Battle of Lagos
The naval Battle of Lagos took place between a British fleet commanded by Sir Edward Boscawen and a French fleet under Jean-François de La Clue-Sabran over two days in 1759 during the Seven Years' War. They fought south west of the Gulf of Cádiz on 17 August and to the east of the small Portuguese port of Lagos, after which the battle is named, on the 18th.
La Clue was tasked with evading Boscawen and bringing the French Mediterranean Fleet into the Atlantic and then to the West Indies, avoiding battle if possible. Boscawen was under orders to prevent this, and to pursue and fight the French if it did. During the evening of 16 August the French fleet successfully passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, but was sighted by a British ship shortly after it entered the Atlantic. The British fleet was in nearby Gibraltar, undergoing a major refit. It left port amidst great confusion, with most ships not having their refurbishments completed, and many delayed and sailing in a second squadron. Aware that he was pursued, La Clue altered his plan and changed course; half of his ships failed to follow him in the dark, but the English did.
The British caught up with the French on the 17th and fierce fighting ensued, during which several ships were badly damaged and one French ship was captured. The British, who greatly outnumbered the remaining six French ships, pursued them through the moonlit night of 17/18 August; during which a further two French ships made their escape. On the 18th the remnants of the French fleet attempted to shelter in neutral Portuguese waters near Lagos, but Boscawen violated that neutrality, capturing a further two French ships and destroying the other two.
The endemic ill feeling between France and Britain during the 18th century turned into open warfare in 1754 and 1755. In 1756 what was to become known as the Seven Years' War broke out across Europe, pitching France, Austria and Russia against Britain and Prussia. France supported Austria and Russia in a land campaign against Prussia, and launched what she saw as her main effort in a maritime and colonial offensive against Great Britain. By the beginning of 1759 neither alliance had the advantage, in either the land or sea campaigns and both were having serious problems financing the war. In 1759 more than 60% of French revenue went to service its debt, causing numerous shortages. The French navy in particular was overstretched and suffered from the lack of a coherent doctrine, exacerbated by the inexperience verging on incompetence of the Secretary of State for the Navy, Nicolas René Berryer, a former chief of police. Meanwhile, Britain's war effort during the first three years of the war had been a failure. From the summer of 1757 it came under the control of William Pitt, who imposed an assertive and coordinated strategy. By early 1759 this was beginning to bear fruit.
In response to the British successes, the ministers of the French king Louis XV planned a direct invasion of Britain, which if successful would have decided the war in their favour. An army of 17,000 was collected at Vannes, in the south-east of Brittany, and nearly 100 transports were assembled near Quiberon Bay. In its final form the French plan required these transports to be escorted by the French Navy. However, at the best of times the French struggled to crew their full fleet with experienced mariners; landsmen could be used, but even a small deficiency in ship handling translated into a significant handicap in a combat situation. Three years into the war, thousands of French seamen were held as prisoners by the British; many more were engaged in speculative, and occasionally lucrative, privateering careers; and the unhealthy conditions, onerous onboard discipline and poor wages, paid late, acted as a strong disincentive to service. The transports also required at least a cadre of skilled men. In total the French had 73 ships of the line, the largest warships of the time: 30 serving abroad and 43 in home waters. The ships in home waters required an aggregate complement of about 25,000 men; they were more than 9,000 short of this. The 43 French ships in home waters were split between the Atlantic port of Brest (22 ships) and the Mediterranean port of Toulon, with a small number at two ports on the Bay of Biscay: Lorient and Rochefort. The British had 40 ships of the line in home waters, and a further 15 in their Mediterranean Fleet, which was based in Gibraltar.
