Tuesday, 19 August 2014

"We immediately chased them till about four o'clock in the evening" - The Battle of Lagos in 1759


19 August 1759, 255 years ago during the Seven Years’ War, off Lagos in neutral Portuguese waters, the French Mediterranean fleet was decisively defeated by a British squadron under Sir Edward Boscawen.
 
“They had got the start of us so far that we were not able to come up with them during the night; but at daylight we saw seven sail of the line of battle some miles ahead. We immediately chased them till about four o'clock in the evening, when our ships came up with them; and, though we were about fifteen large ships, our gallant admiral only fought them with his own division, which consisted of seven; so that we were just ship for ship. We passed by the whole of the enemy's fleet in order to come at their commander, Mons. La Clue, who was in the Ocean, an eighty-four gun ship: as we passed they all fired on us; and at one time three of them fired together, continuing to do so for some time. Notwithstanding which our admiral would not suffer a gun to be fired at any of them, to my astonishment; but made us lie on our bellies on the deck till we came quite close to the Ocean, who was ahead of them all; when we had orders to pour the whole three tiers into her at once.” (Olaudah Equiano)



An imagination of the Battle of Lagos by an unknown artist published in 1786, showing HMS “Namur” in the centre.



More than a 100,000 French and Imperial German soldiers had been amassed in Brest, hundreds of flat-bottomed transport craft crowded the harbours along the Loire estuary and the Finisterre, plans were ready to invade England’s southern coast and Ireland along with the landing of troops in Scotland to support the Jacobite rebels there, everybody waited for a favourable wind to carry the fleet across the Channel and the Seven Years’ War would be over within a couple of months. Unfortunately, Admiral Hawke’s blockading squadron of 24 ships-of-the line was out there somewhere and the Duc de Choiseul’s harebrained scheme to sneak his ramshackle invasion fleet over to England in a few hours under the watchful eyes of the Royal Navy was, at the very least, postponed. Saner minds had prevailed and, first things first, Hawke was to be eliminated before the invasion could begin. Admiral de Conflans’ Atlantic fleet had 21 battleships and together with de La Clue-Sabran’s 12 in the Mediterranean squadron, they would stand a fighting chance against Hawke. On 5 August, de La Clue left Toulon, passed Gibraltar on August 17th and promptly, the British Mediterranean squadron set forth to intercept him.




A somewhat Baroque take on the Battle of Lagos, allegedly by one Richard Perret in 1806


Hoisting his flag aboard the 2nd rate ship-of-the-line HMS “Namur” (90), Admiral Sir Edward Boscawen ordered his squadron of 14 battleships to pursue the French in two divisions. De La Clue had given the order to disperse as soon as he realised that the British were on his heels. Losing sight of each other, seven of his ships were brought to bay on the following afternoon, one was taken after gallant resistance, two managed two flee and the rest of de La Clue’s fleet was trying to hide under the guns of the coastal fortifications of Lagos in neutral Portuguese waters. Boscawen cared a damn, ordered a general attack, de La Clue’s flagship “Océan” (80) and “Redoutable” (74) were driven aground and burned, “Téméraire” (74) and “Modeste” (64) captured and later commissioned as Royal Navy ships. The other five ships-of-the-line of the French Mediterranean squadron found refuge in Cadiz and remained there for the rest of the war. De Conflans would wait in vain for reinforcements to tackle Hawke.





Thomas Luny (1759 - 1837): "The Battle of Lagos" (after 1779)



The Battle of Lagos proved to be a major setback for the French invasion plans, nevertheless, de Conflans would try his luck against Hawke and suffered a major defeat at Quiberon Bay later that year. HMS “Namur” remained active until 1805, was commanded by Jane Austen’s brother Charles later, when she was already placed on harbour service. “Namur” was finally broken up in 1833 and her timbers became the floorboards of a wheelwright’s workshop in Chatham, identified during repair work in 2012. One of her crew had a more sound claim to lasting fame, though. One of Britain’s first black authors, Olaudah Equiano, then the 14 years old slave of “Namur’s“ sixth lieutenant Michael Pascal, served as “powder monkey” during the Battle of Lagos  and later wrote a widely read autobiography “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African” published in 1789, a pioneering work for the abolitionist cause.


 


A contemporary portrait of Olaudah Equiano


And more about the battle on: