Battle of Porto Praya

The Battle of Porto Praya was a naval battle that took place during the American Revolutionary War on 16 April 1781 between a British squadron under Commodore George Johnstone and a French squadron under the Bailli de Suffren.

Battle of Porto Praya
Part of the American Revolutionary War

Combat de la baie de la Praia dans l'île de Santiago au Cap Vert, le 16 avril 1781, by Pierre-Julien Gilbert (1783–1860)
Date16 April 1781
Location14°54′26.27″N 23°30′17.66″W
Result Tactical draw; French strategic victory
 Great Britain  France
Commanders and leaders
George Johnstone Bailli de Suffren
5 ships of the line 5 ships of the line
Casualties and losses
36 killed
147 wounded
93 killed
217 wounded [1]

Both squadrons were en route to the Cape of Good Hope, the British to take it from the Dutch, the French aiming to help defend it and French possessions in the Indian Ocean. The British convoy and its escorting squadron had anchored at Porto Praya (now Praia) in the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands to take on water, when the French squadron arrived and attacked them at anchor.

Due to the unexpected nature of the encounter, neither fleet was prepared to do battle, and in the inconclusive battle the French fleet sustained more damage than the British, though no ships were lost. Johnstone tried to pursue the French, but was forced to call it off in order to repair the damage his ships had taken.

The French gained a strategic victory, because Suffren beat Johnstone to the Cape and reinforced the Dutch garrison before continuing on his journey to the Île de France (now Mauritius).


France had entered the American Revolutionary War in 1778, and Britain declared war on the Dutch Republic in late 1780, when the Dutch refused to stop trading with the French and the Americans. Johnstone was ordered to lead an expedition to capture the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

On 13 March 1781 Johnstone sailed from Spithead with a fleet of 37 ships, including five ships of the line, three frigates, and a large number of troop convoy ships. In early April the fleet anchored in the neutral harbour of Porto Praya in the Portuguese-controlled Cape Verde Islands to take on water and supplies.

Suffren had been dispatched on a mission to provide military assistance to French and Dutch colonies in India, leading a fleet of five ships of the line, seven transports, and a corvette to escort the transports. On 22 March he had sailed in the company of a fleet destined for North America under Admiral de Grasse, with word of Johnstone's mission and an objective to reach the Cape first.

One of Suffren's ships, Artésien, had originally been destined for America, and was in need of water, so the French fleet paused when it approached Santiago on 16 April, and Suffren ordered the Artésien to the harbour.


When the Artésien reached the mouth of the harbour, she spotted the British fleet at anchor, and signalled Suffren that the enemy was in sight. Suffren, assuming (correctly) that the fleet had men ashore and would be in some disarray, immediately gave orders to attack, leading the way with his flagship, the Héros. Johnstone, who was in the process of ordering ship manoeuvres to separate ships that had drifted too close to one another when the French squadron was spotted, had to scramble to prepare the fleet for battle.

Suffren's orders were for his line to anchor before the British fleet and open fire. This he did with Héros, taking on Hero and Monmouth, the two largest British ships. Annibal soon came to his aid, and eventually drew most of the fire. Artésien, whose captain was killed early in the engagement, captured the East Indiaman Hinchinbrooke in the confusion,[2] and then a breeze blew her away from the action. The Vengeur passed along the anchored British fleet exchanging broadsides but never anchored herself and passed out of the action, while the Sphinx also failed to anchor, and only contributed minimally to the action.

Suffren, with the advantage of surprise, maintained the action with the two anchored ships for ninety minutes until damage (Annibal lost two of three masts) led him to signal a retreat while maintaining fire. Annibal lost her third mast on her way out of the harbour, and was slow to follow Héros.

The French captured the East Indiamen Hinchinbrook and Fortitude, and the victualer Edward.[3] The British recaptured Fortitude the next day.


Suffren gathered his fleet together outside the harbour to assess damage and make repairs. Terror and Infernal had got out to sea and the French fired on them. Despite being set on fire, Terror escaped and her crew extinguished the flames. The French captured Infernal,[4] and took out Captain Henry Darby and some sailors and soldiers.[5]

Johnstone got his squadron ready and came out of the harbour in pursuit about three hours later. Suffren adopted an aggressive line, and Johnstone, some of whose ships — especially Isis — had suffered significant damage, chose not to renew the battle, and returned to the harbour to effect repairs. However, before he returned, he succeeded in recovering Infernal.[5] Her remaining crew had recaptured her while the prize crew were off their guard.[3] Alternatively, her prize crew abandoned her at the approach of the British squadron.[6] Their prize crews also abandoned Hinchinbrook and Edward, and the British recovered the vessels a few days later.[3]

Suffren's squadron reached the Cape of Good Hope on 21 June, with the troop convoys arriving nine days later. After spending a month there for repair and refit, he left 500 men for the defence of the Dutch colony and proceeded on to Ile de France. Johnstone, however, still headed for the Cape and arrived in July and at Saldanha Bay took five Dutch East Indies vessels as prizes. He then made his way back to England.

Order of battle

Captain Suffren's squadron [7]
Ship Guns Commander Casualties Notes
Killed Wounded Total
Héros 74 Captain Pierre André de Suffren
Captain Félix d'Hesmivy de Moissac
23 87 110 [1] Damaged
Annibal 74 Captain Achille de Trémigon  70 130 200 [1] Damaged and dismasted. First officer Morard de Galles and Lieutenant Huon de Kermadec wounded.
Artésien 64 Captain Paul de Cardaillac de Lomné 
Vengeur 64 Captain Charles Gaspard Hyacinthe de Forbin La Barben
Sphinx 64 Captain Charles Louis du Chilleau de La Roche
Casualties: 93 killed, 217 wounded, 310 total [1]

Three frigates, the corvette Fortune,[8] and numerous transports did not engage.

British squadron
Ship Guns Commander Casualties Notes
Killed Wounded Total
HMS Hero 74 Captain James Hawker
HMS Monmouth 64 Captain James Alms
HMS Isis 50 Captain Evelyn Sutton
HMS Jupiter 50 Captain Thomas Pasley
HMS Romney 50 Commodore George Johnstone
Captain Roddam Home
HMS Jason 32 Captain James Pigott
HMS Active 32 Captain Thomas Mackenzie
HMS Diana 32 Captain Sir William Burnaby
HMS Lark 14 Lieutenant Philippe d'Auvergne
HMS Infernal 8 Commander Henry D'Esterre Darby
HMS Terror 8 Commander Charles Wood
HMS Rattlesnake 14 Commander Peter Clements
HMS Porto 16 Commander Thomas Charles Lumley
San Carlos 20 Commander John Boyle Armed ship
Pondicherry 20 Lieutenant Thomas Saunders Grove Armed transport
Royal Charlotte 20 Commander Thomas Stanhope Bennett Hired armed ship

Armed transports

  • Lord Townsend
  • Manilla
  • Porpoise


East Indiamen

  • Asia
  • Chapman
  • Essex
  • Fortitude (Captain Grigory) [10]
  • Hastings
  • Hinchinbrook
  • Latham
  • Locko
  • Lord North
  • Osterley
  • Queen
  • Southampton
  • Valentine



The Agosta-class submarine La Praya (S 622) was named in honour of the battle.[11]

Sources and references



    1. Caron (1996), p. 165.
    2. Demerliac (1996), p.147, #1228.
    3. Theal (1897), p.181.
    4. Demerliac (1996), p.147, #1229.
    5. Hepper (1994), p.62.
    6. Marshall (1823), Vol. 1, pp.268-9.
    7. Cunat (1852), p. 52.
    8. (in French) Un raid à La Praya
    9. Lloyd's List no. 1250 - accessed 2 August 2015
    10. Cunat, p. 54
    11. "Sous-marin La Praya". Net-Marine. Retrieved 26 April 2020.


    • Caron, François (1996). Le Mythe Suffren. Vincennes: Service historique de la Marine.
    • Cunat, Charles (1852). Histoire du Bailli de Suffren. Rennes: A. Marteville et Lefas. pp. 447.
    • Demerliac, Alain (1996) La Marine De Louis XVI: Nomenclature Des Navires Français De 1774 À 1792. (Nice: Éditions OMEGA). ISBN 2-906381-23-3
    • Hepper, David J. (1994). British Warship Losses in the Age of Sail, 1650-1859. Rotherfield: Jean Boudriot. ISBN 0-948864-30-3.
    • Lacour-Gayet, G. (1910). La marine militaire de la France sous le règne de Louis XV. Paris: Honoré Champion.
    • Theal, George McCall (1897) History of South Africa under the administration of the Dutch East India Company, 1652 to 1795. (S. Sonnenschein & co., Ptd.).
    • Final French Struggles in India and on the Indian Seas
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