William Richardson was always certain he would be a seaman. His father and all his brothers were mariners so it was not unusual that he should go to sea in his turn. By the last part of the eighteenth century Richardson was an accomplished and experienced young mariner who had made steady progress in promotion and who had travelled sea-routes across the globe, including time served in the notorious slave trade. These were the days of the press gangs and many a merchant seamen was forcefully taken into the ranks of the Royal Navy. Richardson was no exception and, perhaps peculiarly, he accepted his fate with good humour. While under the ensign he joined Sir Ralph Abercromby's expedition to St. Lucia and served throughout the West Indies aboard HMS Prompte and HMS Tromp. War with Napoleonic France saw Richardson, now a master gunner, aboard HMS Caesar. Those interested in the wars of the 'Age of Sail' will find much to interest them in this book, as the author richly describes his experiences among the crew of a British man-of-war in action in the Channel, the Eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean. An excellent and rare account of Nelson's navy from the pen of an ordinary seaman. Recommended.
On the last day of October a heavy gale of wind drove our squadron to the northward of Cape Finistere, and on November 2, towards evening, as we were beating to windward to get off Vigo again, we saw a frigate to the N.W. bearing down toward us with signals flying from her mast-head, but could not make them out. Being so gloomy, we thought she had come to recall us, as our provisions were getting short. But at 11 p.m. she came within hail, and proved to be the Phoenix (Captain Baker), who soon set our hearts aglow by informing us that he had been chased by the Rochefort Squadron, and that they were then close to leeward of us.<br>
At this news we were all delighted, and instantly bore away before the wind, and soon got sight of six large ships steering before the wind to the eastward. Hammocks were piped up and guns got ready in a few minutes, as we always kept everything ready for action. It being very dark, signals were made with blue lights, false fires, and flashes of gunpowder to denote our movements to the rest of our squadron, and the Phoenix was hailed to drop astern to inform the other ships to make every exertion to get up, as we meant to bring the enemy to action immediately.<br>
At midnight it began to rain, and the horizon got so thick that we lost sight of the enemy. This gave us great concern, for fear they should alter their course and run for Ferrol. However, we continued steering to the eastward, and all hands at quarters. At daylight next morning the weather cleared away, and we saw the Hero, Namur, and Courageux and three frigates a long way astern, with all sail set to get up with us, but saw nothing of the Bellona. Our ship had all sails set, even to royal steerings, but saw nothing of the enemy. However, we continued the same course in the direction for Rochefort, and at nine this morning had the pleasure of getting sight of them again right ahead, and steering as before with all the sails they could set; but instead of six there were now only four, and they line-of-battle ships.<br>
The weather now became beautiful and the sea smooth, and we came fast up with them. In the evening we were between seven and eight miles from them, but the other ships of our squadron were a long way astern, and at daybreak on November 4 we got within gunshot of the enemy, and then shortened sail to keep pace with them until our squadron got up. The enemy’s ships looked all to be two-deckers, but one larger than the rest bore a rear-admiral’s flag. At 10 p.m. the Santa Margarita came up, and Sir Richard told her captain to get under the enemy’s stern and rake them in order to cut away some of their rigging to retard their sailing. They did so for a short time, but the rearmost ship of the enemy, supposed to be the Scipion (74 guns), luffed up, and getting some of her after guns to bear, soon almost sank the poor Santa Margarita, for she was obliged to bear up as quick as possible with four feet of water in her hold. The first shot she received was on the forecastle, and took the boatswain’s head off; another hit her near the water’s edge, and the gunner of her told me afterwards that he was over the shoe tops in water in the magazine.<br>
Some of the shots went over our ship, but we did not return any, as our ships were fast coming up.<br>
At 11 a.m. the Hero came within hail, and soon after the Courageux, but the Namur was hull down nearly astern, and as for the Bellona we had seen nothing of her since the chase began. The enemy, now finding an action to be unavoidable, took in their steering sails, hauled their wind, formed their line on the starboard tack, and we did the same.<br>
Our captain, being impatient to begin the battle, hailed the Hero, and told them to hail the Courageux and inform them that he would begin the action immediately without waiting for the Namur to come up, and their answer was three hearty British cheers. The enemy, I suppose, thought it in defiance of them, and returned the compliment, but in my humble opinion not in so hearty a manner as ours.<br>
We then edged down towards them, we being to wind ward, and at ten minutes before twelve at noon began the battle: the Caesar first, Hero next, and Courageux in the rear, all pretty close to each other, continued firing away with great vigour for nearly an hour and going at the rate of near five knots through the water, by which time the Caesar was nearly up with their van ship, when she, luffing up too much in the wind to rake us, came about on the other tack, which put them in great confusion, and we peppered them well during the time.<br>
The French Admiral, seeing this, was under the necessity of ordering his other ships to put about to support, and formed his line on the larboard tack, apparently very much cut up. We then put our ships about, and soon closed with them again, with this advantage on our side, that we were meeting the Namur. She soon joined, which made us of equal numbers, the battle going on as vigorously as ever; and soon after we saw the enemy’s masts and yards tumbling fast overboard.<br>
At a quarter past three their Admiral and another, being reduced to mere wrecks, struck their colours; but the other two continued to fight most valiantly, until the Caesar, followed by the Hero, ran between them. For nearly twenty minutes the battle continued as hot as ever, and then they surrendered. One of them (the Mont Blanc) was dreadfully cut up; whether by accident or design I know not, her jibboom came up to our main rigging, and we thought she meant to board us. But we raked her at the time so severely that, when she struck, she had seven feet of water in her hold, with several of her port lids shot away and guns mis-mounted.<br>
When her captain (a plain sailor-looking man) came on board to deliver up his sword, Sir Richard told him he was a brave fellow for defending his ship so well. He shrugged up his shoulders and replied that he had done the best he could; but his soldiers and marines, who were a part of Bonaparte’s sharpshooters, when they came on board strutted about the deck more like conquerors than prisoners, and said if they had got such a general (meaning admiral) as ours the case might have been different. Vain wretches! what more could they have done, if even Bonaparte had been with them, when their ships were dismasted and unmanageable?<br>
Thus, after a long chase in the Bay of Biscay from Saturday night to Monday noon, we came up with and captured this whole squadron of French line-of-battle ships after as gallant an action1 as any ever fought during the war. Our masts and rigging were much cut up, and sails shot all to pieces. Our hull did not suffer so much, by the enemy firing high, yet we had three anchors out of the four disabled; but, thanks to God, the loss of our men was not considerable.