Wilhelmina vs Psyche

11th April 1804
Part of : The Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815)
Previous action : Capture of the Egyptienne 27.3.1804
Next action : Capture of the Vincejo 8.5.1804

 

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

 
Unknown Division
Ship NameCommanderNotes
 
Ship NameCommanderNotes
Wilhelmina (32) Henry Lambert (d.1813)
 

République Française

 
Unknown Division
Ship NameCommanderNotes
 
Ship NameCommanderNotes
La Psyche (42) TrogoffCo mortal wounded and Capitaine in Second killed
 

Notes on Action


Description of the actionW005

On the 9th of April, at daylight, in latitude 7° 44' north, and longitude 84° 30' east, the British armed en flute late 12-pounder 32-gun frigate Wilhelmina, Captain Henry Lambert, steering west-north-west, with the wind at north by east, and accompanied by the country-ship William-Petrie, laden with government stores for Trincomale, and which ship the frigate, being bound to Madras, had been ordered to protect as far as the courses of the two remained the same, discovered a sail in the east-south-east steering to the eastward. Shortly afterwards the stranger wore and stood after the British vessels. Towards noon it fell calm, and the afternoon and night passed with very little wind, the stranger, until dark, still in sight. At daylight on the 10th, the wind then a light breeze from the north-east, and the course of the frigate and her charge about west half-north, the stranger was seen in the east by north, steering to the south-west. In a little time the latter hauled to the wind on the starboard tack, and steered directly after the former. Serving that the vessel was a ship of force, and suspecting her to be an enemy's cruiser, Captain Lambert directed the master of the William-Petrie, who had already arrived at the point for parting company, to alter his course after dark, and make the best of his way to the port of his destination.



The jury-rig alone of an armed en flute ship-of-war is a great deception, and it is generally in the power of the captain to give a mercantile appearance to the hull of his vessel. This was particularly the case in regard to the Wilhelmina, she being a ship of Dutch construction. It was the disguised appearance of the Wilhelmina that induced the stranger, who we may now introduce as the French frigate privateer Psyche, of 36 guns, Captain Trogoff, after reconnoitring as she had done, boldly to approach, with the determination of attacking the supposed Indiaman. At 6 p.m. came on a squall with rain; through which, in her eagerness to close with the latter, the Psyche carried all sail. At 6h. 45 m., it being dark and cloudy, the Wilhelmina, who to allow her opponent to come up had previously shortened sail, hove-to. At 9 p.m. the Wilhelmina filled, and, lowering her topgallant-sails and driver, continued under easy sail, discovering the Psyche at intervals through the flashes of lightning, which were extremely vivid.



On the 11th, at 3 h. 30 m. a.m., a heavy squall from the north-north-west obliged the Wilhelmina to hand her topgallant-sails and lower her topsails, and for the present, shut out the Psyche from her view. At daylight, however, the latter re-appeared, still in the north-east ; and the British frigate immediately tacked, and with colours flying, stood toward her. The gallantry of this step will be better appreciated when it is known, that the Wilhelmina mounted only 14 long 9-pounders, and one 12 pounder carronade fitted upon trucks and used as a shifting gun, on her main-deck, and four long 9-pounders (which had been left by the Victorious at Madras) and two sixes on her quarter-deck and forecastle, with a complement of 134 men and boys, 10 of the men received out of the 50-gun ship Grampus, to work the four extra nines; whereas the Psyche, formerly a French national frigate, of the class and size of the Vailleuse, or Egyptienne as subsequently named, mounted 24 long French 12-pounders on the main deck, and 10 (English, we believe) 18-pounder carronades and two French sixes on the quarter-deck and forecastle, with a crew of 250 men and boys.



At 5h. 30 m. a.m., being on the larboard tack, with the wind still from the north-north-west, but moderate, the Wilhelmina passed about 50 yards to windward of the Psyche, then, with French colours flying, close hauled on the opposite tack. After a mutual broadside, accompanied on the part of the French ship by a hail to surrender, the Psyche tacked, and the Wilhelmina wore; each ship continuing to fire as her guns could be brought to bear. The plan adopted by the Psyche, of pointing every alternate gun upon the broadside at her opponent's rigging, occasioned the Wilhelmina, from the loss of bowlines and braces, to come to the wind on the starboard tack with every sail aback. While the British ship lay in this unmanageable state, the French ship passed under her stern ; and, raking the Wilhelmina, knocked away the maintopmast, badly wounded the main yard, and did considerable damage to her rigging and sails.



