The loss of Diamond Rock

After its fortification early in 1804, Diamond Rock continued as a stone frigate under the command of Capt. Maurice for over a year.

Then, in the middle of 1805 there came news of Admiral Villeneuve’s arrival with a Combined Fleet of French and Spanish ships.


The Enemy’s arrival in these seas has been authentically confirmed by dispatches which arrived on Friday, via St. Lucia, from Diamond Rock, stating, that their force, consisting of eleven sail of the line, seven frigates, an arme en flute, and two brigs, French; and five sail of the line, one frigate, and two brigs, Spanish, were on the 14th instant, working into Fort Royal Bay, with His Majesty’s ship Cyane, a prize in company; and that on their passing the Rock, Capt. Maurice (who commands there) had a partial action with them. It has been since ascertained, that this fleet came only to a single anchor, and bore every appearance of intending speedily to put to sea again; that they have about 12,000 troops on board, and leave not the least doubt of their undertaking an immediate expedition. That their views may be directed towards this country seems justly to be apprehended; and a suspicious brig which appeared off our coast on Friday, as if reconnoitring, strengthens this conjecture. On the same day, the Island was thrown into alarm, in consequence of all the men of war in the Bay suddenly slipping their cables and putting to sea, and a signal made at the time by Sir FRANCIS LAFOREY, for them to prepare for battle. It since seems that the Beaulieu discovered in the N.W. quarter six sail, and afterwards eleven were seen from the Spartiate – although at a great distance they were apprehended to be the enemy.

MAY 19.

Respecting the enemy’s views or preparations we are not in possession of a single data, by any subsequent accounts of out last, to be found to conjecture upon, unless we view their continuance at Martinique as meditating some important operation which requires system and minute arrangement. In this light we are certainly led to consider their stay at Fort Royal, where, according to the only further information to that received by Captain MAURICE, at the Diamond, they remained on Friday last ….

… Their stay, therefore, at Martinique has afforded us almost as much surprise as pleasure. … Some accounts state the sick at 3000 of the 12,00[0] on board. But this is scarcely an adequate a reason for their long stay at Martinique. They arrived there on the 14th of May – on passing the Diamond Rock, Captain Maurice, who commands there, had a partial action with them. Three line of battle ships bombarded the Rock for an hour and a half, but finding they made no impression on it, stood into Fort Royal, after the rest of the fleet.

London Evening Courier, July 3rd, 1805

John Terraine explains Villenueve’s role1

‘His orders were to wait for Ganteaume,2 and this could not be reconciled with any of the combined operations against British islands that were urged on him (by Napoleon). The most he could consent to was frigate action against British commerce, and an attack on Diamond Rock. This was an islet of under a mile circumference, rising to a height of 600 feet out of the sea less than a mile from the south-west tip of Martinique. It had been seized by a landing party from HMS Centaur (74), flying the broad pennant of Commodore Samuel Hood, in January 1804. By incredible exertions and great skill the Centaur seaman then landed and placed in position a battery of three long 24-pounder and two 18-pounder guns, one of them able to fire almost across the wide bay which forms the southern end of Martinique. Diamond Rock now became a British ‘sloop of war’, with a ‘crew’ of 120 men and boys under Captain James Maurice, and for nearly a year and a half had been an intolerable nuisance to the French.

On 29 May Villeneuve detached two seventy-fours, a 36-gun frigate, a corvette, a schooner and eleven gunboats, with 300 or 400 soldiers, to retake Diamond Rock. Against adverse winds, it took them two days to reach the rock, and against the firm resistance of Captain Maurice it took them the best part of three days to capture it. But by late afternoon on 2 June, according to Maurice’s report, he had ‘but little powder left, and not a sufficient quantity of ball cartridges to last until dark’. The next day the British ‘crew’ or garrison marched out with the honours of war, having lost two men killed and one wounded against a French loss estimated by Maurice at about fifty.

Trafalgar – John Terraine

As Diamond Rock had been ‘commissioned,’ for administrative purposes, as if a naval sloop, Captain Maurice was required to appear before a Court Martial to explain the circumstances of the loss. This was held in Barbadoes before his return to England in command of the Penguin.

