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Derek Gardner: Imperieuse and Calcutta

Derek G M Gardner, RSMA

His Britannic Majesty's 38-gun frigate IMPERIEUSE, Captain Lord Cochrane, engaging the grounded French 50-gun ship CALCUTTA in the Basque Roads on 12th April 1808

Watercolour
10 x 15 inches

The artist’s original text that accompanied this painting reads:

The Channel Fleet, under the Commander-in-Chief Admiral Lord Gambier, anchored in the outer Basque Roads in March 1808 to blockade a powerful French squadron under Rear-Admiral Willaumez.

On the night of 11th April the British attacked the French ships with explosion-vessels and fire-ships, the operation being under the direction of Captain Lord Cochrane, commanding officer of the frigate IMPERIEUSE. The attack caused such confusion that many of the French ships not only cut their cables to escape but in the darkness fell foul of one another, the REGULUS, 74, collided with the TOURNVILLE, 74, for example while Admiral Williaumez’s flagship, the OCEAN, 120, ran aground off the Isle d’Aix and was fouled by the TONNERE, 74 and the PATRIOTE. Two miles further south the JEAN BART, 74, and the CALCUTTA, 50, grounded on the Palles Shoal which runs out to the north west of the Isle Madame. By midnight all the French ships save two were aground with several badly damaged.

With the coming of daylight the French made every effort to lighten their ships, get them afloat and make for the comparative safety of the Charente River which leads to Rochefort.

Lord Cochrane from his advanced position in the IMPERIEUSE saw what was happening and that the French ships were getting afloat as the tide rose so at 9.30am he urgently signalled to Lord Gambier “Enemy preparing to heave off”. The admiral in his flag-ship the CALEDONIA, 120, with the heavy ships of the Channel Fleet, was some ten miles distant to the north but was reluctant to run any unnecessary risk as, in his view, the main object of the British attack had already been obtained. After apparently consulting with his captains he gave the order for the fleet to weigh at 10.45am but forty minutes later he re-anchored three miles to the north of Isle d’Aix, which was still six miles distant from the grounded enemy.

At 1pm Lord Cochrane, seeing that the French were in many cases getting beyond reach of attack, boldly and without orders got his ship under way and stood down towards the still stranded enemy ships. He took the IMPERIEUSE down until she was under the stern of the CALCUTTA and came to anchor where the broadside guns of the stranded ship could not molest her. This is the situation I have shown in this drawing with the IMPERIEUSE’s main topsail aback as Cochrane prepares to anchor.
At 1.45 pm , in order to stir his Commander-in-Chief into action , Cochrane hoisted the signal No.364 “The ship is in distress and requires to be assisted immediately.” This is the flag hoist I have shown here. Some time later the admiral responded to this appeal for help by sending the 40-gun INDEFATIGABLE to assist but in the light wind it was an hour and a half before that ship was able to come into action.

The CALCUTTA was abandoned by her crew and after a severe mauling under the guns of the IMPERIEUSE she caught fire and later blew up.

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