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The Battle of the Saints, 12 April 1782

Fine art

Object details:

Object ID BHC0441
Description The chief aspiration of the French in the West Indies in 1782, at the end of the War of American Independence, was the capture of Jamaica. Sailing from Fort Royal, Martinique, their fleet under the Comte de Grasse was first engaged by the British West Indies Fleet under Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney off Dominica on 9 April, and more conclusively off the group of islets to the north called the Saints (Les Saintes) on the 12th. Rodney's victory proved a counterbalance to the loss of the British colonies in America, allowing Britain to secure superiority over the French in the Caribbean at the ensuing Treaty of Versailles which ended the war in 1783. However, he was much criticised for what was considered by Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, the junior admiral, and others, his failure to follow up adequately the opportunities that were available to him during the action. As the opposing battle lines engaged on opposing parallel courses, a slight change of wind enabled Rodney to sail through the French line and throw it into disorder - the first (albeit fortuitous) use of the tactic of 'breaking the line' - and the action soon became a general chase. The French flagship, 'Ville de Paris', 104 guns, surrendered to Hood and not to Rodney in the 'Formidable', 98 guns, as suggested by this painting, which represents the French flagship in the centre, in port-quarter view and hauling down her colours, while the 'Formidable', also in port-quarter view, still engages her to starboard. Beyond the 'Ville de Paris' can be seen the port bow of the 'Barfleur', 98 guns, which is pouring in a raking fire. The 'Formidable' is also engaged to starboard with a partially dismasted French two-decker. In the right background is a group of ships including two French prizes. Beyond the 'Barfleur' in the left background are two ships in action, port-quarter view, and another group beyond them. On the extreme left an English two-decker, in starboard-quarter view, is in action to port. In the left foreground is a spar and sail with a couple of sailors clinging to it and in the right foreground are two ships' longboats. The picture correctly shows Rodney's fleet flying red ensigns, despite his being an admiral of the white squadron (as shown by the St George's flag at the main of 'Formidable'). This was the result of his order to fly red to avoid confusion with the white Bourbon ensigns of the enemy. The fact that he and Hood also fly red at the fore is probably for the same reason, in Hood's case for the additional one that although second-in-command he shared the same nominal rank (rear-admiral of the blue) with the third-in-command, Francis Drake, in the 70-gun 'Princesa'. Since the painting shares many similarities with one with the same title by Thomas Luny (see BHC0701) it may owe much to an engraving of Luny's work by Peter Mazell (PAG8899). It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784 and is signed and dated 'T. Mitchell 1782.
Date made 1782

Artist/Maker Mitchell, Thomas
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Materials oil on canvas
Measurements Painting: 1219 x 1854 mm; Frame: 1429 x 2068 x 110 mm
  • The Battle of the Saints, 12 April 1782 (BHC0441)
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