The Naval history of Great Britain:
from the declaration of war by France in 1793 to the accession of George IV
USS Essex in the Mediterranean
courtesy of Peabody Museum
We formerly mentioned the sailing, on the 27th October, 1812, of the United States 32-gun frigate Essex, Captain David Porter, from Delaware bay, on a cruise in the Pacific, conjointly with the Constitution and Hornet. Not finding either of these at the appointed rendezvous, Captain Porter resolved to proceed alone round Cape Horn, and on the 14th of March, 1813, having previously captured the British packet Nocton and taken out of her eleven thousand pounds sterling in specie, arrived at Valparaiso, on the coast of Chile.
Captain Porter here refitted and provisioned his frigate, and then cruised along the coast of Chile and Peru, and among the Galapagos islands, until October; by which time he had captured twelve British whale-ships.
Two of these ships Captain Porter, having taken several American seamen out of a Peruvian corsair and decoyed several British seamen out of the prizes, armed and manned as cruisers. One of them, late the Atlantic, but newly-named the Essex-Junior, was mounted with twenty guns, ( ten long 6-pounder and ten 18-pound carronades,) and manned with a crew, officers included, of ninety-five men; and lieutenant John Downes, who had command of her, taking under his charge the Hector, Catherine, and Montezuma, proceeded with them to Valparaiso.
On the return of the Essex-Junior from this service, the Essex, with the remaining three prizes, (three having been sent to America, and two given up to the prisoners, ) steered for the island of Nooaheevah, one of the Marquesas. Here Captain Porter completely repaired the Essex; and, sailing thence on the 12th of December, in company with the Essex-Junior, returned, on or about the 12th of January, 1814, to Valparaiso.
On the 8th of February, at seven in the morning, the British 36-gun frigate Phoebe, Captain James Hillyar, accompanied by the 18-gun ship-sloop Cherub, Captain Thomas Tucker, when standing in towards the harbour of Valparaiso, in the quest of the Essex and the three ships which Captain Porter was represented to have armed, discovered the Essex-Junior off the port, and, shortly afterwards, the Essex herself and two of her three prizes, (the Montezuma and Hector,) at anchor within it.
At a quarter past eleven the Phoebe spoke the Essex, and at half past anchored, in company with the Cherub, at no great distance from her.
On the 9th, at eight o'clock in the morning, Captain Porter began his attempts upon the loyalty of the Phoebe's seamen, by hoisting at his fore-topgallant-mast-head a white flag, with the motto: "Free Trade and Sailor's Rights". This, in a little while, the Phoebe answered with the St. George's ensign and the motto: "God and Country, British Sailor' Best Rights: Traitors Offend Both." On this the crew of the Essex manned her rigging and gave three cheers, which the Phoebe's crew presently returned.
On the 12th. Captain Porter's motto mania returned, and the Essex hoisted a flag inscribed with the words, "God, Our Country, and Liberty: Tyrants Offend Them". On the 15th, at seven in the morning, the Essex-Junior was towed out of the harbour. At eight the Phoebe and Cherub weighed and stood after her; and at noon the Essex-Junior, finding she could not escape, returned to the anchorage, passing ahead of the Phoebe within pistol-shot.
On the 23rd, when the two British ships were cruising in the bay, the Essex weighed and stood out, but in about an hour resumed her station in the harbour. On the 27th, at about three quarters past six in the evening, when the Phoebe was about four miles west-north-west of the anchorage, and the Cherub about six mile north-by-west of her, the Essex and Essex-Junior got under way with a light breeze from the westward, and stood out towards the British frigate. The latter, on seeing them approach, backed the main topsail and hoisted her colours: by a mere accident, now, a gun went off from the Phoebe's windward side, which was at once interpreted by Captain Porter into a challenge. At twenty minutes past seven, as the Phoebe was in the act of wearing to bring her starboard guns to bear, the Essex and Essex-Junior hauled to the wind on the starboard tack, and the former fired one gun to-windward. Soon after this little flourish, Captain Porter and his lieutenant stood for the anchorage, followed by Captain Hillyar under all sail.
Beyond a second attempt of the Essex-Junior to escape, made and frustrated on the 3rd March, nothing further of consequence happened until the 28th of the month, when the Essex put in practice a wee-concerted plan of freeing herself from the further annoyance of her watchful enemy. It was the intention of Captain Porter, as he himself states, to allow the Phoebe and the Cherub to chase the Essex-Junior out of the bay, in order to afford to the Essex-Junior the opportunity of getting to sea; and the two American ships, having escaped, were to effect their junction at the Marquesas. The wind being, as it usually is, to the southward, any scheme that would draw the two British ships to the north-east or the lee side of the bay, could not fail to favour the escape of the two American ships. Accordingly, from about midnight to past one o'clock in the morning on the 28th, a quantity of blue-lights and rockets were burnt and thrown up in the north-east and in the north.
The Phoebe and Cherub, as may be supposed, chased in those directions; but, finding no answer returned to the lights they hoisted, Captain Hillyar suspected who were makers of the signals, and again hauled to the wind. daylight found the two American ships at their moorings, and the two British ships rather too close to them, to justify the former in attempting in their escape. A fresh south-south-east wind now blew, and so increased towards three o'clock in the afternoon, that at that hour the Essex parted her larboard cable and dragged her starboard anchor out to sea.
Sail was presently set upon the ship; and Captain Porter, seeing a prospect of passing to windward of his two opponents, began to chuckle at his good fortune in having been blown out of the harbour. Just, however, as the Essex was rounding the point at the west end of the bay that would have set her free, a heavy squall struck the ship and carried away her main top mast. The Essex now bore-up, followed by both British frigates, and at about forty minuets past three anchored within half a mile of the shore in a small bay about a mile to eastward of Point Caleta; having one of her motto-flags at the fore, and the other at the mizen top-gallant-mast-head, with two American ensigns, one at the mizen-peak, and the other lashed in the main rigging.
Not to be outdone in decorations, the two British ships hoisted their motto-flags, along with a handsome display of ensigns and union jacks. At four o'clock, when the Phoebe was standing towards the starboard quarter of the Essex, at about a mile distant, a squall from the land caused the ship to break off, and prevented her from passing, as had been Captain Hillyar's intention, under the American frigate's stern.
At ten minutes past four, having fetched as near as the wind would permit, the Phoebe commenced firing her starboard guns, but with very little effect owing to the great distance. In five minutes more the Cherub, who lay on the Phoebe's starboard quarter, opened her fire; the Essex returning the fire of both ships with three long 12-pounders run out of her stern ports. At half past four the two British ships, being very near the shore, ceased firing, and wore round on the larboard tack.
While the Phoebe was wearing, a shot from the Essex passed through several folds of her mainsail as it hung in the brails, and prevented it from being reset in the strong wind which was then blowing. Her jib-boom was also badly wounded, and her fore, main, and mizen stays shot away. Having, besides increasing her distance by wearing, lost the use of her jib, mainsail, and main stay, the Phoebe was now at too great a distance to fire more than one or two random shots.
At forty minutes past four the Phoebe tacked towards the Essex; and Captain Hillyar soon afterwards informed Captain Tucker, by hailing, that it was his intention to anchor, but that the Cherub must keep under way.
On closing the Essex, at thirty-five minutes past five, the Phoebe recommenced a fire from her bow guns; which was returned by the former, the weather at this time nearly calm. In about twenty minutes the Essex hoisted her flying jib, cut her cable, and, under her foresail and fore-topsail, endeavoured to run on shore. This exposed her to a tolerably warm cannonade from the Phoebe; but the Cherub, owing to the baffling winds, was not able to get near. Just as the Essex had approached the shore within musket-shot, the wind shifted from the land, and paid her head down upon the Phoebe. This not being very comfortable to Captain Porter, the Essex let go an anchor. and came-to within about three quarters of a mile of the shore. The object now was to get the specie and other valuables in the ship removed on shore; and, as the boats of the Essex had been nearly all destroyed, it was considered fortunate that lieutenant Downes was present with three boats from the Essex-Junior.
A portion of the British subjects belonging to the crew took this opportunity of effecting their escape; and others, alarmed by Captain Porter's report that "flames were bursting up each hatchway," flames, of which not a trace afterwards could be discovered, leaped overboard to endeavour to reach shore.
In the midst of all the confusion, at about twenty minutes after six, the Essex hauled down her numerous flags, and was taken possession of just in time to save the lives of the sixteen of her men, who were struggling in the waves: thirty-one appear to have perished, and between thirty and forty reached the shore.
The damages of the Phoebe were trifling. she had received seven 32-pound shots between wind and water, one 12-pound shot about three feet under water. Her main and mizen masts, and her sails and rigging, were rather seriously injured.
Out of her crew of 278 men, and twenty-two boys, total 300, the Phoebe had her first lieutenant and three seamen killed, four seamen and marines severely, and three slightly wounded. The Cherub's larboard fore-topsail sheet was shot away, and replaced in five minutes: several of her lower shrouds were cut through, also the main topmast-stay, and most of the running rigging; and three or four shots struck her hull. One marine killed, her commander severely, and two marines slightly wounded, was all the loss which that ship sustained; making the total loss on the British side, five killed and ten wounded.
The damages of the Essex were confined to her upper works, masts and rigging. Out of a crew of 260 men. (at the least,) and five lads or boys, the Essex, as far as is borne out by proof, (the only safe way where an American is concerned,) had twenty-four men killed, including one lieutenant, and forty-five wounded, including two acting-lieutenants and the master. But Captain Porter, thinking by exaggerating his loss, both to prop up his fame and account for the absentees of his crew at the surrender, talks of fifty-eight killed and mortally wounded, thirty-nine wounded severely, and twenty-seven slightly.
How then did it happen, that twenty-three dead (lieutenant Wilmer had been previously knocked overboard and drowned) were all that were found on board the Essex, or that were reported as killed to the British? As only forty-two wounded were found on the Essex, and only three were acknowledged to have been taken away by lieutenant Downes, what became of the remaining twenty-one? The loss, too, as we have given it, is quite as much as from the damages of the Essex one might imply she had sustained. But it is Captain Porter who has made these extraordinary statements; therefore no more need be said about them. For having done what was done, no merit is claimed by the two British captains. They had heard so much of the American prowess, that they expected little short of being blown out of the water; and yet, after the Essex had struck, the Phoebe, with out assistance of the Cherub, was ready to tackle with another American frigate of the same force. On 31st of may the Phoebe and Essex set sail for England, and on the 13th of November, having stopped some time at Rio-Janeiro, anchored in Plymouth sound.
Let us now endeavour to trace what became of the twelve whale-ships captured by the Essex. On the 25th of July, 1813, Captain Porter despatched home the Georgiana, armed with 16 guns, manned with a lieutenant and about forty men, laden with a "full cargo of spermaceti oil, which would be worth, in the United States, about 100,000 dollars." She was captured in the West Indies, by the Barossa 42. The Policy, laden also with a full cargo of oil, was retaken by the Loire, and the New-Zealander, having on board "all the oil of the other prizes", by the Belvidera. The Rose and Charlton were given up to the prisoners. The Montezuma, it is believed, was sold at Valpariaso. The Hector and Catherine, with their cargoes, burnt at sea. The Atlantic, afterwards called the Essex-Junior, was disarmed by the orders of Captain Hillyar, and sent to America as a cartel. The Sir Andrew Hammond was retaken by the Cherub; the Greenwich burnt at sea by the orders of the American officer in charge of her; and the Seringapatam taken possession of by her American crew. The mutineers carried her to New South Wales; whence she was brought to England, and delivered to her owners, on payment of salvage.
Thus have we the end of all the "prizes taken by the Essex, in the Pacific, valued at 250,000 dollars", and, as another item on the debit side of the account, the Essex herself now rates as a 42-gun frigate in the British navy- James's Naval Occurrences page 320.