Diamond Rock off Martinique has gone down in history as the first ‘stone frigate’ owned by the Royal Navy. The Navy of the time was precluded from establishing shore facilities, no doubt because it encouraged a lack of fluid action which was the hallmark of naval operations.
It had served as an occasional look-out by men from Commodore Sir Samuel Hood’s Leeward Island squadron but he appreciated that it could provide a reasonably secure anchorage from which to harass supplies to the island in partial blockade, and an unsinkable battery to harass shipping making the difficult approach along the southern coast of Martinique to Port Royal.
Early in 1804, Hood commissioned the seamen from HMS Centaur, under Captain Murray Maxwell, to establish several commanding batteries on the heights of Diamond Rock. It is perhaps a coincidence that Hood himself was on board the ship as it must have seemed a great adventure.
He had something of a dilemma to which he came up with a novel solution: declaring that the rock was a ‘stone frigate’ and giving it a full compliment of men. Once fortified, it survived for about eighteen months, beating off several earlier attempts to ‘sink’ it, before it was finally taken by Villeneuve’s Combined Fleet in June 1805.
At the time only very general reports of the event reached England:
Yesterday dispatched were received from Commodore Hood. We understand that they bring such accounts as encourage a hope that we shall soon hear of the fall of Martinico.
Great praise is due to Commodore Hood, who commands on that station, for his active and persevering zeal in the public service. To the surprise of every person who knows the spot, he has not only succeeded in taking possession of the Diamond Rock, about one mile distant from the east part of Martinico,1 which was supposed by the enemy and by passengers in general, to be scarcely possessed of a footing for goats, but has actually fortified it and mounted some very heavy guns upon it. Two long 24-pounders have been mounted on a battery at the base of the rock; a 32-pounder about two-thirds of the way up the most perpendicular part of it; and two 18-pounders at the summit.
From the time of Commodore Hood’s taking possession of the Rock to the Queen’s birth day, when the batteries fired a royal salute, was only eight days – with so much assiduity were the works carried on.
The Centaur lies at anchor off the rock; the possession of which will, it is thought, very much facilitate the capture of Martinico.Star (London), March 15th, 1804.
Dispatches have been received from Commodore Hood, who, to the surprise of every person who knows the spot, has not only succeeded in taking possession of the Diamond Rock, about one mile distant from the east part of Martinico, which was supposed by the enemy, and by passengers in general, to be scarcely possessed of footing for goats, but has actually fortified and mounted some very heavy guns upon it. Two long 24-pounders have been mounted on a battery at the base of the rock; a 32-pounder about two-thirds up the most perpendicular part of it; and two 18-pounders at the summit. – From the time of Commodore Hood’s taking possession of the Rock, to the Queen’s birth-day, when the batteries fired a royal salute, was only eight days – with so much assiduity were the works carried on.2 The Centaur lies at anchor off the rock; the possession of which will, it is thought, very much facilitate the capture of Martinico.London Courier, March 17th, 1804
Mounting guns on the top of a rock which ‘scarcely possessed of a footing for goats’ took much ingenuity which shows ‘Hood’s Boys‘ at their most inventive. An account, written many years later by Midshipman John Donaldson gives a first-hand account of the work:
After the surrender of the Dutch colonies of Demerara and Berbice, in September, 1803, the Centaur, 74, Commodore Sir Samuel Hood, and Captain Sir Murray Maxwell, proceeded off the island of Martinique, for the purpose of blockading Ports Royal and St. Pierre, the two principal harbours on the west side of the island, to intercept any man-of-war, or vessels coming form France with stores or provisions for the garrison, of which our commanders had intelligence, by the capture, a few days before, of a French packet direct form Brest.
Having at this time very few men-of-war on the Barbadoes station, and those employed with the troops under General Greenfield on the before-mentioned services, the commodore in the Centaur undertook this important service of preventing supplies being thrown into Martinique, which was very effectively done for a short time, by the surest of tests to us on board – a few good captures. But powerful as our good ship was in men, guns, and swift in the breeze, we felt it no easy service for a single man-of-war to keep such an extended line of station from Diamond to St. Pierre, so as to command the north and south passages round the island, as the prevailing trade-winds and strong currents often, during the night, and at other times, forced the ship so far to leeward of her proper station, that it occasioned us many an anxious chase after suspicious vessels, when descried within blockading limits.
We were not, however, long without a consort; of on the 2nd of December, the Sophie, a French privateer, was taken by us, after an interesting chase of twenty-four hours. Sir Samuel Hood immediately put her into commission as a tender to the ship: the command of this schooner was given to Lieut. William Donett, and he was sent off the Diamond to keep a good look-out to windward, and to signal the approach of all vessels from that quarter, or attempting to pass between the rock and the mainland of Martinique.
While Mr. Donett was engaged on this service, he made frequent trips to the Diamond, for the object of procuring food for his stock, and found an abundance of thick, broad-leaved grass, well adapted for making straw hats for the seamen, which soon became a matter of some importance to them, as the schooner’s crew had many orders from the ship for a supply. There was also growing on the rock, and almost covered it, an excellent substitute for spinach, called by the natives calallo; it is much the shape of the large common dock-leaf, and turned out a most useful vegetable to our people, as they had been long on salt beef; and the callaloo, when boiled in large quantities and served out daily, put a stop to a heavy sick-list of scurvy cases.
The Diamond Rock now became a favourite spot, as the schooner had brought us so many good things: and I remember when cruising on our usual station off Point Solomon, the schooner joined us. Mr. Donett came on board, when Sir Samuel then determined to take possession of the Diamond, fortify it, and to put it upon the establishment of a sloop of war. Next day, blacksmiths and carpenters were set to work, making intrenching tools, hand-barrows, &c., and the seamen to make and prepare the necessary purchases. All in about a week was ready, as far as the resources on board the ship would admit: and a working party of fifty seamen and twenty-five marines, under the orders of Lieutenant Andrew Maurice, with fourteen days’ provisions, were landed on the Diamond Rock. As the party was to keep the launch completely armed with her 24-pounder carronade, she was secured at the only landing-place, and the gun mounted on a projecting point, commanding this little cove. Immediately opposite the landing-place a very large cave was discovered, in which the forges were erected, and the carpenters and other artificers established their workshops; indeed it was so capacious, that it contained the whole party and material for the first night. The interior of this cave, generally with the whole rock, being grey limestone, was very dry. From the roof were suspended numerous stalactites, which made a most brilliant appearance when the forge and other lights were burning; added to which, the mirth and fun of the party at getting on shore after long confinement on board, and our very novel employment of fitting our such a nondescript vessel as his Majesty’s sloop the Diamond Rock, made this evening pass off very cheerfully; and the next dawn our party entered most zealously into the various duties that had to do, so very different from what they had lately been accustomed to.
The low flat ground, as seen in the wood-cut, was soon cleared of its long grass and wild spinach; and a number of small dry caves and openings at the base of the rock were selected by the seamen for suspending their hammocks, and forming themselves into messes, while the officers were in tents, pitched on the flattish part of the ground, containing about three quarters of an acre. There were also two other caves of large dimensions, which became of importance to the safety of the rock as well as conducive to the health of the squadron cruising amongst the French islands. It was armed with a 32-pounder carronade; and here was afterwards executed the grand magazine called “Hood’s Battery.” It is about half way up the rock (see wood-cut) at least 360 feet from the water-line. This gun was sent up traversing on the jack-stay, or rope, secured at the top of the cave and on the low ground, and the latter was always used afterwards, by attaching a large tub to it, to convey stores and provisions to the upper parts of the rock; and when taken away, in the event of an enemy getting possession of the guns on the low grounds, the upper ones being deemed impregnable as long as they had ammunition or provisions, which was the case when the French fleet attacked it. They landed and stormed the lower forts, covered by their ships, after a heavy loss. Unfortunately, when our sailors retreated to the upper guns, they had not sufficient ammunition and water, and were obliged to surrender.
The other cave, on the east side of the rock, was built up in front to the height of three stories, and converted into a most excellent and well-aired hospital, (where the sick and wounded were sent, instead of conveying them to Barbadoes or Antigua,) amply supplied, after we left it, with good medical staff, and every comfort for such an establishment.
About this time a serious accident happened to our tender, the Sophie, which caused the most sincere regret and sorrow from the officers and crew of the Centaur. From some cause or other, which we never could learn, the schooner blew up off Point Solomon, and only one seaman saved, by a French fishing canoe. The service lost, in my poor friend Donett, a gallant and promising officer.
As there was no water to be found on the rock, a large tank was constructed to receive the numerous rills falling from the upper ridges, accumulated by the heavy dews which always fall in this climate during night, and continue between sunset and sunrise. Then followed the erection of the one-gun battery, (a long 24-pounder, named after the Centaur,) to command the channel between the rock and the mainland of Martinique. During the progress of these works, the ship at last came to anchor on the south and most perpendicular side of the Diamond Rock.
The first thing to be done was to secure the Centaur by her bowers and spare anchors, and to suspend the hand-masts and fire-booms in a horizontal direction from her larboard side towards the base of the rock; the end of the stream-cable, to serve as a jack-stay, was then sent up by a line form the party on the top of the rock, and well secured round a projecting part of it, about eighty or one hundred feet below the summit. The inner, or ship end of the cable, was rove through a purchase, (called a vial,) used in line-of-battle ships for increasing the mechanical power of the capstan when they cannot weight their anchors in stiff or tenacious ground, and well secured within the midship port on the main-deck, after having been rove sufficiently taut to bring the hand-masts and fire-booms to bear a steady pressure against the rock. The long 24-pounder was then suspended in the sling attached to the vial-block, and with a gun-tackle purchase, (simply a single block at the gun-slings, and the double one lashed at the upper part of the rock, through which was rove a small five-inch hawser,) the word was given at the capstan to heave round; and to all the inspiring tunes the band could play, away marched the first gun up its tremendous and perilous journey of seven hundred feet form the level of the sea, and four hundred feet horizontally from the ship. The men at the capstan were relived every hour; and commencing at half-past ten A.M., the gun was landed at the upper end of the stream-cable at five o’clock P.M., having been seven hours in heaving him up to the first landing-place, when the party on shore parbuckled him up to his berth on the top of the rock with three cheers.
This battery was named according to the various fancies of the sailors who had never undertaken such an extraordinary piece of service in their lives.
The next day they began on board the ship earlier, and the second gun was got up about three P.M., by the same means as the first; but the men were nearly nine hours at the capstans, in consequence of the wind blowing in very fresh this day, causing the recoil of the waves form the base of the rock to be so powerful, that the ship became unsteady, swinging the gun at such a fearful rate, that three times the end of the stream-cable was cast off from the ship, and the gun remained suspended from the rock. Indeed, they almost despaired on board of getting it up, but fortunately they did succeed, as the gun was scarcely landed, when one of the cables which held the ship was discovered severely cut by the rocks, and in danger of going adrift every moment, which, towards evening, took place, as the cable parted from the anchor, and obliged her to put to sea, leaving Lieutenant Maurice and his party to mount the guns in battery.
About four days after, Sir Samuel Hood made a signal to the rock to try the range of the 18-pounders, which was done, and found to command the passage between the rock and the main island so effectually, that no vessels could attempt it without great risk; and from the great height of the guns above the horizon, the shot were carried to such a distance, that vessels passing the rock on the outside, or great channel between Martinique and St. Pierre, were obliged to keep so far off the land that the winds and strong westerly currents would not let them fetch into Port Royal Bay. Thus the object of taking possession of the Diamond Rock fully answered the purpose intended; and the rock was, in due form, put upon the establishment of a sloop of war, but with almost a frigate’s complement of seamen and marines, being allowed to have as many supernumeraries as to make the number one hundred and fifty men and boys, supplied with ammunition, stores, and provisions from Antigua or Barbadoes for six months.From the United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine 1833, Part II
This was not the end of their adventures. John Donaldson continues:4
The following circumstances claims to be added to this notice of the Diamond Rock. After the Centaur parted from the rock, on getting the last gun up, she came to anchor inside, between the Diamond Rock and the main island. During the nights, the ship was visited by some negroes from the shore, who stole off to sell fruit and bananas. It was reported that the governor had been much annoyed at our proceedings on the Diamond, and determined to erect a mortar battery on the heights opposite, to destroy our works, and that a lieutenant-colonel of engineers, with an escort, had already arrived, and were quartered at a plantation about four miles off from the beach. One of the blacks had been long in an English family, and on their departure from the island he had been sold to a French planter; but not liking his new master he took leave to claim protection under the British flag, which was granted, and a promise of keeping him in the service, a free man, if he conduct a party to the colonel’s quarters. Accordingly the barge, well manned and armed, under the orders of Lieutenant Reynolds with Lieutenant Betterworth and other volunteers, in all twenty-three persons, including Black Jack, our guide, landed on the main island at midnight. The party then set off at quick time through the different plantations of sugar, coffee, and cotton, and arrived in sight of the farm-house. Jack was sent in advance; and, with an