1802’s Treaty of Amiens was designed to bring peace and an end to the Revolutionary Wars between Britain and France, but little over a year later, relations between the countries became increasingly strained and in May 1803 Britain declared war on France, beginning the War of the Third Coalition. By late June this news had not yet reached the troubled French station of Saint-Domingue, where the Haitian Revolution continued to fight against colonial rule.
On the morning of 27th June, the French 40-gun frigate Poursuivante and the 16-gun corvette Mignonne set sail with vastly reduced crews and armaments from Les Cayes in the south to Cap-Haitien on the north coast of the island. Further up the coast and on the intended route, three 74-gun British ships, HMS Hercule, Cumberland and Goliath were escorting a convoy off Mole-Saint-Nicholas and soon the groups were in sight of each other. Unaware of the new status quo, Captain Jean Baptiste Willaumez of the Poursuivante became suspicious and cautiously prepared for an attack, after the three British ships detached the escort and approached. A pursuit soon followed and before long Mignonne had struck her colours to the much superior Goliath after only a few shots. However, the contest between Hercule and Poursuivante was much more interesting. As they engaged nearer the coast, the British ship struggled to manoeuvre in the shallower waters, whereas the French vessel was restricted by her depleted crew to man both guns and sails. After two hours of fighting the wind dropped and both ships were close to stationary, relying only on gusts of wind from the shore to manoeuvre. Using the change in conditions to their advantage, Willaumez ordered his crew to cease fire and navigate the ship, soon being in position to rake Hercule and deliver a decisive broadside which effectively disabled Hercule and ended the contest. Against all odds Poursuivante claimed a famous victory and reached the safety of Mole-Saint-Nicholas, cheered by crowds on the shore.
This work captures the moment Poursuivante delivered her decisive broadside to Hercule and is a study for the celebrated painting by Crepin in the Musee de la Marine, Paris, entitled ‘Combat de la Poursuivante contre l’Hercule, 1803’, which was commissioned in 1819 to commemorate the event.