The French admiral watched the horizon from the deck of his ship, the Héros. Nine. Nine British ships between him and glory. A large wave broke at the hull and spattered his face with spray. He wiped his face with a silk napkin. He sent word to the captains of his fleet to meet him in his war-cabin.
It was 1782. The French supported the Americans in their struggle for Independence, much to the chagrin of the British. The Dutch also allied with the French inspite of British threats. The echoes of the dispute found their way to India where the British forces were capturing French and Dutch outposts along the Coromandel coast. The French dispatched Admiral Balli de Suffren, with his fleet to keep the British forces at bay.
French Admiral – Bailli de Suffren
The Admiral’s fleet had eleven ships of the line, seven transport ships filled with troops, and a corvette to escort the transports They set sail from Brest and had planned to siege the British stronghold at Madras. The Admiral had found the British fleet, under the command of Sir Edward Hughes anchored at Madras and had turned south. He wanted to land his troops at the Dutch colony at Sadras and attack the British troops from the land. The British raised their anchors and set sail after Suffren. Both the navies faced each other at Sadras.
Suffren put his napkin away and peered at the map. The cannons in the sea fort at Sadras would prevent the British from landing. It seemed like the battle would be easy. The French had the wind on their side and had the numerical advantage. But he knew that the British Navy was force not to be taken lightly. They were the masters at sea-battles.
Suffren realized that he was hampered by the need to protect the transport ships containing the troops. He had to safely get them away from the conflict. He detached his corvette to protect the transport ships and decided to draw Hughes away from them. Suffren thought the British would chase his fleet while leaving the transport ships to land the troops safely. The troops would then wreck havoc from land.
The plan was going perfectly. The British fleet had turned their attention towards Suffren and his ships while the transport ships were making way towards the coast. The wind was against the British and they were unable to engage in a battle with the French. The sun was setting across the Indian coast. The sea shimmered in orange. He made sure that the watch-outs were in their post and went to sleep in his cabin with a smile on his face.
The French Admiral woke up next day to chaos. His crew was running amok on the deck. The British fleet was nowhere to be seen. Under the cover of the night, they had changed direction and were now pursuing the transport ships. Suffren yelled in frustration. He gave the order to set sail and give the chase.
By late afternoon, he caught up with the British ships. The battle lines were drawn and the canons were readied. Suffern lead the charge in his ship, Héros. The tide was high and waves made manoeuvrability difficult. Héros caught up with a British ship. It rained cannonballs and hell on it. The British ship was no match for the French speed and could not outmanoeuvre. The sailors jumped off the deck as the burning ship sank to his watery grave.
Satisfied with his attack, Suffren looked around to see how the rest of the battle was going. His eyes widened with horror. He wiped the salt out of his eyes to see if his eyes were deceiving him. They were not.
Only five of his ships had followed him in the battle. The other six had moved back and were watching the battle from the sidelines. He made his messenger to signal the other ships to join the battle. Two out of the six ships reluctantly joined the battle. The other four disobeyed the order and remained at the sidelines. The French Admiral threw his sword down in fury. If he got out alive out of this, he would make them pay. Dearly.
The angry Admiral, turned his attention towards the battle. Sir Hughes ship, the Superb, was making way towards him. He yelled at his crew to charge at the British ship. If he was going down, he would go down all guns blazing.
The Admiral stood tall among the smoke, salt and screams. The two ships passed each other by with their canons tearing wood and flesh apart. Once the smoke cleared, Suffren surveyed the damage. He was surprised to see his ship still standing. The hull and the mast were still intact. A creaking noise caught his attention and he looked back. It was the mast of the British ship crashing. They were not so lucky. The canon-ridden British ship raised the white flag of surrender.
That night Suffren sat silently on the ramparts of the Sadras fort and looked across at the silent sea. There were no more canons and smoke. Only the sound of waves caressing the shore. The broken British fleet had set sail to Triconamalee for repairs. His fleet also had suffered damages and undergoing repairs at the Dutch port.
His thoughts were broken by the sounds of footsteps. He turned around. He saw the captains of the ships who had refused to join in the battle, brought in chains.
“Tie them to the canons and fire”, he said as he stood up and walked to his cabin.
After the Battle of Sadras, the Frech troops who were escorted by Admiral Suffrens, joined forces with the Dutch and Hyder Ali against the British spawning the Second Anglo-Mysore war.
Sadras, once a busy Dutch sea-fort and a naval colony, is now a tiny fishing hamlet, a stones throw away from Kalpakkam nuclear power-plant. The ruins of the sea fort still stand towering high along the sea shore, though much of its glory lost. It is easy to lose track of time waking along the ramparts watching the tall grass that now covers the fort, bend and twist in the sea breeze.
The entrance to the sea-fort at Sadras
The ramparts and the sea beyond it.
Remains of a staircase which now lead to nowhere.