HMS Victor v La Flèche: two official versions of one naval action

I’ve been rather enjoying getting to grips with the naval history of the Napoleonic (and pre-Napoleonic) era while researching Sir Home Popham. One of the things I discovered today was the comparatively minor action off the island of Mahé, one of the Seychelles, between HMS Victor (an 18-gun sloop) and the French corvette La Flèche (20 guns) on 5 September 1801.

At the time Popham was in command of the British squadron in the Red Sea (he wasn’t actually in the Red Sea at the time, of course — being Popham — but that’s another story altogether). The Victor, under Commander George Ralph Collier, had been detached for the purposes of gathering information on enemy ships cruising in the area of the Seychelles. Popham had given Collier strict instructions ‘on no account to risk’ his vessel, ‘the object on which you are sent being solely to obtain Information’ (20 July 1801, TNA ADM 1/2323), but Collier clearly stretched his instructions to the limit.

Sir George Ralph Collier, from here (Wikipedia)

The account below is drawn from Collier’s official dispatch to Sir Home Popham, his direct superior, dated 10 September 1801 (TNA ADM 1/2323).

‘The extreme sickly state of the Crew’, Collier wrote, forced him to put into the island of Diego Garcia for supplies and water. On 27 August he left Diego Garcia and sailed off to continue his fact-finding mission. As befits an information-gathering vessel, he was disguised (Collier did not say how, but presumably he was sailing under different colours).

On 2 September he approached the Seychelles, where, in Collier’s words, he ‘fell in with a French National Corvette, and after a few ineffectual manoeuvres on her part, from the superior sailing of the Victor when going large, I had the pleasure of bringing her to a close action at 3/4 past 5 pm.’

Unfortunately for Collier, this first encounter didn’t go brilliantly. Although the Victor managed to fire a couple of broadsides, the enemy ‘solely directed her Fire at our Masts and Sails’, as a result of which ‘I had the Mortification to find, both lower and Topsail Braces shot away on the Starboard side’ along with some other damage. As a result, the Victor, although the superior sailor, was swiftly outstripped by the French vessel, which tacked under Collier’s lee and legged it with all speed to windward.

‘Night fast approaching added to the Chagrin I felt,’ Collier wrote, but he gave chase. Despite his best efforts, he lost sight of his prey on 4 September; but he guessed she was probably making for one of the Seychelles, and was delighted to discover her sitting in the inner harbour at Mahé ‘with a Red Flag at the Fore (which as I since learn was in defiance)’.

With the wind against him and unaware of the navigation of the harbour, Collier spent the next day or so sounding his way and then warping in after the French ship, which must have been fun, as the corvette didn’t wait for her enemy to approach and delivered ‘a raking fire’. At a quarter to twelve on the morning of 5 September, however, Collier managed to begin firing broadsides. The Victor kept this up until 2:20 pm, when Collier ‘plainly perceived the Enemy was going down; in a few minutes her Cable was Cut, she cast round, and her Bow grounded on a Coral Reef.’

Collier now sent his First Lieutenant, Mr McLean, on board the sinking enemy with a party of officers and men, but they quickly discovered the ship was on fire. More men were thus sent over to extinguish it, but it was too late: ‘she fell on her Larboard Bilge into Deeper Water, and Sunk.’ (Everyone managed to get off first.)

The French had lost four killed, although Collier thought that number had been underrepresented. He was very proud of having only two wounded and none killed, although, as he pointed out, 30 of his crew, including the Master, had been struck down with ‘a lingering fever’.

This brings me to one of the curiosities of Collier’s account, at least as it was published in the Gazette — because there are a couple of interesting discrepancies between the version submitted to Popham (which was forwarded on to the Admiralty), and the version that was officially published.

TNA ADM 1/2323, with the words that do not appear in the Gazette struck out

The first is the fever afflicting the crew of the Victor. I presume the reason this was downgraded was because the Admiralty didn’t think it necessary for the public to know about it, perhaps because prevalent sickness aboard the fleet might bring up awkward questions, or perhaps because the Admiralty didn’t want the enemy to know this particular British ship was in a weakened state: I’m not sure, but two small elisions were made. Captain Collier’s phrase ‘the extreme sickly state of the Crew’ became simply ‘the state of the crew’: and the ‘men labouring under the severity of a lingering Fever’ simply became ‘a lingering fever’ (although at least the existence of the fever was not written out … presumably because it enhanced the bravery of Collier’s crew).

