with Manche and the other captured Indiamen and were within ten days of Port Louis when the sky turned red, the weather thickened and a furious wind came on to blow. One year after the storm that destroyed the First Fleet, a new hurricane season was about to announce itself.

At daylight on 20 December, Hamelin found his ship alone and in peril. All three of Venus’s topmasts had been torn away and, thanks to a delay in closing the ports, water in the hold was seven feet deep. Her crew, in fatalistic acceptance that she would founder, had retired to their cabins. At this point Hamelin, recalling the skills of his prisoners, swallowed his pride and sent for Stewart. The nineteenth-century naval historian William James related that Hamelin

requested that [Stewart] would endeavour with his crew to save the French frigate; but he, at the same time, wished him to give a pledge that he and his men should not take possession of the frigate. Captain Stewart refused to give the pledge, but replied that M Hamelin must take his chance. The French captain gave up the charge of his frigate to the British captain and crew, his prisoners. By great exertions on the part of the latter, the wreck of the frigate’s topmasts was cleared and the water in the hold reduced.

James is the most partisan of British naval historians. Making due allowance, it is apparent that Captain John Stewart, a man of prosaic name, was an exceptional seafarer. Like John Dale, John Ramsden and some of the other Indiamen captains encountered in these pages, he was an outstanding representative of that forgotten species of Britain’s seafaring past, a rebuke to the superior spirit of their navy counterparts with their haughty notions of ‘mongrel gentlemen’ and distinctions between ‘the art of war and the art of gain’.

What had become of his own ship was not clear, for the Windham had parted from them during the gale. But now, in the final week of 1809, the Venus was nearing home.

The storm spent itself before reaching Ile de France. Even so, Rowley knew a new hurricane season was upon him, and that he was taking a calculated risk. Since the Bourbon operation he had resumed the blockade, but by the end of December Raisonnable had been at sea for six months and Rowley was pushing his luck. If there was still no sign of Hamelin in a week or so he would, in all prudence, have to order the squadron back to the Cape.

The last day of 1809 was cloudy and hazy, with airs that stirred lightly overhead as Raisonnable stood about twelve miles to the north-west off Port Louis. In the mid-morning, provisions were being taken across to the Leopard, which may account for an apparently sluggish response to the sighting of a sail in the north-east; possibly Rowley was lulled by the presence in the vicinity of the frigates Sirius and Boadicea. The sail was spotted at 10.40 and it was past noon when, the log records, Raisonnable

made all sail in chase. At 6 chase anchored in Black River. Shortened sail and Hove to.

It was utterly galling. By the time Raisonnable was under way, the French frigate – though her identity was not known, her nationality soon become plain – had passed them to the north and was beating down the west coast. Six hours into a hopeless chase, Rowley had to watch as the Venus entered Black River Bay and anchored under the battery’s shelter. Months of cruising had failed to prevent Hamelin’s return.

Bad though this was, worse followed. Two days later, Rowley made his log entry between gritted teeth.

At daylight saw six strange sail. Made all sail in chase. At 11 the chase got into Port Louis. At 11.10 saw them at anchor.

This time the frigates were the Manche and Bellone and the four sail with them were prizes – such prizes, indeed, as altered the strategic balance at sea. The Manche, under Captain Dornal de Guy, had in tow the Indiamen United Kingdom and Charlton. They had passed without ill-effects through the storm that assailed Hamelin. The Bellone’s booty was even more impressive. Since escaping from Port Louis four months earlier, Captain Duperré had captured and burnt five merchant brigs in the Bay of Bengal, as well as taking the 18-gun sloop Victor and a large if ageing Portuguese frigate of 52 guns, the Minerva, soon to be renamed Minerve.

Rowley was furious with himself. Even Nelson had been known to make mistakes in blockading but Rowley suspected that he had been duped by an old trick – lured from Port Louis by Hamelin so that the prizes could slip in behind him. At the same time he viewed one member of his squadron even more severely. Captain John Hatley commanded the finest ship in the blockade, the frigate Boadicea, yet she had been ineffective in both chases. Nothing was to be done for now but to return to the Cape, leaving the French captains to their celebrations. But Rowley had resolved that when he came back, it would be with Boadicea as his flagship.

The arrival on the island of British civilians caused a stir at La Refuge. ‘There are six ladies on the Venus,’ Flinders wrote excitedly. He was soon disappointed. Though the Indiamen passengers were taken to a nearby plantation on their way to Port Louis, he was not allowed to meet them. Since the incursion on Bourbon, he had been under virtual house arrest, and Ile de France in a state of near-paralysis.

