1st Action off Monti Christi

20th March 1780
Part of : The American War of Independence (1775/04/19 - 1784/01/14)
Previous action : Battle of Cape St. Vincent 16.1.1780
Next action : Battle of Martinique 17.4.1780

In March, 1780. the Lion, commanded by Captain Cornwallis, was making an ordinary service cruise off the north side of Haiti, having in company the Bristol, 50, Captain Toby Caulfield, and the Janus, 44, Captain Bonovier Glover. On the 20th of March, off Monte Christi, a number of sail were sighted to the eastward, which proved to be a French convoy, on its way from Martinique to Cap Frangois, protected by La Motte-Picquet's squadron of 2 seventy-fours, 1 sixty-four. 1 fifty, and a frigate. The French merchant ships were ordered to crowd sail for their port, while the men-of-war chased to the north-west. La Motte-Picquet's flagship, the Annibal, 74, got within range at 5 P.M., when a distant cannonade began, which lasted till past midnight, and was resumed on the following morning. From it the Janus was the chief sufferer, losing her mizzen topmast and fore-topgallant mast. It falling nearly calm, the Bristol and Lion got out their boats and towed to her support. The two other French ships of the line got up during the forenoon of the 21st, so that the action that afternoon, though desultory, might be called general.

The two opposing commodores differ in their expressed opinions as to the power of the French to make the affair more decisive. Some of La Motte-Picquet's language seems to show that he felt the responsibility of his position. " The James, being smaller and more easily worked, lay upon our quarter and under our stern, where she did considerable damage. A little breeze springing up enabled us (the Annibal") to stand towards our own ships, which did everything possible to come up and cover us, without which we should have been surrounded." It is easy to see in such an expression the reflection of the commands of the French Cabinet, to economise the ships. This was still more evident in La Motte-Picquet's action next day. On the morning of the 22nd, " at daylight we were within one and a half cannon-shot, breeze fresh at east-north-east, and I expected to overtake the British squadron in an hour, when we perceived four ships in chase of us. At 0.30 A.M. three were seen to be men-of-war. This superiority of force compelled me to desist, and to make signal to haul our wind for Cap Francois." These three new-comers were the Ruby, 64, and two frigates, the Pomona, 28, and Niger, 32. The comparison of forces, therefore, would be: French, 2 seventy-fours, 1 sixty-four, 1 fifty, and 1 frigate, opposed to, British, 2 sixty-fours, 1 fifty, and 3 frigates. La Motte-Picquet evidently did not wait to ascertain the size of the approaching ships. His courage was beyond all dispute, and, as Hyde Parker had said, he was among the most distinguished of French officers; but, like his comrades, he was dominated by the faulty theory of his government.

The captain of the Janus died a natural death during the encounter. It may be interesting to note that the ship was given to Nelson, who was recalled for that purpose from the San Juan expedition. His health, however, prevented this command from being more than nominal, and not long afterwards he returned to England with Cornwallis, in the Lion.

 

Great Britain

 
Initial British Ships
Ship NameCommanderNotes
Lion (64) The Hon. William Cornwallis (1744-1819)Fleet Flagship
Bristol (50) Tobias Caulfield (c.1739-1781)
Janus (44) Bonovier Glover (d.1780) CO Killed
 
British Reinforcements
Ship NameCommanderNotes
Ruby (64) John Cowling (d.1792)
Pomona (28) Charles Edmund Nugent (1759-1844)
Niger (32) John Brown (1751-1808)
 

Royaume de France

 
French Ships, Chevalier Jean Guillaume Toussaint Picquet (Comte de la Motte) (1720-1791)
Ship NameCommanderNotes
L'Annibal (74) Chevalier Jean Guillaume Toussaint Picquet (Comte de la Motte) (1720-1791)Fleet Flagship
Le Diadème (74) Dampierre
Le Refléchi (64)  
L'Amphion (50)  
La Diane (32)  
 

Sources


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