The Second French War

With the outbreak of the second French War, the Falmouth service entered on a new and better period. It is in fact to the years now opening that Falmouth men look back with pride and satisfaction, years in which one gallant action followed another in quick succession, whilst the officers and crews of every Packet seemed to vie with each other in courage and devotion to their duties.

A large portion of the credit of the better temper which manifested itself from this time forth must of course be attributed to the zeal with which Lord Auckland and Mr. Freeling had plied the reformer’s broom ; but as no regulations or discipline from headquarters can avail greatly against a supine or hostile executive, it is only fair to acknowledge that the officers at Falmouth worked most heartily in the same direction as their chiefs. Indeed, it would seem as if the reproach cast upon the station by the conduct of the officers of the “Duke of York”, had bitten deeply into the heart of the whole establishment, and roused them to shake off the old and evil practices which had led to such disgrace. There was a dark stain on the honour of the Service, and every man set himself to wipe it out. How nobly this was done the following pages will amply show.

Among a number of less important reforms which had been carried out during the last three years perhaps the most useful was the ingenious system by which the absenteeism of the commanders was checked, while at the same time a substantial benefit was conferred on the Service. A system of mulcts was established, under which every commander wishing to remain on shore when his turn came for proceeding to sea sacrificed a certain proportion of the profits which he would have made upon the voyage. But at the same time the sting was taken out of these money fines, and they were even made popular, by a regulation throwing them all into one fund, the interest of which was devoted to pensioning the widows and orphans of captains and masters who were left in distressed circumstances. Mulcts, which were really nothing more than enforced subscriptions towards an object which must be congenial even to the mulcted, were in fact not open to criticism. The amount of the penalty was sufficiently large to induce some hesitation before incurring it, but as no exemptions from it were granted, even for reasonable business, the pension fund grew and prospered, and proved of the greatest benefit to the Service.

Among the captains who by this salutary new rule were tempted back to their own quarter-decks was Captain Yescombe, the remarkable story of whose escape from a French prison in the year 1794 has been told in a former chapter.

Since the events there described, Captain Yescombe, at his own urgent request, had been allowed to perform his duties by substitute, on the plea of having received a strong hint that it would go hardly with him if he were a second time made prisoner.

What it was that he feared, or on what ground, is not easy to make out ; but it is clear that he had some apprehension of more than ordinary danger in resuming his sea life, and that he managed to convince the authorities of the reality of this danger. It is therefore not a little strange to find that on his first voyage after the war broke out again his forebodings were verified, and his ruin compassed by a French vessel named “The Reprisal”.

It was on July 23rd, 1803, that the “King George”  set sail from Lisbon for Falmouth. The passage should have occupied about a week ; but the “King George” never arrived in port. Her fate was not long doubtful. On August 12th the “Auckland” Packet, which had left Lisbon some days later, sighted a Swedish galliot, which signalled to her to speak with them. On bearing down accordingly, the officers of the “Auckland” found that the galliot was manned by their friends and colleagues of the “King George” the refugees of a lost sea fight, in which, though most of them had received severe wounds, all had escaped alive, save only Captain Yescombe, who had died of his hurts on the previous day.

The fight, it appeared, had occurred on the 30th July. The Packet made a stout resistance, and at first with some hope of success, notwithstanding the obvious superiority of the enemy, a Privateer carrying fourteen 4-pounders and a hundred men, whilst the “King George” had only twenty-six men and six guns. The Falmouth men served their guns well, but they suffered so heavily in their spars and rigging that at last, after a heavy cannonade lasting nearly an hour, the enemy obtained an opportunity of boarding.

From that moment the last chance of saving the Packet disappeared. The French poured fiftymen, upon her decks. There was a desperate scuffle, but a few minutes decided the affair. Captain Yescombe fell, shot through the thigh. Mr. St. Aubyn, the mate, and three seamen were wounded, the rest were quickly overpowered, and the ship was won.

The French carried their prize into Vigo, and it was in that port that the Cornishmen hired the galliot, in which they were returning home when the “Auckland” met them. Captain Yescombe, by the accounts of those who were present at his last fight, conducted it with skill and courage. He was highly respected by his colleagues, and it cannot be said that he left them any but an animating example.