Having at length paid off and got before the wind, the Wilhelmina brought her larboard broadside to bear ; and presently the Psyche evinced an intention to board the British frigate upon the quarter ; but, on seeing that the latter was prepared to repel the attempt, the Psyche put her helm a-starboard and sheered off. A furious cannonade was now maintained on both sides, the yard-arms nearly locking, until the Psyche, ranging ahead, crossed her opponent's bows. In practising this manoeuvre, the Psyche brought herself in the wind; but by throwing her headsails aback, and keeping her after-yards square or shivering, the French ship paid off: not, however, until the Wilhelmina, with her starboard guns, had poured in a raking fire astern. After this the two ships again got parallel to each other, and again engaged so closely, that the yards were overhanging; when, at 7 a.m., profiting by her more perfect state aloft, and her very superior powers of sailing, the Psyche ceased firing, crowded all the canvas she could spread, and stood away to the south-east.



This being an action during the progress of which the combatants frequently changed positions, the details of it will be better understood by a reference to the diagram in the next page.



Ill calculated, indeed, was the Wilhelmina for a chase, either from or towards an enemy. Her maintopmast was down; her bowsprit wounded in two, and her foremast in 10 places; her fore and main yards, and her main and mizen masts were also wounded, and her lower rigging and all her boats more or less damaged. Her aftermost forecastle bits were shot away, and her hull was pierced with shot in several places. A Captain Wright, of the India-service, was on board the Psyche" during the engagement, and subsequently mentioned, that the Wilhelmina's shot, comparatively small as they were, had reduced the privateer to nearly a sinking state; the latter, at the close of the action, having seven feet water in her hold, a circumstance that sufficiently explains the manner of its termination.



Of her 134 men and boys, the Wilhelmina had her boatswain and three seamen mortally, and six seamen slightly, wounded. It may here be remarked, that the additional height given to the trucks of the Wilhelmina's main-deck carriages, to suit them to ports constructed for 12-pounders, was found to increase the facility of working the nines; a circumstance which occasioned her inferiority in number of men to be less sensibly felt. With respect to the loss on board the Psyche, that ship, according to the statement of Captain Wright, had her second captain and 10 men killed, and her commander (dangerously) and 32 men wounded, 13 of them mortally.



With such a disparity of force as evidently existed against the Wilhelmina, this was an action highly honourable to the British ship. It is true that the Wilhelmina's opponent was a privateer; but the Psyche, by all accounts, was a better appointed, better manned, and better disciplined ship, than many frigates of the same force in the French navy. Commanded by no less a man than Captain Jacques Bergeret, already known to us as the Virginie's gallant captain, the Pysche had sailed from Madras in the beginning of February, bound to Pondicherry on commercial pursuits. Thence she proceeded to the Isle of France, and arrived there in May. In June or July news of the war reached the island. The Psyche was immediately armed and equipped as a ship-of-war; but Captain Bergeret, preferring employment in the national navy, sent out his ship to cruise, under the command of Captain Trogoff, either the son or nephew of the French admiral who commanded the ships at Toulon when Lord Hood entered that port in August, 1793; Captain Trogoff was considered, in the eastern hemisphere, the chief scene of his exploits, to be a brave, skilful, and enterprising officer.



On the other hand, it was Captain Lambert's good fortune to have been preceded in the command of the Wilhelmina by an officer who knew how to appreciate (and how few do) the art of naval gunnery. Captain James Lind had been indefatigable in teaching his men to fire with precision; and the effect of the skill attained by the latter was visible in the execution they did to an antagonist, that otherwise, notwithstanding they continued to display, as no doubt they would, the characteristic bravery of British seamen, might, by her decided superiority of force, have ultimately compelled the Wilhelmina to surrender.




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