The Loss Of The Ramilies


Admiral (afterwards Lord) Graves having requested leave to return to

England in 1782, was appointed by Lord Rodney to command the convoy sent

home with a numerous fleet of merchantmen from the West Indies in the

month of July. He accordingly hoisted the flag on board the Ramilies,

of seventy-four guns, and sailed on the 25th from Bluefields, having

under his orders the Canad
and Centaur, of seventy-four guns each,

with the Pallas frigate of thirty-six guns, and the following French

ships taken by Lord Rodney and Sir Samuel Hood, out of the armament

commanded by the Count de Grasse, viz., the Ville de Paris, of one

hundred and ten guns; the Glorieux and Hector, of seventy-four guns

each; the Ardent, Caton, and Jason, of sixty-four guns each. These

were originally British ships and had been in so many actions and so

long absent from England, as to have become extremely out of condition,

while that of the prizes was still more deplorable; and the following

authentic account of the various disasters which attended this

distressed convoy will be found equally melancholy and interesting.

Soon after the fleet had sailed, the officers of the Ardent united in

signing such a representation of her miserable plight as induced Admiral

Graves to order her back to Port Royal; and the Jason by not putting

to sea with the convoy, from the want of water, never joined him at all.

The rest proceeded, and after the vessels that were bound for New York

had separated, the whole convoy was reduced to ninety-two or three sail.

On September 8th, the Caton springing a leak, made such alarming

complaints, that the admiral directed her and the Pallas, which had

also become leaky, to bear away immediately and keep company together,

making for Halifax, which then bore north-north-west and was about

eighty-seven leagues distant.

The afternoon of September 16th, showing indications of a gale and foul

weather from the south-east quarter, every preparation was made on board

the flag ship for such an event, not only on account of her own safety,

but also by way of example to the rest of the fleet. The admiral

collected the ships about six o'clock, and brought to under his main

sail on the larboard tack, having all his other sails furled, and his

top-gallant yards and masts lowered down.

The wind soon increasing, blew strongly from the east-south-east with a

very heavy sea, and about three o'clock in the morning of the 17th flew

suddenly round to the contrary point, blowing most tremendously, and

accompanied with rain, thunder, and lightning; the Ramilies was taken

by the lee, her main sail thrown aback, her main mast went by the board,

and her mizen mast half way up; the foretop mast fell over the starboard

bow, the foreyard broke in the slings, the tiller snapped in two, and

the rudder was nearly torn off. Thus was this capital ship, from being

in perfect order, reduced within a few minutes to a mere wreck, by the

fury of the blast and the violence of the sea, which acted in opposition

to each other. The ship was pooped, the cabin, where the admiral lay,

was flooded, his cot bed jerked down by the violence of the shock and

the ship's instantaneous revulsion, so that he was obliged to pull on

his boots half-leg deep in water, without any stockings, to huddle on

his wet clothes, and repair upon deck. On his first coming hither, he

ordered two of the lieutenants to examine into the state of the affairs

below, and to keep a sufficient number of people at the pumps, while he

himself and the captain kept the deck, to encourage the men to clear

away the wreck, which by its constant swinging backwards and forwards by

every wave against the body of the ship, had beaten off much of the

copper from the starboard side, and exposed the seams so much to the sea

that the decayed oakum washed out, and the whole frame became at once

exceedingly porous and leaky.

At dawn of day they perceived a large ship under their lee, lying upon

her side, water-logged, her hands attempting to wear her by first

cutting away the mizen mast, and then main mast: hoisting her ensign,

with the union downwards, in order to draw the attention of the fleet;

but to no purpose, for no succour could be given, and she very soon went

down head foremost, the fly of her ensign being the last thing visible.

This was the Dutton, formerly an Indiaman, and then a store ship,

commanded by a lieutenant of the navy, who in his agitation leaped from

her deck into the sea; but, as might be expected, was very soon

overwhelmed by the billows. Twelve or thirteen of the crew contrived,

however, to slip off with one of the boats, and running with the wind,

endeavoured to reach a large ship before them, failing in which,

however, and afraid of filling if they attempted to haul up for that

purpose, they made up for another ship more to the leeward, who,

fortunately descrying them, threw a number of ropes, by the help of

which these desperate fellows scrambled up her sides and fortunately

saved their lives. Out of ninety-four or ninety-five sail seen the day

before scarcely twenty could now be counted; of the ships of war there

were discovered the Canada half hull down upon the lee quarter, having

her main-top mast and mizen mast gone, the main top damaged, the main

yard aloft, and the main sail furled. The Centaur was far to windward,

without masts, bowsprit or rudder; and the Glorieux without fore mast,

bowsprit, or main-top mast. Of these the two latter perished with all

their crews, excepting the captain of the Centaur and a few of his

people, who contrived to slip off her stern into one of the boats

unnoticed, and thus escaped the fate of the rest.

The Ville de Paris appeared to have received no injury, and was

commanded by a most experienced seaman, who had made twenty-four voyages

to and from the West Indies, and had, therefore, been pitched upon to

lead the ship through the Gulf; nevertheless, she was afterwards buried

in the ocean with all on board her, consisting of above eight hundred

people. Of the convoy, besides the Dutton before mentioned and the

British Queen, seven others were discovered without mast or bowsprit;

eighteen lost masts, and several others had actually foundered.

In the course of this day the Canada crossed upon and passed the

Ramilies. Some of the trade attempted to follow the Canada, but she

ran at such a rate that they soon found it to be in vain, and then

returned to the flag ship. The Ramilies had at this time six feet of

water in her hold, and the pumps would not free her, the water having

worked out the oakum, and her beams amid ship being almost drawn from

her clamps.

The admiral therefore gave orders for all the buckets to be manned, and

every officer to help towards freeing the ship; the mizen-top sail was

set upon the fore mast, the main top-gallant sail on the stump of the

mizen mast, and the tiller shipped. In this condition, by bearing away,

she scudded on at so good a rate that she held pace with some of the


The day having been spent in baling and pumping, with materially gaining

on the water, the captain, in the name of the officers, represented to

the admiral the necessity of parting with the guns for the relief of the

ship; but he objected that there would then be left no protection for

the convoy. At length, however, he consented to their disposing of the

fore castle and aftermost quarter-deck guns, together with some of the

shot, and other articles of very great weight. The ensuing night was

employed in baling and endeavouring to make the pumps useful, for the

ballast, by getting into the well, had choked and rendered them useless,

and the chains had broken as often as they were repaired. The water had

risen to seven feet in the hold. The wind from the eastward drove a vast

sea before it, and the ship, being old, strained most violently.

On the morning of the 18th nothing could be seen of the Canada, she

having pushed on at her greatest speed for England. The frame of the

Ramilies having opened during the night, the admiral was prevailed

upon, by the renewed and pressing remonstrances of his officers,

although with great reluctance, to let six of the forwardmost and four

of the aftermost guns of the main deck be thrown overboard, together

with the remainder of those on the quarter-deck; and the ships still

continuing to open very much, he ordered tarred canvas and hides to be

nailed fore and aft from under the sills of the ports on the main deck

under the fifth plank above, or within the water ways; and the crew,

without orders, did the same on the lower deck. Her increasing

complaints required still more to be done. The admiral directed all the

guns on the upper deck, the shot, both on that and the lower deck, and

various heavy stores, to be thrown overboard; a leakage in the

light-room of the grand magazine having almost filled the ship forward,

and there being eight feet of water in the magazine, every gentleman was

compelled to take his turn at the whips or in handing the buckets. The

ship was besides frapped from the fore mast to the main mast.

Notwithstanding their utmost efforts the water still gained on them the

succeeding night, and the wind blowing very hard, with extremely heavy

squalls, a part of the orlop deck fell into the hold: the ship herself

seemed to work excessively, and to settle forward.

On the morning of the 19th, under these very alarming circumstances, the

admiral commanded both the bower anchors to be cut away, all the junk to

be flung overboard, one sheet and one bower cable to be reduced to junk

and served the same way, together with every remaining ponderous store

that could be got at, and all the powder in the grand magazine (it being

damaged); the cutter and pinnace to be broken up and tossed overboard,

the skids having already worked off the side. Every soul on board was

now employed in baling. One of the pumps was got up; but to no purpose,

for the shot lockers being broken down, some of the shot, as well as the

ballast, had fallen into the well; and as the weather moderated a

little everything was made ready for heaving the lower-deck guns into

the sea, the admiral being anxious to leave nothing undone for the

relief of the ship.

