"... as is usual in the few cases of drawn battles that have occurred, claimed the merit of having forced the other to the measure." - The Action of 7 February 1813

The bloody but indecisive Action of 7 February 1813 was fought on this day on the shores of Guinea between two almost evenly matched frigates, the French “Aréthuse” and HMS “Amelia”.

“This fight leaves well behind that of Belle Poule in 1778, that of Nymphe in 1780 and all the others, that have had more or less fame. I request from Your Majesty permission to commission on government funds a painting of this battle.” (Denis Decrès, Napoleon’s Minister of the Navy)

Louis-Philippe Crépin (1772–1851): "The battle between Aréthuse and Amelia on the shores of Guinea, 7 February 1813" (before 1820)

raiding, the guerre de course, “war of chase” or Kreuzerkrieg, “war of cruisers”, wasn’t exactly a brand new idea when, during the second half of the 19th century, the French Jeune École came forth with their concept of new naval strategies to counter large battle fleets, usually that of the Royal Navy. Sending out independently operating warships to disrupt the enemy’s worldwide maritime trade and forcing him to dissipate his own superior forces while posing a serious threat to economy had been done since the Europeans began to establish their trade empires across the globe during the 16th century. Privately owned and fitted out vessels sailing under a Letter of Marque against the merchantmen of their nation’s enemies were the backbone of the guerre de course well into the days of the US Civil War - and turned pirate often enough – but the regular navies caught up slowly but steady and commissioned their own cruisers. To fight privateers as well as doing their own fair share of commerce raiding. Usually, these cruisers were known as frigates, a word first used in Boccaccio’s “Decamerone” around 1350, describing various types of sailing ships over the next 300 years until the Dutch built the first true oceangoing, relatively small, rakish sailers, ship-rigged and three-masted, with their main armament deployed in a single gun deck broadside-wise, following the shipbuilder’s axiom of being faster and more manoeuvrable than anything bigger and more heavily armed and more powerful than any vessels that could outsail them. By the 1740s the French had developed the design into something of an art form and for the next century, fast, well-armed and crewed sailing frigates became an integral part of European and American naval tactics beyond the lines of battleships and the concluding broadsides that sometimes decided the fate of nations or even continents. With his remaining heavy-weights blockaded, bottled up and rotting at anchor in the various naval bases from Brest to Toulon after Trafalgar, Denis Decrès, Napoleon’s Minister of the Navy, had practically no other choice than resort to the old tradition of the guerre de course and anticipating the Jeune École by 50 years. He had to overcome another challenge, though, since France has lost all her potential supply bases in the West Indies as well as the Indian Ocean. Consequently, in December 1812, a brace of “Pallas”-class frigates, “Rubis” and “Aréthuse”, slipped the British blockade and sailed for West Africa, close enough to home and the trade routes from the Good Hope and South America and still far away from the operational area of the major squadrons of the overly powerful Royal Navy.

John Christian Schetky (1778 - 1874): "HMS 'Amelia' chasing the French frigate 'Arethuse' 1813" (1852) - somewhat twisting the facts, since it was actually the other way around