In May 1759 the British Admiral Edward Boscawen took command of the British fleet in the Mediterranean. As well as 15 ships of the line he also had 12 frigates – smaller and faster than ships of the line and primarily intended for raiding, reconnaissance and messaging. He was tasked with harassing the French, protecting British merchant shipping, and ensuring the safety of the British outpost and naval base at Gibraltar. By late July the ships of the British fleet were low on supplies and in urgent need of maintenance after their prolonged period at sea, during which some ships had been damaged by enemy action. The fleet retired to Gibraltar, arriving on 4 August. There they began the difficult process of scraping the bottoms of the ships free of barnacles and seaweed, repairing and replacing their rigging and replacing spars. While this refurbishment was underway, fresh orders arrived, alerting Boscawen to the probability that the French Mediterranean Fleet would attempt to join up with their Atlantic Fleet, probably at Brest, and instructing him to prevent it. He ordered the first two of his frigates to be ready for sea to patrol to the east, where the Mediterranean narrowed to the bottleneck of the Strait of Gibraltar, to give warning if the French were to attempt to break out.
Earlier in the year, an aspect of the British strategy had played out in the West Indies. In February, 4,000 British soldiers landed on the French West Indian possession of Guadeloupe. This island's immense sugar production was supposed, on its own, to exceed that of all of the British Leeward Islands combined. After great difficulties in preparing them for sea, nine French ships of the line, under Maximin de Bompart, were despatched to relieve the island. They arrived the day after the French governor surrendered to the British on 1 May.
News of this disaster was passed back to Paris, where after deliberation it was decided to reinforce Bompart's force with the Mediterranean Fleet. Orders to sail reached its commander, Admiral Jean-François de La Clue-Sabran, at the end of July, and it left Toulon on 5 August. It consisted of twelve ships of the line and three frigates; the most that could be made ready for sea and adequately manned. La Clue, who was unaware of the British fleet's location, intended to pass the Strait of Gibraltar by night, in order to keep the British in ignorance of his absence from the Mediterranean. He anticipated this might scatter his fleet, and he had ordered his ships to rendezvous off the Spanish port of Cadiz. During the late evening of 17 August the French passed through the strait, but were observed shortly afterwards by the British frigate HMS Gibraltar. The French were aware they had been spotted, and realising by now that the British fleet was in Gibraltar, anticipated a prompt pursuit.
The approach of the Gibraltar, firing her guns to indicate the enemy had been sighted took the British by surprise. There was a scramble to get under way. Most captains and many crew were ashore; some, including Boscawen, were dining several miles away. Most ships sailed without their captains, some under the command of junior officers. Their seniors followed on as best they could – the flagship, HMS Namur, sailed with three captains and the admiral on board – and sorted themselves out as circumstances allowed. Many officers and men were left ashore, or futilely attempting to row after the fleet. Several ships were barely seaworthy. The process of fitting, or "bending", sails to the masts of the large warships of the time was a complicated one, and most British ships were forced to do this as they got under way, in the dark, undermanned and with few officers. Some were also fitting spars or even stepping in their topmasts. Ships were cluttered with material for their refits and with unstowed stores. HMS Prince had so many casks on one of her gun decks as to be unable to operate that deck's guns; HMS America threw large amounts of loose material overboard. Despite these difficulties, by 11.00 pm, within three hours of Gibraltar appearing, eight British ships of the line had warped out of the harbour and were heading for the Atlantic. Several ships were left behind, under Vice-Admiral Thomas Brodrick, with orders to sail as soon as they could be made fit for sea.
Ships sailing at night usually displayed lanterns from their sterns and masts, so as to avoid collisions and to allow groups of ships to maintain contact. Wishing to be as inconspicuous as possible, the French ships did not follow this practice. Despite this, their ships maintained contact as a group to this point. The French ships had all been issued with sealed orders, which they were to open on passing the Strait of Gibraltar; these instructed them that the fleet was to rendezvous at Rota on the Bay of Cádiz. Knowing they had been observed by the British, and as the fleet had not in fact been dispersed, La Clue changed his plan. Instead of heading for Cádiz, where he feared he could be easily blockaded by the British, he decided to sail more westerly, to clear Cape St. Vincent and head into the North Atlantic. However, the French Navy did not have an effective system of night signalling. So at about midnight La Clue had his flagship, Océan, light her stern lantern, turn to port (left, or westward) and reduce her speed. Normally, such actions would be accompanied by the firing of cannon and the setting off of rockets to draw attention. It seems probable, knowing that the entire fleet was relatively close, and not wishing to advertise his manoeuvre to the British, La Clue, who had been ordered to avoid battle at all costs, omitted to do this.