More interestingly, two whole paragraphs were removed from Collier’s text. The final paragraph detailed the repairs Collier hoped to make to his vessel before continuing his journey. The second, however, is curious. Collier wrote of his discovery that he had destroyed La Flèche, with a crew of 140 men, and ‘thirty-seven passengers sent into Banishment by the first Consul of France for an attempt on his Life’.

ADM 1/2323, showing the lines that do not appear in the Gazette struck out

This line is left out of the Gazette. Why? Again I’m not sure, but perhaps the chronology is critical here. The action between Victor and La Flèche took place on 5 September 1801, before the Peace of Amiens: but the Gazette was not published until 20 July the following year, four months after peace had been concluded. A detail that might have been useful in wartime, therefore, may have been left out to avoid irritating the head of state of a nation that was no longer an enemy … at least for the time being.

This is speculation on my part, but I find it an interesting example of what was considered worthy of publication.

References

The National Archives ADM 1/2323

The Naval Chronicle, vol. 8 (London, 1802) pp. 72-73

Sir Home Popham off Boulogne, 1804: or, correspondence with Lord Melville, BL Add MS 41080

20 June 1804 (f. 10)

Sir Home Popham: My dear Lord.

Lord Melville: Sir Home.

Popham: You remember that letter Lord Hutchinson sent you?

Melville: Yes, of course I –

Popham: THERE WAS NO LETTER. THERE WAS NEVER ANY LETTER. AND IF THERE WAS, LORD HUTCHINSON DIDN’T SEND IT.

Melville:

Popham: Oh, and tell Mr Pitt he didn’t receive one, either. Have a great day.

 

Sir_Home_Riggs_Popham

Sir Home Popham, from here

 

11 July 1804 (f. 18)

Popham: My Lord. May I visit you on Friday?

Melville: Yes, of course. Why not?

Popham: I’ve had my chart of the Red Sea printed for you. I’ll bring it with me.

Melville: Jolly good. I look forward to it.

Popham: Along with a memorandum on a subject to which I understand you and Mr Pitt jointly directed my examination. Which obviously I cannot talk about. Obviously.

Melville: Ouch! Please stop nudging me so hard. I GET IT.

Popham: Sorry.

29 July 1804 (f. 19)

Popham: Sorry I haven’t been in touch for [checks notes] 24 hours. One of my kids was ill.

Melville: That’s quite all right.

Popham: To make up for my silence, here’s an enormously long memorandum about all the bad things the Admiralty under Lord St Vincent has been doing to me.

Melville: I hope you haven’t shown this to anybody else? It’s very … strident.

Popham: Nope. Just you.

Melville: Thank God.

Popham: And Mr Addington.

Melville: … Oh?

Popham: But he told me not to show it to anybody else.

Melville: I’m  not surprised. I –

Popham: I may have left a copy with Lord Chatham, Mr Yorke, Lord Hobart, and Sir Andrew Snape Hamond.

Melville: I think you should maybe –

Popham: And most of the other members of the Cabinet. And maybe one or two influential MPs. Oh, and several people I met at the last levee who expressed an interest. But nobody else, I promise.

 

800px-Henry_Dundas,_1st_Viscount_Melville_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence

Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, from here

Undated, but after the previous one (f. 21)

Popham: I tried to call on you at Putney this morning but I couldn’t find you.

Melville: Ah, erm. I had to leave in a hurry.

Popham: So they told me. I brought you the books I promised.

Melville: Thanks.

Popham: While we’re here, I take this occasion of troubling you with a recital of another act of official duplicity against me.

Melville: *** eats his wig in frustration ***

1 August 1804 (f. 23)

Popham: You know those … things you asked me to examine?

Melville: What things?

Popham: You know. Those … things. Mr … Francis’s … things.

Melville: You’re nudging me again. I told you to stop that. And stop waggling your eyebrows, it’s off-putting.

Popham: Sorry.

Melville: You mean Mr Fulton’s torpedoes?

Popham: OH MY GOD BE QUIET this is supposed to be top secret

 

10 August 1804 (f. 27)

Popham: At last, I’m ready to start my experiments with Mr … Francis’s … things.

Melville: It’s OK. This is a confidential line. Just say ‘torpedoes’.

