Benbow vs DuCasse

20th August 1702 - 24th August 1702
Part of : War of Spanish Succession (1701 - 1714)
Next action : Battle of Vigo 12.10.1702


Kingdom of England

The British Squadron, John Benbow (1652/53-1702)
Ship NameCommanderNotes
Defiance (64) Richard Kirkby (d.1703)
Pendennis (54) Thomas Hudson (d.1702)
Windsor (60) John Constable
Bredah (70) Christopher Fogg (d.1708)Fleet Flagship
Greenwich (54) Cooper Wade (d.1702/3)
Ruby (46) Sir George Walton (1665-1739)
Falmouth (54) Samuel Vincent (d.1719)

Royaume de France (Marine Royale) - Chevalier Jean Baptiste Ducasse (1650-1715)

The French Squadron
Ship NameCommanderNotes
L'Heureux (70) BennetFleet Flagship
L'Agréable (56) de Roussy
Le Phénix (60) de Poudens
L'Apollon (56) de Demuin
Le Prince de Frise (52) de Saint-André (d.1721)

Notes on Action

Description of the ActionTRN2

Benbow himself left Port Royal on July 11th 1702, intending to follow Whetstone; but, receiving intelligence that the real destination of Ducasse was not Port St. Louis but Leogane, near Port-au-Prince, he proceeded thither, arriving on July 27th 1702. Having taken or destroyed several vessels there, and cruised for a few days in the neighbourhood, he was informed that Ducasse had gone to Cartagena, on the mainland of what is now Columbia, and that he was bound thence to Puerto Bello, in Panama. The news seems to have been incorrect. Benbow preceded, and did not follow, Ducasse towards the Gulf of Darien. Ducasse did not reach Hispaniola, as Haiti and San Domingo were then called, until after the English had quitted the island. He was in inferior force, yet he at once went in search of Benbow; and, on the morning of August 19th 1702, the two squadrons sighted one another off Santa Marta, a little to the eastward of the mouth of the Rio Magdalena. The squadrons were at the time thus composed"

The French were under topsails, standing along the shore towards the west, and were to eastward of the English. Benbow had previously given out the line of battle with the ships in the order above noted. As some of the vessels were three or four miles astern, he made the signal for action, and, under easy sail, awaited the stragglers. Later in the day, he sent an order to the Defiance and Windsor, which betrayed no signs of haste, to make more sail. Towards nightfall an action began; but, after the Defiance and Windsor had received two or three broadsides, they luffed out of gunshot. When it was dark, firing ceased. Benbow, who kept company with the enemy during the night, thought to shame those of his captains who had already misbehaved themselves, by himself leading, and by changing the order of battle to: Breda, Defiance, Windsor, Greenwich, Ruby, Peiidciinin, Falmouth; but on August 20th all the vessels, except the Ruby, were far astern of the flagship, and remained astern during the whole day. Nevertheless the Breda and Ruby followed the enemy and used their chase guns as best they could until after dusk.

At daylight on August 21st the Breda and the Ruby again began action, this time at close quarters, with the French; and in the course of the early morning the Ruby's spars and rigging were so much mauled that the Breda had to lie to and send boats to tow Captain Walton off. For some time before 8 A.M. the Defiance and Windsor were within point-blank range of the rear-most ship of the enemy, yet refrained from firing a single gun. In the afternoon the action recommenced; but, although several of the ships astern of him then fired in a desultory way, the brunt of the fighting fell upon Benbow, whose rigging suffered severely, and who had some of his lower deck guns dismounted. The Breda, by night as well as by day, kept up the signal for the line of battle; yet, on the morning of August 22nd, the Greenwich was about nine miles astern, and, except the Ruby, which behaved admirably throughout, the rest of the ships were not in their stations.

In the afternoon the wind, which had been E., shifted to S., and gave the enemy the weather-gauge. The Breda, by tacking, fetched within gunshot of the sternmost of the French, and once more engaged them; but she had no support, and she could do very little. On the morning of August 23rd, the French, who were six miles ahead of Benbow, were seen to have detached the Prince dc Frisc. At that time some of the English ships, and especially the Defiance and Windsor, were four miles astern of station. At 10 A.M., the wind being E.N.E., but variable, the enemy tacked. The Breda fetched within short range of two of them and then pursued as well as she could. About noon the Anne, galley, an English prize, which was one of the small craft with Ducasse, was retaken. On the other hand, the Ruby was found to be so disabled that the Vice-Admiral ordered her to Port Royal. At H P.M. the enemy, steering S.E. with a light and variable wind from N.W., was two miles ahead of the Breda, which had only the Falmouth near her. At midnight the French began to separate.

Very early in the morning of August 24th, the Breda and Falmouth got up with, and engaged, the sternmost of the enemy; and at 3 A.M., the Vice-Admiral's right leg was smashed by a chain shot. Benbow was carried below; but, soon afterwards, he ordered his cot to be taken to the quarter-deck, whence he continued to direct the fight until daybreak. It then appeared that the French ship l which had been immediately engaged was disabled, but that other French ships were coming up to her rescue, with a strong gale from the E. The Windsor, Pendennis, and Gre'emcich, after running to leeward of the disabled vessel and each firing a broadside, or part of a broadside, at her, passed her and stood to the southward. The Defiance also passed to leeward; and, when the French fired a few guns at her, she put her helm a-weather, and ran away before the wind. None of these ships returned into action. The enemy speedily discovered that the majority of the English captains were not serious opponents, and, bearing down between their disabled ship and the Breda, badly damaged the latter and towed off the former. The Breda could not renew the pursuit for some time; but, as soon as she had refitted, she went again in chase, with the neglected signal for battle still flying. As it was paid no more attention to than on the previous days, Benbow directed Captain Fogg to send to each ship, and to remind her captain of his duty. Upon this, Kirkby, of the Defiance, visited the Vice-Admiral, and urged him to forego further action. The Commander-in-Chief, desirous of knowing the views of the other captains, signalled for them also to come on board. Most of them supported Kirkby; and, realising that in the circumstances nothing else could be done, Benbow unwillingly desisted from the pursuit, and headed for Jamaica.

Such is, in brief, the story of one of the most painful and disgraceful episodes in the history of the British Navy. At Jamaica, on October 8th, and the following days, Kirkby, Wade, and Constable were tried by court-martial for cowardice, disobedience to orders, and neglect of duty. The two former were condemned on all counts, and were sentenced to death. Constable, acquitted of cowardice, was convicted on the other counts, and sentenced to be cashiered, and imprisoned during her Majesty's pleasure. Hudson would have been tried with these three officers had he not died on September 25th 1702. Captains Fogg and Vincent were afterwards tried for having signed a protest against continuing the engagement with the French, although there was a reasonable probability that, had the action been properly renewed, a victory would have resulted. They alleged that they had signed the protest solely because, looking to the previous misbehaviour of the other captains, they feared lest, upon a recommencement of the action, the Breda and Falmouth, being wholly deserted, would fall a prey to the enemy. Benbow and others bore testimony to the courage and general good conduct of these two officers, who, in consequence, were sentenced only to be suspended, and that not until the Lord High Admiral's pleasure should be known. George Walton, alone of the English captains engaged, was not tried. He had borne himself with the most uniform gallantry and loyalty; and he lived to do much more good service, and to die with unsullied reputation at a green old age, a knight and Admiral of the Blue.

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