|Action of 4 August 1800|
|Part of the French Revolutionary Wars|
|Kingdom of Great Britain||French First Republic|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Captain Rowley Bulteel||France Commodore Jean-François Landolphe|
|Ship of the line HMS Belliqueux and several East Indiamen merchant ships||frigates Concorde, Médée and Franchise|
|Casualties and losses|
|None||Concorde and Médée captured|
The Action of 4 August 1800 was a highly unusual naval engagement that took place off the Brazilian coast during the French Revolutionary Wars. A French frigate force that had been raiding British commerce off West Africa approached and attempted to attack a large convoy of valuable East Indiamen, large and heavily armed merchant vessels sailing from Britain to British India and China. The East Indiamen were escorted by the small British ship of the line HMS Belliqueux, but otherwise had to rely on their individual armament of 30 cannon to protect them from attack. Due to their large size, the East Indiamen could be mistaken for ships of the line at a distance, and the French commander Commodore Jean-François Landolphe was un-nerved when the convoy formed a line of battle. Assuming his target to be a fleet of powerful warships he turned to escape and the British commander, Captain Rowley Bulteel immediately ordered a pursuit. To preserve the impression of warships he also ordered four of his most powerful East Indiamen to join the chase.
The larger British ship Belliqueux rapidly out ran Landolphe's flagship Concorde, leaving Landolphe with no option but to surrender without any serious resistance. The rest of the French squadron continued to flee separately during the night, each pursued by two East Indiamen. After an hour and a half of pursuit, with darkness falling, the East Indiaman Exeter came alongside the French Médée, giving the impression by use of lights that she was a large ship of the line. Believing himself outgunned, Captain Jean-Daniel Coudin surrendered, only discovering his assailant's true identity when he came aboard. Horrified, he demanded to be allowed to return to his ship to continue the fight, but Captain Henry Meriton on Exeter refused. The action is the only occasion during the war in which a British merchant vessel captured a large French warship.
By 1800, the British and French had been at war for seven years and the British dominated the sea, following a number of significant victories over the French, Dutch and Spanish fleets. Off every French port, large squadrons of British ships of the line and frigates awaited French movements and whenever possible intercepted and destroyed French merchant vessels and warships. While British trading ships travelled in large, well-armed convoys, French ships were forced to slip between harbours to avoid the British blockade squadrons. To counter the British control of the seas, the French periodically despatched squadrons of ships to raid British trade lanes, particularly off West Africa and in the South Atlantic, where the stretched Royal Navy maintained only minimal forces.
The large convoys of East Indiamen were among the principal targets for any French raider. These huge ships, carrying up to 1,200 long tons (1,219 t), sailed from Britain with general cargo, often including military stores and troops, to India or other ports in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, including China. There they would sell their cargoes and take on spices, tea, silk and other expensive trade goods before making the return journey to Britain. A round trip could take over a year and an East Indiaman sailing to Britain would routinely carry hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of trade goods: A convoy that sailed from Canton in January 1804 was worth over £8 million. East Indiamen were well-protected, armed with up to 30 guns and generally traveled in large convoys in which the ships could provide one another with mutual protection and have the support of a Royal Navy escort, usually including a ship of the line.
On 6 March 1799, a French squadron had sailed from Rochefort. Consisting of the frigates Concorde under Commodore Jean-François Landolphe, Médée under Captain Jean-Daniel Coudin and Franchise under Captain Pierre Jurien it was a powerful force, capable of inflicting significant damage on lightly defended merchant shipping. Eluding the blockade force off Rochefort, the squadron sailed southwards until it reached the coast of West Africa. There Landolphe's ships began an extended commerce raiding operation, inflicting severe damage on the West African trade during the rest of the year. Eventually the strain of serving in tropical waters told on the ships and all three were forced to undergo an extensive refit in the nearest available allied shipyards, which were located in the Spanish-held River Plate in South America. Repairs continued for six months, until Landolphe considered the squadron once again ready to sail in the early summer of 1800. The squadron almost immediately captured an American schooner, which it fitted out as a tender. At the time, France and the United States had been engaged for two years in the Quasi War.
