Naval History of Great Britain
William James

VOL. VI , published 1837


Aware of the injury that would accrue to British commerce by the presence of an enemy's squadron in the South Seas, the American government ordered Commodore William Bainbridge, in the absence of Captain Hull, who wished to attend to his private affairs, to proceed thither with the Constitution, and the Hornet, Captain James Lawrence ; calling off St.-Salvador, on the coast of Brazil, for the Essex, Captain Porter, who had been directed to join them at that rendezvous. On the 27th of October the Essex sailed from the Delaware ; and on the 30th the Constitution and Hornet sailed from Boston. Towards the latter end of December Commodore Bainbridge arrived off St.-Salvador ; and, not finding the Essex at the rendezvous, sent the Hornet into the port to make inquiries respecting her. On the 29th of December, at 2 P. M., latitude 13° 6' south, longitude 30° west, while lying to about 10 leagues off the coast, waiting to be joined by the Hornet, then seen approaching from the coast, the Constitution descried in the offing the British 38-gun

frigate Java, Captain Henry Lambert, having in tow the American merchant ship William, which she had recently captured.A little of the previous history of the Java may render more intelligible the details that are to follow. On the 17th of August, in the present year, the late French frigate Renommée , * under the name of Java, was commissioned at Portsmouth by Captain Lambert, in order to carry out to Bombay the newly appointed governor, Lieutenant-general Hislop, and suite, together with a supply of stores, particularly of copper, for the Cornwallis 74, and Chameleon and Icarus 10-gun sloops, building at Bombay. There was no difficulty in commissioning the ship, in talking her sides and decks, in fitting up her accommodations, in putting

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on board her 46 guns, or her stores for the voyage, or for the new ships building ; but there was a difficulty in providing her with a crew. Officers, and a few petty-officers, were soon obtained. The ship's 50 marines also came on board ; and, although 18 of the number were raw recruits, they were upon the whole a good set of men Then came about 60 Irishmen who had never smelt salt water, except in crossing from their own shores to England. As a fine addition to a crew that, in less than a month after the ship sailed, might have to fight an American frigate similar to that which had taken the Guerrière, a draught of 50 disaffected wretches came on board from the 18-gun ship-sloop Coquette, lying at Spithead. Pressgangs and the prison-ships furnished others not much better. As to boys, the established number, 23, was easily filled up ; and, at length, 292, out of a complement of 300, men and boys were got together.

Feeling as every brave officer must feel, Captain Lambert remonstrated about the inefficiency of his ship's company but he was told that a voyage to the East Indies and back would make a good crew. It was in vain to urge the matter further ; and, as some slight amendment to the Java's crew, eight seamen were allowed to volunteer from the Rodney 74. Thus, out of a complement of 300 men and boys, the whole number of petty-officers and men, exclusively of those of the former that walked the quarterdeck, who had never been present in an action, amounted to fewer than 50. Here was a ship's company ! As several officers and men were to come on board as passengers, some hopes were entertained that these might compensate for the worthlessness of the crew ; but of the 86 supernumeraries, a very large proportion turned out to be marine-society boys.

Manned in this way, with a total of 397 persons of every description, the Java, on the 12th of November, set sail from Spithead, having in charge two outward-bound Indiamen. On the 12th of December the Java captured the American ship William, and placed on board a master's mate and 19 men, (the latter of some experience, undoubtedly, or they would have been of no use there,) with orders to keep company. On the 4th, being rather short of water, and being unable, without much difficulty, to get at what remained in the hold, on account of some articles of stores that lay over the casks, Captain Lambert determined to put into St.-Salvador. With this object in view, the Java altered her course; but the two Bombay ships, not wishing to go so far out of their way, parted company, and proceeded alone on their voyage.

Hitherto, owing to the necessity, in a newly fitted ship, of setting up the rigging, to the length of time, that a crew so inexperienced as the Java's would expend in the operation, to the number of other extra duties required on board a fighting ship so loaded and lumbered as the Java, and, particularly, to a succession of gales of wind since the day of departure, the men had


only been exercised occasionally at training the guns. But, as the ship was now approaching a coast, where there was a probability of falling in with an enemy's frigate, French or American, Captain Lambert, on the 28th, ordered the crew to be exercised at firing the guns. Accordingly, for the first time since she had become a British frigate, the Java, on that evening, discharged six broadsides of blank cartridges. With the majority of the crew, of course, those six broadsides were the first they had ever assisted in firing. What a crew to go into action, not with an American frigate a third superior, but with a French frigate barely their equal ! Previously to his departure from Portsmouth, Captain Lambert had actually declared to some of his friends, that, owing solely to the ineffective state of his crew, he did not consider himself equal to any French frigate he might meet.

Having no private brass guns, like the Macedonian, and no pair of long 18-pounders forward to bring down her heads like the Guerrière, the Java mounted no more, including 16 carronades, 32-pounders, and two long nines, than her 46 guns and a boat-carronade. Since her action with the Guerrière, either because the ship was beginning to hog, or for some unexplained reason, the Constitution had disarmed herself of two of her 32-pounder carronades, and taken on board one 18-ponder carronade fitted on a travelling carriage; and for which, as has already been shown, she had more than one pair of spare ports.

Casting off the William, with directions to her to proceed to St.-Salvador, the Java, soon after 8 A. M., with the wind blowing moderately from the north-east, bore up in chase of the Constitution, then in the south-south-west, standing on the larboard tack. At 10 A. M. the Java made the private signals, English, Spanish, and Portuguese, in succession; none of which were answered. At 10 h. 45 m, the Constitution tacked to the northward and westward, and stood for the Java ; whom Captain Commodore took for his expected consort the Essex. At noon, when about four miles distant, the Constitution hoisted the private signal. Having kept it flying 10 minutes, and finding it not answered, the Constitution wore from the Java, as the American account states, to avoid being raked ; and, again setting her mainsail and royals, kept away about two points free, in order, as Commodore Bainbridge says, to draw the Java from her consort the William merchantman, then standing in for the land, and supposed probably to be another ship of war.

Hauling up, the Java steered a course, parallel to that of the Constitution, and gained upon her considerably ; but, the breeze freshening, the Java, who was then going ten knots, lay over so much, that she was obliged to take in her royals. At about 1 h. 30 m. P. M. the Constitution, who found no inconvenience from carrying her royals, hoisted a commodore's pendant at the main, one American ensign at the mizen peak and another at

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the main topgallantmast-head, also an American jack at the fore. At 1 h. 40 m., by which time the Java had closed her within two miles, the American frigate shortened sail to top and topgallant sails, jib, and spanker, and luffed up to the wind. The British frigate now hoisted her colours, consisting of an ensign at the mizen peak, one union jack at the mizen topgallantmast-head, and another lashed to the main rigging ; and, putting herself under top and topgallant sails, jib, and spanker, the Java stood for the Constitution, then bearing about three points on her lee bow.

At 2 h. 10 m. P. M., when by her slanting course the Java had approached within half a mile of the Constitution, the latter opened a fire from her larboard guns ; the shot from which, as a proof of their good direction, splashed the water against the Java's starboard side. Not being so close as he wished, Captain Lambert stood on until within pistol-shot on the Constitution's weather or larboard bow ; when, at 2 h. 20 m. P. M., having received a second broadside, which, because the guns were now elevated too much, as before they had been too little, passed over her, the Java discharged a broadside in return. Almost every shot of this broadside took effect. The Constitution had her wheel knocked away, besides receiving other damage, and lost four men killed and several wounded.

Dreading a repetition of this warm salute, the American frigate, having fired her third broadside without much effect, wore in the smoke to get further to leeward. As soon as she discovered that her wary antagonist was running before the wind, the Java made sail after her; and at 2 h. 25 m. P. M., * the Constitution, and then the Java, having come round on the starboard tack, the two frigates again exchanged broadsides. Again the Constitution wore to get away. The Java wore also ; and at 2 h. 35 m., passing slowly under the latter's stern, with her larboard main yard-arm over the Constitution's taffrail, which, owing to the height of her lower battery from the water and her being nearly eight feet between decks, was nearly as high as that of the 74-gun ship Plantagenet, † the British frigate might have raked the American frigate in a most destructive manner . ‡ But, either panic-struck at the sight of so large and formidable a ship, or unable, from sheer ignorance, to appreciate the value of the opportunity thus afforded them of reducing the strength of their antagonist, the Java's crew did not fire a gun, except the 9-pounder on the forecastle ; and that was pointed and discharged by Lieutenant James Saunders, one of the supernumerary officers. The Constitution had now the weathergage ; but this did not suit her long-shot tactics: the American frigate therefore made sail free on the larboard tack, followed by


the British frigate; who, at 2 h. 40 m. luffing up, crossed again, but in an oblique manner, the Constitution's stern, and fired, this time, two or three of her foremost starboard guns.

At 2 h. 43 m. P. M., feeling ashamed of thus avoiding an antagonist so much inferior in size and force to himself, or impelled by his officers, some of whom, perhaps, hinted at the powerless state of the Java's battery, as recently witnessed, Commodore Bainbridge, as he tells us in his journal, "determined to close with the enemy notwithstanding his raking. " The Constitution accordingly hauled on board her fore and main tacks, and luffed up for her opponent. On arriving abreast of the Java, who had stood on upon the larboard tack, and now lay close to windward, the Constitution shortened sail and engaged her. At 2 h. 52 m. P. M., having shot away the head of the Java's bowsprit, * the American frigate repeated her favourite manoeuvre of wearing ; and, owing to the smoke, was not perceived until nearly round on the starboard tack. Having now neither jib nor foretopmast staysail, the Java, as the quickest mode to get round in pursuit, hove in stays, hoping to do so is time to avoid being raked ; but, from the operation of the same cause that had brought her so readily to the wind, the want of head-sail, the ship paid off very slowly. At 2h. 55 m. ‡ luffing sharp up, the Constitution set the Java's 'men a good example, by discharging, within the distance of about 400 yards, a heavy, but, as it happened, not a very destructive, fire into the British frigate's stern. This salute the Java, as she fell off, returned with her larboard guns. Immediately on receiving their fire, the Constitution wore round on the larboard tack, and was followed by the Java ; who, as quickly as she could, ranged up alongside to windward, as yet, not much the worse for her 40 minutes' engagement with an antagonist, that ought, in the time, to have knocked her to pieces.

At 2 h. 58 m. P. M., being again abreast of each other, and within pistol-shot distance, the two frigates mutually engaged so much, however, to the disadvantage of the Java, that, in the course of 10 minutes, her rigging was cut to pieces, and her fore and main masts badly wounded, her master carried below wounded, and several other officers and men killed or wounded. In this state, Captain Lambert determined on boarding, as the only chance of success left. With such intent, the Java, at 3 h. 8 m. P. M., bore up, and would have laid the Constitution on board at her larboard main chains, had not the foremast at that instant fallen, and which, by its weight and the direction of its fall, crushed the forecastle, and encumbered the principal part of the main deck. The remains of the Java's bowsprit, passing

  • The American account says the jib-boom had just before got foul of the Constitution's mizen rigging, but this fact does not. appear in the English account.

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over the Constitution's stern, caught in her starboard mizen rigging, and brought the ship up in the wind, whereby the opportunity to rake, as well as to board, was lost.

The Java now lay at the mercy of her antagonist ; who, at 3 h. 15 m. P. M., * wearing across her bows, raked her with a very heavy fire, and shot away her main topmast ; the wreck of which and of the foremast rendered useless the greater part of the starboard guns. Running past her unmanageable, and now nearly defenceless, opponent to leeward, the Constitution, at 3 h. 20 m. P. M., luffed up and raked her on the starboard quarter ; then wore round on the larboard tack, and, resuming her position, fired her larboard broadside with most destructive effect. At 3 h. 30 m. P. M., † Captain Lambert fell, mortally wounded in the left breast by a musket-ball from the Constitution's main top, and was carried below. The command of the Java then devolved upon Lieutenant Henry Ducie Chads ; who, although he had been painfully, but not dangerously, wounded since the commencement of the action, still remained on deck, animating the surviving officers and crew by his noble example.

At 3 h. 50 m. P. M. the Java had her gaff and spanker-boom shot away, and at 4 h. 5 m. her mizenmast. All this while, the Constitution lay on the Java's starboard quarter, pouring in a tremendous fire of round, grape, and musketry. The Constitution, from the damaged state of her rigging, ranging ahead, and the Java, from the fall of her mizenmast, falling off a little, the two frigates again became opposed broadside to broadside. Whether inspirited by the intrepid conduct of the Rodney's eight seamen and a few others (who almost fought the main deck), or recovered from their panic by knowing that the chief of the slaughter had hitherto fallen among their comrades on the deck above, the men at the Java's 18-pounders began blazing away with the utmost animation ; blazing, indeed, for, the wreck lying over the guns on that side, almost every discharge set the ship on fire. Having effectually done her work, the Constitution, at 4 h. 25 m. P. M., ‡ made sail ahead out of gun-shot, to repair her damages; leaving the Java a perfect wreck, with her mainmast only standing, and that tottering, her main yard gone in the slings, and the muzzles of her guns dipping in the water from the heavy rolling of the ship in consequence of her dismasted state. Mistaking the cause of the Constitution's running from them, or becoming more attached to their new occupation by the few hours' practice which they had had, the tyro ship's company of the Java cheered the American frigate, and called to her to come back.

While, with far more care than appeared to be requisite, considering that the loss of her maintopsail yard, with some cut egging, was the only visible injury she had sustained, the


Constitution lay at a distance on the Java's weather and larboard bow, getting ready to give the finishing blow to this, by her means chiefly, protracted contest, the Java, with one union jack lashed to the stump of her mizenmast, and another, where, notwithstanding the assertion of Commodore Bainbridge, that it was down when he shot ahead, it had remained during all the action, in her main rigging, was busied in clearing away the wreck of her masts and putting herself in a state to renew the action, as soon as her antagonist, with whom the option lay, should re-advance to the attack. The Java's first endeavours were to get before the wind : with this view, a sail was set from the stump of the foremast to the bowsprit ; and, as the weather main yardarm still remained aloft, the main tack was got forward. A topgallantmast was also got from the booms, and begun to be rigged as a jury foremast, with a lower studding-sail for a jury foresail ; when, owing to the continued heavy rolling of the ship, the mainmast was obliged to be cut away, to prevent its falling in-board. This was at 4 h. 40 m. P. M. ; and in half an hour after that service had been executed, the Constitution wore and stood for the hulk of the Java ; whose crew, with very creditable alacrity, had reloaded their guns with round and grape, and seemed, notwithstanding their almost hopeless state, far from dispirited.

At 5 h. 45 m. P. M., full three hours and a half from the commencement of the action, the Constitution placed herself in a very effectual raking position, close athwart the bows of her defenceless antagonist. Having, besides the loss of her masts and bowsprit as already mentioned, had six of her quarterdeck, four of her forecastle, and several of her maindeck, guns disabled, the latter chiefly from the wreck lying over them, all her boats shot to pieces, her hull shattered, and one pump shot away, and having also much water in the hold, the British frigate, as a measure that could now no longer be delayed, lowered her colours from the stump of the mizenmast ; and at 6 P. M. the Java was taken possession of by the Constitution.

The following diagram is meant to illustrate the numerous evolutions in this action, from 15 minutes after its commencement at 2 h. 10 m., to the Java's surrender at 5 h. 45 m. P. M. Some of the dates will be found slightly to disagree with those specified either in the British or the American official accounts. This has been done to bring the two accounts nearer together, but great care has been taken in marking the relative time, which is by far the more material consideration. The remarks formerly made respecting the impracticability of giving the proper elongation to the tracks, or dotted lines, apply to this diagram, to the second or lower compartment of it especially.

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Out of her crew, supernumeraries included, of 354 men and 23 boys, the Java had three master's mates (Charles Jones, Thomas Hammond, and William Gascoigne), two midshipmen (William Salmond and Edward Keele), one supernumerary clerk (Thomas Joseph Matthias), 12 seamen, and four marines killed, her captain (mortally), first lieutenant (already named), master (Batty Robinson), second lieutenant of marines (David Davies), boatswain (James Humble, severely), four of her midshipmen, 55 seamen (one mortally), four boys and 21 marines (with the killed, just half the number on board) wounded ; and, of her supernumeraries, one commander (John Marshall), one lieutenant (James Saunders), Captain Wood, aide-de-camp to General Hislop, one master's mate (William Brown), and nine seamen also wounded : total, 22 killed and 102 wounded ; two mortally, five dangerously, 52 severely, and 43 slightly.