Battle of Mahé

Sybille vs Chiffone-cropped.jpg
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The Battle of Mahé was a minor naval engagement of the last year of the French Revolutionary Wars, fought on 19 August 1801 in the harbour of Mahé in the Seychelles, a French colony in the Indian Ocean. Since the demise of the French Indian Ocean squadron in 1799, the Royal Navy had maintained dominance in the East Indies, controlling the shipping routes along which trade flowed and allowing the rapid movement of military forces around the theatre. French First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte had long-harboured ambitions of threatening British India, and in 1798 had launched an invasion of Egypt as an initial step to achieving this goal. The campaign had failed, and the French army in Egypt was under severe pressure by early 1801, partly due to the presence of a British squadron acting with impunity in the Red Sea.

To disrupt British ships supplying the Red Sea squadron the French Navy sent the newly built 36-gun frigate Chiffonne to the Western Indian Ocean under the command of Pierre Guiyesse. This ship, also carrying 32 exiled political prisoners, was instructed to operate from Mahé. After an eventual journey, Chiffone arrived in the Seychelles in August and Guiyesse ordered his crew to effect repairs before the mission could begin. Anchored in a bay sheltered by coral reefs and protected by a hastily erected gun battery, he believed his ship would be safe from attack.

The British commander in the region, Rear-Admiral Peter Rainier, had assumed the French would send a force against the Red Sea squadron and ordered the 38-gun frigate HMS Sibylle under Captain Charles Adam to investigate. Adam sailed to Mahé and discovered the French ship undergoing repairs. Carefully manoeuvring through the coral reefs, Adam brought Sybille alongside Chiffone and fought a brief but fiercely contested battle before Guiyesse was forced to surrender. A month later, the French brig Flèche, operating from the same harbour on the same mission, was intercepted and sunk by the brig HMS Victor. These operations were the last significant actions of the war in the Indian Ocean, the Peace of Amiens coming into effect in October.

In 1801 the French Revolutionary Wars were drawing to a close. The conflict, which had begun in 1792, had seen the new French Republic and its allies fighting against a shifting coalition of European powers, of which only Great Britain, recently renamed the United Kingdom, had been consistently opposed to France. In the Indian Ocean, where Britain maintained a lucrative trading Empire centred on British India, the Royal Navy had enjoyed almost continual supremacy under the command of Rear-Admiral Peter Rainier. Only between 1796 and 1799 had the French Navy, in the form of a squadron of frigates operating from the island base of Île de France under the command of Contre-amiral Pierre César Charles de Sercey, offered any resistance. Gradually this force had either returned to France or been defeated in battle, and the destruction of the frigate Preneuse at the Battle of Port Louis in December 1799 had restored absolute British control.

The importance of the East Indies to British trade encouraged a number of French plans to threaten the region, of which the most advanced was the invasion, in 1798, of Egypt by a French Army under General Napoleon Bonaparte. Although the campaign saw initial success, the annihilation of the French Mediterranean Fleet by Sir Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798 effectively doomed the campaign to failure. Later in the year Bonaparte considered building a squadron at Suez in the Red Sea, but the plans were abandoned when a British squadron, operating from Jeddah under the command of Rear-Admiral John Blankett assumed control of the region. Bonaparte returned to France the following year, but the British Red Sea squadron remained in operation.

In 1801, a British army landed in Northern Egypt, sparking a short campaign which ended with the Capitulation of Alexandria and the complete surrender of French forces in the country. Blankett's squadron provided distant support for this effort, sending an army from the garrison of India up the Nile, although this force arrived too late to influence the campaign. The French however wished to disrupt British operations in the Red Sea, and considered a number of schemes including diverting Ganteaume's expedition to the Indian Ocean. Eventually however the only warship available was the newly constructed 36-gun frigate Chiffonne, which sailed from Nantes on 14 April 1801 under the command of Commander Pierre Guiyesse. Also on board were 32 political prisoners condemned to exile, who Guiyesse was ordered to land at Mahé.

This page was last edited on 14 June 2018, at 07:52 (UTC).
Reference: under CC BY-SA license.

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