CHAPTER VIII. SEVEN YEARS' WAR, 1756-1763 - ENGLAND's OVERWHELMING POWER AND CONQUESTS ON THE SEAS, IN NORTH AMERICA, EUROPE, AND EAST AND WEST INDIES. SEA BATTLES: BYNG OFF MINORCA; HAWKE AND CONFLANS; POCOCK AND D'ACHE' IN EAST INDIES.
It was just here that it broke down, through the possession of Gibraltar by the English, and their naval superiority. It seems incredible that even the stern and confident William Pitt should, as late as 1757, have offered to surrender to Spain the watch-tower from which England overlooks the road between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, as the price of her help to recover Minorca. Happily for England, Spain refused. In 1759, Admiral Boscawen commanded the English Mediterranean fleet. In making an attack upon French frigates in Toulon roads, some of his ships were so damaged that he sailed with his whole squadron to Gibraltar to refit; taking the precaution, however, to station lookout frigates at intervals, and to arrange signals by guns to notify him betimes of the enemy's approach. Taking advantage of his absence, and in obedience to orders, the French commodore, De la Clue, left Toulon with twelve ships-of-the-line on the 5th of August, and on the 17th found himself at the Straits of Gibraltar, with a brisk east wind carrying him out into the Atlantic. Everything seemed propitious, a thick haze and falling night concealing the French ships from the land, while not preventing their sight of each other, when an English frigate loomed up in the near distance. As soon as she saw the fleet, knowing they must be enemies, she hauled in for the land and began firing signal-guns. Pursuit was useless; flight alone remained. Hoping to elude the chase he knew must follow, the French commodore steered west-northwest for the open sea, putting out all lights; but either from carelessness or disaffection, - for the latter is hinted by one French naval officer, - five out of the twelve ships headed to the northward and put into Cadiz when on the following morning they could not see the commodore. The latter was dismayed when at daylight he saw his forces thus diminished. At eight o'clock some sails made their appearance, and for a few minutes he hoped they were the missing ships. Instead of that, they were the lookouts of Boscawen's fleet, which, numbering fourteen ships-of-the-line, was in full pursuit. The French formed their order on one of the close-hauled lines, and fled; but of course their fleet-speed was less than that of the fastest English ships. The general rule for all chases where the pursuer is decidedly superior, namely, that order must be observed only so far as to keep the leading ships within reasonable supporting distance of the slower ones, so that they may not be singly overpowered before the latter can come up, was by this time well understood in the English navy, and that is certainly the fitting time for a melee. Boscawen acted accordingly. The rear ship of the French, on the other hand, nobly emulated the example of L'Etenduere when he saved his convoy. Overtaken at two o'clock by the leading English ship, and soon after surrounded by four others, her captain made for five hours a desperate resistance, from which he could hope, not to save himself, but to delay the enemies long enough for the better sailers to escape. He so far succeeded that - thanks to the injury done by him and their better speed - they did that day escape action at close quarters, which could only have ended in their capture. When he hauled down his flag, his three topmasts were gone, the mizzen-mast fell immediately after, and the hull was so full of water that the ship was with difficulty kept afloat. M. de Sabran - his name is worthy to be remembered - had received eleven wounds in this gallant resistance, by which he illustrated so signally the duty and service of a rearguard in retarding pursuit. That night two of the French ships hauled off to the westward, and so escaped. The other four continued their flight as before; but the next morning the commodore, despairing of escape, headed for the Portuguese coast, and ran them all ashore between Lagos and Cape St. Vincent. The English admiral followed and attacked them, taking two and burning the others, without regard to the neutrality of Portugal. For this insult no amend was made beyond a formal apology; Portugal was too dependent upon England to be seriously considered. Pitt, writing to the English minister to Portugal about the affair, told him that while soothing the susceptibilities of the Portuguese government he must not allow it to suppose that either the ships would be given up or the distinguished admiral censured. (1)
- - 1. Mahon: History of England. - -