Apart from dismay at finding the enemy at the gate, the inhabitants had been shocked by how easily resistance on Bourbon had been swept aside. Then there was the loss of the cargoes on which hopes for the economy had been resting, and the way that Bourbon’s slaves had made common cause with the English. The implication was not lost on Decaen, who hastily demobilised his regiment of slaves.

The strain had taken a toll within Flinders’s little circle. A six-year acquaintance with a neighbour named De Chazal – who painted one of the few existing portraits of the explorer – never recovered from a furious row after the Frenchman ‘reproached the English government with injustice and inhumanity in a most prejudiced manner’. Even in the invasion-charged air, however, his friendship with the worthy Pitot, among others, endured. Flinders liked women – fondly, innocently – none more so than his hostess Madame D’Arifat and her daughters. Superficially, time still seemed to pass amiably enough, between music, chess and instructing his young scholars – and an occasional windfall of the Gentleman’s Magazine.

Still Flinders could not be reconciled to his exile – to these surroundings, no matter how alluring, or these friends, no matter how warm – while cut off from what gave his life meaning, the notion of duty. He still agonised over his inability to complete his mission, to present the Admiralty with details of his discoveries, especially as Nicolas Baudin, who had been with Hamelin in Australia, had recently published his work.

His other pain was private. He had been married to Anne for almost nine years now, of which they had spent just three months together. Yet still he addressed her with all the tenderness of fresh love. Replying in August to one of her letters – which had been three years in reaching him – he wrote:

I continue to remain in the same friendly and estimable family of Madame D’Arifat, where I am treated as a son, except that they shew me more attention. How often have I ardently wished that thou my dearest friend and best love wast here with me in the midst of these worthy persons; like me thou wouldst find in them a mother, brothers, and sisters …

Preserve then for me, my only love, thy heart, thy kind affection, thy health, for the happy, happy day when Providence shall place to suffer our reunion; and be fully assured that nothing can change the constant love and tender friendship, with which I am thine own. Mattw. Flinders.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Flinders’s captivity is that he persisted in enduring it. The proximity of the English ships whose movements he noted from his eyrie, and the help offered by friends, would have made escape easy. During one particularly black spell of depression, in 1808, he had come so close to it that he wrote farewell letters. Why, then, did he not seize the chance? It always came back to honour. He had given his word as an officer to observe his parole.

Decaen was blind to his dilemma. Their dealings would always be marked by mutual incomprehension. The beleaguered Governor had become convinced that his captive had gathered intelligence of a kind crucial for an English invasion. Though Flinders never knew it, Decaen believed that in recent months he had ‘several times managed to go out at night, had made soundings along the coast, and had transmitted information to Bengal’.

In the months that followed, Decaen appears to have recognised that the game was up. The fire went out of him. Unpopular, his administration bankrupt and his despotic ways increasingly questioned, he saw that an invasion was almost certain and resigned himself to it. When Hamelin claimed the Indiamen cargoes as prizes for himself and his men – a presumption that in years past would have cost him dear – the old autocrat objected briefly, then backed down.

Hamelin had not actually distinguished himself much in the action. It had been De Guy’s Manche rather than the Venus that stood out in capturing the Indiamen. Two other captains had proved their merits as well. In taking an English Navy sloop and a Portuguese frigate, Duperré of the Bellone had largely made up for the loss of the Caroline. He was promoted to Commodore of a new division that included Victor and Minerve. Pierre Bouvet, a former spy and corsair, had also shone on the brig Entreprenant. He was given Minerve.

At the same time Decaen demonstrated a rare generosity of spirit to Captain Stewart of the Windham. In recognition of their assistance in saving the Venus, Stewart and his crew were allowed to go to the Cape directly. There they were astonished and delighted to be restored to their ship. The Windham had not been lost in the storm, as feared, but recaptured by one of the blockading squadron.

Flinders had also perceived that an invasion was now only a matter of time. Of the mood at the India House, he remarked shrewdly: ‘The taking of five Company’s ships in so short a time may fix their wavering determination.’ In the meantime, he noted that Decaen had adopted desperate means to raise funds from the population:

Mr Martin-Monchamp read an address to the inhabitants and an exposition of the extreme distress to which the government was reduced by the retaking of the Company’s ships at Bourbon … Mr M said that he found much goodwill amongst the inhabitants but not much money … I recommended jokingly sending away all the English prisoners and me amongst them, as the first step to reform.

