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1796 Nov-Dec The evacuation of Corsica

The rapid and extraordinary successes of General Buonaparte in Italy had greatly reduced the weight and influence of England along the northern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The King of Sardinia, since the 15th of May, had been compelled to sign a treaty with France, by which he yielded up Savoy, the patrimony of his ancestors for many ages, together with the city and territory of Nice, and a large tract of land, which the conquerors entitled the Department of the Maritime Alps. The King of the Two Sicilies, being also unable to stand against the victorious army of Buonaparte, solicited and obtained, on the 5th of June, a cessation of hostilities, and on the 10th of November signed with France a treaty of peace equally humiliating. With these powers as neutrals, or vassals rather, and with Spain as an ally in the war, France was on the eve of attaining what had long been her wish, the sole dominion of the Mediterranean sea.

One island, however, that had only a year or two before belonged to the republic, was still in the hands of the English. Precarious, indeed, was the tenure of the latter. The report of the continual victories of their countrymen had encouraged the Franco-Corsicans to renew their endeavours to undermine the interest of the British. Discontent soon prevailed all over the island, and a communication was established between the exiles at Leghorn and elsewhere with their partisans in Corsica. It soon became manifest to the viceroy, that an insurrection was preparing, of such a magnitude, that the comparatively small British force on the island would be insufficient to put it down. On becoming acquainted with this state of things, and actuated, also, by the daily expected rupture with Spain, the British government sent out orders for Corsica to be evacuated, and the troops and stores removed to Porto-Ferrajo. Just as this measure was beginning to be carried into effect, the island was invaded, and the departure of the British, to say no worse of it, rather prematurely urged.

No English detailed account of the evacuation of Corsica having, that we know of, been published, not even in a contemporary work, written chiefly to blazon the deeds of the admiral who superintended the operations, we must either pass over the subject as beneath our comprehension, or trust to the French accounts for particulars. In doing the latter we shall keep our discrimination to its duty, and not admit a fact but such as circumstances may seem to warrant.

Leghorn, after its possession by the French, became, as Buonaparte had intended it should be, the chief seat of preparation for the invasion of Corsica. General Gentili, a countryman of Buonaparte's, was placed at the head of the enterprise. Not having vessels enough to transport the whole of his troops at once, General Gentili detached General Casalta, another Corsican, with a small division, which, having embarked on board 14 feluccas and other small craft, sailed out of the port of Leghorn, and on the 19th of October landed on the island ; unobserved, we believe, by a single British cruiser, although a contemporary informs us, that, at this very time, "Cockburn in the Minerve blockaded Leghorn." *

Casalta was soon joined by a considerable number of patriotic Corsicans, and, thus reinforced, marched against Bastia, near which he arrived on the 21st. Master of the heights that command the city, and certain of the support of the inhabitants, the general summoned the garrison of Bastia to surrender in an hour. " The English troops amounted to very near 3000 men. " ? Here we must be allowed to express a doubt; and yet we have no means of showing how the fact really was. In the port lay the Captain and Egmont 74s, with some other vessels, and on board of these, it appears, under the personal direction of Commodore Nelson, the British troops embarked.

The following is an English account, which describes in very creditable, and, we have no doubt, in very just terms, the exertions of the British officers in performing this important service.

"The great body of Corsicans were perfectly satisfied, as they had good reason to be, with the British government, sensible of its advantages, and attached to it ; but when they found that the English intended to evacuate the island, they naturally and necessarily sent to make their peace with the French. The partisans of France found none to oppose them. A committee of thirty took upon themselves the government of Bastia, and sequestered all the British property ; armed Corsicans mounted guard at every place, and a plan was laid for seizing the viceroy. Commodore Nelson, who was appointed to superintend the evacuation, frustrated these projects. On the 14th of October, 1796, he sent word to the committee, that, if the slightest opposition was made to the embarkation and removal of British property, he would batter the town down. A privateer, moored across the mole head, pointed her guns at the officer who carried this message, and muskets were levelled against him from the shore. Hereupon Captain Sutton, pulling out his watch, gave them a quarter of an hour to deliberate upon their answer. In five minutes after the expiration of that time, the ships, he said, would open their fire. Upon this the very sentinels scampered off, and every vessel came out of the mole. During the five following days, the work of embarkation was carried on : the property of individuals and public stores to the amount of ?200,000 was saved.*

On the 22d, after having, as the French accounts say, taken the British rear-guard, consisting of 700 or 800 men of Dillon's regiment, prisoners, General Casalta quitted Bastia for the town of San-Fiorenzo. He found the gorges of San-Germano strongly guarded ; but, after a smart brush, his troops forced the passage. The republicans then marched on towards the town, and, in the face of a constant and very destructive discharge of grape from two British 74s moored off the beach, made themselves masters of it, taking prisoners a part of the garrison. On the 22d, in the evening, Bonifacio was occupied by the French, and the garrison also, as it appears, made, prisoners. In the mean while General Gentili, like General Casalta, had found the means, with the remainder of his troops, to get across from the "blockaded port" and immediately marched upon Ajaccio, the birthplace of Buonaparte ; the capture of which port restored the whole island to the dominion of the republic.

On the 2d of November, having completed, as far as was deemed practicable, the evacuation of Corsica, and ascertained that the fleet of Admiral Langara had come to an anchor in Toulon, Sir John Jervis set sail from Mortella bay, with a fleet of 15 ships of the line and some frigates, having on board the troops and stores embarked at Bastia, and under his convoy 10 or 12 merchant vessels, which his cruisers had brought down from Smyrna. On the 11th of December the whole of this fleet anchored in safety in Rosia bay (Gibraltar); and thus was the Mediterranean left without a single British line-of-battle ship cruising upon its waters.

On the day preceding that on which Sir John arrived at Gibraltar, the Spanish fleet, accompanied by the French Rear-admiral Villeneuve, with the 80-gun ship Formidable, the Jean-Jacques, Jemmappes, Mont-Blanc, and Tyrannicide 74s, and the Alceste, Diana, and Vestale frigates, put to sea from Toulon. On the 5th or 6th of December the Spanish admiral, with his fleet numbering, as already mentioned, 26 sail of the line, besides 12 or 13 frigates, entered the port of Carthagena ; leaving M. Villeneuve, with his five sail of the line and three frigates, to make the best of his way to Brest unattended. On the 10th, in the afternoon, the French admiral passed the rock of Gibraltar, and was of course seen by a part of the fleet at anchor in the bay ; but a heavy gale of wind from the east-south-east, while it drove the French rapidly through the gut, rendered it impracticable for the British to make any movement in pursuit, any, at all events, that was likely to succeed. Supposing the destination of this squadron to be the West Indies, Sir John Jervis, on the following day, the 11th, despatched a sloop of war with the intelligence to the commanders in chief at Barbadoes and Jamaica.

Figurative language, however much to be admired in poetry, ill suits the sober page of history : it is, indeed, so foreign to the subject, that the reader is apt to overlook the hyperbole, and either to treasure up in his memory the literal meaning, or wholly to reject it as too extravagant for his credence. A contemporary, feeling himself called upon to explain why Sir John Jervis quitted the Mediterranean with his fleet, says thus: "We now begin to perceive the full force of our mistaken lenity to the Toulonese, whose half-burnt fleet was, in conjunction with that of Spain, driving before them the most intrepid admiral and the bravest captains Britain had ever seen: Jervis, Nelson, Troubridge, Hood, Hallowell, and many others, were compelled to fly before the united forces of France and Spain."