It may be observed at this point that the maxim enunciated so often in 1793, when the new model was introduced, namely, that “the idea of defence was to be wholly abandoned” appears much more rarely in official reports of the early years of this century. It was still cherished by the Department, but chiefly for public consumption. It reappeared down to the very eve of the peace whenever the merchants complained, but to their own officers, my Lords the Postmaster General used very different language. They could not indeed supply their captains with heavier armaments, but they could and did stimulate them on every occasion to make a spirited use of what they had, and to such encouragement the Falmouth men responded nobly.

At this period a figure appears on the stage at Falmouth which deserves more than a passing mention. Captain John Bull was exceedingly well known in his day, both as a good seaman and a gallant officer, and his ship, the “Duke of Marlborough” shared in his well-earned reputation.

In the “Duke of Marlborough” Captain John Bull fought more actions than any other Packet officer, and, though he by no means won them all, yet when he was most unfortunate, he emerged with credit, and an added title to the confidence of the public. There was, moreover, a bluff heartiness about him, a breezy contempt of danger, a dogged persistence in carrying through whatever he had undertaken, which excites our admiration even after the lapse of so many years, and goes far to explain how it happened that in his lifetime he was regarded as the embodiment of the best qualities of the Falmouth Service, and by an affectionate deference on the part of his colleagues was awarded by them the nickname, or title, of “the Commodore”.

The “Commodore’s” first voyage as commander – in succession to his father – served to prove the qualities which brought him fame. The “Duke of Marlborough” was not yet built, and Captain Bull was in command of the “Grantham” a fine, full-rigged ship, which, from some unexplained accident, suddenly foundered while lying at Barbados. Captain Bull was on shore at the time, and the officer left in charge had only time to save the mails before the ship went down, carrying with her almost the whole of Captain Bull’s possessions.

The blow was a heavy one, for the “Grantham” belonged to Captain Bull. If he had remained on the spot, he might have recovered some portion of his property by salvage, but there was no time for delay. His duty was to convey the mails to Jamaica, and he lost no time in chartering a schooner, in which he reached Jamaica even earlier than he had been expected. The plucky way in which so young a captain faced his misfortunes won for him a considerable amount of esteem among the merchants in the island ; and feeling confident that their property was safe in his hands, they appealed to the Governor and to the Deputy Postmaster of the colony to entrust to him the mails which the “Grantham” should have carried home to England, and to authorize him to charter a vessel for the passage. The Postmaster hesitated. He would have preferred to hold the mails over until the Packet of the following month arrived, but in the end he yielded to the wishes of the merchants. A Privateer, the “Caroline” was hired, and Captain Bull set sail for England.

It was curious how persistently ill-fortune pursued him. On the very day on which the “Caroline” left Kingston harbour she sprang a leak, and after vainly endeavouring to keep the water under, Captain Bull was obliged to bear up for port. To add to the dangers of his position, a strong breeze rose, which quickly increased to a full gale.The ship was labouring heavily, and making water most uncomfortably fast. It was clear that she could never reach port, and Captain Bull resolved that their only chance lay in running her ashore.

In such a storm the expedient was desperate enough, but a spot was selected in which it seemed possible that the ship might hold together, and by skilful management the lives of all on board were saved. The mails, too, were got ashore uninjured, and for the second time within ten days Captain Bull presented himself at Kingston in the capacity of a shipwrecked mariner, possessing nothing of his own except the clothes in which he stood, but bringing with him all the public property entrusted to his care.

Confirmed in their confidence by this second proof that it was well bestowed, the merchants would have their mails entrusted to no one else, and within three days Captain Bull was once more afloat, this time on board the “Thomas” an armed ship bound for Liverpool. The “Thomas” was a good and seaworthy craft, and the voyage passed over without incident until in mid-Atlantic she encountered a French corvette of twenty-four guns, which bore down and opened fire on the “Thomas”.  A sharp action followed, which might have ended unfortunately had not a lucky shot cut away the mizzen-mast of the corvette, and in the confusion of this disaster the “Thomas” made good her escape.

