Action of 1781-05-30

30th May 1781
Part of : The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780 - 1784)
Next action : Attack in Saldanha Bay 21.7.1781


Great Britain

British Division, William Peere Williams (1740/41-1832)
Ship NameCommanderNotes
Flora (36) William Peere Williams (1740/41-1832)Squadron Flagship 9 killed, 32 wounded
Crescent (28) The Hon. Thomas Pakenham (1757-1836), John Bligh (1735-1795)26 killed, 67 wounded

Dutch Republic

Dutch Division
Ship NameCommanderNotes
Castor (36) Melvill van CarnbeeFleet Flagship 22 killed, 41 wounded Captured
Brielle (36) G. Oorthuis12 killed, 40 wounded

Notes on Action


The British frigates Flora, 36, Captain William Peere Williams, and Crescent, 28, Captain the Hon. Thomas Pakenham, had been detached by Admiral Darby with a convoy to Minorca. their return, early on May 23rd, when off the south-east coast of Spain, they were chased by a Spanish squadron, and only escaped after a sharp skirmish, in which the Flora lost a man killed and another badly injured, through loading a gun before it had been sponged out. The British frigates, having shaken off their pursuers by altering course, reached Gibraltar safely on the 29th. After communicating with the garrison, they stood over to Ceuta to look for two large ships which had been seen earlier in the morning. They discovered these to be Dutch frigates, and were preparing to attack when a storm compelled them to haul off. Next day the wind fell and they were able to attack the two Dutch vessels, which were the Castor, 36, Captain Pieter Melvill, 1 and the Briel, Captain Gerardus Oorthuijs, also of 36 guns. The ships paired off, the Flora engaging the Castor, and the Crescent the Briel.

The Flora was very much more heavily armed than the Castor, 2 but the Dutchman fought her, none the less, for two hours and a quarter before striking. The Flora lost her Lieutenant of Marines killed, as also did the Castor; of the British wounded eight, and of the Dutch eleven, died after the battle.

The Crescent, a far smaller and weaker ship, was less fortunate in her combat with the Briel, a vessel of equal if not superior force The quarter-deck guns and four main-deck guns were disabled; the head-yards and sails were shot away early in the engagement; and a little later the wreck of the mainmast, mizenmast, and booms fell into the waist of the ship, fatally encumbering her deck, disabling all the guns before the mainmast, and rendering the ship unmanageable. The Briel was to windward and could not be boarded by the Crescent, and the Dutch frigate at once made use of her advantage and came round under the Crescent's stern, whence she began to rake the British ship. Captain Pakenham, as not a gun would bear, and not a yard of canvas was left standing on his frigate, was compelled to strike. The Dutch were not able to take possession, since by that time the victorious Flora was approaching. The Briel, therefore, made off to Cadiz in a very shattered condition, and though her mainmast fell, succeeded in reaching that port.

Extract from the Journal of Captain Oorthuys

Journal kept by me on board the frigate of War Briel, crewed by 230 heads among them 51 soldiers and mounting 36 guns: 26 pieces of 12lbs, 2 of 6lbs and 8 of 4lbs and one of 1/2lbs (probably a swivel gun). Kept by me Geerardus Oorthuys, sailing as first officer on above vessel under command of the honorable gentleman captain I. van Gennep and at his death at Rotterdam put in command by his royal highness the Lord's Prince of Orange on December 18th and confirmed in my command by their high mightinesses [the Rotterdam admiralty] on December 27th.

Tuesday May 29th 1781: During the night watch the wind was NE-by-N, topgallant breeze [~ beaufort 3], during the day the wind turned NE to S, fresh topgallant breeze, heading WSW. Spotted two frigates to the NNW from our position, streaming English ensigns and signals for Gibraltar. As far as could be seen, one had 14 guns on his gun deck apart from the quarterdeck. Seeing our commander [Melvill] do so, we raised our ensign and made ready to engage, fastened our topgallants and reefed our main sails. At that time the reported frigates lessened sail and lowered their ensigns and seemed to drift [or drifted to leeway]. When we saw the commander increase sail, we did so too and set our course for the Straits [of Gibraltar] and raised Europa point [the southernmost point of the cape] at 8 'o clock. Two miles away to the NNE, we see some frigates and ships at Gibraltar, but could not distinguish them through the hazy air. In the afternoon the wind (NE) increased to a strong topgallant breeze [4 Bft] and later topsail breeze [5 Bft], heading west. The above frigates turned with us and faster as well and at 9.30 they came alongside although still out of range. However, we noted our commander give a broadside to the one in front, so we gave one to the one alongside us which was closer. They hove away to avoid combat, to my mind because the breeze was getting to strong. We loaded all our guns with sharp again and blew off the other broadside [presumably on the side facing away from the English frigate], because those had been loaded for a long time and we wanted to be ship-shape and in good order if we got engaged with our enemy. We see the above frigates sail away and cut in front of commander and make sail for us, staying outside of gun range however around noon. Passed cape Trafalgar to the NE-by-E 3 miles out according to our dead reckoning of 35°40'N). Wind ESE, small gale (7 Bft), heading NW by W, WSW during the first watch, a rainy sky in the SW, sometimes rain and thunderflashes; very changeable weather. Saw the frigates following us, but staying out of range. Remained at quarters for engagement with the enemy, who seemed to avoid such, presumably because of the unsteady weather, rainy sky, high seas and thick rain with strong flashes of thunder.

