6 February 1806, the last fleet battle of the Napoleonic Wars in open waters was fought off Santo Domingo between 7 British and 5 French ships-of-the-line, ending with a complete British victory.
“Duckworth at once made the signal to attack and with a portrait of Nelson suspended from the mizzen stay of the Superb with the band playing 'God Save the King' and 'Nelson of the Nile', bore down on the leading French ship Alexandre of 84 guns and engaged her at close quarters. After a severe action of two hours, two of the French ships were driven ashore and burnt with three others captured. Only the French frigates escaped.“ (New Monthly Magazine, 1817)
Few of the worthies in 26 Whitehall reckoned with the French breaking out of Brest only a couple of weeks after Trafalgar. But Napoleon's neglected navy was not quite beaten yet. When Lord Barham, First Lord of the Admiralty, decided to loosen the blockade in the Bay of Biscay, in place since war broke out again in May 1803, it was exactly was Napoleon was waiting for. The fleet stationed at Brest, 11 sail-of-the-line, was still intact and on December 13th, the admirals Leissègues and Willaumez received their orders to sail for the Atlantic in two squadrons and disrupt as much of British commerce as they could. Starting in the Bay of Biscay itself, both squadrons played havoc among two convoys that had left England, one for Gibraltar and one bound for the Caribbean with considerable success. The squadron of Rear-Admiral Sir John Duckworth, actually supposed to blockade Cadiz but now pursuing another French fleet of commerce raiders, encountered the scattered survivors of the Gibraltar convoy and took up the chase of Leissègues. Duckworth almost brought him to battle in December 26th but the French finally managed to escape into the vastness of the Atlantic. They were forced to seek shelter at the occupied island of Santo Domingo, though, after receiving a severe battering in heavy weather. Leissègues’ squadron was spotted by a British sloop and Duckworth, anchoring at St Kitts and actually on his way back to European waters, was alerted and decided to pursue again. In the early morning of February 6th, the British were spotted by the French lookouts with the wind making an escape impossible. Leissègues ordered to form a line of battle with his five battleships to receive Duckworth’s seven.
|A wrecked French Téméraire-class ship of the line, the Superbe, sister of the Diomede|
The British attacked, Trafalgar-style, in two divisions and the battle evolved into a general melee between the ships of the line pretty soon with a fierce exchange of broadside after broadside until one Frenchman after the other was forced to surrender and the “Diomede” and Leissègues’ flagship, the mighty 1st-rate “Impérial” of 120 guns, were driven aground, abandoned by her surviving crews who mostly could reach the beach between Nizao and Point Catalan on San Domingo, about a mile away. Those poor matelots who were still alive, that is. “Impérial” alone had lost half her company, more than 600 men, after fighting first Duckworth’s flagship HMS “Superb” (74), threatening to smash her to pieces, then HMS “Northumberland” (74) who placed herself between the opponents and was shot almost to a wreck. Finally then, “Impérial” received a broadside from “Atlas” (74) into her vulnerable stern, destroying her tiller, followed by the fire of the whole British squadron, except from battered “Northumberland” who had drifted away. “Impérial” and “Diomede” were set on fire by British prize crews, while the remaining three ships-of-the-line were carried off to Jamaica, two were beyond repair and had to be abandoned, only “Jupiter” (74) entered service in the Royal Navy as HMS “Maida” and was broken up after the war in 1817. More than 1,500 French seamen were dead, 74 British dead and 264 wounded.
|HMS "Northumberland" (to the left) beginning the task she became famous for - |
taking Napoleon on board to carry him to exile in St Helena, Thomas Buttersworth (1768 - 1842)
In the meanwhile, Willaumez’s squadron had escaped into the southern Atlantic without achieving much, was forced to sail north again in the late spring of 1806 until the squadron finally reached Newfoundland and then the Central Atlantic, still escaping the British pursuing them only to be caught in a severe hurricane. The scattered, battered fleet limped to Cuba and ports in the United States until four of Willaumez’s six ships-of-the-line finally returned to France alone, one after the other, in 1807. The action off Santo Domingo was the last major fleet action of the Napoleonic Wars and a last attempt to break the British blockade, now firmly in place again, was foiled in the Basque Roads off the Island of Aix in 1809.
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