The taking of Diamond Rock, 2 June 1805 (Picture by Auguste Etienne Francois Mayer)

For some reason no account of the Court Martial was published in the English press, but a copy of his address to Lord Nelson was later published in the Naval Chronicle.

Barbadoes, June 6, 1805.

My Lord, It is with the greatest sorrow I have to inform you of the loss of the Diamond Rock, under my command, which was obliged to surrender on the 2nd, inst., after three days’ attack from a squadron of two sail of the line, one frigate, on brig, a schooner, and eleven gun-boats, and from the nearest calculation 1,500 troops. The want of ammunition and water was the sole occasion of its unfortunate loss. Although I shall never cease to regret the accident, yet it is of some consolation to think so many valuable lives are saved to His Majesty’s service, having only two killed and one wounded. The enemy, from the nearest account I have been able to obtain, lost on shore 30 killed, and 40 wounded, independent of the ships and boats: they also lost three gun-boats and two rowing boats. Allow me to speak in the highest terms of the officers and men under my command; and I trust when the Court Martial shall have taken place, that their hardship, fatigue and gallantry will merit your Lordship’s approbation, having been 19 nights under arms, and some of them obliged to drink their own water. I beg leave to enclose the Articles of Capitulation, I have the honour to remain,

Your Lordship’s most obedient and humble Servant

J. W. Maurice

Right Honourable Viscount Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte, &c.3

Naval Chronicle

Together with:

At a Court Martial assembled on board His Majesty’s Ship Circe, in Carlisle Bay, Barbadoes, the 24th June, 805, for the trial of James Wilkes Maurice, Esq., Commander, the officers and crew, of His Majesty’s late sloop Diamond Rock, taken by a squadron of the enemy’s ships on the 2nd, instant.

“The Court cannot dismiss Captain James W. Maurice without expressing their admiration of his conduct in the whole of the occasion; and also they express the highest approbation of the support given by the officers and men under his command; a circumstance that does high honour to them; does no less credit and honour to the discipline of Captain J. W. Maurice; and therefore we do unanimously and honourable acquit the said officers and ship’s company, and they are unanimously and honourably acquitted accordingly.”

Naval Chronicle

Eight weeks after the event a French account of the assault was published in the English press in very great detail, and concluded with a bit of Gallic verve before closing with the mentioning of those most concerned in the success of the French endeavour.



[After a somewhat flowery preamble] –

On the 7th Prairial,4 two days before the expedition, the Captain-General, General Lauriston, Admirals Villeneuve and Gravina, with a number of General and other Officers, went to the Diamond Quarter, in order to inspect the Rock, as much as its distance from the shore would permit them. The Captain General staid there till Saturday night, when he was called to Fort Royal by dispatches he received from there, of the arrival of the French frigate Didon. General d’Houdetot remained there till the surrender of the Rock, in order to assist the besiegers in the case of need.

Extract of the Official Report of Chef d’Escadron Boyer, Aid-de-Camp to the Captain-General, to Villaret Joyeuses Captain-General of Martinique and its Dependencies.

GENERAL – I embarked on the evening of the 9th Prairial, with 200 men of the 82nd regiment, which you put under my command, for the expedition against the Diamond. The naval forces, under the command of Captain Dasmao, consisted of the following ships: Le Pluton, 74. Capt. Casmao; Le Berwick, 74, Capt. Camos; Le Syrene (frigate), Capt. Chabert; L’Argus (brig), Capt. Taillard; and La Fine (schooner), Capt. Meynard.