When evening approached, there being twenty merchant ships in sight, the

officers united in beseeching him to go into one of them; but this he

positively refused to do, deeming it, as he declared, unpardonable in a

commander-in-chief to desert his garrison in distress; that his living a

few years longer was of very little consequence, but that, by leaving

his ship at such a time, he should discourage and slacken the exertions

of the people by setting them a very bad example. The wind lulling

somewhat during the night, all hands baled the water, which, at this

time, was six feet fore and aft.

On the morning of the 20th the admiral ordered the square and

stream-anchors to be cut away, and within the course of the day all the

lower-deck guns to be thrown overboard. When evening came the spirits of

the people in general, and even of the most courageous, began to fail,

and they openly expressed the utmost despair, together with the most

earnest desire of quitting the ship, lest they should founder in her.

The admiral hereupon advanced and told them that he and their officers

had an equal regard for their own lives, that the officers had no

intention of deserting either them or the ship, that, for his part, he

was determined to try one night more in her; he therefore hoped and

entreated they would do so too, for there was still room to imagine that

one fair day, with a moderate sea, might enable them, by united

exertion, to clear and secure the well against the encroaching ballast

which washed into it; that if this could be done they might be able to

restore the chains to the pumps and use them, and that then hands enough

might be spared to raise jury masts, with which they might carry the

ship into Ireland; that her appearance alone, while she could swim,

would be sufficient to protect the remaining part of her convoy; above

all, that as everything that could be thought of had now been done for

her relief, it would be but reasonable to wait the effect. He concluded

with assuring them that he would make the signal directly for the trade

to lie by them during the night, which he doubted not they would comply


This temperate speech had the desired effect; the firmness and

confidence with which he spoke, and their reliance on his seamanship and

judgment, as well as his constant presence and attention to every

accident, had a wonderful effect upon them; they became pacified,

returning to their duty and their labours. Since the first disaster, the

admiral had, in fact, scarcely ever quitted the deck; this they had all

observed, together with his diligence in personally inspecting every

circumstance of distress. Knowing his skill and experience, they placed

great confidence in them; and he instantly made, according to his

promise, a signal for all the merchantmen.

At this period, it must be confessed, there was great reason for alarm,

and but little for hope; for all the anchors and guns, excepting one,

together with every other matter of weight, had been thrown overboard,

and yet the ship did not seem to be at all relieved. The strength of the

people was likewise so nearly exhausted, having had no sleep since the

first fatal stroke, that one half of the crew were ordered to bale, and

the other to repose; so that, although the wind was much abated, the

water still gained upon them, in spite of all their efforts, and the

ship rolled and worked prodigiously in a most unquiet sea.

At three in the morning of the 21st, being the fourth night, the well

being broken in, the casks, ballast, and remaining shot rushed together

and destroyed the cylinder of the pumps; the frame and carcase of the

ship began to give way in every part, and the whole crew exclaimed that

it was impossible to keep her any longer above water.

In this extremity the admiral resolved within himself not to lose a

moment in removing the people whenever daylight should arrive; but told

the captain not to communicate any more of his design than that he

intended to remove the sick and lame at daybreak, and for this purpose

he should call on board all the boats of the merchantmen. He,

nevertheless gave private orders to the captain, while this was doing,

to have all the bread brought upon the quarter-deck, with a quantity of

beef, pork, and flour, to settle the best distributing of the people

according to the number of trade ships that should obey their signal,

and to allow an officer to each division of them; to have the remaining

boats launched, and as soon as the sick were disposed of, to begin to

remove the whole of the crew, with the utmost dispatch, but without

risking too many in a boat.

Accordingly, at dawn, the signal was made for the boats of the

merchantmen, but nobody suspected what was to follow, until the bread

was entirely removed and the sick gone. About six o'clock the rest of

the crew were permitted to go off, and between nine and ten, there being

nothing farther to direct and regulate, the admiral himself, after

shaking hands with every officer, and leaving his barge for their better

accommodation and transport, quitted for ever the Ramilies which had

then nine feet of water in her hold. He went into a small leaky boat,

loaded with bread, out of which both himself and the surgeon who

accompanied him were obliged to bale the water all the way. He was in

his boots, with his surtout over his uniform, and his countenance as

calm and composed as ever. He had, at the going off, desired a cloak, a

cask of flour, and a cask of water, but could get only the flour; and he

left behind all his stock, wines, furniture, books, charts, etc., which

had cost him upwards of one thousand pounds, being unwilling to employ

even a single servant in saving or packing up what belonged to himself

alone, in a time of such general calamity, or to appear to fare better

in that respect than any of the crew.

The admiral rowed for the Belle, Captain Forster, being the first of

the traders that had borne up to the Ramilies the preceding night in

her imminent distress, and by his anxious humanity set such an example

to his brother-traders as had a powerful influence upon them--an

influence that was generally followed by sixteen others.

By three o'clock most of the crew were taken out, at which time the

Ramilies had thirteen feet of water in her hold, and was evidently

foundering in every part. At half-past four the captain and first and

third lieutenants left her, with every soul excepting the fourth

lieutenant, who stayed behind only to execute the admiral's orders for

setting fire to her wreck when finally deserted. The carcase burned

rapidly, and the flame quickly reaching the powder, which was filled in

the after magazine, and had been lodged very high, in thirty-five

minutes the decks and upper works blew up with a horrid explosion and

cloud of smoke, while the lower part of the hull was precipitated to the

bottom of the ocean.

At this time the admiral, in the Belle, stood for the wreck to see his

last orders executed, as well as to succour any boats that might be too

full of men, the swell of the sea being prodigious, although the weather

had been moderate ever since noon of the foregoing day. There were,

however, at intervals, some squalls, with threats of the weather soon

becoming violent. It was not long before they were realised, for within

two hours after the last of the crew were put on board their respective

ships, the wind rose to a great height, and so continued, without

intermission, for six or seven successive days, so that no boat could,

during that time, have lived in the water. On such a small interval

depended the salvation of more than six hundred lives!

Upon their separation taking place, the officers who were distributed

with portions of the crew among the Jamaica men, had orders

respectively to deliver them to the first man of war or tender they

should meet with, and to acquaint the Secretary of the Admiralty by the

earliest opportunity of their proceedings. A pendant was hoisted on

board the Belle, by way of distinction that she might, if possible,

lead the rest. Some of the traders kept with her, and others made the

best of their way, apprehensive lest they should soon fall short of

provisions, as they had so many more to feed.

The Silver Eel transport, which had sailed from Bluefields with the

invalids of Sir George Rodney's fleet, and was under the command of a

lieutenant of the navy, had been ordered to keep near the Ramilies.

That ship was accordingly at hand on September 21st, the day of her

destruction, and in consequence of several deaths on the passage, had

room enough for the reception of all those that were now ailing or

maimed, and was consequently charged with them, being first properly

fitted for their accommodation.

The Silver Eel parted from the admiral in latitude 42 deg. 48' N. and

longitude 45 deg. 19' W.; after seeing the Ramilies demolished, and being

ordered to make for the first port, ran into Falmouth, October 6th, on

the afternoon of which day one of the trade ships, with a midshipman and

sixteen of the crew of the Ramilies, reached Plymouth Sound. Another

of the same convoy having on board another portion of the crew, with the

captain and first lieutenant, anchored in the same place before daylight

the next morning. The Canada, however, having exerted her utmost

speed, had, prior to all these, on the 4th of the same month got to

Portsmouth, where she spread the news of the dispersion of this

miserable fleet, which being conveyed to France, her privateers

immediately put to sea in hopes of making prize of them. Some of the

Jamaica men, with part of the crew of the Ramilies, fell in

consequence into their hands; two of the West India men were captured

in sight of the Belle, but she herself, with the admiral and

thirty-three of his crew, arrived safe, though singly, on October 10th,

in Cork Harbour, where was the Myrmidon frigate. The admiral

immediately hoisted his flag on board the latter, and sailing with the

first fair wind, arrived, on the 17th, in Plymouth Sound.