Grand Turk Island

What does this have to do with the Age of Sail?

Just finished Dewey Lambdin’s The King’s Commission which is set in the West Indies and Caribbean. One of the interesting episodes is when Alan Lewrie’s ship falls in with a small squadron commanded by Captain Horatio Nelson commanding the 28-gun 6th rate HMS Albemarle. While most of us are familiar with Nelson as a figure in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, his service under Admiral Sir Samuel Hood in the West Indies is less well known.

To set the stage, towards the end of the American Revolution the French occupied Grand Turk. While fairly insignificant in and of itself it did occupy a key position along the Columbus Passage, a 22-mile wide and extremely deep channel that was favored by merchantmen. French possession of Grand Turk, at a time when both sides were jockeying for position with an eye on the imminent peace talks in mind. For instance, in January 1782 the French seized St. Kitts from the British despite their defeat by Hood in a naval battle of the same name. St Kitts was virtually untenable as a French possession and was taken to be a bargaining chip later.

The French occupation was discovered on March 4 by a small flotilla composed of HMS Resistance, 40-guns, Captain James King, accompanied by two prizes La Coquette and a smaller sloop. On March 6, King met the HMS Albemarle, under Nelson, and the 14-gun brig sloop HMS Drake, under Captain Charles Dixon, who were on a mission to find the French fleet. On the evening of March 7, Nelson sent an emissary ashore demanding that the French surrender. He was rebuffed. On the morning of March 8 Nelson landed 167 marines and seamen under Captain Dixon on the southern tip of Grand Turk in a act of impetuosity and impatience that reminds one of Wellington at San Sebastian.

Long story short. The French had a 3-gun battery of 18-pounders on the island which mauled the small ships attempting to bombard French positions and Captain Dixon found himself outnumbered by French troops.

More details on the prelude, battle, and aftermath are available here.

It was one of Nelson’s few defeats and he was criticized for his actions by many of his contemporaries though not by the one person who mattered: Admiral Hood.

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Filed under Age of Sail, Geography, Naval Operations, Naval Operations Ashore

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