The troops were embarked on board the Pluton and Berwick. The current ran so strong against us during the night, that in the morning we found ourselves under the lee of St. Lucia. The whole of the 10th was spent in beating up again, so as to commence the attack the following morning: we anchored for the night off Point Borgnesse. On the morning of the 11th, the ships being all collected again, the troops were embarked in the boats, and were directed to make fast to the Argus, in order to be towed near the landing near the Little Savanna, with Captains Pinede and Balossier; the second, composed of Spanish boats, and commanded by Capt. Don Rosando Porlier, with the troops under Capt. Cortes, Aid-de-Camp to Gen. d’Houdetot, and Lieutenants Blairon and Nocus, was to land at the Patch. On the same day, between nine and ten o’clock, we effected our landing, much sooner, and with less difficulty,  than we had expected, notwithstanding a most brisk and determined fire which the enemy (having abandoned the lower part of the Rock) kept upon us from the heights, and particularly from the middle Battery, where they had a perfect command of us, and the violent manner in which the sea is constantly agitated near the Rock. We took a man prisoner, whom we found concealing himself. The fortifications of the Rock, and the positions of the enemy, were exactly as I had conceived them to be from the opposite shore. The scaling of it appeared to me there, to be perfectly easy, and I had made my dispositions accordingly; but the moment we had landed, this illusion ceased. I saw nothing but immense precipices, perpendicular rocks, a threatening enemy, whom it was impossible to reach, and insurmountable difficulties on all sides. We naturally enough concluded, that from the facility with which the enemy had suffered us to occupy the bottom of the Rock, they had reserved all their force, to destroy us more securely from the heights of their inaccessible retreat. Our troops suffered from a most galling volley of musquetry, large fragments of the rock, cannon balls, and casks filled with stones, which they poured upon us. They were entrenched in a number of cavities, which nature had formed at different heights, which it was impossible to attain, but by ladders of thirty or forty feet in length. From the tremendous fire of the enemy, the boats had been obliged to retreat, without having landed any of the articles with which I had furnished myself for the attack; the ships also had drifted into the offing, and we remained without support or provisions; I saw we had no recourse but to retreat into two cavities of the Rock (in one of which the enemy had erected two large forges), where we should at least be under cover; I had all our wounded carried into them, and placed a detachment over each. I committed the whole of the east side to the charge of Capt. Cortes, giving him a sufficient number of men to support him, and at the same time desired him to reconnoitre the most advantageous point to commence the escalade. Captain Balossier had charge of the western side, and of the landing place. I successively visited all our detachments, and found the same ardour for the attack amongst them all, but found also the most insurmountable obstacles and innumerable dangers. In order to prevent as much as possible the effects of the enemy’s destructive fire, I made all the out-posts fall back into the two caverns, to wait for the approach of night, when we might be able to form anew. Notwithstanding this, our situation was truly dreadful; we were exhausted with fatigue – and the want of nourishment was the more severely felt by the troops, who had been prevented by the sea-sickness from taking any for the two preceding days, that they were on board the ships. The boats had not time to land any provisions, nor could we expect they would run the risk of bringing us any. The enemy had now, by the quantity of shot and stones which they continued to direct at us, cut off the communication between the two caverns, notwithstanding their vicinity to each other; in short, to add to the horrors of this calamitous scene, we had nothing to offer our wounded, of whom some were in a most deplorable state, but barren consolation.

About five in the evening, a party of the soldiers came to inform me, that Lieut. Latour, being led away by his zeal and courage, had ascended, by means of ropes, to a considerable height on the Rock, when he was discovered by the enemy, and with 25 men, made prisoner. A few minutes afterwards, I learned, that he had ben fortunate enough to disengage himself from them, with the loss of two men killed, and two wounded, one of whom was Mr. Gallois, a meritorious young man, and a volunteer, who received a ball thro’ the arm. We found a few casks of water, that the enemy had abandoned, with which, though perfectly putrid, we were obliged to relieve our wounded, and endeavour to assuage the thirst that devour us. A canoe reached the shore, and delivered me your letter; the fire of the enemy only allowed me time to write a few hasty lines, in answer, and the canoe pushed off; but I had the mortification presently, to see two of her crew killed, one of whom was the man to whom I had given the note. At night, although the enemy did not at all relax in their vigorous defence, I endeavoured to reconnoitre the Rock on all sides; I sent Captain Cortes to take possession of one of the buildings, called the Great House, and established two intermediate posts between him and me; I then caused the guns of the lower battery, which the enemy had evacuated, to be spiked; and passed the remainder of the night in visiting our detachments. Towards midnight, a boat approached without noise, and succeeded in landing Lieutenants Dutil and Girandon, with 60 grenadiers of the 82nd, and likewise some provisions, which had been sent by Captain Meynard, of the Fine. I embraced this opportunity of sending away our wounded. A second boat also attempted to land, but was swept away by the current.

