Magicienne Fights Sybille

HM Frigate Magicienne Fights HMCM Sybille
2 January 1783

Following the evacuation of Charlestown, South Carolina, a convoy of thirty-eight vessels sailed for Jamaica. Aboard were 1600 troops, 450 settlers and 4500 Negroes owned by the settlers. The escort consisted of HM Frigates Emerald (Captain W. Knell), Endymion (Captain Tyrrell Smith), and Magicienne (Captain Thomas Graves) and HM Sloop Hornet (Commander F. Tinsley). Knell was the senior officer commanding the convoy.1

Magicienne was a former French frigate, captured in September 1781 and taken in to the Royal Navy. She measured 967 tons and was armed with twenty-six 12-pounders and six 6-pounders. Magicienne had a nominal crew of 220 men. Endymion was one of a class of two deck frigates. She measured 893 tons and mounted twenty 18-pounders, twenty-two 9-pounders and two 6-pounders, with a nominal crew of 280 men.2

On 2 January 1783 the convoy fell in with a French convoy of seventeen sail, bound from Cap Fran*ois, Saint-Domingue to Boston, Massachusetts and France.3 The French convoy was sighted at day break by the Endymion, which signaled two strange sail in sight to the northeast. Knell ordered Smith to chase. The Magicienne edged out toward the strangers to repeat the Endymion’s signals. At 0630 the Endymion made the signal for a fleet and raised a French flag to indicate the convoy was French.4

One of the convoy had strayed and was steering toward the British ship. At 0900 the Endymion came up with her and captured her.5 She was the Celerity,6 a rich prize, valued at *20000. Meanwhile the Magicienne came up and lowered her barge to assist in shifting the prisoners. At 0930 Endymion signaled Magicienne to chase to the northeast. Magicienne hoisted in her barge and made all sail to the northeast.7

The French convoy now split up. Most made all sail and stood to the northeast in flight. Five of them hauled their wind and stood down toward the Magicienne. As the British approached it was seen that the two vessels in front were French warships. The largest French ship streamed a commodore’s pennant at the main topgallant masthead.8

The two French warships were HMCM Frigate La Sibylle (Capitaine de vaisseau Chevalier de Kergariou-Locmaria) and HMCM Sloop La Railleur. Their convoy had sailed from Cap François on 27 December 1782 and was just clearing the islands into the open sea when discovered. According to the French it was 0800 when they sighted the British in chase. Kergariou decided to steer toward the British at once, signaling the convoy to continue on its course. He intended to draw the British away from the convoy.9

Sibylle was rated at 600 tonneux and mounted twenty-six 12-pounders and six 6-pounders. She was coppered and was a very fast sailing frigate. She had a nominal crew of 271 men.10 Little is known of the Railleur, She was a brig, captured from the British in June 1782 and mounted fourteen cannon. 11

Magicienne took in her royals and studding sails in order to slow now a bit and allow the ill sailing Endymion to catch up: she was then four or five miles behind the Magicienne. Graves then set about clearing his ship for action. Shortly after the three leewardmost of the enemy vessels bore away and followed the French convoy. The French warships raised their colors and made every appearance of intending to give battle.12

As the Magicienne closed within random shot, both French ships hauled their wind and began firing their stern chasers, staying close together, the smaller ship taking station on the larboard quarter of her commodore. The Magicienne made more sail and followed them, firing her bow chasers.13

At 1230 the Magicienne closed up with the smaller ship and a short action took place.14 After firing two broadsides into the brig15 the action ceased: “ . . . her ensign being down, and her fire ceasing, it was concluded that she had struck. As her pendant was still flying, Captain Graves hailed her to know whether or not she had struck, but owing to the confusion in which she was, taking in her fails, the ship being in the wind, and her studding and small sails flying about in great disorder, no distinct answer was returned.”16 La Sybille dropped back to assist the struggling Railleur, and Magicienne moved away.17

Magicienne pushed on and soon got on the port quarter of the Sybille. A close action began. The ships frequently touched one another. “ . . . the British tars heaved grape and other shot on board of the enemy, and frequently made use of their half pikes and rammers, to annoy them and prevent them from loading their guns.” No doubt the French sailors did the same to the British. At 1415 the Magicienne had nearly silenced the Sybille’s fire and the British began to hope and expect that the French would soon surrender. Then, a French shot brought down Magicienne’s mizzen and fore-topmast. The wreck fell clear of the Sybille and she fell a little astern.18

Sybille is to the left and Magicienne to the right in the center of this Robert Dodd painting, done in 1784. This depicts the beginning of the action.


Just after Magicienne’s mizzen mast fell, shots from the British ship cleared Sybille’s forecastle and killed eleven men. Kargariou was struck down on the quarterdeck and his men thought he was dead for some time. Lieutenant de vaisseau Morel-d’Escures, the second in command continued the action.19

About 1420 the Magicienne’s fore and main masts went overboard. Sybille now made off with Magicienne unable to do any thing except fire every available gun into her stern. The action had lasted for an hour and forty-five minutes.20

Sybille is to the right and Magicienne to the left in this Robert Dodd painting, done in 1784. This depicts the end of the action.


Meanwhile the smaller ship had repaired her damage and re-hoisted her ensign. She fired a broadside and made off as quickly as possible.21

At 1530 the Endymion passed the Magicienne under full sail in pursuit of the Sybille. As the two British ships passed the crew of the Magicienne cheered the Endymion, which returned the favor. The Endymion pushed on. During the pursuit the Sybille’s main top-gallant mast went overboard. Endymion got within a mile of the crippled French frigate when the wind ceased and a calm fell on the water.22

The French did not waste their opportunity and rigged jury masts and repaired the rigging sufficiently to raise full sail when the wind returned. Since Sybille sailed much faster than the Endymion she soon pulled away from her pursuer. The Endymion continued the chase for a few hours, then broke off and attempted to find the Magicienne, without success. Endymion regained the convoy.23

The only prize, the Celerity, never made port. She was lost on a rock on 9 January off the island of Heneaga.24 The British convoy arrived at Port Royal, Jamaica on 13 January.25 The Magicienne arrived at Jamaica 17 January under jury masts.26

The action was bloody. The French lost fourteen killed, including an auxiliary officer and forty-two wounded, including Kergariou, d’Escures and three other officers.27 The British lost sixteen killed and thirty-one wounded. 28

Summary Table









































Time: 1 hours and 45 minutes/3 hours and 15 minutes

1 Beatson, Naval and Military Memoirs, v, 530

2 Winfield, British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792, 176, 178, 220

3 Beatson, v, 530

4 Beatson, v, 531

5 Beatson, v, 531

6 Beatson, v, 530

7 Beatson, v, 531

8 Beatson, v, 531

9 Kerguelen, Y. J., Relation des combats et des evenements de la guerre maritime de 1778 entre la France et l’Angleterre . . ., Paris, 1796, 330, hereafter Relation.

10 Dermiliac, 360

11 Dermiliac, 526

12 Beatson, v, 531

13 Beatson, v, 531-532

14 Beatson, v, 532

15 Clowes, Royal Navy, iv, 92

16 Beatson, v, 532

17 Relation, 331

18 Beatson, v, 532

19 Relation, 331

20 Beatson, v, 532. The French state the time of the beginning of the main action as 1400. Relation, 331

21 Beatson, v, 532

22 Beatson, v, 532

23 Beatson, v, 533. According to the French she chased until 2000. Relation, 332

24 Beatson, V, 531

25 Beatson, v, 530

26 The London Gazette, Tuesday, April 15 to Saturday, April 19, 1783, “Extract of a Letter from Rear Admiral Rowley, Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Ships at Jamaica, dated the 9th of February, 1783, to Mr. Stephens.”

27 Relation, 332

28 The London Gazette, Tuesday, April 15 to Saturday, April 19, 1783, “Extract of a Letter from Rear Admiral Rowley, Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Ships at Jamaica, dated the 9th of February, 1783, to Mr. Stephens.”

Posted 22 May 2013 ©