The Battle of Providien was the second in a series of naval battles fought between a British fleet under Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes and a French fleet under the Bailli de Suffren near India during the American Revolutionary War. The battle was fought on 12 April 1782 off the east coast of Ceylon, near a rocky islet called Providien, south of Trincomalee.
France had entered the American Revolutionary War in 1778, and Britain declared war on the Dutch Republic in late 1780 after the Dutch refused to stop trading in military supplies with the French and the Americans. The British had rapidly gained control over most French and Dutch outposts in India when news of these events reached India, spawning the Second Anglo-Mysore War in the process.
The French admiral the Bailli de Suffren was dispatched on a mission to provide military assistance to French colonies in India, leading a fleet of five ships of the line, seven transports, and a corvette to escort the transports from Brest in March 1781. After a happenstance battle with a British fleet at Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands in April, and a stop at the Dutch-controlled Cape of Good Hope in October, where he left troops to assist the Dutch in defense of that colony and added some ships to his fleet, he sailed on to Île de France, arriving at Port Louis in December.
There the fleet, further enlarged by ships available there, sailed for India under the command of the elderly Admiral D'Estienne D'Orves, accompanying transports carrying nearly 3,000 men under the command of the Comte du Chemin. D'Orves died in February 1782, shortly before the fleet arrived off the Indian coast, and Suffren once again took command.
Suffren first sailed for Madras, hoping to surprise the British stronghold there. When he found the fleet of Sir Edward Hughes anchored there on 15 February 1782, he turned south with the intent of landing troops at Porto Novo, from where they could march up the coast, recapturing French and Dutch holdings on the way. Hughes raised anchor and sailed after Suffren. In the Battle of Sadras, both fleets suffered damage without loss of ships, but the French were able to safely land troops at Porto Novo to assist the Mysoreans. Suffren made repairs to his fleet at Pondicherry after that battle, and on 23 February sailed out to find Hughes, who had gone to Trincomalee for repairs.
On 8 April Hughes' fleet was spotted heading for Trincomalee. Suffren gave chase, but was unable to close for three days. Hughes had to change course on 12 April to continue toward Trincomalee, which gave Suffren the advantage of the wind.
The battle lines engaged at about 12:30. At first, some of Suffren's captains hung back, not immediately joining in the line (as had also happened at Sadras), but eventually ten of his twelve ships were engaged against the eleven British ships. Monmouth was the first ship to quit the British line after being dismasted, and Superb also suffered significant damage in the early rounds. Hughes was able to regain advantage by ordering his fleet to wear ship, and the battle began to turn against the French. Around 6 pm a storm arose, and the combatants, close to a lee shore, broke off the battle to attend to the risks the storm presented. Darkness from the storm and then nightfall precluded further battle that day.
The fleets had anchored near enough each other that Suffren again positioned for battle. Hughes, however, had a convoy to protect, and sailed for Trincomalee. Suffren sailed south and put in at Batticaloa, which was still under Dutch control, where he spent six weeks for repairs and resupply. There he received orders to sail to Île de France to escort another troop convoy. He chose to disregard this order, as the risk posed by Hughes to French operations required his full strength, and he could not trust his captains. The captains of Vengeur and Artésien, the two ships that stayed out of the action, were reported for their failure to obey orders, and his second-in-command was intriguing with some of the other captains against him.
The rival fleets
- Castex (p. 315) calls this a French victory on account of more severe damage to Hughes' fleet. Mahan (p. 566) and Malleson (p. 26) do not explicitly designate a victor.
- Castex (2004), pp. 315-19
- Malleson, p. 26
- Castex, Jean-Claude (2004). Dictionnaire des batailles navales franco-anglaises. Presses Université Laval. ISBN 978-2-7637-8061-0.
- Mahan, Alfred Thayer (1898). Major operations of the royal navy, 1762-1783: Being chapter XXXI. in The royal navy. A history. Little, Brown. http://books.google.com/books?id=hpI_AAAAYAAJ&dq=Mahan%20suffren%20providien&pg=PA552#v=onepage&q=&f=false.
- Malleson, George Bruce (1884). Final French Struggles in India and on the Indian Seas. W.H. Allen. http://books.google.com/books?id=at5GAAAAIAAJ.
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