In fact, Decaen had promised that if relief was not forthcoming from France within six months, he would resign. Detaining Flinders had lost its rationale.

The 28th of March 1810 was a rainy day at La Refuge. Flinders rose to begin his usual routine, lessons for the boys in astronomy and making notes on the magnetism of the Earth, when a rider cantered up to the homestead with a letter. Flinders read it, and then did so again. There was no mistake. Decaen had authorised ‘my return to my country upon condition of not serving hostilely against France during the present war’.

There followed a hectic few days. Letters of congratulation poured in from friends. Freed from restriction, Flinders went to Port Louis where he was embraced by supporters. A dinner was given in his honour to which the Indiamen passengers were invited and at which they made a tremendous fuss of him, in particular the worthy Mrs Scott from the Windham. Flinders was delighted at being able to converse with his countrymen again, even though the man who had come to the island unable to speak a word of French now had some difficulty in making himself understood in English. This somewhat dreamlike social whirl continued for a week or so, with the expectation that Flinders and the rest of the captives were about to be released into the Harriet, a cartel from Bengal. Flinders’s journal poignantly captures the flavour of a heady moment in which notional enemies came together as friends.

Friday, April 6. Cloudy threatening weather. Went out in a great cavalcade of chaises, palanquins and horses to Chimere. Our party was numerous and some appropriate songs were sung, in one of which was a verse complimentary to the English whom friendship had brought there, and a wish that before a year the two nations might be united as we were at that time. It is my friend Thomy [Pitot] who is always the poet of the occasion. Dancing went on till two in the morning when we supped, and the dancing afterwards continued to daylight. Of my countrymen there were Messrs Hope and Hunter, Mrs Scott, and the two Miss McCargs: Their polite and complaisant conduct, as well as their talents, have done honour to our country among the French people. Much thunder and lightning during the day and night.

Weeks passed. The blockade resumed, with Rowley now in Boadicea. On 7 May, Flinders was allowed to board the Harriet, but more weeks went by. Not until 13 June, the day that his sword was restored to him, did the Harriet sail and Flinders enter his freedom.

At the moment of departure he felt the paradox of his liberty: ‘My heart is oppressed at the idea of quitting my friends here, perhaps forever.’ And his farewell to Madame D’Arifat had a special tenderness: ‘Adieu then, my dear lady and friend. May God of his infinite goodness bless and preserve you and yours. This is the fervent desire of your most affectionate, obliged and devoted friend and humble servant, Mattw Flinders.’21 Six years, five months and twenty-six days since his first, all-too-blithe, sight of that shoreline, Flinders watched Port Louis fall away in the dying of the evening light.

The moment that he started to put all that behind him came the following day when, in full uniform again, Captain Matthew Flinders of His Majesty’s Navy was piped on board HMS Boadicea and given three rousing huzzas. Rowley was there to welcome him and that evening they did him proud at dinner in the great cabin, joined by Colonel Keating and three captains of the blockading squadron. Over bumpers of claret Flinders learnt that the invasion of Bourbon was in hand. A force of 3,650 troops was approaching from Bengal.

The original intention had been that Flinders would go to Bengal himself. Instead, as the bearer of intelligence from behind enemy lines, he set off for the Cape that very night in the Otter. Decaen had not underestimated his potential for doing harm.

Capetown was in the midst of winter and it was foggy and wet on the afternoon of 14 July when Flinders pulled up at the admiral’s residence in a chaise. Bertie greeted him gruffly and wasted little time in small talk about his captivity before getting down to business.

Flinders set to work, making notes about the islands, their military depositions and financial situation. He drew sketches of Port Louis, the town and the port, and of the north-west coast, including Black River Bay. Perhaps the prime value of his intelligence, however, was on the question of morale. Ile de France, he reported, was ready to fall like ripe fruit. Decaen was utterly discredited. The military was unpaid and, in some cases, of suspect loyalty. Resistance was likely to be minimal and in all likelihood the civilian population would welcome the English as liberators. Only Hamelin’s frigates stood in their way.

All this chimed favourably with preparations already in hand. For Flinders had arrived at the Cape to find his earlier judgement vindicated: the taking of five Indiamen in so short a time had indeed ‘fixed the wavering determination’ of the Company. Not only was a force descending on Bourbon, but another was being mustered to invade Ile de France itself.