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It was in this danger from a lee shore, which was deliberately though promptly incurred, that the distinction of this action of Rodney's consists. The enemy's squadron, being only eleven ships of the line, was but half the force of the British, and it was taken by surprise; which, to be sure, is no excuse for a body of war-ships in war-time. Caught unawares, the Spaniards took to flight too late. It was Rodney's merit, and no slight one under the conditions of weather and navigation, that they were not permitted to retrieve their mistake. His action left nothing to be desired in resolution or readiness. It is true that Rodney discussed the matter with his flag-captain, Walter Young, and that rumor attributed the merit of the decision to the latter; but this sort of detraction is of too common occurrence to affect opinion. Sir Gilbert Blane, Physician to the Fleet, gives the following account: “When it was close upon sunset, it became a question whether the chase should be continued. After some discussion between the Admiral and Captain, at which I was present, the Admiral being confined with the gout, it was decided to persist in the same course, with the signal to engage to leeward.” Rodney at that time was nearly sixty-two, and a constant martyr to gout in both feet and hands.
The two successes by the way imparted a slightly triumphal character to the welcome of the Admiral by the garrison, then sorely in need of some good news. The arrival of muchneeded supplies from home was itself a matter of rejoicing; but it was more inspiriting still to see following in the train of the friendly fleet five hostile ships of the line, one of them bearing the flag of a Commander-in-Chief, and to hear that, besides these, three more had been sunk or destroyed. The exultation in England was even greater, and especially at the Admiralty, which was labouring under the just indignation of the people for the unpreparedness of the Navy. “You have taken more line-of-battle ships,” wrote the First Lord to Rodney, “than had been captured in any one action in either of the two last preceding wars.” It should be remembered, too, as an element in the triumph, that this advantage over an exposed detachment had been snatched, as it were, in the teeth of a main fleet superior to Rodney's own; for twenty Spanish and four French ships of the line, under Admiral de Cordova, were lying then in Cadiz Bay. During the eighteen days when the British remained in and near the Straits, no attempt was made by Cordova to take revenge for the disaster, or to reap the benefit of superior force. The inaction was due, probably, to the poor condition of the Spanish ships in point of efficiency and equipment, and largely to their having uncoppered bottoms. This element of inferiority in the Spanish navy should be kept in mind as a factor in the general war, although Spanish fleets did not come much into battle. A French Commodore, then with the Spanish fleet in Ferrol, wrote as follows: “Their ships all sail so badly that they can neither overtake an enemy nor escape from one. The Glorieur is a bad sailer in the French navy, but better than the best among the Spaniards.” He adds: “The vessels of Langara's squadron were surprised at immense distances one from the other. Thus they always sail, and their negligence and security on this point are incredible.” On approaching Gibraltar, the continuance of bad weather, and the strong easterly current of the Straits, set many of Rodney's ships and convoy to leeward, to the back of the Rock, and it was not till the 26th that the flagship herself anchored. The storeships for Minorca were sent on at once, under charge of three coppered ships of the line. The practice of coppering, though then fully adopted, had not yet been extended to all vessels. As an element of speed, it was an important factor on an occasion like this, when time pressed to get to the West Indies; as it also was in an engage
ment. The action on the 16th had been opened by the coppered ships of the line, which first overtook the retreating enemy and brought his rear to battle. In the French navy at the time, Suffren was urging the adoption upon an apparently reluctant Minister. It would seem to have been more general among the British, going far to compensate for the otherwise inferior qualities of their ships. “The Spanish men-of-war we have taken,” wrote Rodney to his wife concerning these prizes, “are much superior to ours.” It may be remembered that Nelson, thirteen years later, said the same of the Spanish vessels which came under his observation. “I never saw finer ships.” “I perceive you cry out loudly for coppered ships,” wrote the First Lord to Rodney after this action; “and I am therefore determined to stop your mouth. You shall have copper enough.” Upon the return of the Minorca ships, Rodney put to sea again on the 13th of February, for the West Indies. The detachment from the Channel fleet accompanied him three days' sail on his way, and then parted for England with the prizes. On this return voyage it fell in with fifteen French supply vessels, convoyed by two 64's, bound for the Ile de France," in the Indian Ocean. One of the ships of war, the Protée, and three of the storeships were taken. Though trivial, the incident illustrates the effect of operations in Europe upon war in India. It may be mentioned here as indicative of the government's dilemmas, that Rodney was censured for having left one ship of the line at the Rock. “It has given us the trouble and risk of sending a frigate on purpose to order her home immediately; and if you will look into your original instructions, you will find that there was no point more strongly guarded against than that of your leaving any line-of-battle ship behind you.” These words clearly show the exigency and peril of the general situation, owing to the inadequate development of the naval force as compared with its foes. Such isolated ships ran the gantlet of the fleets in Cadiz, Ferrol, and Brest flanking the routes.
1 Now the British Mauritius.
RODNEY AND DE GUICHEN'S NAVAL CAMPAIGN IN WEST INDIES. DE GUICHEN RETURNS TO EUROPE, AND RODNEY GOES TO NEW YORK. LORD CORNWALLIS IN THE CAROLINAS. TWO NAVAL ACTIONS OF COMMODORE CORNWAL– LIS. RODNEY RETURNS TO WEST INDIES
HEN Rodney arrived at Santa Lucia with his four ships of the line, on March 27, 1780, he found there a force of sixteen others, composed in about equal proportions of ships that had left England with Byron in the summer of 1778, and of a reinforcement brought by Rear-Admiral Rowley in the spring of 1779. During the temporary command of Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker, between the departure of Byron and the arrival of Rodney, a smart affair had taken place between a detachment of the squadron and one from the French division, under La Motte-Picquet, then lying in Fort Royal, Martinique, On the 18th of December, 1779, between 8 and 9 A.M., the British look-out ship, the Preston, 50, between Martinique and Santa Lucia made signal for a fleet to windward, which proved to be a body of French supply ships, twentysix in number, under convoy of a frigate. Both the British and the French squadrons were in disarray, sails unbent, ships on the heel or partially disarmed, crews ashore for wood and water. In both, signals flew at once for certain ships to get under way, and in both the orders were executed