The skills of the skeleton crews manning Napoleon’s battleship might have grown somewhat rusty after at least seven years of blockade, but the matelots aboard his frigates often played in the same league as their British and American counterparts and so did their commanders. The “Pallas” frigates were well designed and well armed, “Rubis” and “Aréthuse” relatively new and in good repair and the chief of the small squadron, Pierre Bouvet, had stood his ground against superior British forces during the Mauritius campaign of 1810 and almost won against the odds. Now, in January 1813, his two raiders captured at least four prizes south of Cape Verde and brought a warship to bay, the 12-gun brig HMS “Daring”. Her commander, Lieutenant Pascoe, beached and burned her on one of the Iles des Los in the Gulf of Guinea on 27 January to avoid capture. Pascoe and his men rowed their long boats across the bay to Freetown at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River where HMS “Amelia” under Captain Frederick Paul Irby lay, originally a French 40-gun Hébé-class frigate captured in 1796. Pascoe volunteered to sail back to the Iles des Los in a schooner to reconnoitre and establish the proper identity of the French raiders and their prizes and found them happily reprovisioning and throwing of ballast, such as repatriating a captured Portuguese merchantmen, sending British POWs to Freetown on parole and preparing for the next leg of their course. The rest of Irby’s West Africa squadron was somewhere out at sea and without some form of a cunning plan some of his contemporaries like Cochrane or Pellew might have come up with, “Amelia” actually stood no chance in an encounter with the two French frigates. Never the less, Irby followed what he thought was the call of duty, added Pascoe and his men from “Daring” to “Amelia’s” crew and set forth on the 3rd to offer battle to the French. But sometimes, as Virgil once put it, “audentis fortuna iuvat”, luck does indeed favour the bold and unimaginative. Bouvet’s “Aréthuse” struck the bottom in the more or less uncharted waters off the Iles des Los and damaged her rudder just when the French squadron was about to leave. They dropped anchor again to repair the damage and that very night, a severe storm hit the two cruisers, “Rubis” broke from her anchorage, was driven to the shore and wrecked beyond repair. The odds were evened for HMS “Amelia”.

John Christian Schetky: "HMS Amelia in action with the French Frigate Aréthuse, 1813" (1852) - the painting was originally in the possession of Cpt Irby's family .  

Like two knights opening their visors before the joust, Bouvet fired a gun and let the Tricolour fly when “Amelia” hove in sight and Irby followed suit, broke out “Amelia’s” colours and acknowledged “Aréthuse” as opponent with a gunshot of his own. Irby didn’t take what he believed was still an intact French squadron head on, though, but tried to lure “Aréthuse” away from her sister that actually lay dead on the beach already. Bouvet gave chase, the two frigates manoeuvred all day through the Gulf of Guinea and away from the Iles des Los and the wreck of “Rubis” until Irby decided that was quite enough, hove to and charged “Aréthuse”. Nelson himself had once written that “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy” and fight. Bouvet and Irby obviously were of the same opinion, their ships rapidly closed to point-blank range without wasting any more shot and fought it out. For one and a half hour, the two entangled frigates battered at each other: “The Amelia ... in attempting a second time to cross her antagonist, a second time fell on board of her; and the two ships now swang close alongside, the muzzles of their guns almost touching … and a scene of great mutual slaughter ensued. The two crews snatched the spunges out of each other's hands through the portholes, and cut at one another with the broadsword. The Amelia's men now attempted to lash the two frigates together, but were unable, on account of the heavy fire of musketry kept up from the Aréthuse decks and tops; a fire that soon nearly cleared the Amelia's quarterdeck of both officers and men ... Here was a long and bloody action between two (taking guns and men together) nearly equal opponents, which gave a victory to neither. Each combatant withdrew exhausted from the fight”, as the contemporary British naval historian William James summed up the engagement in 1822. Both crews suffered one third of their company dead or wounded, Irby himself and two of his lieutenants among the latter, his third lieutenant was killed and so was Pascoe. After sundown then, the two battered, unmanoeuvrable frigates drifted away from each other and into a dense fog but still fired until they were finally out of range, neither side was willing to call it a draw and accused each other of running away and being yellow bastards about it. They weren’t able to return and try to bite each other’s legs off either, but the French guerre de course off West Africa was over. Or almost. Before “Aréthuse” returned to St Malo in April, Bouvet captured a few more prizes along with the British privateer “Cerberus”. HMS “Amelia” arrived at Portsmouth in March. The old warhorse was paid off in May and broken up when the war was over. Wounded Irby saw no further active service either, but one conciliatory footnote of the Action of 7 February 1813 remained beyond the bloodshed. On 6 June 1813, the Exbury parish register recorded the baptism of “Irby Amelia Frederick, aged 9 or 10, a native of Poppoe near Whidah, Africa, who was stolen as a slave, but rescued at sea by HMS Amelia”.

And more about the Action of 7 February 1813 on: