|Battle of Pulo Aura|
|Part of the Napoleonic Wars|
Commodore Dance's celebrated action against a French squadron in the Straits of Malacca on 15th February 1804, Robert Dodd
|East India Company||
|Commanders and leaders|
|Nathaniel Dance||Charles Linois|
29 merchantmen |
1 ship of the line |
|Casualties and losses|
1 wounded |
The Battle of Pulo Aura was a minor naval engagement of the
The battle occurred during an extended commerce raiding operation by a French squadron led by Linois in the ship of the line Marengo. Linois had sailed to the Indian Ocean in 1803 before the declaration of war, under orders to install garrisons in the French and Dutch colonies in the region and to prey on lightly defended British merchant shipping. One of the richest and most significant targets was the "China Fleet", an annual convoy of East Indiamen from China and other Far Eastern ports that carried millions of pounds' worth of trade goods. Although these large vessels were accompanied by numerous smaller merchant ships, news of the outbreak of war had only just arrived in the Pacific and the only warship available to defend the fleet was the small HEIC armed brig Ganges. Dutch informants notified Linois of the fleet's destination and date of departure from Canton while he was anchored at Batavia on Java, and he sailed in search of the convoy on 28 December 1803, eventually discovering it in early February.
Although no warships protected the convoy, Commodore Dance knew that lookouts could, from a distance, mistake a large East Indiaman for a ship of the line. He had his Indiamen formed into a line of battle and raise flags that indicated his fleet included part of the Royal Navy squadron then operating in the Indian Ocean. Although Linois's ships were clearly superior, the British reaction unnerved Linois and he quickly broke off combat. Dance continued his ruse, pursuing Linois for two hours until the body of the convoy was safe. King George III knighted Dance for his courage and various mercantile and patriotic organisations awarded him large sums of money, while both the Emperor Napoleon and Linois's own officers personally castigated the French admiral for his failure to press the attack against a weaker and extremely valuable enemy. Although he remained in command of the squadron for another two years and had some minor success against undefended merchant ships, he suffered a string of defeats and inconclusive engagements against weaker British naval forces. Ironically, Linois was captured at the action of 13 March 1806 by a numerically superior British battle squadron which he had mistaken for a merchant convoy.
The East Indiamen would gather at ports in India and the Far East and from there set out for Britain in large convoys, often carrying millions of
Understanding the importance of the Indian Ocean trade and seeking to threaten it from the start of the inevitable war,
The China Fleet was a large annual British merchant convoy that gathered at
At 08:00 on 14 February 1804, with the island of
If the bold front put on by the enemy in the daytime had been intended as a ruse to conceal his weakness, he would have profited by the darkness of the night to endeavour to conceal his escape; and in that case should have taken advantage of his manoeuvres. But I soon became convinced that this security was not feigned; three of his ships constantly kept their lights up, and the fleet continued to lie to, in order of battle, throughout the night. This position facilitated my gaining the wind, and enabled me to observe the enemy closely.
At dawn on 15 February, both the British and the French raised their colours. Dance hoped to persuade Linois that his ships included some fully armed warships and he therefore ordered the brig Ganges and the four lead ships to hoist
At 09:00 Linois was still only observing the convoy, reluctant to attack until he could be sure of the nature of his opponents. Dance responded to the reprieve by reforming the line of battle into sailing formation to increase his convoy's speed with the intention of reaching the Straits ahead of Linois. With the convoy a less intimidating target, Linois began to slowly approach the British ships. By 13:00 it was clear that Linois's faster ships were in danger of isolating the rear of the convoy, and Dance ordered his lead ships to tack and come about so they would cross in front of the French squadron. The British successfully executed the manoeuvre, and at 13:15 Linois opened fire on the lead ship—Royal George—under the command of John Fam Timmins. The Royal George and the next four ships in line, the Indiaman Ganges, Dance's Earl Camden, the Warley and the Alfred, all returned fire, Ganges initially attacking Royal George in error. Captain James Prendergrass in Hope, the next in line, was so eager to join the battle that he misjudged his speed and collided with Warley, the ships falling back as their crews worked to separate their rigging. Shots were then exchanged at long range for 43 minutes, neither side inflicting severe damage.
Royal George had a sailor named Hugh Watt killed, another man wounded, and suffered some damage to her hull. None of the other British ships or any of the French reported anything worse than superficial damage in the engagement. At 14:00, Linois abandoned the action and ordered his squadron to haul away with the wind and sail eastwards, away from the convoy, under all sail. Determined to maintain the pretence of the presence of warships, Dance ordered the ships flying naval ensigns, including his flagship Earl Camden, to chase the French. None of the merchant ships could match the French speed, but an attempt at a chase would hopefully dissuade the French from returning. For two hours, Dance's squadron followed Linois, Hope coming close to catching Aventurier but ultimately unable to overtake the brig. At 16:00, Dance decided to gather his scattered ships and return to his former heading rather than risk attack from other raiders or lose sight of his convoy in the darkness. By 20:00, the entire British convoy had anchored at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca. On 28 February, the British ships of the line HMS Sceptre and Albion joined them in the Strait and conducted them safely to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic.
There HMS Plantagenet escorted the convoy to England. Five whalers and Carmarthen, Captain Doree, also joined the convoy, with the Blackhouse, from coast of Guinea, joining at sea.[a] The convoy returned to England without further incident.
Linois's squadron reached Batavia several days after the action without encountering any British ships. He was there joined by Atalante and, after taking on supplies, made sail for Île de France, arriving on 2 April. The Dutch brig Aventurier was left at Batavia and remained there until a raid on the port by a British force in November 1806, when it was destroyed. The French admiral later attempted to explain his conduct during the engagement:
The ships which had tacked rejoined those which were engaging us, and three of the engaging ships manoeuvred to double our rear, while the remainder of the fleet, crowding sail and bearing up, evinced an intention to surround us. By this manoeuvre the enemy would have rendered my situation very dangerous. The superiority of his force was ascertained, and I had no longer to deliberate on the part I should take to avoid the consequence of an unequal engagement: profiting by the smoke, I hauled up to port, and steering east-north-east, I increased by distance from the enemy, who continued the pursuit of the squadron for three hours, discharging at it several broadsides.
Orders of battle
|Honourable East India Company China Fleet|
|Earl Camden||Commodore Nathaniel Dance||Flagship of the convoy. Engaged for 25 minutes|
|Warley||Captain Henry Wilson||Engaged for 15 minutes.|
|Alfred||Captain James Farquharson||Engaged for 15 minutes.|
|Royal George||Captain John Fam Timins||Engaged for 40 minutes. Suffered light damage, with one man killed and one wounded.|
|Coutts||Captain Robert Torin|
|Wexford||Captain William Stanley Clarke|
|Ganges||Captain William Moffat||Engaged for 35 minutes.|
|Exeter||Captain Henry Meriton|
|Earl of Abergavenny||Captain John Wordsworth|
|Henry Addington||Captain John Kirkpatrick|
|Bombay Castle||Captain Archibald Hamilton|
|Cumberland||Captain William Ward Farrer|
|Hope||Captain James Prendergrass|
|Dorsetshire||Captain Robert Hunter Brown|
|Warren Hastings||Captain Thomas Larkins|
|Ocean||Captain John Christian Lochner|
|Eleven country ships, none of which would engage the French, accompanied the convoy: Lord Castlereagh, Carron, David Scott, Minerva, Ardeseer, Charlotte, Friendship, Shau Kissaroo, Jahaungeer, Gilwell and Neptune. The HEIC armed brig Ganges also joined the convoy. A Portuguese vessel from Macau and the Rolla from Botany Bay in Australia were supposed to join the convoy but they missed the fleet sailing and never joined.|
|Source: London Gazette|
|Admiral Linois's squadron|
|Marengo||74||Contre-Admiral Charles-Alexandre Léon Durand Linois
Captain Joseph-Marie Vrignaud
|40||Captain Alain-Adélaïde-Marie Bruilhac (or Bruillac)|
|36||Captain Léonard-Bernard Motard|
|Berceau||20||Captain Emmanuel Halgan||Dance reported that this vessel was a corvette of 28 guns.|
|Aventurier||16||Lieutenant Harang||Some records indicate that Aventurier was a Dutch corvette under the command of Captain Vandesande. Dance reported that the fifth vessel was the Batavian brig William, of 18 guns.|
|Source: James, Vol. 3, p. 248; Clowes, p. 336|
Nathaniel Dance and his fellow captains were highly praised in the aftermath of the battle: in saving the convoy they had prevented both the HEIC and Lloyd's of London from likely financial ruin, the repercussions of which would have had profound effects across the British Empire. The various commanders and their crews were presented with a £50,000 prize fund to be divided among them, and the Lloyd's Patriotic Fund and other national and mercantile institutions made a series of awards of ceremonial swords, silver plate and monetary gifts to individual officers. Lloyd's Patriotic Fund gave each captain a sword worth £50, and one to Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Merrick Fowler, travelling as a passenger on Earl Camden, and one worth £100 to Nathaniel Dance.
Dance was specifically rewarded, receiving royal recognition when he was made a
Placed, by the adventitious circumstances of seniority of service and absence of convoy, in the chief command of the fleet intrusted to my care, it has been my good fortune to have been enabled, by the firmness of those by whom I was supported, to perform my trust not only with fidelity, but without loss to my employers. Public opinion and public rewards have already far outrun my deserts; and I cannot but be sensible that the liberal spirit of my generous countrymen has measured what they are pleased to term their grateful sense of my conduct, rather by the particular utility of the exploit, than by any individual merit I can claim.
Among the passengers on the Indiamen were a number of Royal Navy personnel, survivors of the shipwreck of the exploratory vessel HMS Porpoise off the coast of New South Wales the previous year. This party—carried aboard Ganges, Royal George and Earl Camden—volunteered to assist the gun teams aboard their ships and Dance specifically thanked them in his account of the action. One was Lieutenant Robert Merrick Fowler, the former commander of Porpoise, who distinguished himself in a variety of capacities during the engagement.
Some of the party had influential careers in the Navy, including the naval architect
Linois continued his raiding, achieving some success against individual sailing ships, but failing to press successfully his numerical superiority against British naval forces; most notably at the
All the enterprises at sea which have been undertaken since I became the head of the Government have missed fire because my admirals see double and have discovered, I know not how or where, that war can be made without running risks ... Tell Linois that he has shown want of courage of mind, that kind of courage which I consider the highest quality in a leader.
- The Victory of Seapower, Gardiner, p. 101
- Clowes, p. 337
- Maffeo, p. 190
- Parkinson, p.106
- Nelson Against Napoleon, Gardiner, p. 161
- Rodger, p. 546
- Adkins, p. 342
- The Victory of Seapower, Gardiner, p. 88
- Woodman, p. 172
- Clowes, p. 59
- James, Vol. 3, p. 213
- Clowes, p. 336
- James, Vol. 3, p. 248
- Woodman, p. 194
- Maffeo, p. 186
- UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 11 June 2022.
- The Campaign of Trafalgar, Gardiner, p. 32
- Woodman, p. 149
- The Campaign of Trafalgar, Gardiner, p. 31.
- Tracy, p. 113
- James, Vol. 3, p. 249
- Woodman, p. 195
- Maffeo, p. 187
- Clowes, p. 338
- James, Vol. 3, p. 250
- Lloyd's List, n°4478.
- "No. 15726". The London Gazette. 7 August 1804. pp. 955–956.
- James, Vol. 3, p. 277
- "No. 16044". The London Gazette. 4 July 1807. p. 894.
- Maffeo, p. 193
- James, Vol. 3, p. 251
- Tracy, p. 114
- James, Vol. 3, p. 252
- Brown, p. 440.
- The Victory of Seapower, Gardiner, p. 29
- Maffeo, p. 191
- Clowes, p. 339
- Adkins, Roy & Lesley (2006). The War for All the Oceans. Abacus. ISBN 978-0-349-11916-8.
- Brown, Anthony Jarrold (2008). Ill-Starred Captains: Flinders & Baudin. Fremantle Press. ISBN 978-1-921361-29-6.
- ISBN 1-86176-014-0.
- Gardiner, Robert, ed. (2001) . Nelson Against Napoleon. London: Caxton Editions. ISBN 1-86176-026-4.
- Gardiner, Robert, ed. (2001) . The Campaign of Trafalgar. Caxton Editions. ISBN 1-84067-358-3.
- Gardiner, Robert, ed. (2001) . The Victory of Seapower. Caxton Editions. ISBN 1-84067-359-1.
- ISBN 0-85177-907-7.
- Maffeo, Steven E. (2000). Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson. London: Chatham Publishing. ISBN 1-86176-152-X.
- Parkinson, C. Northcote (1954). War in the Eastern Seas, 1793–1815. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
- ISBN 0-7139-9411-8.
- Tracy, Nicholas (1998). Who's Who in Nelson's Navy; 200 Naval Heroes. Chatham Publishing. ISBN 1-86176-244-5.
- ISBN 1-84119-183-3.
- Media related to Battle of Pulo Aura at Wikimedia Commons