At high tide on a September morning in 1782, not quite a year since Britain’s humiliating capitulation at the Battle of Yorktown, His Majesty’s Ship Hermione
, her coppered hull slathered with grease, slid stern-first down a wooden slipway into the swollen waters of the River Avon, fed by the swift currents of the Severn estuary. A launch was no easy feat, nor was it free of peril, but the port of Bristol, England’s “metropolis of the west,” had been building ships since the thirteenth century. Before a rapt crowd lining the stone quay—sailors, shipwrights, and merchant princes—heavy ropes, tethered fast to the bow, were cast off with ceremonial fanfare. Slowly the tide-borne frigate began to slip away from the dry dock of Sydenham Teast, directly across the Avon from the elegant townhouses of Queen Square. With a surplus of warships at royal wharves waiting to be built or repaired, private docks such as Teast’s reaped the rewards of government contracts.
It was a promising start. Fitted out in a naval yard, the Hermione
was commissioned for duty the following spring—too late, owing to a halt in hostilities that February, to enter the American War of Independence. Two-decked, three-masted, and square-rigged in the fashion of frigates, she was the first in a new class designed by Sir Edward Hunt, bearing a rounder midsection, much like the profile of a tulip, to lend stability. The clean-lined hull ran 129 feet in length with a beam of nearly 36 feet. Of 714 tons burden, she was notably larger than the slavers that Teast’s shipyard furnished for Bristol’s lucrative African trade, designed instead for a naval company of 220 men. Costs of construction, fittings, sails, rigging, and armament exceeded £16,000. In addition to six carronades, devised with a large caliber for firing at close range, the Hermione
received 32 cast-iron cannons, among them 26 twelve-pounders for the main deck. Unlike larger, more powerful men-of-war that boasted two or even three gun decks, with lower ports vulnerable to ocean swells, the main battery of the Hermione
, lying well above the waterline, promised greater versatility in heavy weather.
In the annals of classical mythology, Homer tells of the “rose-lipped” Hermione, the only daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and Helen, whose abduction ignited the Trojan War. For many Britons, however, the frigate’s name conjured halcyon memories of wartime riches and national glory. Years back, in May 1762, toward the close of the Seven Years’ War, two British warships cruising off the southern coast of Portugal captured a Spanish treasure galleon named the Hermione
just a day’s sail from the port of Cádiz, home to Spanish fleets for nearly two centuries. Striking her colors before firing a single shot, the enemy prize had been en route from Peru with a glittering cargo of gold dust, jewels, and silver estimated at £700,000 to £800,000, the “richest capture” in the history of the Royal Navy. Such was the outpouring of joy in Britain that the name “Hermione” graced newborns and racehorses alike. In August, throngs gathered from Portsmouth to London, anxious to glimpse twenty heavily laden wagons transporting the treasure under military escort to Tower Hill. George III viewed from an upper chamber in St. James’s Palace the convoy’s arrival in the capital, which was followed by a marching band. “The air was rent with the shouts of the populace,” described a newspaper. Less happily, major Spanish banking houses from Barcelona to Málaga collapsed; chaos reigned among Andalusian merchants; and the Hermione
’s captain, on returning home, forfeited his head.
In the decade that followed the Treaty of Paris of 1783—years that saw a resurgence of transatlantic traffic; the Royal Navy’s startling expansion to keep pace with rival fleets; and the spiraling descent of the French monarchy, corrupted by debt and decay, into revolution—an anxious peace descended on Europe like a bank of dark, low-hanging clouds lit by fitful flashes of sheet lightning. In the course of losing most of its American colonies, England had acquired a host of familiar enemies nursing grudges old and new. More than once, the country teetered on the brink of fresh hostilities, in 1787 with France over rival claimants in the Netherlands, and three years later with Spain in the Pacific Northwest.
As much as ever, the realm’s safety depended upon naval superiority. During the Revolutionary War, control of the English Channel had been surrendered, sparking widespread fears of foreign invasion. Little wonder, with the looming prospect of peace, that the Admiralty, at the urging of England’s fledgling prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, set about rebuilding the fleet with an aggressive program of extensive repairs and new construction. Already the country’s largest industrial infrastructure, naval dockyards stretching from Deptford to Portsmouth resounded with newfound urgency. “The great naval preparations now making militate against every idea of peace,” observed the Reading Mercury
in January 1783.
All the while, British warships plied the North Atlantic. With the Channel fleet guarding the homeland, frigates, prized for their speed, firepower, and maneuverability, played a pivotal role in projecting British power overseas—displaying the flag, keeping sea-lanes open, and escorting commercial convoys. First designed by the French in the late seventeenth century, frigates typically cruised the seas either alone, in pairs, or in small squadrons detached from battle fleets. Not uncommonly, they roamed out of signaling range from other vessels. Though smaller than line ships armed with “heavier metal,” they were the most glamorous vessels in the Royal Navy, famed for their aura of adventure as well as for their autonomy and sailing prowess. “Star captains” was how an English poet described the small number of officers fortunate enough to receive a command.
Adding to their allure was the prospect of prize money. Upon the capture of an enemy warship, merchantman, or privateer, everyone from the admiral of the fleet to the cabin boy, according to rank, reaped a portion of the spoils, with captains due a quarter share. In 1790, when war with Spain appeared imminent, a young officer, on hearing rumors of his posting to a frigate, immediately wrote his sister. Acknowledging the larger sums paid to captains of line-of-battle ships, he assured her, “If I can get her into the W’t Indies, I will make the Dons pay me the difference once or twice a month.”
Besides periodic patrols of home waters and routine repairs in royal shipyards, the Hermione
spent long spells cruising the Caribbean. When spring yielded to summer, it was not unusual to find her farther north—safe from hurricanes—policing British fishing banks off Newfoundland. Even then, uncertain trade winds, fickle currents, and mercurial weather could render familiar seas hazardous. During a harrowing trip from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Ireland in 1789, fierce storms, exhausted provisions, and the deaths of ten seamen forced the Hermione
’s crew to take refuge in the Spanish port of Corunna. Sixteen bedraggled survivors were left to die in a hospital as the stricken vessel beat on for Ireland.
Only after extensive repairs at a cost in excess of £20,000 did the Hermione
return to the West Indies three years later in a squadron of seven warships, arriving barely a month after the revolutionary government in Paris declared war against Britain on February 1, 1793. Tensions had mounted after French troops invaded the Austrian Netherlands, followed in January by shocking reports of the execution of King Louis XVI at the age of thirty-eight. Insofar as prospects for peace had grown bleak, the only surprise was that France, not Britain, first loosed the dogs of war.
Although the greatest part of the bloodletting during the First French Revolutionary War (1792–1797) occurred in Europe, the Caribbean, for the Pitt government, became a critical theater of operations. For all the hurricanes and earthquakes, the stifling summers, the perils of disease to say nothing of the Lilliputian size of most islands—their plantation economies afforded European powers immense troves of wealth. For Britain, the loss of Barbados or, worse, the much larger island of Jamaica would have been devastating. If anything, France’s colonies were dearer. Boasting eight thousand plantations, the French island of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean.
Equally important, with France deprived of naval bases, British sea power in the North Atlantic would again “rule the waves.” And with French troops on the march in Europe and much of the navy sidelined, the islands were all the more vulnerable to coastal raids and amphibious assaults. Hence the departure of a mammoth flotilla, months in the planning, in November 1793 under the seasoned command of Vice Admiral Sir John Jervis. Fitted out in Portsmouth and Cork, the expedition to the Caribbean comprised nearly one hundred warships and transports ferrying eight thousand unblooded troops tasked with bringing the French empire to its knees.
Even before the fleet’s arrival that January, life aboard the Hermione
had quickened. Along with squadrons stationed from Newfoundland to East India, the Royal Navy maintained two bases in the West Indies: Port Royal, on the southeastern coast of Jamaica, once a pirate haven reviled as the most wicked town in the West, and Carlisle Bay, home to Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, from which the Hermione
under Captain John Hills routinely departed to escort merchant convoys to safer waters. Come fall, however, the Hermione
had joined a squadron from Jamaica in landing troops in western Saint Domingue. Soon afterward, a small inlet at Cape Saint Nicholas Mole, on the northwestern tip of the island where the sandy coastline gave way to mountains and lush forests, was seized from the French. On the same spot on December 6, 1492, Columbus had landed during his first expedition to the Americas. Although notorious for yellow fever, the sheltered bay gave the British a strategic anchorage in the Western Caribbean second only to Port Royal and Kingston.
