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The Battling Cannoniere

On a dark night in November 1805, the 40 gun frigate Cannoniere slipped her moorings in the French port of Cherbourg and headed out to sea on a secret mission. She was setting out on a long journey, carrying a cargo of desperately needed naval stores out to the Indian Ocean. For the previous three years Admiral Linois, with a squadron of five warships, had been operating from the French controlled islands there against British commerce, but they now needed help from France to be able to continue. The frigate’s talented captain, César-Joseph Bourayne, managed to evade the Royal Navy’s numerous patrols, and after a voyage of five months arrived in the Indian Ocean. What he did not know was that Linois had given up waiting for him and decided to return to France. Worse still, the French squadron had run into a powerful British fleet in the South Atlantic the month before, and had been destroyed. Captain Bourayne was all alone, and a very long way from home.

Unaware of his precarious situation, the Cannoniere began searching for Linois’s ships. On the 20th April, while cruising off the coast of South Africa, he spotted sails on the horizon and closed to investigate. Unfortunately for the French they had discovered a convoy of East Indiamen being escorted by two Royal Navy warships, the 50 gun Hindostan and the 74 gun Tremendous. While the smaller ship stayed with the convoy, Captain Osborn of the Tremendous set out in pursuit of the Cannoniere. The two ships were well matched in speed, and it took hours of steady pursuit for the big 74 to bring the French ship within range of her bow chasers. The Tremendous completely outgunned the frigate, which meant that once she came up alongside, any battle would be quickly over.

But Captain Bourayne was not for quitting. He played what seemed to be a losing hand with considerable skill. He made use of the one advantage he still had, which was his frigate’s superior manoeuvrability. He repeatedly luffed his ship up into the wind, firing a full broadside into his opponents rigging, and then resuming his previous course while his gun crews reloaded. Although this meant that the Tremendous would catch him even sooner, he was gambling on being able to inflict enough damage to his opponent to slow him down. By late afternoon the British ship did indeed have considerable damage to her rigging, but had almost drawn level with the Cannoniere. Captain Bourayne turned his ship for a final time, let fly with all his guns and at last got his reward. The Tremendous’s jib stay parted and her foretopsail yard was brought down. Now it was Captain Bourayne that had the swifter ship, and he made haste to sail away. The sun set a few hours later and the Cannoniere vanished into the tropical night to fight another day.

The French ship had not escaped unharmed. She had thirty two casualties, a gun destroyed and a lot of damage to her masts. Nevertheless it was a remarkable feat that Captain Bourayne had pulled off. The battle between the Cannoniere and the Tremendous became a textbook example of how a well-handled ship could outfight a larger opponent in the age of sail.

Having narrowly avoided one disaster, the Cannoniere promptly courted another. The frigate sailed for the Cape Colony for repairs, unaware that it had been recently captured from France’s Dutch allies by the British. She had dropped anchor in the harbour at Simon’s Town and sent a boat to make contact with the shore before she realised her error when the fort started firing at her. Abandoning her boat crew, she cut her anchor cable and scrambled for safety, fortunately without any more damage. She made for the French island of Reunion for repairs, and then embarked on an epic cruise attacking British merchantmen in the Indian Ocean and even out into the Pacific. Her wily captain managed to stay ahead of capture for almost two years, her luck finally ran out. In April 1808, she came upon and defeated the 22 gun Royal Navy sloop Laurel off the coast of Mauritius in a savage action that lasted an hour and a half. Captain Bourayne’s victory was a pyrrhic one, however, as his worn out frigate suffered such hull damage that she could not be repaired so far from home. She was patched up in Reunion and then set sail for home.

There was to be no “third time lucky” escape for the frigate, however. After over three months at sea, in which she had eluded British vessels fourteen times, she was within sight of the coast of France when she was spotted by the Royal Navy 74 Valiant. After a six hour chase, she was brought to battle, and quickly captured. Captain Bourayne spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Britain, until he was released in 1814. His achievements were rightly celebrated in his homeland. He was made a Baron of the Empire by Napoleon, and promoted to admiral, even though he was in captivity at the time. He returned to France when the war ended, but his health had been ruined by his years in the tropics, and he died in 1817 aged 49.

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