"A Brief Sea Fight" by Samuel Johnson
Updated: May 4, 2018
Captain James Moore stood on the gently rocking quarterdeck of his first command. As he swept the horizon with his spyglass, his gaze centred on a magnificent large frigate under easy sail. The Captain scrutinized the ship’s 22 gun broadside; heavy 24-pounders, he reckoned. He noted the seamless planking of the graceful ship as he shifted his gaze aft, to where he saw the French colours flying, illuminated by a gilded stern lantern. Moore then examined the ship beside his, the merchantman he was escorting. It was a short, bluff-bowed collier that had evidently seen plenty of leagues at sea.
Flying next to it’s ragged, stained sails was the red flag of the British Merchant Marine. Lastly, there was his ship; his first command, of which he was immensely proud. It was a medium-sized schooner, essentially fresh off the drydock. Although she was not as stately and magnificent as the French frigate that was tailing her, Captain Moore admired the schooner’s plain, yet elegant and efficient nature: her lines were narrow and swift, her paint was gleaming, and her sails were a crisp, new white: but she mounted a paltry 12 guns; a quarter of the armament of his adversary.
As he folded and pocketed his spyglass, Moore glumly wondered at the fate of his first command and assignment. This deadlock had been the situation for the last week since the Charlotte and the merchant ship, Miss Fortune, had left Cape Town; the French frigate was on the prowl, and the Charlotte was having to shorten sail in order to allow her charge to keep pace.
The Miss Fortune’s shoddy state was intentional; no-one was to suspect that she was actually carrying arms and ammunition to fuel a native revolt against French rule in the East Indies. But this French frigate had spotted the two ships, and saw an easy opportunity to bag a merchantman and her under-armed escort. This is at least was what Moore hoped to be the case; if the French really knew the nature of his mission, there was bound to be much more trouble, he thought. But his professional, analytical mindset had assumed precedence over this; what he needed to focus on was that he was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and the only thing standing between the French and the future of British colonial ambitions in the east was him and his small, 12-gun schooner. The French warship would soon be upon them, and there was no time for delaying or indecisiveness.
He turned to his crew, who had gathered on deck, awaiting his orders: “I see no need to remind you of our situation, or the stakes of our mission. You can see what is there, bearing down upon us: that is more than the factor of our mission’s success or failure. That ship, there, is the factor which decides whether we go down in history as the men who failed, and lost our nation it’s Empire, or the men who pulled through, like real Englishmen, in the time when it mattered most. I expect you all to fight as hard as this dire situation warrants, and above all, to do your duty.” Moore turned to his 1st Lieutenant, a stocky, red-faced Cornishman: “Lt. Faulkner, bring the ship about, and call general quarters. Signal the Miss Fortune to make all haste to windward."
Drum beats echoed throughout the Charlotte, as the ship gybed, filling her sails with a freshening breeze astern. Despite her disadvantage in size and armament, the Charlotte now had the weather gauge; the wind was astern of her, and blowing against the enemy. As Moore planned out his maneuvers, the ship was abuzz with activity: sailors were spreading sand across the decks to provide traction and filling fire buckets, gun crews were loading their pieces with double shot and making ready to fire, and marines were loading their muskets and fixing bayonets.
The rest of the crew armed themselves with pistols, cutlasses and axes, while Captain Moore holstered a brace of pistols and donned his sword. The breeze continued to strengthen as the Charlotte bore down upon her adversary with increasing speed, the freshening swells sending spray cascading onto the ship’s bow. Moore again looked through his spyglass to see the the French Frigate had also cleared for action: men were bustling about on deck, and her impressive armament was run out. Moore realized that the Charlotte would be in range of those guns in a matter of minutes: he needed to think fast, and maneuver faster.
“3 points starboard! Bring her about!” he shouted to the helmsman, and the Charlotte came around; as her bow passed through the wind, the sails erupted into a cacophony of fluttering and luffing, which was a moment later silenced as the sails were reined in by the coordinated efforts of the crew. The ship was now deftly sliding downwind, and soon she had passed the Frigate’s deadly broadside and was in position directly astern of the enemy before her captain had time to respond.
