Captain James McNamara was known as one of the Royal Navy’s best fighting captains. Born into a naval family from County Clare on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, he had joined the service as a fourteen-year old during the American War of Independence. Almost immediately his ship was sent out to join Admiral Hughes in the Indian Ocean, and McNamara served through most of the campaign fought against France’s Eastern fleet under the brilliant Admiral De Suffren.
What the youngster from Ireland made of being whisked across the globe to the exotic orient is not recorded, but he thrived as a naval officer. He was promoted to lieutenant within six years of joining the navy, commander five years later, and post captain of the thirty-two-gun frigate Southampton in 1795. He then served as part of Nelson’s frigate squadron operating off the Italian coast against the French invaders, where he impressed the future admiral with his courage and initiative.
In June the following year, the Southampton was part of Admiral Jervis’s Mediterranean fleet blockading the French naval base at Toulon. One day a small French warship was spotted approaching the port along the coast. The enemy ship was the twenty-gun corvette L’Utile, returning from commerce raiding against British merchantmen. By late afternoon on the 9th, the enemy ship had taken refuge in a bay where she was protected by the heavy guns of several coastal batteries. The entrance to the roadstead was particularly difficult because the approach involved sailing between three rocky islands. Admiral Jervis sent for McNamara, convinced he was the only man in the fleet able to succeed against such odds. So uncertain were the odds that Jervis didn’t give him a direct order, so that McNamara had the freedom to abandon the attack without disgrace.
But the Irishman was happy to take up the challenge. To counteract the powerful batteries, he waited for darkness to fall before standing in towards the land. This meant that the passage into the bay between the islands was all the more hazardous. With little more than the glimmer of surf against the rocks to guide him, he sailed the Southampton into the bay unobserved. In complete silence, the frigate stole up to the French ship, remaining undetected until they were alongside.
When he finally heard French cries of alarm, McNamara called on the L’Utile to surrender. In response he a pistol was fired in his direction, followed by a broadside from the corvette’s guns. The Southampton responded with three quick broadsides of their own, and then fell on board her opponent, lashing the two ships together. A boarding party swept across onto the L’Utile’s deck, led by the Southampton’s first lieutenant, Charles Lydiard. After a bloody melee lasting about ten minutes, the L’Utile surrendered. There were thirty casualties inflicted between the two sides, including the French captain.
The shore batteries were now fully aware that an attack was in progress, but had been reluctant to fire on the Southampton, for fear of hitting their own ship, which was between them and the enemy. Once it was clear that the L’Utile had been captured, however, both became legitimate targets. Now under a considerable bombardment, McNamara realised that it would take his prize crew too long to work out how to sail the unfamiliar ship in the dark. As the two vessels were lashed together, he ordered his prize crew to cut their prize’s anchor cable, while the frigate set sail, dragging the L’Utile along with her. This plan seemed to work at first, but the two ships quickly shuddered to a halt. A frantic search soon found the problem – an unnoticed additional hawse cable still tied to the shore. Once this was cut, by Lydiard with his sword, the Southampton made her triumphant exit without further incident.
Captain James McNamara went on to have a long career in the navy, eventually becoming an admiral in 1814. The only blot on his career came when he had an altercation with an army colonel in Hyde Park, after the two men’s dogs became embroiled in a fight. A duel followed over the incident which resulted in McNamara shooting his opponent dead. He was subsequently tried for manslaughter, but defended himself on the grounds that he ‘had received an affront that it was necessary to challenge in order to maintain [his] position as a naval officer.’ A galaxy of nautical stars testified in his defence, including Nelson, Hood, Hyde Parker, and Troubridge, amongst several others. The jury took just ten minutes to acquit him.