Perouse's Report [I]:
Battle off Spanish River

B O S T O N,  August  20. [1781] 1

On board of His Most Christian Majesty’s Frigate, the Astrea, July 23, 1781.

Copy of Capt. la PEROUSE’s letter, Commander of His Most Christian Majesty’s Frigate the Astrea,2 from Cape D:Vaisseaux.3

Dear General:4

I HAVE the honor to inform you, that, the 23d5 of this month, being a cruizing six leagues south-west of Cape North, off the island of Cape-Breton, when I perceived several sails on the wind, at ten o’clock in the morning ; which soon after I perceived to be a fleet convoyed by several ships of war ; I made the signal for a chace, and to prepare for action : Both the Hermione6 and the Astrea set all their sails : Soon we perceived  two frigates which arrived with the wind upon us by quitting their convoy, who unhappily was close to the wind, and avoided the land in order to enter into Spanish-Bay,7 from whence they were but a small distance.  As we were doing our utmost to approach the enemy’s frigates, these were soon only a league from us, when they closed the wind, by making signals of reconnoitring, to which we were not able to answer : These to frigates were soon joined by a third ship, who had detached herself from the fleet, and which appeared to me then to be but an advice ship.8  Seeing that the enemy continued to keep close to the wind, I unbent the lower sails again, where I had a reef during their signals.  I in my turn chased them, and tacked about upon their fleet, in order that they might approach me to defend it ; but unhappily that fleet was much to the wind, and my tacking carried me off two leagues under the wind of her, the enemy that had tacked the same as I did, kept himself a league off, to the wind, and something back.  Seeing the impossibility I was in of joining the fleet, I tacked once more upon the three frigates the fled, by taking the same wind that we did.

However, the day coming to an end, I saw with the greatest concern, that it would be impossible for me to begin the engagement before seven or eight o’clock, in the afternoon ; I tacked again once more upon the fleet, which I was very certain not to reach, though but a league off the harbour : But I wanted to be assured, that if among the fleet there was not other men of war, excepting the three frigates that were behind me, and which I had cut off from the fleet : Soon after at a  signal the commander made, who always was athwart of me in the wind, and a little backward, I saw three ships detach themselves from the fleet passing to the wind of our two frigates, and rallying the three that were behind me ; seen while the fleet entered the harbour.

Being in despair, to see the whole escaped me, I tacked back upon the six ships of war, who were the only ones that were off, five of them formed a kind of line, in order to wait for me ; the third appeared to fear doing his duty, and always kept out of reach of the cannon.  I had desired to much the whole day to join the enemy, in order that his countenance tho’ firm, might impose upon me ; I ran upon him with forced sails, I had not a minute to loose [sic], and it was seven o’clock in the afternoon, when we fired the first guns shot—The Hermione always was at hearing—I hailed M. Destouches [sic] to be ready, that we may go and attack the enemy ; he desired it with as much eagerness as myself ; both our equipages and officers were actuated with the same sentiments, and our only grief were, that we should not be able to prolong the length of the day, and to have a very dark night to fear. 9

Both the Astrea and Hermoine lengthened the line of the enemy under the wind, in order to take from them all hopes of running away with the wind : This fleet was composed of the Charlestown10 of 28 cannon, the Ligence11 [sic] of 24, the Vernon12 of 24, the Vulture13 of 20, the Jack14 of 14 ; the Thomson15 of 18 cannon, always staid [stayed] to the wind.—By dint of our advancing the disorder was in the small English squadron ; soon the Vulture went out of reach, the Jack struck her colours ; the Charlestown dismasted of her main topmast, appeared to us to have struck also, and I gave order to my battery not to fire any more upon her.  Both the Ligence, and the Vernon forced sails in order to escape ; it was then about half after 8 o’clock, and announced the darkest night ; my rigging were very ill treated, and I feared that soon, in spight [spite] of my night glasses, it would be impossible for me to perceive the run-aways.  I took the resolution to tack, and at least to moore [moor] the Jack and the Charlestown, who both stayed behind, and were the only and certain fruits of my victory, that perhaps the enemy should have denied me, attributing either to their manœuvers, or their valour, a flight they owned to the night only.  I sent my cannoe [sic] onboard the Jack, who was the nighest, and trusted her to M. Ducandas, an auxilliary officer, very firm.  I gave him orders to shut up all the English prisoners in the hold, under the care of two centries [sic] armed each with two pistols upon the hatches, to keep my cannoe, which I had not the time  to return, and to do his endeavour to follow me, with about 20 Frenchmen I had given him, while I was going to continue the pursuit  upon the enemy.  I had previously hailed M. Destouche [sic] to tack about upon the Charlestown, who I swear on my honor to have seen struck ; but instead of arriving upon me in order to be moored, had hoisted up her mizen-sail, and appeared to flatter herself to escape us, under the shelter of night.  M. Destouches [sic] obeyed my orders, with both the eagerness and zeal he was capable, persuaded as well as my self, that the Charlestown acted against the laws of war, and perhaps, a little passion was joined to the desire we had both of us, to compleat the victory, by the capture of the commander’s frigate--but heaven opposed our wishes; never a night was darker; there had been a few drops of rain, and we could perceive nothing at musket shot from us :  I rallied the Hermione at half past 9 o’clock by the light of a fire I had ordered M. Destouch [sic] to put to the mizen-arm-yard.  I had one myself, on account of our prizes, which I perceived no more, and of which I should have been very uneasy, had I not known the firmness of M. Ducandas.  In short at 11 o’clock at night, not knowing what course the enemy had taken, I laid  by, hoping to that perhaps the Charlestown might have had the same idea, in order to be left behind ; I waited for the day with the liveliest impatience ; but vain hope, the day appeared, and I perceived nothing around me; for greater misfortune, the wind changed to the west, and threw me of 14 leagues under the wind of Spanish Bay.—In short, as if heaven had been that day in favour of the enemy, there arose a very thick fog, that has facilitated the English with the means of conducting their fleet, wherever they pleased.

