Royal Naval Biography/Strachan, Richard John

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SIR RICHARD JOHN STRACHAN,
Baronet; Admiral of the Blue; Knight Grand Cross of the most honourable Military Order of the Bath.


The surname of Strachan, which in the successive changes of orthography appears Strathechyn, Strathaquin, Straquhen, and otherwise, is local, there being a parish so called in the north of Scotland. Nisbet affirms, that the district was anciently erected into a county palatine, as he finds a Walterus, Comes Palatinus de Strachan, and considers it the only instance known in the kingdom. The family is traced by authentic documents from a period of high antiquity.

The subject of this memoir is the eldest son of Lieutenant Patrick Strachan, R.N., by the daughter of Captain Pitman of the same service, and nephew of Captain Sir John Strachan, the fifth Baronet of that name, to whose title he succeeded Dec. 28, 1777. Sir Richard was born in Devonshire, Oct. 27, 1760; and, like his father and uncle, entered early into the naval service. His first promotion was into the Actaeon, one of the old 44’s upon two decks; he then became third Lieutenant of the Hero, 74, one of Commodore Johnstone’s squadron in the affair at Porto Praya[1]; and afterwards first of the Magnanime of 64 guns, from which ship he was removed into ’the Superb, 74, bearing the flag of Sir Edward Hughes, by whom he was made a Commander in the Lizard cutter, at Bombay, in 1782; and further promoted to the Naiade frigate, captured from the French by the Sceptre. His post commission bears date April 26, 1783.

After the termination of the American war, our officer obtained the command of the Vestal, of 28 guns, and was ordered to convey the brother of the present Lord Cathcart on an embassy to the Emperor of China. The Ambassador was in a bad state of health when he embarked at Portsmouth, and continued to grow worse daily until the ship’s arrival in the Straits of Banca, when he died. Sir Richard afterwards carried General Meadows to his government at Bombay; and during his continuance in the East Indies, distinguished himself on several occasions in supporting the British commercial rights, which would otherwise have been injured by interlopers under neutral colours, countenanced by some French frigates, as well as by the Governors of the garrisons belonging to that nation.

In the month of Nov. 1791, whilst cruizing off the Malabar coast, in the Phoenix frigate, he fell in with la Resolu, of 46 guns, convoying two country coasting vessels to Mangalore, (the principal sea-port of Tippoo Saib) supposed to be laden with stores and provisions for that chieftain, with whom we were then at war. Finding that Sir Richard Strachan was determined to examine these vessels, the French Captain thought proper to object; and an action commenced, which was maintained with great obstinacy on both sides, until the Phoenix had 6 men killed and 11 wounded, and la Resolu 25 killed and 40 wounded. The Frenchman now struck his colours, and Sir Richard performed his first intentions of examining the vessels, which however, on being searched, did not justify any further detention. The Commander of la Resolu insisted on his ship being taken possession of as a prize, which Sir Richard with great propriety refused; but he towed her into Tellicherry Roads, from whence she was afterwards sent to the French settlement at Mahé.

The right of searching neutral vessels, which has always been looked upon as intimately connected with our maritime welfare, was on this occasion exercised with as much conciliation and attention to forms, as it was opposed with violence and rashness, and afterwards acknowledged to be unjustifiable by the French Government. The Commander of the French squadron, Mons. St. Felix, shortly after arrived, and a correspondence took place between him and. Commodore Cornwallis, which seemed likely to be productive of serious consequences, as he threatened resistance if any vessels under his protection were attempted to be stopped; his letters were answered with temper and firmness, for the Commodore was not a man likely to be deterred from doing his duty by threats. There was, however, no trial made on the part of the French, although the Cybele and Resolu got under weigh and went to sea; they were attended by the Phoenix and Minerva, who cruised with them several days, and brought-to vessels under French colours without interruption from them; M. St. Felix despatched the Resolu on other service, and the Phoenix was also then sent away; the remaining English and French frigates cruized together some days longer, without any thing of importance occurring.

Sir Richard Strachan returned to England soon after this event; and on the breaking out of the war with the French republic, was appointed to the command of la Concorde, of 42 guns and 257 men, in which ship he joined a squadron of frigates employed on the coast of France under the orders of Sir John Borlase Warren[2]. At day-break on the morning of April 23, 1794, this squadron, consisting of the Flora, Arethusa, Concorde, Melampus, and Nymphe, being to the westward of Guernsey, discovered four French ships standing out to sea, one of which was la Resolu, Sir Richard Strachan’s former antagonist. Commodore Warren, fearing that the enemy would attempt to escape into port, made the signal for his squadron to engage as they came up, and by this means cut them off from their own shore. The battle was maintained on both sides with great resolution for three hours, when la Pomone and la Babet struck to the Flora and Arethusa[3]. La Concorde continued to pursue the others; and at length got near enough to receive and return their fire. It was Sir Richard Strachan’s intentions to endeavour to disable the sternmost of the enemy’s ships, leaving her to be picked up by the Melampus and Nymphe, which were also in pursuit, and to push on for the headmost; but this ship bore down, and closed to support her consort, at the same time raking la Concorde with great effect. Sir Richard Strachan continued to engage them both with much gallantry; but finding that the day was far advanced, and little prospect of being assisted by the other British frigates, which rather, dropped a-stern, and his main top-mast being so badly wounded that he expected it would fall over the side, by which accident the enemy might have escaped; he came to the resolution to secure that ship which was the nearest to him; and by a skilful manoeuvre having changed sides in the smoke, he prevented the other either from annoying him, or giving assistance to his friend. They continued in close action from twelve till a quarter before two, when the Frenchman ceased firing, and hailed that he had surrendered. The prize proved to be l’Engageante, of 38 guns and 300 men, between 30 and 40 of whom were killed and wounded. La Concorde had but one man killed and 12 wounded. The other frigate, la Resolue, after firing a few shot, made sail and got off. In the evening the masts of l’Engageante fell overboard, and it was with some difficulty and great exertions that la Concorde’s were prevented from sharing the same fate.

Soon after this event, Sir Richard Strachan obtained the command of the Melampus of 42 guns; and his enterprising character being duly appreciated, he was selected for a separate command on the coast of France, where he was aided by the gallantry and skill of Sir W. Sidney Smith. On the 9th May, 1795, being at anchor in Gourville Bay in the island of Jersey, he discovered thirteen sail of the enemy’s vessels running along shore. The British squadron immediately weighed, and chaced them under a small battery, which was soon silenced, and twelve of the vessels, abandoned by their crews, taken possession of. The other escaped round Cape Cartaret. They consisted of ten transports, laden with shiptimber, powder, cannon, cordage, and other articles of naval stores, escorted by an armed brig and lugger. In performing this service, the Melampus had 8 men wounded; the loss on board the other ships of the squadron amounted to 2 killed and 9 wounded.

On the 3d July following, the Melampus, in company with the Hebe, captured off St. Maloes, six out of thirteen French vessels, laden with military stores, convoyed by a ship of 26 guns, two brigs, and a lugger; one of the brigs, la Vesuve, of four 24-pounders and 60 men, was also taken.

In 1796, when Sir W. Sidney Smith was taken prisoner in a vessel captured by the boats of the Diamond, Sir Richard Strachan succeeded him in the command of that fine frigate, and continued in her until the month of February, 1799[4], when he was appointed to the Captain, of 74 guns, in which ship he assisted at the capture of a French squadron in the Mediterranean[5], and served during the expeditions against Quiberon and Ferrol, in the summer and autumn of 1800[6]. He was afterwards employed in the command of a small squadron, cruizing off the western coast of France, where he distinguished himself by his assiduity and perseverance in annoying the enemy’s trade, cutting off the supplies intended for the Brest fleet, and keeping their small armed vessels in check.

During the temporary suspension of hostilities that followed the treaty of Amiens, the subject of this memoir commanded the Donegal of 80 guns; and on the renewal of the war, he was employed off Cadiz, watching the motions of the French ships in that port. On the 25th Nov. 1804, he captured the Amphitrite, Spanish frigate of 44 guns, from Cadiz, with despatches and stores, bound to Teneriffe and the Havannah. The Donegal chaced the Amphitrite for several hours, sometimes gaining upon her, and sometimes losing, till at length the latter carried away her mizen topmast, and was overtaken. Sir Richard Strachan then acquainted the Spanish Captain, that, in compliance with the orders he had received from his Admiral, he was under the necessity of conducting the Amphitrite back again to Cadiz, and he allowed him three minutes to determine whether he would comply without compelling him to have recourse to force. After waiting six minutes in vain for a favourable answer, Sir Richard gave orders to fire, which was immediately answered with a broadside. An engagement ensued, which lasted about eight minutes, when the Amphitrite struck her colours. During this short action the Spanish Commander was killed by a musket ball. The Donegal, about the same time, captured another Spanish ship, with a cargo worth 200,000l. In the month of March following, Sir Richard’s affairs requiring him in England, he exchanged into the Renown, that ship being ordered home, in consequence of her bad condition.

About the month of July, 1805, our officer, who had been nominated a Colonel of Royal Marines in the spring of the preceding year, was appointed to the Caesar, of 80 guns, and entrusted with the command of a detached squadron. On the evening of the 2d November, being off Ferrol, he fell in with four French line-of-battle ships, that had escaped from the battle of Trafalgar, and immediately bore away for the purpose of bringing them to action; but it was not before day-light on the 4th, that the advanced frigate[errata 1] of the British squadron could arrive within gun-shot.

A little before noon, the French, finding an action unavoidable, began to take in their small sails, and form in a line on the starboard tack. At noon the battle began, and continued till half-past three, when the enemy’s ships being no longer manageable, struck their colours, and proved to be the Formidable, of 80 guns, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Dumanoir le Pelley; the Duguay-Trouin, Mont Blanc, and Scipion, of 74 guns each. The British squadron consisted, besides the Caesar, of the Hero, Namur, and Courageux, 74’s; and the Santa Margaritta, Phoenix, Revolutionnaire, and AEolus, frigates, the whole of whom came into action. The loss sustained by the enemy was immense; the Mont Blanc alone had 159 killed and wounded, the Scipion 111. M. Dumanoir le Pelley was wounded, and Captain Trufflet, of the Duguay-Trouin, slain. The English had only 24 killed and 111 wounded; among the latter were Lieutenants Skekel, Clephane, and Osborne; and Captain Clements of the Royal Marines.

Five days after the above action, Sir Richard Strachan was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral; and on the 29th Jan. 1806, his late Majesty, as a reward for his services, was pleased to confer upon him the dignity of a K.B. About the same time he received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, and was soon after detached, with his flag on board the Caesar, to the coast of America, in pursuit of a French squadron, commanded by Admiral Villaumez, one of whose ships, the Castor, of 74 guns, foundered in a hurricane; and another, l’Impetueux, of the same force, was driven on shore near the Chesapeake, where she was afterwards destroyed by the British.

On his return from the above service, Sir Richard was employed in the blockade of Rochefort, until the summer of 1809, when he assumed the command of the naval part of the expedition destined for the occupation of Flushing, and the destruction of the French ships of war, arsenals, &c. in the Scheldt. This armament consisted of thirty-seven sail of the line, two ships of 50 guns, three of 44, twenty-four frigates, thirty-one sloops, and five bombs, besides gun-boats and other small craft, together with 40,000 troops, under the orders of the Earl of Chatham.

On the 28th and 29th July, the ships of war and transports sailed in two divisions; and a landing having been effected in the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, Flushing was immediately invested. On the 13th Aug. the batteries were completed, and the frigates and small vessels having taken their stations, the bombardment commenced. The next day, the line-of-battle ships cannonaded the town for some hours; the enemy’s fire ceased, and on the 15th they demanded a suspension of arms, which was succeeded by the surrender of the garrison, 6000 strong. In the mean time a very numerous French army assembled in the neighbourhood of Antwerp , the forts in the Scheldt were well manned, and every preparation was made for defending the passage of the river, and for conveying the ships so high up as to be beyond the reach of either naval or military operations.

All idea of pushing up the Scheldt being necessarily abandoned, Lord Chatham, with the greater part of the troops, returned to England on the 14th Sept.; and a distemper having broken out among those who remained, which carried off from 200 to 300 men per week, it was determined to evacuate the island of Walcheren, which was carried into effect, after demolishing the works and basin of Flushing, on the 23rd of December.

On the 3d July, 1810, Sir Richard Strachan was presented with a sword, and the freedom of the city of London, which had been voted to him for his achievement off Ferrol, in 1805. He was advanced to the rank of Vice-Admiral on the 31st of the same month, and became a full Admiral, July 19, 1821.

Our officer married, in 1812, Miss Louisa Dillon, by whom he has issue.

Country seat– Thornton, Kincardineshire.



  1. See p. 268, et seq.
  2. Sir John Borlase Warren died at Greenwich in Feb. 1822. A memoir of this distinguished officer will be found in the Annual Biography and Obituary for 1823.
  3. See p. 213.
  4. The following were among the captures made by the Diamond during the time she was commanded by Sir Richard Strachan;
    L’Amaranthe, French corvette, 14 guns
    L’Esperance, brig privateer
    Dec. 1790.
    L’Esperance, cutter privateer
    Unknown, armed lugger destroyed
    1797
    Gun boat, destroyed, 1 798.
  5. See p. 267.
  6. See p. 220.

Errata:

  1. Original: frigates was amended to frigate