The Tortola Expedition of March 1782

-Caribbean Sea:-

The Tortola Expedition of March 1782

“. . . a predatatory expedition against the Virgin Islands . . . ”


1. Formation and Sailing of the Tortola Expedition, February-March 1782

Among several privateers in St. Pierre, Martinique in February 1782 were the Massachusetts Privateer Ship Porus (Commander John Carnes), Massachusetts Privateer Ship Junius Brutus (Commander Nathaniel Brookhouse), Massachusetts Privateer Ship Franklin (Commander Silas Devol) and Pennsylvania Privateer Brigantine Holker (Commander Roger Keane). A plan was proposed, by whom is not known, for these privateers to join forces in an expedition against the British island of Tortola, in the Virgin Islands. Every effort was made to gather intelligence about Tortola. The place was said to be in “almost a defenceless state (having but 2 Batteries, of no great consequence) . . .” A pilot was obtained: “ . . . A Gentleman . . . who professed a thorough knowledge, but it proved that he scarcely knew our object from the neighboring Islands.” After “several days in agitation . . .” the plan was adopted. Regulations were decided upon and Carnes was appointed as Commodore of the fleet.1 A fast sailing sloop was added as a tender.2

The British later reported, and it was believed in Tortola, that this plan was formulated well before the privateers rendezvoused at Martinique. In a letter to the Public Advertiser, dated 6 April 1782, a reporter said that “A squadron of American privateers, armed, equipped and manned at Boston, and other neighboring ports on the continent, . . . planned a predatatory expedition against the Virgin Islands . . .” According to this writer a party of disbanded Continental soldiers were shipped as the landing party. At Martinique about 150 more men were signed up, to make up for the loss of a vessel en route to the rendezvous. According to this writer the Americans asked for the assistance of the French, who were requested to furnish two frigates to bolster the force, who turned down the request.3 So frequently was this expedition discussed that one Monsieur Monnereau, a merchant of St. Pierre, was able to report that “The American privateers, Porus, Franklin, Pilgrim. Junius Brutus, and Fair American are to sail this evening on a cruize (it is supposed against Tortola.) The privateer Mohawk will follow them immediately.” Monnereau had his date wrong, and a couple of the privateers were wrongly named, but otherwise he was dead on.4 The request for French aid perhaps sparked an additional rumor current about this time that two French frigates, based at St. Christopher’s, were going to sail for Tortola.5 The British residents and government on Tortola, were, at the very least, inclined to keep a sharper lookout by these rumors.

The American Tortola Expedition, March 1782

Commander John Carnes, in Porus









John Carnes




Junius Brutus


Nathaniel Brookhouse






Silas Devol






Joseph Robinson






Roger Keane









On 28 February Pilgrim sailed from Martinique, in company with the other vessels of the expedition. At nightfall on 2 March 1782 the little fleet was about ten miles off Dominica. The next day a Danish schooner was chased and spoken by the Porus. Carnes then hove to and called all the skippers aboard for a conference. After that sail was raised and St. Eustatius and Saba were passed.6

At 1500 on 4 March the Virgin Islands were sighted by the fleet, with two sail seen under the land. Carnes ordered his fleet to chase, which it did, but the two sail eluded the fleet and got away. At sunset the captains were called aboard the Porus for a conference. The plans were finalized. One Major Courtis was to command a landing party of two hundred men, with each officer of Marines commanding the party from his own ship. These men were to land and capture the town on Tortola. After an hour the conference ended. Early in the evening a small schooner ran into the fleet. The schooner was spoken and then detained with the American fleet.7

The Americans had been sighted from the heights or Tortola on the evening of 4 March, standing in between the chain of keys to the windward of the island. Before night closed in the American fleet had passed through the keys. The island was alarmed, signal guns were fired, and the militia collected.8

The Virgin Islands seen from the west. The island at the lower right is St. Thomas, the one above it and to the right is St. Johns. Tortola is in the left center. The island at the upper left is Virgin Gorda. A beautiful picture from NASA.

The night was very dark and the fleet passed it’s destination, sailing about ten miles to leeward. An old man aboard the detained schooner, from St. Eustatius, frequently pointed out the error. He offered to take the ships to the proper landing places and guide the landing parties once ashore. However, the Americans trusted their pilot from Martinique and continued to sail away from Tortola. After a while the Americans discovered their mistake and began beating to windward. This took most of the night. As the fleet closed on Tortola it was evident that the island was alarmed: false fires were seen ashore in different places.9

2. The Actions of 5 March

At day break on 5 March the Americans were abreast the town about three miles out. The fleet hove to and the captains boarded the Porus for a conference. At 080010 three brigantines in Road Town harbor made sail and ran southwest, along the coast of Tortola, in an attempt to get to St. Johns Island, a Danish possession only a mile and a half away across the channel.11 The Americans saw these vessels getting underway. The Junius Brutus and the Holker were dispatched in pursuit.12 Meanwhile, the captains decided that the original plan was now useless, as it depended on surprise. Instead a flag of truce would demand the surrender of the town. If refused the ships would bombard the forts and the town.13

The town presented a quite different appearance than the intelligence the Americans had received at Martinique. “ . . . The harbour was regularly fortified, and . . . Batteries were erected within shot of each other, upon the shore, the whole length of the Island. The inhabitants were collected in the Forts, and they hoisted Colours, which to me wore the appearance of defiance, but to many were only considered as Scare-Crow’s . . .”14

While Carnes and the two captains were considering their next move, the Junius Brutus and the Holker were chasing the three brigantines. Holker ran down one and captured it. During the chase the Americans passed by some of the bays on St. Johns. In these bays were several British letter-of-marque ships and brigantines, owned in Bristol, London and Liverpool. As soon as the Junius Brutus sighted these vessels she raised the signal for a superior force to windward.15

About 1000 the Junius Brutus was at a great distance from the fleet, but still in sight when she raised the signal for a superior force. Holker was out of sight at the time. The attack on the town was suspended, and the Franklin and Pilgrim dispatched to aid the Junius Brutus. Meanwhile the Junius Brutus passed out of sight, having doubled a headland in the distance.16 As the two ships ran down toward the Junius Brutus they passed close to the shore and the batteries began firing on them, which was returned. Some shots went between Pilgrim’s masts but no damage was done on either side.17

About 1200 the Pilgrim and the Franklin passed by a neutral harbor on the Danish island of St. Johns. Sheltering in the harbor were several ships under English colors, among them one with twenty-four and another with twenty-six guns. A pilot boat came out to the passing Americans, but did not attempt to come aboard. After proceeding a little way further, the Americans hove to in a large bay to await the Porus. In the bay the Americans found one of the brigs which had run out of Tortola. She had been captured by the Holker, manned, and sent off to St. Pierre and was a former privateer out of Salem, Massachusetts called the Macaroni, mounting fourteen guns.18 She was now the Delight in British service,19 a privateer owned in New York.20 From the prisoners the Americans learned that eight or ten sail had fled from Tortola the night before, and that the Junius Brutus and Holker had sailed to leeward in pursuit of them. The Americans concluded that the vessels seen sheltering in the neutral harbors of St. Johns were the ones that had fled the night before.21

Meanwhile, Carnes had discharged the pilot and released the schooner.22 The sloop was dispatched to windward of the keys to serve as a lookout. As Porus bore down toward her consorts, the British Privateer Ship Fame (Saunders), eighteen guns, and British Privateer Ship Northumbrian (Chapman), twelve guns, came out of Smith’s Bay on St. Johns, to engage her. According to the British, a “smart engagement” followed, which lasted half an hour.23

Aboard the Pilgrim and the Franklin, the Porus was seen at 1400, engaged with the two British ships. These two had sailed out of the harbor on St. Johns when they saw the Porus in the offing and posted themselves athwart the channel, forcing Carnes to run between them. The action was “warm” for a short time but Porus got free without losing a man. She was hit once in the hull and her standing rigging was shot up. As soon as she passed the English ships retired under the guns of the Danish fort.24

After Porus joined the Franklin and Pilgrim, Captains Robinson and Devol went aboard her and spent an hour in conversation with Carnes.25 The three ships did some minor refitting,26 and then sailed in the evening. According to Pilgrim’s log book, they got “clear of the Islands & thus concluded the expidition.” Franklin parted company in the night.27

3. Action with HM Sloop Experiment, 6 March 1782

But this was not the end of the expedition. The British reported that the squadron kept “hovering about to the westward, and then sailed north. The British supposed that a landing on the north side of the island was planned.28

While Porus and Pilgrim were proceeding north, Holker and Junius Brutus returned from their chase of the scattered British vessels. On 6 March29 the Holker and the Junius Brutus worked up through the channel toward Tortola.30

As it happened, HM Sloop Experiment (Commander Edward Herbert) arrived in the harbor of Spanish Town on the island of Virgin Gorda in the evening of 5 March.31 Experiment was coming in from a short cruise to obtain water32 and repair a sprung foremast.33 Herbert was unaware of the American squadron being in the area,34 but he had information about it at Spanish Town, including the mistaken information that the Americans were in search of the Experiment.35

At 0900 Experiment sighted a ship and a brig to the south, passing through a channel called the Dead Chest Passage and carrying “a press of sail.” The two continued through the channel, stand to the north. The ship “appeared like a small Frigate and the Brig a Vessel of War . . .” At 1000 Experiment hoisted the private recognition signal, which the approaching vessels ignored. Herbert was now convinced that they were part of the American squadron. Later he was able to identify them as the Junius Brutus, armed with eighteen 9-pounders on the main deck and six 6-pounders on the quarterdeck and forecastle; and the Holker of eighteen 6-pounders.36

There was a small two gun battery near the Experiment’s anchorage, but not close enough to allow her to co-operate with it in defense. Herbert’s only real choice was to run. At 1130 he slipped Experiment’s anchor cable and stood north37 in the passage between Anegada and Spanish Town.38

The Americans weathered the small islands and gave chase to the Experiment. At 1500, some eighteen miles northwest of Virgin Gorda,39 the Holker40 had come within random shot of the Experiment. The wind was blowing fresh out of the ENE. The sea was high and the Americans were approaching on Experiment’s lee quarter. It was obvious to Herbert that he couldn’t escape.

At 1545 Herbert shortened sail and bore away “for the better fighting of my Guns . . .” The Americans came up under English colors and ranged beside the Experiment, the Holker on the starboard bow and the Junius Brutus on the port quarter. Herbert spoke the Junius Brutus and the usual questions were exchanged. Brookhouse then lowered the English colors and raised the American colors and called for Herbert to surrender.41

The Junius Brutus was only about twenty yards away from the Experiment when Herbert fired his full broadside into her. Holker began a steady and heavy fire of musketry, grapeshot and lagrange. For the next thirty minutes the three ran along, exchanging fire. About 1630 the fire from the Junius Brutus slacked off. At the same time the Holker was maneuvering to get up on the starboard bow of the Experiment. Herbert hauled to the wind and collided with Holker’s port quarter, causing considerable damage to the brig. The damage to Experiment’s rigging caused her topsails to go aback and she dropped astern of the two American  vessels.42

At 1645 the Holker stood before the wind, Keane having quite enough of this action.43 She had her rudder damaged and part of her cabin stove in.44 Experiment’s sails filled again and she stood for the Junius Brutus, firing as she went. Brookhouse wore ship and fired a few return shots as Junius Brutus stood off after the Holker. As the Americans made off from the crippled Experiment, Herbert saw Holker’s fore topmast and boom crash into the sea.45

Experiment was shot up: masts, yards, standing and running rigging shot away, one gun dismounted. There were shots in the hull, booms and in Experiment’s boats and she was leaking. One man was killed and fifteen wounded, including Lieutenant Walker. As soon as some of the damage was repaired Experiment stood to the north, vainly attempting to pursue the Americans. They passed out of sight at 1800 and Herbert turned about, steering for Antigua. Experiment arrived there about 17 March.46

Summary Table
















Junius Brutus















Map of the Tortola area in 1782. All locations are approximate. Crawl Bay is now known as Hurricane Hole/Coral Bay.


Holker and Junius Brutus proceeded to the north of Tortola and fell in with the Pilgrim and the Porus. For several days they cruised between 19°N and 21°N, seeking the “running ships,” which were about to sail, as they had learned from the prize. Two of the American vessels captured a “rich” prize, bound from Liverpool and Cork to Jamaica, while separated from the other two. A disagreement about this prize broke up the expedition. Holker departed and took her prize, Delight, into Martinique.47

4. The British Relief Force, 17 March-1 April 1782

When Experiment arrived at Antigua, she found a British relief expedition about to sail for Tortola, to chase off the American squadron. This consisted of HM Frigate Santa Monica (Captain John Linzee) and HM Frigate Convert and HM Sloop Germaine.48 Linzee ordered Experiment to join the expedition.49

The British Relief Force, March 1782

Captain John Linzee, in Santa Monica







Santa Monica


Captain John Linzee





Captain Henry Harvey





Commander George Augustus Keppel




Commander Edward Herbert









After fruitlessly searching for the Americans, these four British vessels were anchored at Peter Island, near Tortola Road, on 1 April 1782. At 0600 the British came to sail and stood out to sea through the channel from Tortola. Linzee planned to intercept enemy vessels passing by Tortola and to block the channel in case the two (still rumored) French frigates made their appearance. At 0745 Convert was leading and Santa Monica was following her, making about six knots.  There was a “great sea” running. Two miles SSW of the southwest point of Norman’s Island the Santa Monica struck four times on a submerged rock and immediately bilged.50 The hold filled with water and the casks began floating about. Linzee put five pumps to work and forty hands began bailing with buckets. A quick conference with his officers was held: the conclusion was that the ship was going down. Linzee steered for the nearest harbor. At 0845 he beached the Santa Monica in Water Creek ,Crawl Bay,51 on St. Johns Island, with fifteen feet of water in the hold. Linzee was of the opinion that, had he another quarter of a mile to go, the ship would have been lost. The British saved most of the stores above the main deck as well as the guns.52 Only one man was lost in the wreck.53

1  Tyson, George F., Jr., Powder, Profits & Privateers: A Documentary History of the Virgin Islands During the Era of the American Revolution. Virgin Islands Bureau of Libraries, Museums & Archaeological Services, Department of Conservation & Cultural Affairs. 1977. “Log of the Pilgrim,” 89-92. Hereafter cited as Pilgrim Logbook.

2  Tyson, George F., Jr., Powder, Profits & Privateers, “Letter to the Public Advertiser from ‘An Inhabitant of Tortola,’” 92-96. Hereafter, Letter from Tortola.

3  Hereafter, Letter from Tortola.

4  The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser [Boston], Thursday, March 28, 1782,  datelined March 1, 1782

5  “Captain John Linzee to Admiral George Rodney, Antigua, 29 April 1782,” in Tyson, 97-98

6  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

7  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

8  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

9  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

10  Letter from Tortola, 92-96; Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

11  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

12  Letter from Tortola, 92-96; Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

13  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

14  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

15  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

16  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

17  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92;  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

18  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

19  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

20  The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser [Philadelphia], Saturday, April 6, 1782, datelined St. Thomas, March 7, 1782

21  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

22  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

23  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

24  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

25  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

26  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

27  Pilgrim Logbook in Tyson, 89-92

28  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

29  Tyson, George F., Jr., Powder, Profits & Privateers, “Commander Edward Herbert to Captain John Linzee, Antigua, 17 March 1782,” 96-97. Hereafter, Herbert to Linzee.

30  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

31  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

32  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

33  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

34  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

35  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

36  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

37  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

38  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

39  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

40  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

41  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

42  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

43  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

44  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

45  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

46  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

47  Letter from Tortola, 92-96

48  “Captain John Linzee to Admiral George Rodney, Antigua, 29 April 1782,” in Tyson, 97-98

49  Herbert to Linzee, 96-97

50  The rock is now known as Santa Monica Rock and is a popular dive destination in the British Virgin Islands.

51  Now Hurricane Hole.

52  “Captain John Linzee to Admiral George Rodney, Antigua, 29 April 1782,” in Tyson, 97-98

53  The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser [Philadelphia], Thursday, May 16, 1782

Revised 6 August 2014 ©