acuteness so peculiar to his race, he crept softly into almost all the huts and out-houses, and discovered that the soldiers were sleeping in perfect security, and found their arms piled under shed, evidently under the charge of a sentinel, but who, they afterwards learned, found himself more comfortable in the huts. On this information, Lieutenant Betterworth (being the best Frenchman) and a party went boldly up to the door of the house, and demanded immediate admittance to the colonel, being charged with despatches from the governor of Port Royal. They were let in by a female slave, who, seeing Black Jack in advance, whom she knew, showed the way to the colonel’s sleeping room. The rest of our party, under Lieutenant Reynolds, surrounded the huts and out-houses; and in ten minutes seventeen of the soldiers, with their arms, and giving them time to take their knapsacks, were made prisoners without firing a shot. The house party now joined, with the colonel, also a prisoner; the whole returned to the boat, and were on board the ship by daylight. This little trick played off on the governor of Martinique took from him the only officer of engineers he had on the island: so the people of the Diamond heard no more intelligence respecting a mortar-battery.From the United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine 1833, Part II
Unsurprisingly, the French took exception to the establishment of a battery on the rock and mounted various attacks:
A letter from our squadron off Martinique, dated Feb. 20, says, “the Captain-General VILLARET having on the 7th attacked on our works on Diamond Rock, the Commodore on the 12th issued a proclamation, revoking the indulgencies which he had before granted to the inhabitants, in allowing all small vessels (such as carry 10 hogsheads), to pass and repass without interruption, and for declaring the island in a state of close siege.London Courier, April 30th, 1804
Too much praise cannot be given to Commodore Hood, for the almost incredible exertions by which the Diamond Rock, at Martinique, has been so completely fortified, as to render it impregnable, a circumstance that must operate very forcibly towards the subjugation of that colony.London Chronicle, May 1st, 1804
They may have taken Diamond Rock but ‘Hood’s Boys’ were not idle. Within a very short time, many of the same characters were involved in the daring cutting-out of Le Curieux.
Perhaps the Navy Board was right to restrict the use of shore establishments for there is more than a hint of ‘comfort’ in Donaldson’s remarks about life on board Diamond Rock:
This nondescript man-of-war existed about two years and a half,5 and was a great service to many of the squadron stationed about the French islands. Here a few bullocks and sheep, with other fresh provisions, were kept for them; and the hospital was of infinite service in recovering the crews after fever, or other casualties, – indeed, in our estimation, it was the most favoured spot in the West Indies.From the United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine 1833, Part II
The loss of the Sophie was obvious a blow, not only to the rock but to the colleagues of its captain and crew. At some point, a new sloop took her place in support of the rock: The Fort Diamond.6
Fort Diamond, March 13, 1804
I have the honour to inform you that, acting according to your directions, in his Majesty’s armed sloop Fort Diamond, I had the good fortune to succeed in bringing out the Enemy’s Privateer schooner Mosambique, from under the batteries contiguous to the Pearl she is pierced for 14 guns and mounted with ten 18-pounders. On seeing us determined to board, her crew deserted her, after discharging her broadside and musquetry; and I observed about sixty Whites and Blacks in the water after I had gained possession, but as you were an eye-witness to the service, I can do no more than recommend the officers and men you did me the honour to place under my command to your most particular notice, for their gallantry and intrepid conduct, while standing through the enemy’s fire, and their activity and orderly behaviour after possession. I found her secured with two-cables and a chain to the shore; the former we cut, and the latter she fortunately broke by the shock in boarding. I have the happiness to inform you that we have suffered no loss. I have the honour to be, &c.
Mr. Hall, mate, Mr. Evans, seaman, wounded.
To James O’Bryen, Esq. Captain of His Majesty’s Ship Emerald.Morning Post, May 2nd, 1804
The end, when it came took overwhelming force and Donaldson betrays his views of senior officers:
The Diamond Rock was at last retaken by a French squadron in 1805 or 1806,7 after a gallant defence, owing to the want of ammunition, and perhaps not considered of such importance by the admiral who succeeded our commodore, whose squadron was, indeed, employed in a more distant part of his station; and the only attraction now on this desolate rock is the chance visit of some old friend or shipmate who served in the West Indies at that period, to trace the graves of Reynolds and Neville, who gallantly fell in action, and are buried here, with many other brave spirits, who all, like myself, had the happiness and honour to serve under that distinguished chief, Sir Samuel Hood.From the United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine 1833, Part II