Wednesday the 30th durin the night watch wind SW and SSE unsteady breeze and strong gusts of wind and thick rains. Saw the English frigates to the ENE, behind us. During the day watch, the wind the wind was SE changing to SW, 7 Bft, thick with rain, can see the Castor with the looking glass coming towards us. They hailed us, but we could not understand him, had to heave to so as to avoid collision. Around two on the hourglass the frigates gave us a broadside which we returned. We were heavily engaged, but between 5 and 9 on the hourglass I saw that our commander had struck his flag and hove away together with the English frigate [the Flora, 44 guns - 36 + 8 carronades - Capt.Peere Williams] and stopped firing, which made me presume that the captain was either injured or dead as I could not see any damage on either of the ships and to the naked eye seemed to have their full rigging. I kept my position and encouraged my crew more and more so as to keep them from knowing about it [the surrender of Castor] and we kept up a heavy fire with guns, blunderbusses and were even so close that we could throw some grenades on the Englishman from our main mast and a hail of balls on both sides. The frigate that was fighting Castor at the beginning of the fight passed us by on our starboard and gave them 8 to 10 shot of 12lbs, most of which hit home en fired handguns into him as well, but they increased range again and sailed forward [apparently Castor and Brielle had attempted to get Flora between them]. We could not follow because most of our rigging and sails had been shot to splinters, our rudder was unresponsive and we had several dead and severely injured. We also got many cannonball through our masts, topmasts and into the ship, all of 12lbs and 18lbs and much grapeshot from the frigate with which we were engaged. She came about us from ahead and aft, but did not fire strongly anymore, and we blasted him and caused great damage to his rigging and people, at which time I was hit in my left hand, but it was not important. Another bullet hit me over my head and through the edge of my English hat without hurting me. But seeing an English flag waving from the Castor, I encouraged my people which continually gave our enemy heavy broadsides with a will and at 7 'o clock we shot the frigate's main and mizzen masts overboard. After which, she gave a few more shots, but shortly after she struck and hailed us, waving his hat in surrender and around 8 we floated apart because all our rigging was in pieces and our sloops were holed through, so we could not put those out to take possession of our prize. Our main and fore mast were about to fall overboard because cordage, rigging, standing rigging and topmasts were all in pieces, pierced with balls everywhere. Our prize too drifted off, was rudderless, with his foremast and sails very helpless and the wind had gradually lessened. It had rained continually during the fight, so that muskets on both sides got wet and and finally would not fire anymore. We repaired our rigging as much as possible and hove to to the South by East, because I did not think it safe to stay close to our prize, while there were two frigates with full rigging nearby, which had not fought longer than 2 or 3 on the hourglass. We had been hit close and under our guns and at four on the hourglass during the morning our main mast fell overboard because of the heavy sea with everything attached to it. A man hacked it all loose to get rid of it all and it was no time to claim anything, nor to come close to a fresh enemy which had recovered by now, but he did not come nearer.

We sustained 120 casualties during the combat. We threw arms, legs, heads and corpses shot in half overboard to get such a miserable display out of sight, and had many severely injured. We were in heavy combat for 6 (units on the) hourglass without break. All my officers, midshipmen, sailors and soldiers have all been equally courageous. On inspection, we found that our bow anchor with the two sea anchors were shot away and around the outboard and some 12lbs guns had gone from one board to the other [shot loose?] and had many shots between wind and water, but our ship was still watertight. The weather cleared during the afternoon and a SW slight breeze. Considering our course and time of day, our dead reckoning was 1/3 mile W and 181/2 miles, having Cadiz ENE at 181/2 miles, 35°38'N. In the late afternoon our fore sail, which was severely holed with shot, blew away. We put a new one in place and braced the fore mast and fore spars as much as possible. The top of the fore mast had been almost shot off above the second coil and the fore spar had been shot of below the crosstree. We knotted and split everything with cordage to keep it in place. Was reported that * of the injured had died.

Wind W by NW, topgallant breeze, cut the fore topgallant spar loose, which had been shot in half and was swinging to and fro violently. At 6 'o clock we could no longer see the other frigates and turned before the wind and coursed for NNE. Many handguns were missing and damaged, two blunderbusses and some guns had gone overboard with the main mast as well as 50 hammocks of the crew, most others in pieces and useless. During the first watch the wind was W..W to NW, topgallant breeze, clearing sky, nice weather, heading N with wind NE by N, high seas, rolling heavily.

Discovered that we had shot alltogether 1200 shot with the 12, 6 and 4lbs guns.

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