I have learnt since, by our prisoners, that almost all the transport ships of that fleet, were empty, and were going to load sea-coals in Spanish Bay, where the English have a fort, with a garrison of four hundred men.  There were but four ships destined for Quebec, with salt and four [flour?].—The Jack of 14 ninepounders which I have taken, was to escort them up the river—She was commanded by Mr. Tonge,16 both owner and commander.  Mr. Onslow, Paymaster-General of the province of Canada, was passenger on board that ship, and is of the number of my prisoners.

The undaunted intrepidity of my crew, both the zeal, and the ardor of my officers, are above all description.  I join here to any letter, the list of dead and wounded.  Among the first are three marines, 15 sailors, or boys are amongst the last ; the frigate has suffered considerable in her masts and rigging ;  the loss of the Hermoine has been about the same—I have been so bravely seconded by M. de la Touche [sic], and both our frigates have always been so nigh one another, that it was impossible, that the events of the battle might have not been the same for  both ships.

List of the enemy ships that have fought aagainst his Most Christian Majesty’s frigates, the Astrea and Hermione, July the 23d, 1781.


Charlestown, of

28 guns,

9 pounders.


14 do.

9 ditto.


24 do.

9 ditto.


20 do.

9 ditto.


14 do.

9 ditto.  taken


18 do.

kept out of reach.



Number of guns engaged

128    Cannons.



The Independent Ledger, and the American Advertiser, Boston, 20 Aug 1781, p. 3, col. 1-2.



La Astrée, M. Jean-François de Galoup, Comte de La Pérouse (1741-c1788), commanding, launched 1780 at Brest, 32 guns (26 x 12-pounders + 6 x 6-pounders), sister ship to La Nymphe (141ft 5½in, 120ft 4½in x 38ft 3¼in x 11ft 9in, 93772/94 tons. [Demerliac]



Presumably “Captaine de Vaisseaux”



Unidentified; presumably NOT Admiral Jaques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Comte de Barras, commanding the French Squadron at Newport, Rhode Island because La Perouse wrote a similar letter to de Barras the same day.



Should be July 21st.



La Hermione, M. Louis-René Levassor, Comte de Latouche Tréville (1745-1804), commanding, launched 1779 at Rochefort, 32 guns (26 x 12-pounders + 6 x 6-pounders), sister ship to la Concorde (142ft 11in, 118ft 11in x 37ft 6in x 11ft 7 in, 88882/94 tons). [Demerliac]



Now Sydney Harbor, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.



Probably the Quebec provincial [hired?] armed ship, Jack, Richard Peter Tonge, Master [and owner?].  This translation suggests a small ship.  Another translation calls her a sloop of war.






HMS Charlstown, 6th rate, 28 guns, formerly the American frigate Boston, taken in the harbor when Charlestown surrendered.  Commissioned 15 May 1780, dimensions: 114ft 3in, 94ft 3in x 32ft 0in x 10ft 3in, 51334/94 tons; 220 officers & men (175 seamen + 45 marines).  Captain Henry Francis Evans, commanding.



HMS Allegiance, Sloop, the former Sedden & Goodrich merchant ship King George, formerly French L’Empereur, purchased & commissioned at New York, called “about 200 tons” when libeled but that seems too small.  Master & Commander David Phips, commanding.  Established the  same as HMS Vulture, Sloop, but frequently supplemented crew with soldiers from the 74th Highland Regiment at Penobscot (20 in Feb 1781 and 21 from 01 May 1782 taken POW when captured on 06 Aug 1782)..



Tentatively identified as the transport ship Vernon, 480 tons, Francis Hull, Master



Swan-class Sloop of War, launched 18 Mar 1776, dimensions: 96ft 9½in, 79ft 2in x 26ft 10¾in x 12ft 11in, 30458/94 tons; 125 officers & men Rupert George, commanding.



Quebec Provincial ship [hired?], Richard Peter Tonge, master [and owner?]



 A laden British victualler, bound for Quebec escorted by Jack.



 Richard Peter Tonge, commissioned in the Quebec provincial naval service as a Master & Commander.

Transcribed and annotated by R. Brooks. Posted 3 September 2010

Revised 6 August 2014 ©