Can this allude to Sir John Jervis's voyage from Corsica to Gibraltar ? Who was "driving" him? Surely not Don Juan de Langara, who did not quit Toulon until the British admiral had been a month on his passage ; nay, not until he was in the very act of sheltering himself under the guns of an impregnable fortress ? It appears to us, that the writer would have better served the cause of his patron, by endeavouring to reconcile Sir John's proceedings to the pledge which, within a fortnight of the commencement of his retreat, he gave to the King of the two Sicilies, in the following words, part of a letter copied at full length into the same writer's work : "The gracious condescension your majesty has been pleased to show to me, in deprecating under your royal hand the dreadful effect which the retreat of the fleet of the king, my master, from these seas, would have on your majesty's dominions, and upon all Italy in the present crisis, has prompted me to exert every nerve to give all the support in my power to the cause of religion and humanity in which we are engaged ; and I have, in consequence thereof, and conformably to the instructions I have recently received, concerted with the Viceroy of Corsica to take post in the island of Elba, and to face the enemy as long as the subsistence of the fleet and the army will admit."

The gale of wind, which came so opportunely for M. Villeneuve's passage through the straits of Gibraltar, fell heavily, and in one instance fatally, upon the British ships at anchor in the bay. The 74-gun ship Courageux, commanded by Lieutenant John Burrows, in the absence of Captain Benjamin Hallowell, who was on shore attending a court-martial, parted from her anchors, and drove nearly under the Spanish batteries on the opposite side of the bay before she could be brought up. It being necessary to retire from this dangerous situation, the Courageux weighed, and, under close-reefed topsails, stood over towards the Barbary coast, Lieutenant Burrows feeling averse, as it has since appeared, to run through the gut, lest he should fall in with M. Villereuve's squadron. Towards evening the wind increased to a perfect hurricane, and the weather became very thick. The rain, also, poured down in torrents, and there came on a tremendous storm of thunder and lightning. Soon after 8 p.m. the crew, who had been harassed the whole day, were suffered to go to dinner, and the officers, except a lieutenant of the watch, also retired below to take some refreshment. At 9 p.m., while stretching across under her courses, to get well to windward of her port, the Courageux struck on the rocks at the foot of Ape's hill (Mons Abyla), on the coast of Barbary, and in a very few minutes was a complete wreck. Of about 593 officers and men that were on board, 129 only effected their escape ; five by means of the launch that was towing astern, and the remainder by passing along the fallen mainmast to the rugged shore. Many perished in the attempt, and those who did reach the shore were compelled to undergo very severe privations ere they got back to Gibraltar.

The same gale of wind in which the Courageux was lost nearly proved fatal to the 80-gun ship Gibraltar, Captain John Pakenham, and the Culloden 74, Captain Thomas Troubridge. The latter drove from her anchors, and narrowly escaped being cast away on the Pearl rock ; and the former was obliged to cut from her anchors, and struck several times on the bank off Cabrita point. The critical situation of the Gibraltar merits being recorded. On cutting her cable, which she did at 9 p.m., the ship set her foresail and staysails, and at 9 h. 30 m. p.m., in order to haul up clear of Cabrita point, her mainsail and main topsail. The latter sail split almost as soon as it was set. At 10 p.m., owing to the increased violence of the gale, the Gibraltar carried away her fore topmast, and split her foresail, mainsail, maintopmast staysail, and mizen staysail. At 10 h. 30 m. p.m. the ship, thus deprived of the means of clearing the land, struck several times on a bank off Cabrita point, but in five minutes drove over it, and, being a remarkably strong ship, made no water. At midnight the Gibraltar hove to, and at noon on the 11th let go her only remaining anchor in Tangier bay.