In the months following Jervis’s arrival in early 1794, Port-au-Prince, the capital of Saint Domingue, lying to the south, was taken after the fall of Martinique, Saint Lucia, and Guadeloupe, like so many dominoes, to British forces in the Eastern Caribbean. For several hours, the Hermione
, lying directly opposite the capital, traded volleys of cannon fire with a French shore battery. Then one of the ship’s main guns blew up, igniting a second explosion on the larboard (port) side of the forecastle. “We suffer’d very severely,” a young officer later wrote of the eleven casualties, including five seamen mortally wounded. Despite the British victory, the interior of Saint Domingue, in the early stages of a slave insurrection resulting in Haitian independence, remained an elusive prize. And by year’s end, in an abrupt reversal, heavy French reinforcements poured into the Caribbean, causing the British offensive to sputter.
The military, hobbled by indecision, struggled to retain hard-won terrain. The bill was steep. As the fighting ground on, massive numbers of troops and seamen perished, owing less to hostile fire than to the deadly triumvirate of yellow fever (“black vomit”), malaria (“ague”), and dysentery (“bloody flux”). “In the Hermione
alone,” a junior officer attested, “we lost in three or four months, nearly half our crew; many from apparent good health, dying in a few hours.”
persevered in the thick of the fighting, shelling and protecting ports from Saint Nicholas Mole to Cape Tiburon, at the southern tip of the island’s western coast. She also tacked to and fro in search of merchantmen and other easy prey. Black with white molding, the frigate cut a forbidding figure. Not only were the commercial ships of belligerent nations subject to seizure but also neutral craft suspected of trading with the enemy, including the vessels of American merchants who enjoyed a lucrative commerce with the French islands. Profiting from the spoils, British commanders interpreted their instructions liberally. Frigates became notorious in the United States for their depredations. To the deep chagrin of George Washington’s administration in Philadelphia, by March 1, 1794, no fewer than 250 American vessels had been commandeered, with the lion’s share ruled legitimate prizes by British Admiralty courts.
garnered a princely portion of the plunder. By late 1793, she had already snagged four American ships laden with sugar, coffee, cotton, and provisions. More seizures followed, among them a Boston schooner taken at anchor off Saint Nicholas Mole while its captain, on shore, scrambled to sell its cargo of lumber. More lucrative, potentially, was the capture of the Rising Sun
, a twenty-gun U.S. merchant ship thought to contain “a great quantity of money” belonging to the French commissary on Saint Domingue. To little effect, an American in Kingston howled, “The property of real American citizens are waisting by endless vexations, and her most invaluable treasure, the lives of her virtuous citizens, are daily closed by illegal detentions. Nothing can equal the contempt and derision wherewith we are treated.”
Worst was the impressment of American sailors on suspicion of being either deserters, British citizens, or both, an estimated ten thousand men during all of the French Wars (1793–1815). Desperate to man their warships, the British had grown exasperated by the loss of seamen to an expanding American merchant marine. In the mid-1790s, no vessel earned a blacker reputation in American eyes than the Hermione
under Philip Wilkinson’s command. On July 4, 1795, she left Port-au-Prince for the remote outpost of Jérémie, 120 miles to the west. There, at anchor, lay twenty American ships, which members of the frigate’s crew methodically boarded. Before the day was out, they had laid hold of nearly seventy seamen, practically all claiming to be native-born Americans. Kept aboard the Hermione
without food for the better part of two days, they refused to enlist in the Royal Navy. Although five sailors were returned for being “unfit to serve king or country,” the angry protests of American captains, unable to crew their vessels, went unheard. “The next thing we shall hear of this frigate, Hermione
, perhaps,” warned a New Jersey newspaper, “[is that she is] on our coasts, annoying not only our allies, but plundering our own vessels.”
Copyright © 2017 by A. Roger Ekirch. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.