At 07:00 on 4 August, Landolphe's lookouts sighted sails on the horizon while cruising off the Brazilian coast. Uncertain of the identity of the strange ships, the French squadron gradually closed the distance during the morning: Landolphe could see that there were seven large vessels and three smaller ships, all unmistakably British. He was unable however to tell whether they were naval ships of the line or mercantile East Indiamen. Initially he thought they might be merchant ships, but at noon he sighted double rows of gunports along the side of each ship and called off the attack, turning away and signalling for his squadron to split up, assuming the enemy to be large warships capable of destroying his small force with ease. Captain Jurien protested Landolphe's order, insisting that the convoy was composed of merchant ships and not warships, but his protests were overruled. In fact, Jurien was correct – only one of the vessels posed a serious threat to his force: the seven ships were a convoy of six large East Indiamen sailing from Britain to India, escorted by the 64–gun ship of the line HMS Belliqueux under Captain Rowley Bulteel.
With the French in full flight, Bulteel determined to continue the ruse that his convoy consisted of warships. Ordering Belliqueux to pursue Concorde, he signalled for his largest East Indiamen to follow the other French ships, to ensure that they did not return and counterattack the convoy while Belliqueux was engaged. Exeter under Captain Henry Meriton and Bombay Castle under Captain John Hamilton were to follow Médée while Coutts under Captain Robert Torin and Neptune under Captain Nathaniel Spens were to follow Franchise. All four vessels were over 1,200 long tons (1,219 t) and carried 30 guns, but none had more than 130 crew aboard and could not compete in accuracy or rate of fire with the 315 men aboard each of the French ships. Throughout the afternoon the chase continued, with Belliqueux steadily gaining on the French flagship while Franchise made rapid progress beyond the range of her pursuers, accompanied by the American schooner. At 17:20, Bulteel was within long range of Landolphe's ship, which returned fire when possible. During the exchange of gunfire neither side suffered damage or casualties, but the ship of the line was clearly gaining on the frigate and within ten minutes Landolphe surrendered rather than see his ship destroyed in an unequal combat.
By 19:00, Franchise had dumped her lifeboats and a large quantity of guns and supplies overboard, lightening the ship enough for it to far outstrip the pursuit. As night fell the French frigate made a full escape from the British force. Médée however had not escaped: although Bombay Castle was many miles behind, only distantly visible on the horizon, Exeter had been able to follow the frigate closely. Henry Meriton was aware of the disparity between the French warship and his own merchant vessel, but believed that as the frigate had made no effort to fight, her commander must believe Exeter to be a ship of the line. Enhancing this image in the rapidly approaching darkness, Meriton arranged lights behind every gunport, whether or not it contained a cannon, creating an effect described as "a fearsome, leering jack-o'-lantern". As his ship drew level with the French frigate, Meriton hailed to the enemy's deck, calling on them to surrender. Intimidated by this large and seemingly powerful enemy, Coudin decided that his only option was to strike his flag and come aboard the British ship to make a formal surrender. Arriving on board, he was astonished to see far fewer and smaller guns than would be normally carried on a warship. Asked by Coudin to whom he had surrendered, Meriton is said to have replied "To a merchantman". Appalled, Coudin demanded to be allowed to return to his ship and conduct a formal naval battle, but Meriton refused.
The engagement on 4 August 1800 had cost neither side a single man killed or wounded, but still inflicted a severe naval defeat on a powerful French frigate force, ending its cruise: Franchise, the only French survivor, had lost many guns and much of her supplies to decrease the ship's weight and, although Captain Jurien spent another three weeks off the Brazilian coast before returning to France, he did not see another sail. Bulteel's convoy continued on its journey to India, pausing at Rio de Janeiro on 12 August to resupply before continuing on to Saint Helena. The captured frigates were valuable prizes but were not bought by the Royal Navy, thus denying their captors a significant amount of prize money: they been brought into port shortly before the Peace of Amiens and thus were deemed surplus to Navy requirements and not commissioned. The ships and the stores and equipment seized from them were sold privately, and the proceeds from the sale were paid in February 1803, in addition to the head-money, a financial award for each French sailor captured during the engagement. Bulteel and Meriton were commended, and the latter was to fight two more naval battles against the French, serving at the successful defence of the China Fleet at the Battle of Pulo Aura in February 1804 and eventually being badly wounded and captured by a French frigate squadron after a fierce defence at the Action of 3 July 1810.
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