Popham: NEW IDEAS HAVE SUGGESTED THEMSELVES TO ME WHICH MAY BE CONSIDERED A GREAT AID TO AN OPERATION SO UTTERLY VITAL TO THE SURVIVAL OF THE COUNTRY

Melville: Right, yes, I figured, or you wouldn’t be writing.

Popham: But I’ll wait until the next post to write about it in detail, because I was only writing to let you know I was still alive and making progress.

Melville: *** groans ***

12 August 1804 (f. 29)

Popham: Coo-ee! It’s me.

Melville: Hi.

Popham: Right well, the … things … well – they, erm. Need work.

Melville: Fine. Take all the time you need.

Popham: But time and season have passed away so fast I have no time for further experiments. I’m going off to Portsmouth tomorrow and will leave some instructions behind about improving the … things.

Melville: All right, but –

Popham: Then I’ll be in town on Wednesday to talk to you.

Melville: Looking forward to it. (to his secretary) Lock the doors and bar the windows, I’m not in, OK?

8 September 1804 (f. 40)

Popham: I came to see you yesterday, but you weren’t in.

Melville: Oh yes, something came up at the last moment. I’m so, so sorry.

Popham: The … things are ready.

Melville: Excellent.

Popham: I spent all of this morning using my telegraphic signals – did I ever tell you about those? They’re brilliant, aren’t they? – to make it look like my primary object in coming ashore was to try the system out on Admiral Lewis’s squadron.

Melville: I suppose you might be expected to be working on them, yes.

Popham: Admiral Lewis signalled back ‘PULL THE OTHER ONE, IT’S GOT BELLS ON’, and I didn’t even know it was possible to signal that.

 

Fulton

Robert Fulton (“Mr Francis”), from here

12 September 1804 (f. 44)

Popham: So! We’re meeting on Friday at 11 am?

Melville: If we must.

Popham: I’ll bring Mr … Francis with me.

Melville: Fulton. I know who he is.

Popham: But I can’t say any more here, because there’s no point setting anything down in writing by letter.

MELVILLE: WHY ARE YOU WRITING TO ME THEN?! *** throws chair across room ***

21 September 1804 (f. 53)

Popham: The … things are STILL ready.

Melville: Why haven’t you used them yet, then?

Popham: Too busy writing letters.

Melville: I see.

24 September 1804 (f. 56)

Popham: It’s all ready.

Melville: You said.

25 September 1804 (f. 57)

Popham: Did I mention we were ready?

Melville: YES

27 September 1804 (f. 62)

Popham: Just wanted to tell you it was Thursday.

Later, same day (f. 64)

Popham: … and to assure your Lordship that my attention is most seriously and sincerely directed to this object, and to be ready to act under any circumstances that may arise.

Melville: *** beats head against table ***

 

Raid_on_Boulogne_1804_colour

Raid at Boulogne, 2-3 October 1804, from here

28 September 1804 (f. 68)

Popham: We’re ready to attack the French tomorrow! So long as the weather holds, your Lordship may depend on it, something will be effected.

Melville: And then you’ll shut up, yes?

Popham: I’d just like it to go down on record that the reason we haven’t done anything yet is because Admiral Lord Keith, who’s nominally in command here, only rocked up yesterday in his flagship. Bastard.

Melville: Noted.

Popham: Just to say if the wind changes, we’re buggered.

Melville: Fine, fine. You’re off the hook. Go away.

 

[No letters cover the raid on Boulogne on the night of 2/3 October.]

 

28 October 1804 (f. 71)

Popham: Me again!

Melville: What now.

Popham: I’ve been all over the place. I got your letter at Dover, then went to Ramsgate via Deal, then back to Dover via Sandwich.

Melville: Why?

Popham: No idea. But I just want to tell you that I handed Lord Keith a copy of my instructions.

Melville: OK, that’s – wait. You handed him a copy of your instructions?

Popham: Yep.

Melville: The ones he was supposed to hand to you as your commanding officer?

Popham: Yep.

Melville: *** blinks ***

Popham: He seemed a bit hurt not to get them directly from you.

Melville: I have no idea why.

Popham: Anyway. WANT TO TRY SOME MORE … THINGS AT BOULOGNE?

 

***

I may have interpreted some of this correspondence rather liberally, but not as much as you’d think, and some of the lines are verbatim. If you don’t believe me, you can call up the volume yourself in the British Library and check.