This is the substance of what is noted down in the Gibraltar's log ; but an account somewhat different appears at p. 140, vol. ii. of Captain Brenton's work. "Driven by the violence of the gale down upon Cabrito point, the topgallant yard stowed in, the main rigging caught the lee-clew of the mainsail, and prevented their setting that sail, in consequence of which she caught upon the Pearl rock, which lies about three quarters of a mile from the shore off the western point of the bay : here in a dark night, with a tremendous sea breaking over her, the crew assembled on the deck, and testified by their screams and actions every symptom of despair, and madly proposed as a last resource cutting away the masts and saving themselves on the wreck. The axes were brought, and preparations made for this purpose, but strongly opposed by the first lieutenant, who, moving the wheel, assured the captain that the rudder was free and uninjured ; a wave at the same time struck the ship forward with such force as to upset a forecastle gun, and the shock carried away the fore topmast ; the next sea lifted her off the rock : being fortunately one of the strongest built ships in the service she made no water. Sufficient sail was set to enable her to weather Cabrito point, and in the morning she got into Tangier bay, and soon after rejoined the fleet ; she was however considered to have sustained so much injury, that it was judged necessary to send her to England in order to have her taken into dock : here it was discovered that a very large fragment of the rock had pierced her bottom and remained there - had it disengaged itself the consequence might have been fatal to all on board."

Now, the log states, that the mainsail was set, and shows clearly that the ship struck on the bank, rock, or whatever it may be, in consequence of the loss of her fore topmast (half on hour before) and the splitting of nearly all her sails. These manifest inaccuracies in the account lead us to hope that there is equal untruth in the alleged behaviour of the crew, behaviour more characteristic of timid females than of hardy British seamen.

The Pearl rock lies about a mile and a half due south, and Cape Malabata, the north-east point of Tangier bay (on the opposite side of the strait), about 22 miles south-west, of Cabrita point : how then, with the wind at east-south-east, could the Gibraltar want "to weather Cabrito point" to get into Tangier bay ?

The Gibraltar did not sail for England until five weeks after the accident ; but, when taken into dock at Plymouth, in March 1797, a large piece of rock was undoubtedly found sticking in her bottom. Had the Gibraltar, on her way home, encountered a resolute enemy, the concussion of a few broadsides might have dislodged the rock and proved fatal to the ship. Of such a circumstance, too, the enemy would have taken due advantage, and have declared, with some show of reason, that he had sunk his opponent.

Having intrusted the command of the naval force at Porto-Ferrajo to commodore Nelson, who forthwith shifted his broad pendant from the Captain to the Minerve frigate, Sir John Jervis, on the 16th of December, got under way with his fleet and steered for the Tagus, where he expected to be joined by a reinforcement from England. Very soon after his departure, the Zealous struck on a sunken rock in Tangier bay, and, although she presently got off, was greatly damaged. On the 21st Sir John entered the river of Lisbon ; and here another sad accident befel his fleet. The Bombay-Castle 74, Captain Thomas Sotheby, having put her helm a-port to avoid running foul of the Camel store-ship, was swept from her course by the tide, and obliged to let go an anchor. Before, however, the ship could swing, she struck on the sand-bank at the river's mouth. Here the Bombay-Castle remained beating from the 21st until 8 h. 30 m. p.m. on the 28th, when every officer and man of her crew was safe out of her. In the first instance some delay occurred in the arrival of boats to her assistance; and afterwards the increased violence of the weather rendered unavailing all the efforts that were made to get the ship afloat. The Camel also grounded on the bar, but got off without any material damage.

This last accident reduced Sir John Jervis's fleet in force, but not in number, as the St.-Albans 64, bearing the flag of Vice-admiral Vandeput, was lying in the Tagus when the admiral arrived : consequently, the latter had still under his command 14 sail of the line, including one ship, however, the Zealous, not in a condition for immediate service. A contemporary states, that Sir John sailed from Gibraltar with only ten, and had now but nine sail of the line "to contend against the French and Spanish fleets." As a proof that our account is correct, here follow the names of the ships: Victory, Britannia, Barfleur, Blenheim, St.-George, Gibraltar, Captain, Culloden, Egmont, Excellent, Goliath, Zealous, Diadem, and St.-Albans. As to the danger of a contention with the French and Spanish fleets, that was surely over-rated, when one lay at Toulon, the other at Carthagena, and neither had evinced the least disposition to act on the offensive.

Linked toEmperor Napoléon I Bonaparte; Earl Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound; Capt. Gardiner Henry Guion; Admiral Earl John Jervis

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