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On the 10th of April Vice-Admiral Hughes, returning from Bombay, passed Trincomalee on the way to Madras, The various maritime occurrences, wrecks and reinforcements, since the battle of September 3d had reversed the naval odds, and Hughes now had eighteen ships of the line, one of which was an eighty, opposed to fifteen under Suffren. Another important event in the affairs of India was the death of Hyder Ali, on the 7th of December, 1782. Although his policy was continued by his son, Tippoo Saib, the blow to the French was serious. Under all the conditions, the British authorities were emboldened to attempt the reduction of Cuddalore. The army destined to this enterprise marched from Madras, passed round Cuddalore, and encamped south of it by the shore. The supply-ships and lighter cruisers anchored near, while the fleet cruised to the southward. Being there to windward, for the south-west monsoon had then set in, it covered the operations against disturbance from the sea.
Towards the beginning of June the investment of the place was complete by land and by water. Intelligence of this state of things was brought on the 10th of June to Suffren, who by Bussey's direction was keeping his inferior fleet in Trincomalee until its services should be absolutely indispensable. Immediately upon receiving the news he left port, and on the 13th sighted the British fleet, then at anchor off Porto Novo, a little south of Cuddalore. Upon his approach Hughes moved off, and anchored again five miles from the besieged place. For the next two days the French were baffled by the winds; but on the 17th the south-west monsoon resumed, and Suffren again drew near. The British Vice-Admiral, not caring to accept action at anchor, got under way, and from that time till the 20th remained outside, trying to obtain the weather-gage, in which he was frustrated by the variableness of the winds. Meanwhile Suffren had anchored near the town, communicated with the general, and, being very short of men at the guns, had embarked twelve hundred troops for his expected battle; for it was evident that the issue of the siege would turn upon the control of the sea. On the 18th he weighed again, and the two fleets manoeuvred for the advantage, with light baffling airs, the British furthest from shore.
On the 20th of June, the wind holding at west with unexpected constancy, Hughes decided to accept the attack which Suffren evidently intended. The latter, being distinctly inferior in force, — fifteen to eighteen, — probably contemplated an action that should be decisive only as regarded the fate of Cuddalore; that is, one which, while not resulting in the capture or destruction of ships, should compel his opponent to leave the neighbourhood to repair damages. The British formed line on the port tack, heading to the northward. Suffren ranged his fleet in the same manner, parallel to the enemy, and was careful to see the order exact before bearing down. When the signal to attack was given, the French kept away together, and brought-to again on the weather beam of the British, just within point-blank range. The action lasted from shortly after 4 P.m. to nearly 7, and was general throughout both lines; but, as always experienced, the rears were less engaged than the centres and vans. No ship was taken; no very important spars seem to have been shot away. The loss of the British was 99 killed, 434 wounded; of the French, 102 killed, 386 wounded.
As the ships' heads were north, the course of the action carried them in that direction. Suffren anchored next morning twenty-five miles north of Cuddalore. There he was sighted on the 22d by Hughes, who had remained lying-to the day after the fight. The British Vice-Admiral reported several ships much disabled, a great number of his men — 1,121 — down with scurvy, and the water of the fleet very short. He therefore thought it necessary to go to Madras, where he anchored on the 25th. Suffren regained Cuddalore on the afternoon of the 23d. His return and Hughes's departure completely changed the military situation. The supply-ships, upon which the British scheme of operations depended, had been forced to take flight when Suffren first approached, and of course could not come back now. "My mind is on the rack without a moment's rest since the departure of the fleet," wrote the commanding general on the 25th, "considering the character of M. de Suffren, and the infinite superiority on the part of the French now that we are left to ourselves."
The battle of June 20th, 1783, off Cuddalore, was the last of the maritime war of 1778. It was fought, actually, exactly five months after the preliminaries of peace had been signed on January 20th, 1783. Although the relative force of the two fleets remained unchanged, it was a French victory, both tactically and strategically: tactically, because the inferior fleet held its ground, and remained in possession of the field; strategically, because it decided the object immediately at stake, the fate of Cuddalore, and with it, momentarily at least, the issue of the campaign. It was, however, the triumph of one commander-in-chief over another; of the greater man over the lesser. Hughes's reasons for quitting the field involve the admission of his opponent's greater skill. "Short of water," — with eighteen ships to fifteen, able therefore to spare ships by detachments for watering, that should not have happened; "injury to spars," — that resulted from the action; "1,121 men short," — Suffren had embarked just that number — 1,200 — because Hughes let him communicate with the port without fighting. Notwithstanding the much better seamanship of the British subordinates, and their dogged tenacity,