Now was his chance: “Fire as she bears!” Moore yelled, and as each gun of his ship’s broadside sighted the enemy when Charlotte glided past the Frenchman’s stern, it let loose a thundering volley of double shot and clouds of grapeshot.
Moore winced as his ears rang from the horrible din, while the Charlotte’s broadside eviscerated the frigate’s ornate stern gilding and windows, sending shot and shrapnel ricocheting through the inside of the ship, smashing gun carriages and tearing through crewmen. After the guns had fired, there was an eerie silence for a moment, and then a great clamour of wounded and dying men rose up. This was followed by the splitting crack of the Frenchman’s mizzenmast, as it fractured, came loose and fell over the board, crashing over the railing of the Charlotte. The ships were now ensnared; it was a close action now. The crew of the schooner had hardly recovered when they saw, to their horror, that French sailors and marines were now streaming over the fallen mast and rigging, using it as a boarding bridge.
Without thinking, Captain Moore lept down to the main deck, now coated in debris, drew his sword, and called out to the ship’s marines: “To me! Form up now!” The red coated soldiers rallied to their captain, and formed a defensive firing line. “Front rank, make ready---set---Fire!”
The muskets went off in a volley, surrounding the Captain in smoke. When it cleared, he saw several Frenchmen fall into the sea, but their losses were soon replaced by the mob that was now swarming across the mast at an alarming pace. “Charge, bayonets!”
The marines barely had time to level their bayonets against the onrushing horde when the two groups collided with a tremendous crash. Moore was in the thick of it, slashing and thrusting in all directions while attempting to rally his men. He expertly parried the heavy cutlass of an enemy crewman, and recovered in time to plunge his rapier into the man’s chest. The Captain tried to exhume his weapon from his fallen adversary, but to no avail. Desperate, he heaved the body into the path of a pair of onrushing French marines, who stumbled and were set upon by crewmen from the Charlotte. Unable to retrieve his sword, he drew his pistols, one of which was swept from his hand immediately by a stray shot. Moore then fired his remaining shot at an officer, who fell instantly to the deck, which was covered in blood, debris and fallen men.
The small crew of the Charlotte could not possibly keep up this melee for long, no matter how stoutly they resisted the boarders. Moore turned to address Lt. Faulkner, but the officer had already taken up a boarding axe, and was hacking away at the mast linking the two ships together. As the Cornishman’s final stroke cleaved through the mast and set the Charlotte free, he was struck by a musket ball and fell into the sea. Captain Moore, fighting back rage, seized a fallen musket and fired: Lt. Faulkner’s killer fell limply from the deck of the French ship as another broadside from the Charlotte crashed through the ruined stern of the enemy, sending the mainmast overboard.
But the French were soon recovered, and gradually bringing their ship about so their deadly broadside could finally discharge. Seeing this, Moore ordered the crew of the Charlotte to get under sail, which as now done in a rapid, panicked frenzy, and the little ship scooted away. The French ship, missing two masts and unable to pursue, fell off to leeward, and limped back towards the French privateering base at Madagascar. The Charlotte had sustained little damage, although many of her crew lay dead or wounded as a result of the French boarding action. The Miss Fortune, seeing the conclusion of the battle, tacked and headed downwind to meet the Charlotte, and take aboard some of the wounded, and congratulate the hard-fought victors with a salute and a case of wine sent over in the Captain’s boat.
As Captain Moore organized the clearing and cleaning of his ship, he knew he had to get underway: the French would be back soon enough. He grimly embraced that committing the dead to the sea, repairing damages, and getting back to the mission that was his duty. The Charlotte, with the Miss Fortune following behind, again set sail, and seemed to leap through the waves, as if a burden had just been lifted from them. Captain Moore stiffened his resolve: he still had an ocean to cross.