On the 12th at day-break, I relieved all our out-posts with the grenadiers newly arrived. We discovered a magazine, containing a quantity of rum, Madeira wine, and biscuit, but we were still in great want of water; and, above all, of cartridges and flints. In the evening, I determined, in concert with the other Officers, to summon the garrison to surrender the following morning. In the course of the night we received more provisions, ammunition, and the rest of the grenadiers of the 82nd, under the command of Captain Brunet; the Commandant Richaud also arrived, and was as much surprised as I had been, to find the Diamond so very different from what it appeared from the main land.

On the morning of the 13th, a boat laden with provisions and ammunition was sen steering for the landing place, and, though exposed to the dreadful fire of the enemy, seemed determined to reach it; it was commanded by Mr. Berenger, a volunteer, who, having seen our distressing situation on the evening of the 11th, had vowed to brave every danger to bring us assistance. He had been ordered not to attempt the landing but at night; but the current having delayed him till day-break, he was resolved to comply with his engagement, or perish in the attempt. This brave young man, with one of his sailors, was unfortunately killed; two others were dreadfully wounded, in attempting to save themselves by swimming, and were picked up under the Rock, with six of the boat’s crew. Two other supplies were also seen endeavouring to approach, but the enemy’s cannon obliged them to return.,

On examining the rock, immediately over our cavern, it occurred to me that it could be scaled, and joined in this opinion by the Commandant Richaud, I, with his advice, sent to the General commanding the troops, for a quantity of scaling ladders,  boat-hooks, &c., and desired Capt. Brunet and Lieut. Dutil to prepare themselves, with sixty Grenadiers, for the attempt in the morning, by which time I expected the ladders would arrive. My intention to summon the garrison was, of course, dropped. My plan being formed, I gave a carte blanche to all our men, recommending them, to search everywhere for an outlet, and to harass the enemy as much as possible, forbidding them at the same time to fire on that part of the Rock above our cavern, in order that the English might have no idea of an attack from that side; and desired them to let me know whatever new they should discover or do. About nine in the morning, a number of them returned to inform me, that by various means they had succeeded in climbing pretty high up different parts of the Rock, and would have been able to maintain their dispositions, had they had mire men and ammunition. I immediately sent them back with a supply of both; and about an hour after, Capt. Cortes informed me, some of his detachment men had got very high up the Rock, and demanded my orders. I supplied him with man and ammunition, and desired him to hasten and direst that part of the attack. Some of his men had gained a height, which commanded the entrance of the Great House, and had fastened to the Rock some ropes which they found; but as the Rock was upwards of 40 feet high, they did not descent within reach. Capt. Cortes caused part of the stair-case of the Great House to be brought away, which was made fast to the Rock, and were thus enabled to reach the ropes; but no one seemed inclined to ascend, till the gallant Lieutenant Girandon, who hastened there, and climbed up to the summit of the height, with the rapidity of an arrow, and was followed by a crowd of grenadiers, marines, and soldiers. One of the stones hurled at him by the enemy, wounded him in the arm, another struck him on the head, so as to knock off his hat, but nothing could stop him.

To assist this attack, I caused fifty men to conceal themselves in the rocks and buildings facing the Little Savannah, in order to cut off the communication of the enemy, and to prevent their giving any support to their right flank, which our troops had attacked. In the mean time, Capt. Brunet and Lieutenant Dutil had succeeded in climbing up at the head of the grenadiers; and Captain Cortes and Lieutenant Girandon overcame every thing he found in their way. In one place, they discovered a quantity of wearing apparel; in another, a month’s provisions; and in a third, there large casks of water, which were constantly filled by filtration from the Rock.

It was now all over with the Diamond, and we should probably have had possession of it in a few hours, when La Fine arrived with a flag of truce. Captain Maynard informed that the garrison had thrown out a signal for capitulation, which our situation on the Rock prevented us from perceiving. The firing was immediately stopped, and two Englishmen came down with a white flag, and announced their intention of capitulating. One of them delivered me a letter from the Commander, wherein he offers to surrender, to prevent any further effusion of blood. Articles of capitulation were immediately drawn up, subject to your ratification. I then dispatched Captain Brunet to receive possession of all the batteries and magazines on the top of the Rock, and to hoist the French flag, and desired him to offer to Captain Maurice and his garrison whatever refreshments we had in our power. At his request, he was permitted to stay on the Rock till the following morning.

At sun-rise, on the 14th, he descended with his garrison, agreeably to the Articles agreed upon, and filed off in front of our troops, which I had drawn up at the Queen’s Battery, and laid down their arms and their colours, and came with the rest of his officers to deliver me their swords.

To treat a vanquished enemy with respect, is, I believe, General, only following your intentions, as well as the rules of French generosity; I therefore returned Captain Maurice and his Officers their swords, and renewed my offer to serve them. The number of effective men amounted to 107, one half of which were sent on board the Pluton, and the other on board the Berwick. I inspected the whole of the Rock, and had the two 13-pounders at the top of it thrown into the sea, as well as the platform, and all the powder and shot; I also cut down one of the flag-staffs, leaving only that on which the French colours were flying.

To judge by the great quantity of powder, shot, water, and provisions of all kinds, which we found in the different cavities near the summit of the Rock, it would be supposed that the enemy could have held out much longer. The prodigious buildings which they had constructed, evidently proves that they considered themselves as well established here. I cannot even yet conceive how they should be so sonn dislodged; it required, no doubt, Frenchmen to do it, and Frenchmen as brave as those you put under my command. From a hasty calculation, I am afraid we have to regret the loss of 50 men, both killed and wounded, which is certainly great, when we reflect that it is so many brave men who have fallen; but, from the difficulty of the enterprise, we might have calculated upon a much greater one.

I cannot say too much praise of the troops employed on this expedition – Officers, Soldiers, and Sailors, manifested their usual bravery, coolness, and activity. The 82nd regiment, though but just raised under your auspices, has consecrated its new number in the most brilliant manner. It does not belong to me to speak of the Naval Forces – the behaviour of the whole of the ships employed under Capt. Casmao, has been generally admired; I owe a great deal to him and Capt. Camos, of the Berwick; their co-operation with the land forces, in supplying us with provisions, was of essential service, and their guns greatly assisted in seconding our efforts. – Lieutenant Dodignon, of the Buccenteur, who commanded the boats, behaved with great merit and bravery; he had the misfortune to be shot through the knee with a musket ball, but is in a fair way of recovery.

I should be happy were it in my power to name here all the brave men who contributed to our success; at their head I must place Capt. Cortes, who particularly distinguished himself; s did also, Captains Brunet, Pinede, and Balossierrie; Lieutenants Dutil, Blairon, Nocus, Forstal, Lourier, Daubermille, and Latour; and Sub-Lieutenant Girandon, who was the first to ascend the lofty Rock, from whence the enemy seemed to defy us.

British Press August 9th, 1805

This closed the immediate affair although there were three little consequences:

[The capture of Diamond Rock] was all Villeneuve had to show for three weeks’ sojourn in the West Indies when Didon arrived the following day with Napoleon’s orders to be capturing the British islands.

Trafalgar – John Terraine

With Nelson, his old nemesis,5 now known to be in the West Indies, Villeneuve must have been in a highly nervous state and, on 10 June, set sail back to Europe.

In December there was a slightly off-beat related Court Martial, which proved more or less a formality under the circumstances:

On Monday a Court-Martial was held at Portsmouth, on board the Gladiator, on Mr. Rioudan, purser of the late sloop Diamond Rock, for fraudulently assisting Lieut. Woolcombe (who has been tried for the offence), in detaining the wages of men belonging to the said sloop; and for altering the dates of the discharges on the said ship’s book, with intent to defraud the service. As Capt. Maurice could not produce the books, they having been taken when the Diamond Rock was captured, he was acquitted.

Globe, December 18th, 1805

Dispatches were also received yesterday from Admiral Cochrane in the West Indies.

These dispatches were brought to Liverpool by Captain Maurice, who commanded on the Diamond Rock when it was captured by the enemy. He left Barbadoes on the 30th of June, after having been most honourably acquitted by a Court Martial, which set, pro forma, to investigate the circumstances of the surrender of that post.

Morning Post, August 9th, 1805

[1] May 26th

  1. Trafalgar by John Terraine, pub Sidegwick & Jackson 1976
  2. another French Admiral
  3. It is interesting that he addressed this to Nelson who was the highest-ranking officer int he area, rather than to Commodore Hood, his immediate superior
  4. 26th May using the Revolutionary calandar
  5. They had met in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile