Thursday, October 31, 2013

Caithness and Napoleon 1

HMS Calcutta, with James Caithness on board, reached Spithead on 23 July 1804 after her round-the-world voyage. Before they left Australia Captain Woodriff had received news that the uneasy peace which had begun with the Treaty of Amiens in March 1801 was finally over and England was again at war with France. In September 1804 Calcutta was refitted by the Admiralty as a 56-gun fourth-rate and fully prepared to play her part in the struggle against Napoleon and his allies.

The British Fleet at Spithead  by John Ward

With Captain Woodriff in command, HMS Calcutta left St Helena on 3 August 1803, escorting a convoy of several assorted ships to England. There were three whalers, an East India Company ship from Madras, a Swedish ship and a British brig, Brothers, which had joined them after being separated from another convoy in a gale.

HMS Calcutta
South of the Scilly Isles, Calcutta’s mast-head lookouts observed unknown sail in the distance and Woodriff positioned the Calcutta between the convoy and the approaching ships. These turned out to be French and Calcutta went to intercept, having signalled to the convoy to make sail and get away. 

The first ship encountered was the 40-gun frigate Armide and after an engagement Calcutta successfully drew the enemy southwards, distracting them from the convoy, though the Brothers, an older and slower vessel, was captured.

Le Magnanime by Antoine Roux

The rest of the French squadron under Allemand was now in the area and Woodriff brought Calcutta alongside the 74-gun Magnanime. After nearly an hour of fierce battle, during which Calcutta was disabled by damage to her rigging, Woodriff surrendered rather than sacrifice the lives of his 350-man crew. His ploy had worked. The convoy had escaped but the price paid would be heavy: Calcutta was taken by the French as a prize, and Captain Woodriff and all his people were forthwith made prisoners-of-war.

Among them was James Caithness.

Embroidered bee:
Napoleon's Coronation Mantle*

* The Napoleonic icon contains bees, which appealed to Napoleon as symbols of industry and was an image apparently popular during the Merovingian dynasty of the sixth to eight centuries A.D.; Napoleon may have favored the resonance between 'bee' and 'Bonaparte' while also savoring the irony that the image of the insect seemed to some to be a Bourbon fleur-de-lys turned upside down.  

Tom Sheldon

No comments: