Tour Of The Caribbean – The Battle of the Saints Passage

As the steamer makes her way northwards again there comes into view, between Dominica and Guadaloupe, a blue-water channel. It is called The Saints Passage, not on the surmise that it leads to Heaven, but because athwart it lie Les Isles des Saintes as well as little Marie Galante. Here was fought, between Rodney and De Grasse, the bloody and momentous battle of April 12, 1782. It was an engagement upon which hung the fate of Great Britain in the West Indies, for it was a fight for the mastery of the sea.

The English fleet came from Gros Islet Bay in St. Lucia, the French had sailed ahead of them from Martinique. Off Dominica Rodney, on April 9, caught up with the enemy. They approached one another stealthily, with catlike caution. There was a good deal of manoeuvring and shifting of place. Like two wrestlers, with every muscle on the strain, they faced one another, keen in the intent to obtain the best position before they came to the grip. On April 12 Rodney saw his opportunity : he closed in upon the French fleet and the battle to the death began.

It lasted thirteen hours, and no one can say who fought the more gallantly, the French or the British. De Grasse was on board the great Ville de Paris, a ship with 104 guns and the finest man-of-war afloat. Rodney’s vessel was the Formidable with 98 guns. Rodney was at the time a man of sixty-four, who had had his share of buffeting in the world, and was, moreover, ill with the gout. A man harsh and reserved, he kept himself aloof from his officers, having little of that camaraderie which distinguishes the followers of the sea. He fought the battle alone, with much grumbling and growling no doubt, but with infinite care and skill.

As to the battle itself it was no mean sight at the end. There were over sixty ships of war engaged, and most of them had had belabouring enough by the time the sun set. On many the flag had been hauled down. Some were being towed away helpless, while not a few were drifting about in silence, mere aimless wrecks. In the blue sky above the Passage of the Saints there hung still a fateful cloud of smoke. The pansy-coloured sea was strewn with spars and tangled gear, with ugly splinters of stout oak and strange things swept from disordered decks. Here it may be was a swimming man and there, behind him, the fin of a shark.

The firing had become feebler and feebler until it had almost ceased. Quiet had fallen upon the outskirts of the fight, but in the centre was some hubbub still. Here was one ship which would not be silenced. Her upper works were shattered from bow to stern, her sails were in rags, her ropes and rigging hung from the spars like dead creepers in a wood, her decks were covered with the wounded and the dying. Yet still, from time to time—and the intervals became painfully longer—a puff of smoke would burst savagely from her battered ports. This was the French flagship, the Ville de Paris, the only vessel that had not surrendered. A last broadside was poured into her by the English, and now maimed, reeling, dazed, she made no answer.

In a breathless silence the flag of France came down through the powder smoke, and any who could catch a glimpse of the sea between the hulls of the encircling ships would notice that a small boat was being rowed from the Ville de Paris to the Formidable. In the boat was Comte de Grasse on his way to surrender his sword to the British admiral.

In the quiet, old-world square of Spanish Town in Jamaica is a memorial to Rodney, and in front of it stand two brass eighteen pounders. They are very daintily decorated, bear the date 1748, and, under a proud coat of arms, the name ” Louis Charles de Bourbon, Comte d’Eu, Duc d’Aumale.” These were the two most cherished guns from the fighting deck of the Ville de Paris, and one may be allowed to think that from their grey-green muzzles was fired, on that day in April, the last defiant charge.