While we celebrate the 218th anniversary of Lord Nelson’s victory off Cape Trafalgar, how many people now remember the other naval battle that happened on a previous 21st October?
It was in 1757, the second year of the Seven Years War, and things were not going well for Britain or for her navy. Mobilisation had been slow and only six months earlier Admiral Byng had been executed on the quarterdeck of a ship-of-the-line in for ‘not doing his utmost’ in defending Minorca from a French squadron. A naval victory was needed to steady the country and reassure Britain’s allies, and it came in the faraway Caribbean off Cape François (now Cap Haitien in Haiti.)
A French battle squadron had been sent to bring home an important convoy that had gathered at Cape François. The Comte de Kersaint had a strong force of four of the line and three frigates while Captain Arthur Forrest had a blockading squadron comprising his own ship Augusta, a fourth rate of sixty guns; Dreadnought, another sixty-gun fourth rate commanded by Maurice Suckling (you can perhaps see where this is leading now); and Edinburgh, Captain Langdon’s sixty-four-gun third rate.
Wikipedia has a useful description of the action after de Kersaint tried to bring his convoy out of Cape François:
I won’t repeat it all here, but the conclusion was that Forrest’s squadron out-manoeuvred and out-fought de Kersaint’s ships and the French convoy had to turn back to Cape François. It was just the victory that King George needed, and the country’s faith in its navy was restored.
After Cape François, Maurice Suckling (remember him?) didn’t take part in any more notable actions during his long naval career. If it weren’t for his role in bringing his nephew, Horatio Nelson, to sea, his name would have sunk into obscurity long ago.
Forty-eight years after the Battle of Cape François to the very day, on the morning of the twenty-first of October 1805, off Cape Trafalgar, the combined fleets of Spain and France were in sight. Vice Admiral Lord Nelson was heard by Victory’s surgeon to remark that, ‘the twenty-first of October was the happiest day in the year among my family,’ and several times in the days before Trafalgar he said to Captain Hardy and Doctor Scott, ‘the twenty-first of October will be our day.’
Nelson had no important naval connections other than his maternal uncle, of whom the whole family was immensely proud. His family annually feasted the anniversary of the Battle of Cape François, and it’s entirely reasonable to imagine that it was the story of that action that led Nelson to choose the navy. For Nelson chose the navy, he wasn’t pushed into it. More-or-less out of the blue he asked his father to write to Maurice Suckling asking if he would take young Horatio to sea. Suckling famously replied, ‘What has poor Horace done, who is so weak, that he above all the rest should be sent to rough it at sea? But let him come, and the first time that we go into action, a cannon-ball may blow off his head, and provide for him at once.’ Suckling took Nelson as a youngster into his ship Raisonnable, a sixty-four-gun third-rate ship-of-the-line.
Without the Battle of Cape François, Nelson may have chosen the church as a career. It would have been the obvious choice for the third son of a country parson, particularly so as neither of his elder brothers chose the cloth. Instead, he went to sea and achieved immortality at Cape St. Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen and finally at Trafalgar where he lost his life giving his country its greatest naval victory.
If you subscribe to a causal interpretation of history, then you can spin all sorts of interesting alternative histories, with Horatio Nelson spending his years writing sermons and baptising babies, rather than leading majestic fleets into action amid the thunder of great guns!
So, on this twenty-first of October, as we toast ‘The Immortal memory’ spare a thought for Arthur Forrest and his little squadron that fought and won in faraway Hispaniola and laid the foundations for the greatest of victories nearly half a century later.
You can read a dramatized account of the battle of Cape Francois in ‘The Jamaica Station’ the third of thirteen (so far) Carlisle & Holbrooke Naval Adventures, written by myself.