Captain Bull had lost his ship, but he had gained his reputation. From this time forth he was always named as one of the most active commanders on the station. The “Duke of Marlborough” replaced the “Grantham” and in this famous Packet many notable people elected to make the voyage home to Falmouth, relying on the skill of her well-known captain. So general indeed was the impression that the passage could be made with perfect safety on board the “Duke of Marlborough” that Sir Thomas Maitland, when his command in the Windward Islands expired, refused to go home in a frigate, declaring that he preferred to sail with Captain Bull.

In April,1804, the “Duke of Marlborough” was outward bound to the Leeward Islands ; and, when about twenty-five leagues to the eastward of Barbados, she was chased by an armed schooner. Captain Bull altered the course of his ship, and made all sail to avoid an action, if possible ; but at the end of an hour it was evident that the stranger ship was gaining ground. Her behaviour left little doubt that she was a Privateer out of one of the French islands ; but, in order to settle the matter, Captain Bull made the private signal; and finding it remained unanswered he called his men to quarters.

All preparations for the coming fight were completed long before the enemy came within range. The boarding nettings were triced up, and stuffed with hammocks and spare sails; the boat was cut away, so as not to impede the action of the stern guns ; the mail was brought on deck, weighted with pigs of iron, and placed near one of the portholes, in charge of a sailor who was instructed to sink it instantly should the enemy appear likely to take the vessel ; the small arms were served out; the men had their dinner, and were all at their posts when at about 3 P.M. the enemy came within range, and opened fire.

A broadside from the “Duke of Marlborough” was the answer to this salute ; and before the smoke of these discharges cleared away the Privateer was within pistol shot distance of the Packet, both running before the wind ; and a very hot cannonade ensued.

A few minutes’ observation sufficed to show Captain Bull that he was in the hands of an enemy of much superior force. There were five guns on the schooner’s broadside, while the “Duke of Marlborough” had but three ; and whenever he could get a view of his opponent’s deck, he saw it crowded with men, beside whom his little handful of thirty-two men and boys looked insignificant. But this was not the worst of it ; for ere long musket balls began to rattle about the decks of the Packet. A passenger fell, shot through the head ; a few minutes later a seaman was killed ; and it was soon seen that no less than fifty riflemen were posted in the tops of the schooner, whence they were picking off any one who showed himself from under cover of the bulwarks.

Captain Bull could spare no man from the deck of his ship; and was thus unable to retaliate. He was now, however, within about twelve leagues of Barbados and there was a good chance of running under shelter of the island, if he were not first dismasted. At the end of an hour, however, during which he maintained a stout resistance, it was clear that he could not much longer manoeuvre his ship, which had suffered greatly in her spars and rigging. Two more of his men were down. He himself was almost wholly incapacitated by a rifle bullet which had pierced both cheeks ; and at this juncture, the Privateer ran suddenly alongside, the “Duke of Marlborough” refused to obey her helm, the French made fast their grapplings, and were pouring down in overwhelming numbers upon the Packet’s deck, when Captain Bull, perceiving that further resistance was hopeless, ordered the mail to be sunk, tore up his private signals, and struck his colours.

The French captain knew how to appreciate a gallant enemy; and Captain Bull always acknowledged the kindness shown to him, and to the wounded. The “Duke of Marlborough” was navigated into Guadeloupe, where the unwounded sailors were thrown into what Captain Bull described as “the most horrible dungeon that can be conceived, where they had scarcely sufficient air to breathe”. Fortunately they were not kept long in this confinement, but were liberated after a short captivity, and permitted to return to England.

It may be useful to remark at this point that these French Privateers, of which such numbers were sent out from Guadeloupe and Martinique, were not only formidable by reason of the numbers of their crews and the weight of metal which they carried, but even more on account of the desperate courage with which they attacked. Many a sloop of the British Navy, armed and manned with a force far superior to that of the Post-Office Packets found it no child’s play to encounter one of these ocean free-lances, and some had reason to regret having challenged them. The “General Erneuf” was widely known and dreaded in the Caribbean Archipelago, as was also her sister ship, “La Dame Erneuf”. The career of the latter vessel was stopped in 1805 by H.M. brig “Curieux,” after a very sharp action, in which, as Captain Bettesworth testifies in his report, the French had “30 killed and 41 wounded”. And “in justice to his gallantry” the captain adds, “I must say he never struck whilst there was a man on his decks”. 

Such being the spirit in which the French Privateers were fought, it is not wonderful that they committed great ravages among our commerce. The “Duke of Marlborough” was converted into a Privateer, and on her first voyage captured H.M.sloop “Lily. The sloop in her turn was re-christened “General Erneuf,” the original vessel of the name having been lost in some unexplained manner. The name had lost its luck, however, for she was quickly brought to account by H.M. sloop Reynard,” Captain Jeremiah Coghlen, who in thirty-five minutes reduced her to such a condition of helplessness that her captain blew her up in preference to surrendering.

With facts such as these before us, it is impossible to make light of the actions fought by the Falmouth Packets against these formidable adversaries. The merit of a fight does not depend on the numbers of the men engaged, but on the quality of the defence offered by the weaker party. The character of a forlorn hope attaches to every one of the battles into which these little vessels carried so high a spirit; and it must always be a matter of regret that the records of so many of them have been allowed to perish.

There lies before the writer a list of actions fought in the years 1804 and 1805, every one of which might well be thought to deserve some record, had not the details of them been forgotten. It was justly accounted no disgrace to Captain Bull to surrender to the “General Erneuf”; yet Captain Patterson, in the “Eliza” fought and beat this very Privateer a few months later. The action lasted two hours and a half; and one would give much to know what passed during that time, for it is certain that the Privateer did not drop the prey in which she had fixed her teeth without hard and heavy fighting.

In May, 1805, Captain Mudge, in the “Queen Charlotte” defended himself for two hours against a Privateer of 16 guns and 110 men. Captain Mudge had seen much service in the navy, and had been present at the engagement with Admiral Langara off Cape St. Vincent in 1781. He was a brave and experienced officer, of whom it might be said with confidence that he fought to the very utmost before he surrendered.

It is unfortunate that these and many another gallant fight can never now be described ; but we are happily in possession of fuller details of a very important public service rendered about this time by a Falmouth officer, on almost the only occasion when the forces of a Packet were employed, and properly employed, in an action which might have been avoided, but was deliberately sought.

The island of Dominica, in some respects the most beautiful of all the West Indian group, was an object of continual envy on the part of the French. Lying as it did almost within sight of their own island of Guadeloupe, it seemed not impossible that by a sudden attack it might be captured and it is strange that the danger of such a surprise was not more carefully guarded against by the English Government.

Whatever may be the explanation of this negligence, it happened that in May, 1806, though a number of sugar ships fully laden were lying in Rozeau Bay, the capture of which would inflict a most serious loss upon the planters, there was actually no ship of war in the bay or in the neighbourhood for their protection. It is true that H.M. sloop “Dominica” had been sent to cruise off Guadeloupe ; but even with the greatest zeal and enterprise, this vessel could scarcely have counted on intercepting more than a small proportion of the Privateers which lurked in every bay and creek of that notorious island, while, as it happened, any schemes which her officers had formed in this direction were promptly frustrated by a mutiny of the crew, who seized the vessel, took her into Guadeloupe, and reported to the French the defenceless state of Dominica.

Of course such an opportunity was not likely to be lost ; and it was fortunate for the Dominica planters that no French frigate or ship of the line was lying at Guadeloupe that day. Had the French been able to place such a vessel at the head of their flotilla, it can scarcely be doubted that the island must have fallen, for its shore defences were not adapted for resisting a strenuous attack, and the troops in garrison, consisting of detachments of the 46th and 3rd West India Regiments, were by no means numerous.

As it was, the outlook was sufficiently serious. The French promptly took the traitorous crew out of the ” Dominica” replaced them with sailors of their own nationality, and added as many troops as the vessel could carry. They re-named her “Napoleon” gave her as consorts “L’Imperial” a national schooner, and a sloop, both packed with troops, and added a couple of row-boats or galleys General well stored with arms and ammunition. Hortade took command, and the flotilla appeared off Dominica on the 24th May.

Its appearance aroused very great and natural alarm. A glance showed that the expedition was a strong one ; and, even if a landing could be prevented, it was difficult to see how the sugar ships could be saved. To slip their moorings, and stand out to sea in different directions, would probably be to meet destruction singly ; while in harbour they were at least under protection of whatever guns could be placed in position for their defence. There was no time to unload the cargoes, and but little chance of saving them ; and the merchants gathered on the quay in consternation, watching the French ships grow nearer and nearer.

At this crisis, and while the enemy was still some miles off the land, two English ships entered the bay. One of them was the Packet, “Duke of Montrose” commanded by Captain Bert Dyneley, a brave and skilful officer. The other was H.M.S. “Attentive” which had been told off to convoy the Packet and the mails from Barbados through the among which Privateers archipelago of islands, swarmed almost as thickly as the sea birds.

The arrival of an English ship of war seemed to the Dominica merchants a providential deliverance, and under the orders of General Dalrymple, President of the island, the “Attentive” lost no time in standing out to sea again to intercept the enemy.

Her movements were watched from shore with keen anxiety, but the “Attentive” proved herself a wretched sailer. It was not the practice of the Admiralty to tell off for convoy duty any vessel which would make a good cruiser ; and if the emergency had been less serious, Captain Dyneley, who must have found it difficult and irksome to keep back his own fine-sailing brig to the slower pace of the escort, might have been amused to see that the “Attentive”, stood no chance whatever of intercepting the French ships, every one of which was sailing easily away from her.

There was now no time to be lost. It was plain enough that the enemy would work havoc among the sugar ships, and might even land their troops before the “Attentive” could get into action. Only one chance of checking them remained ; and General Dalrymple, backed by all the merchants of the island, appealed to Captain Dyneley to take a detachment of troops on board his Packet, and risk her in defence of the island. This was a proposal which raised several serious considerations.

The Packets of course were no part of the fighting forces of the country. They were not even national property, but belonged nominally to the commander. The undertaking of the Department to pay for damage sustained in action might or might not apply to the present case. As far as Captain Dyneley knew there was no precedent for it.

His standing orders were to avoid action whenever he could; but he was now called on to seek an engagement, to throw his Packet in the way of a greatly superior force, and that, moreover, on a service quite distinct from the business of the Post-Office. Here was no question of protecting the mails, but rather of putting them in danger.

It is true that the service he was asked to render seemed the only means of averting a national disaster, and might be thought likely to establish a strong claim on the gratitude of the Government. But Captain Dyneley was well aware that when the actions of officers on critical occasions came to be considered in the serene atmosphere of Whitehall, they were often measured by standards very different from those applied to them on the spot; and while he probably felt little doubt that the Post- master General would make a generous appeal to the Treasury not to let him remain a loser for acting patriotically, he could be by no means certain that the trustees of the national purse would not argue that he ought to have stood out to sea, leaving the sugar ships to fight it out with the French, and that he acted most irregularly in thrusting his Packet into danger.

Captain Dyneley stated these facts to the President and merchants, and pointed out that while he was quite willing to risk his life and the lives of his crew upon a very hazardous service, it was scarcely reasonable to ask him to stake his ship also, which was worth £5000. He therefore proposed that the merchants should jointly guarantee to pay this amount, in case the “Duke of Montrose” were lost, and the Government declined to pay for her. But the merchants declined absolutely to entertain the proposal.

Captain Dyneley then proposed to divide the responsibility, taking on himself the risk of the masts, yards, rigging, and all the equipments of the Packet, if the President and the merchants would guarantee the value of the hull. This offer also was declined, and it was made clear to Captain Dyneley that if he attempted to save the merchants’ property, he must stake all his own on the event. The merchants would guarantee nothing. Not even the sight of the French ships drawing momentarily nearer induced them to unlock their purse-strings and if Captain Dyneley had insisted on his perfectly reasonable request, Dominica would have fallen, and might have remained a French possession to this day.

Happily for this country, its honour at that crisis did not depend upon a merchant. It was in the hands of a man whose mind was not dominated by the fear of money loss, and who, much as he might regret the risk of losing the capital on which his wife and children must depend if he fell in the coming action, dreaded far more the disgrace of seeing the Union Jack hauled down, and the tri-coloured ensign floating over Rozeau Bay. At this moment the Falmouth captain stood for England.

There was no time for reflection, and very little for preparation. Captain Dyneley cheerfully resolved to take upon himself the whole risk and responsibility of employing his Packet upon a service which, however it might result, could not be called a Post-Office service. He sent on shore all the mails which he had in charge, giving careful instructions that they were to be destroyed if in any danger of capture by the enemy. He called his crew together, explained to them what he was about to do, pointed out that they were by no means bound to follow him, and offered leave to go ashore to any man who cared to do so.

Of course not one of the Falmouth men flinched, and by the time Captain Dyneley had satisfied himself on this point, several boats full of troops had come alongside. Twenty-six men of the 46th Regiment, and thirteen of the 3rd West India Regiment, were taken on board the “Duke of Montrose”, making up with her own crew a complement of rather less than seventy men ; and thus provided, the Packet slipped her cable, and stood out of the bay to meet the advancing enemy.

It may be conceived with what anxiety the movements of the “Duke of Montrose”,  were watched from shore. The flotilla of French ships was full in sight, perilously near the harbour. The “Attentive”, was lying at some distance, evidently unable in the light wind which prevailed to manoeuvre with any effect. Captain Dyneley’s Packet, a vessel of not more than one hundred and ninety tons, was no larger than the smallest of the three sloops in the track of which she was thrown, and to the spectators on the quay it seemed that the three, acting in concert, must quickly send the “Duke of Montrose” to the bottom.

The first encouraging fact noticed by the merchants was that the Packet sailed incomparably better than any one of her enemies, and could choose her position as she pleased. She was, moreover, very skilfully handled, availing herself of every puff of the wind, which was now growing so light as to give some uneasiness. Whether by accident or design, the French vessels had become scattered, and Captain Dyneley seized the opportunity of dealing with them separately. By far the most formidable of them was “L’Imperial” and he there-fore singled her out, and bore down on her as fast as the weather permitted.

Unfortunately, the wind now failed altogether, and the spectators on the quay saw with dismay that the “Duke of Montrose” , was ceasing to cut the water, and lay with canvas hanging loose out of gunshot of “L’Imperial” As quickly as this was perceived, however, hasty movements were seen on board, the boats dropped over the side, a dozen men leapt into them, and with a cheer which came faintly over the water to the ears of the merchants, and put some heart into them, the Falmouth men towed their ship towards the enemy.

A short range was what Captain Dyneley wanted, his eight guns consisting chiefly of 12-pounder carronades, and he placed the “Duke of Montrose” within pistol-shot of “L’Imperial”. A very hot action then began. From the shore nothing could be distinguished but a cloud of smoke in which the two vessels were obscured. The “Attentive” was unable to attain a position which would enable her to give the Packet any assistance ; and irksome as it must have been to her officers to see their convoy doing the work, she seems to have contributed nothing to the result, unless, indeed, it was her presence on the scene which restrained the other French vessels from interfering in the fight.

If so, she rendered invaluable service, for Captain Dyneley had his hands full, and a very little would have inclined the scale against him. During three-quarters of an hour the fighting was desperate ; but at last the English gained the upper hand ; the smoke began to clear away, and the people watching on shore saw the tricoloured ensign drop from the mast and the Union Jack hoisted in its place.

This was an excellent beginning, but the work was only half done; and Captain Dyneley, having taken possession of his prize, lost no time in giving chase to the “Napoleon” which vessel appears to have been occupied chiefly in demonstrating how much faster than the “Attentive” she could sail, and in declining the action which the latter offered. In this prudent course she found no difficulty ; but when the “Duke of Montrose” an incomparably swifter vessel bore down and offered fight, her crew flushed with the victory which had robbed the expedition of its most powerful component, the that the commander of the “Napoleon” judged time for Fabian tactics had gone past, and sought refuge in flight.

Unfortunately for himself he had delayed a little too long. Not only was the “Duke of Montrose”  in a position whence she could have overhauled the “Napoleon” in a comparatively short space of time, but there were already in view, rounding a point of the coast, the white sails of an English cruiser, which, attracted by the firing, was running down to see if she could be of use. Captain Dyneley continued the chase long enough to assure himself that the newcomer, which proved to be H.M.S. “Wasp” Captain Bluett, could not miss the  “Napoleon ” and then returned to Rozeau Bay where he found the circumstances completely changed.