Eight of the fifteen ships in the French fleet continued on to Cádiz. It is not clear if this was because they did not observe the flagship's change of course, because they did not understand its implications, or because they felt their freshly opened orders took precedence. At dawn La Clue could only see six other ships. He ordered them to rally on the flagship and heave to to await the anticipated appearance of the rest of the fleet. At about 6.00 am a group of large ships came into view and La Clue remained stationary, believing them to be the missing component of his fleet. It was only when the topsails of the nine ships of the second British squadron, the stragglers under Brodrick, were sighted further back that it was realised that all of these ships were British.
The seven French ships sailed at the speed of their slowest member, the Centaure. Boscawen ordered "General chase", and the British force broke up, each sailing as fast as possible towards the French. The British ships proved to be the faster, and were slightly favoured by variable winds, allowing them to gradually overhaul the French by the afternoon of 18 August. Boscawen repeatedly signalled to his ships to "Make more speed". Several of the British ships were hampered by their newly warped sails splitting, or their newly fitted spars breaking loose, probably as they were overstrained by crews eager to catch the French. At 1.00 pm the French ships hoisted their battle ensigns and opened fire at long range. Ships of the line had most of their guns mounted in their sides, to allow them to fire broadsides, but had a small number of lighter guns mounted in their sterns, able to fire to their rears. It was not possible to effectively fire ahead of such ships. The French were thus able to fire at the British as they grew closer, while the British were unable to reply. The French attempted to disable the British ships' sails and rigging, but with little effect.
At 2.30 pm the British Culloden engaged the rearmost French ship, the Centaure; they were evenly matched, each being equipped with 74 heavy guns, 37 on each side. By this time the French had formed a line ahead formation, with their flagship in the centre. Boscawen claimed he wished his leading, and therefore his fastest, ships to engage the first French ships they encountered, then, as the next British ship arrived, move on to attack the next French ship in line. Any bypassed French ships could, he felt, be safely left to Brodrick's squadron. However, only his own flagship adopted this approach, and only four of the seven French ships were engaged. Centaure was attacked by five British ships, fighting on for five hours and seriously delaying the British pursuit before striking her colours after being battered into a wreck and having more than a third of her crew killed or wounded.
Meanwhile, Boscawen had pressed on in his 90-gun flagship, determined to engage the largest ship in the French fleet, La Clue's flagship, the 80-gun Océan. Namur passed three French ships, receiving a broadside from each; Boscawen ordered that there be no return fire, instead having his crew lie down, to minimise casualties. By 4.00 pm Namur was close enough to Océan to open fire and a three-hour-long running fight developed. Océan had 200 men killed or wounded; while Namur had one of her three masts shot away, together with the topsail yards of both remaining masts. With Namur unable to manoeuvre, Océan, also badly damaged, fled. Boscawen transferred his flag to Newark.
As the sun set, the six surviving French ships continued to flee to the north west, with those British ships not slowed by battle damage close behind them. There was sufficient moonlight to allow the British ships to keep in touch, although the two fastest French ships, Souverain and Guerrier, slipped away into the Atlantic during the night. The naval historian Nicholas Tracey claims La Clue sailed an incorrect course, failed to weather Cape St. Vincent, and became trapped against a lee shore. The badly wounded La Clue now had command only over his flagship and three other ships of the line, Redoutable, Téméraire and Modeste, none of which had yet been engaged. Despairing of escape, he led the remnants of his fleet to a small river west of Lagos in Portugal. Portugal was neutral and it would be illegal for Boscawen to attack him there. There was also a small Portuguese fort overlooking the anchorage and La Clue may have hoped this would be some deterrent.
As Boscawen approached in Newark, the Portuguese opened fire and he hove to outside of cannon range and waited for the rest of the British ships. Once they arrived he selected several ships and ordered them to attack the French "without any regard to the laws of neutrality." The British America attacked Océan, firing a broadside from short range and demanding that she surrender. The French, who had been in the process of abandoning ship, struck their colours. The British were unable to tow Océan off as she had been run ashore with some force in order to prevent this. So they evacuated those left of the crew and set fire to her; several hours later, around midnight, the fire reached her magazine and she exploded.
Three ships from Brodrick's rear squadron were sent in after the remaining three French ships. HMS Prince fired repeatedly into Redoutable and then boarded her. She was also firmly beached and so, like Océan, she was torched, and also exploded several hours later. Having observed Océan and Redoubtable set alight and seeing HMS Jersey sailing towards them the crew of Modeste fled or surrendered and she was towed out, little damaged, to the British fleet. The last French ship, Téméraire, was attacked by Warspite at 2.45 pm, but her crew refused to surrender. Warspite manoeuvred so as to be able to fire into Téméraire's stern, where the French could do little to fire back, and after an hour Téméraire also struck her colours and was towed out.
The French lost 500 men killed, wounded and captured; against 56 British fatalities and 196 wounded. De la Clue, seriously wounded, was carried ashore before the British arrived and survived; five years later he was promoted to Lieutenant-General. The two French ships which escaped from the battle eventually reached Rochefort.  The five French ships in Cadiz were blockaded by Boscawen's second-in-command, Admiral Brodrick. They were instructed to head for French Atlantic ports if they were able to break this blockade, with a view to reinforcing the fleet in Brest. But when they evaded Brodrick during a winter storm in January 1760 the French Atlantic Fleet had been destroyed at the Battle of Quiberon Bay and they returned to Toulon.
Hearing the news of the victory, the notoriously nervous British prime minister, the Duke of Newcastle, said "I was afraid of invasion till now." Boscawen's violation of Portuguese neutrality was fully supported by his government. Boscawen, his captains and their crews were fêted in Britain. After completing their interrupted refits, several of Boscawen's victorious ships were transferred to Admiral Edward Hawke's fleet off Brest, and five were with Hawke when he destroyed the Brest fleet in Quiberon Bay in November. The three captured French ships went on to serve in the British navy as HMS Centaur, Modeste and Temeraire. The historian Sarah Kinkel describes the Battle of Lagos as a "definitive" victory. The battle was one of a series of British victories in 1759 which caused the year to be known as an annus mirabilis (Latin for year of wonders).
Serving on board Océan as a junior officer was Pierre André de Suffren, who was later to gain fame as an admiral leading a French fleet in the Indian Ocean. A young slave named Olaudah Equiano, who would later become a prominent abolitionist in England, participated in the engagement on the British side. He included an account of the battle in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.
Order of battle
Ships of the line:[note 1]
Namur 90 (flag)
St Albans 64
Princess Louisa 60
Tartar's Prize 24
Ships which participated in the battle:
Ships of the line:
Centaure 74 – captured 18 August
Océan 80 (flag) – run aground and burnt 19 August
Redoutable 74 – run aground and burnt 19 August
Téméraire 74 – captured 19 August
Modeste 64 – captured 19 August
Souverain 74 – escaped
Guerrier 74 – escaped
Ships which became separated at night and sailed to Cadiz:
Notes, citations and sources
- The number after each ship indicates the total number of guns it carried in its two broadsides.
- Szabo 2007, pp. 17–18.
- McLynn 2005, p. 65.
- Chaline 2011, p. 17.
- Jenkins 1973, p. 148.
- Anderson 2001, pp. 211–212.
- Chaline 2011, p. 18.
- le Moing 2003, p. 9.
- le Moing 2003, p. 11.
- McLynn 2005, p. 232.
- McLynn 2005, pp. 232–233.
- McLynn 2005, p. 236.
- Tracey 2010, p. 24.
- McLynn 2005, p. 248.
- Willis 2009, p. 747.
- Tracey 2010, p. 116.
- Willis 2009, p. 749.
- Rodger 2004, p. 277.
- Anderson 2001, pp. 314–315.
- Willis 2009, p. 750.
- Willis 2009, p. 753.
- Willis 2009, pp. 748–749, 754.
- Willis 2009, pp. 753–754.
- Willis 2009, p. 754.
- Jenkins 1973, p. 131.
- Tracey 2010, p. 117.
- Willis 2009, pp. 754–755.
- Willis 2009, pp. 756–757.
- McLynn 2005, p. 251.
- Willis 2009, p. 757.
- McLynn 2005, p. 252.
- Willis 2009, p. 760.
- Tracey 2010, p. 118.
- Monaque 2017, pp. 86–87.
- Willis 2009, p. 761.
- Willis 2009, p. 762.
- Rodger 2004, p. 278.
- McLynn 2005, p. 253.
- Dull 2009, p. 83.
- Tracey 2010, p. 135.
- Longmate 1993, p. 178.
- Willis 2009, p. 763.
- Willis 2009, p. 764.
- Kinkel 2013, p. 1451.
- Monod 2009, p. 167.
- Monaque 2017, pp. 86, 88.
- Mahan 1890, p. 416.
- Willis 2009, p. 756.
- Troude 1867, p. 373.
- Troude 1867, pp. 372–373.
- McLynn 2005, p. 250.
- Anderson, Fred (2001). Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0571205653.
- Chaline, Oliver (2011). "Quiberon Bay, 20 novembre 1759". Les cahiers du Pays de Guérande (in French). Société des Amis de Guérande (53): 17–29. ISSN 0765-3565.
- Dull, Jonathan R. (2009). The Age Of The Ship Of The Line: The British and French Navies, 1650–1815. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books. ISBN 978-1848325494.
- Jenkins, E.H. (1973). A History of the French Navy : From Its Beginnings to the Present Day. London: Macdonald and Janeś. ISBN 978-0356041964.
- Kinkel, Sarah (2013). "Disorder, Discipline, and Naval Reform in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain". The English Historical Review. 128 (535): 1451–1482. JSTOR 24473894.
- Longmate, Norman (1993). Island Fortress: The Defence of Great Britain, 1603–1945. London: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0586208465.
- McLynn, Frank (2005). 1759: the Year Britain Became Master of the World. London: Pimlico. ISBN 978-0099526391.
- Mahan, Alfred Thayer Mahan (1890). The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. London: Sampson, Low, Marston. OCLC 782063369.
- le Moing, Guy (2003). La Bataille navale des Cardinaux: 20 novembre 1759 (in French). Paris: Economica. ISBN 978-2717845037.
- Monaque, Rémy (2017). "Le Bailli Pierre-André De Suffren: A Precursor of Nelson". In Harding, Richard; Guimerá, Agustín (eds.). Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World: The Age of Reform and Revolution, 1700–1850. London: University of Westminster Press. pp. 85–92. ISBN 978-1911534082.
- Monod, Paul Kléber (2009). Imperial Island: A History of Britain and Its Empire, 1660–1837. Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1405134446.
- Szabo, Franz A. J. (2007). The Seven Years' War in Europe 1756–1763. Harlow, Essex: Longman. ISBN 978-0582292727.
- Tracey, Nicholas (2010). The Battle of Quiberon Bay, 1759: Hawke and the Defeat of the French Invasion. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword. ISBN 978-1848841161.
- Troude, Onesime-Joachim (1867). Batailles navales de la France, Volume 1 (in French). Paris: Libraire Commissionaire de la Marine. OCLC 757299734.
- Chapter IV of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, at Wikisource, contains an account of the battle as witnessed by the author aboard HMS Namur
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