The “Attentive” had succeeded in capturing the row-boats, and as the “Duke of Montrose” re-appeared on the scene of action had just scuttled them. There remained only one vessel of the whole flotilla, and about this one it was unnecessary for either the “Attentive”, the “Duke of Montrose,” or the “Wasp” to concern themselves. For the apprehension of a conflict on shore was no sooner removed by the capture of “L’Imperial,” than the soldiers who were in charge of the land defences became impatient of their inaction ; and Lieutenant Hamilton, having obtained leave, manned a couple of boats with soldiers of his own, the 48th, regiment, pulled out to the French ship, and captured her after a brief encounter.

Thus of the whole expedition not one ship or man escaped ; and an hour’s energetic action had turned the well-founded apprehensions felt for the safety of Dominica into security. Captain Dyneley was undoubtedly the saviour of the island. Had he not checked the course of “L’Imperial” that vessel, which doubtless carried General Hortade, would have executed her plans without impediment. The “Attentive” could not overhaul her : the “Wasp” was too far away to be of use in preventing a landing. Had the French troops been disembarked there must have been desperate and bloody fighting, the result of which could not be forecast. The loss of property would have been immense, the discredit to England and the loss of prestige in the West Indies would have been greater still. 

Whether the merchants expressed their acknowledgments to Captain Dyneley in any form is not recorded in the official papers from which these facts are drawn ; but General Dalrymple in his despatch to the Admiralty stated the case not unfairly, though it cannot be said that he wrote with any undue appreciation of the services of the Post-Office commander. He admitted that the capture of the two most formidable ships in the hostile flotilla was due, the one directly, and the other indirectly, to Captain Dyneley’s enterprise and pluck; and added, “his zeal and disinterestedness are highly commendable, as from his instructions he had a good deal to lose”.

On Captain Dyneley’s return to England his own chiefs were well able to interpret this carefully guarded language, and from them at least he obtained the admiration which was his due. The  Postmaster General prevailed on the Admiralty to convey to him a special expression of thanks and approval, and marked their own sense of his conduct by an honorarium of a hundred and fifty guineas. The Patriotic Society voted him a handsome piece of plate, and congratulations reached him from every quarter.

It is satisfactory to read that recognition of his gallant conduct reached him promptly, because the time within which it could serve to gratify him was already short.

The “Duke of Montrose” lay at Falmouth until the middle of November, when she sailed again for the West Indies. A month later she was within fifty leagues of Barbados, that fatal region in which so many Packets had to fight for their existence, when in the early dawn a strange sail was descried from the masthead. An hour made it plain that the newcomer had altered her course and was chasing the Packet : in the course of the morning she drew so near that no doubt was left of her being a French Privateer.

Captain Dyneley put his ship to her best point of sailing, and did all in his power to avoid an action as his instructions enjoined. Well as the “Duke of Montrose” sailed, however, the enemy sailed better, and throughout the day she gradually gained steadily. During the night she was not shaken off, and about 9 A.M. on the following day, December 12th, she came within range, opened fire, and almost at the same moment ran down and grappled the “Duke of Montrose” hoping to capture her by a sudden assault.

In an attack of this kind the superior numbers of the Privateer’s crew (she carried eighty-five men against twenty-eight on the Falmouth vessel) gave her an immense advantage, and this advantage was turned into an overwhelming preponderance by the fact that she possessed a long 12-pounder (called in one report a 24-pounder) fixed upon a traverse, and so capable of being directed on any spot with ease.

Captain Dyneley maintained a most obstinate resistance, though on this occasion the safety of his capital was not in question, since the Post-Office was pledged to pay for Packets captured while employed on their own service. Time after time the French were driven back to their own ship, unable to gain the slightest advantage. For no less than three hours the two ships remained locked together fighting incessantly, and it is impossible to say how the action would have ended had not Captain Dyneley unhappily fallen in one of the boarding attacks. His mate and three seamen were already slain. Two others were dangerously wounded, and the crew, dispirited by the loss of their commander, and exhausted by their long and desperate resistance, hauled the colours down and surrendered.

So ended, bravely and honourably, the career of Captain Bert Dyneley. The naval history of this country tells of many exploits performed upon a grander scale than his and followed by consequences of more importance. But if the quality of the achievements be considered rather than the numbers of the contending forces, Captain Dyneley, who cheerfully risked his property as well as his life in a national service entirely out of his line of duty, and who a few months later laid down that life in defending his trust with an obstinacy which his chiefs did not expect and had not equipped him for, deserves a better fate than to be entirely forgotten.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *