Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 28.djvu/180

This page has been validated.

indecisive. After a bloody but useless struggle of rather over two hours' duration, a sudden shift of wind threw both lines into confusion; and so they separated, the damage on each side being fairly equal. The English took up their former position off Negapatnam, and the French, being unable to effect their purposed landing, carried their troops back to Cuddalore. On 1 Aug. they sailed for Ceylon, while Hughes lay at Madras refitting. The governor sent him word that the French had left Cuddalore and gone to the southward; Hughes answered that he was not responsible to the governor for the management of the fleet. It was not till the 19th that one of his own frigates, the Coventry, confirmed the news. Then, indeed, he realised that Trincomalee might be in danger, and put to sea the next day, 20 Aug.; but the winds were unfavourable, and it was not till the evening of 2 Sept. that he was off the port. It had fallen to the French two days before, and the next morning, when Hughes was standing in towards the mouth of the harbour, he was disagreeably surprised to see the French flag suddenly hoisted. He necessarily drew back, and Suffren, who now had fifteen ships against the twelve with Hughes, at once followed, hoping to complete his victory by the destruction of the English fleet. His orders, as he gave them out, formulated the tactics which had proved so dangerous on 17 Feb. and on 12 April; the whole of his superiority was to be thrown on the English rear, leaving a barely equal force to hold the van in check. Fortunately, however, many of the French captains were averse to the task put before them; and the ill-will of some, the unseamanlike conduct of others, completely frustrated Suffren's admirable plan. The ships engaged in an isolated manner, and after a desultory action of three hours, the fleets separated, the French making their way back to Trincomalee, and the English to Madras. On 1 Nov. a hurricane, which swept over the roadstead, forced them to sea. The Superb and Exeter were dismasted, and all were more or less damaged; Hughes shifted his flag to the Sultan, and by slow degrees the fleet gathered together at Bombay. Here it was reinforced by a strong squadron brought out from England by Sir Richard Bickerton [q.v.], and when, some months later, Hughes returned to the east coast, he had, for the first time, a numerical superiority to the French, and was able, in June 1783, to cooperate with the army in the siege of Cuddalore. On the 14th the French fleet appeared in the offing, and on the 17th succeeded in passing inside of the English, and in establishing a free communication with the shore.The French ships were very short-handed, and took on board some twelve hundred men from the garrison, previous to engaging the English fleet outside. It was on the 20th that the two enemies again met; but though Suffren had the position to windward, and though he had, before leaving Trincomalee, given out a detailed order for concentrating his attack on the English rear, he made no attempt to carry out the scheme, and permitted a dispersed attack along the whole line. The result was the useless slaughter of a hundred men on each side, but the strategic advantage remained with the French. Hughes raised the blockade and withdrew to Madras, where he soon received news of the peace.

There is no other instance in naval history of two fleets thus fighting five battles within little more than a year (four of them within seven months) with no very clear advantage on either side. French writers speak of the five battles as five 'glorious victories,' but in reality they were very evenly balanced in point of fighting, while, as to strategic results, the English had a slight advantage from the first three, the French from the last two. The tactical advantage, however, commonly lay with the French, and they were prevented from reaping the benefit of it solely by the mutinous or cowardly conduct of the French captains on the one hand, and, on the other, by the seamanlike skill and courage of Hughes and his comrades.

On the peace Hughes returned to England and had no further command, though advanced in due course on 1 Feb. 1793 to be admiral of the blue. He acquired in India ‘a most princely fortune,’ estimated at over 40,000l. a year, which, it is said, he largely distributed in unostentatious acts of benevolence (Charnock). He died at his seat at Luxborough in Essex on 17 Feb. 1794. A portrait of Sir Edward Hughes, by Reynolds, the bequest of the admiral himself, is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich.

Hughes married Ruth, widow of Captain Ball, R.N.; she died 30 Sept. 1800 (Gent. Mag. 1800, pt. ii. p. 1008). Hughes left no issue, and his wealth descended to a son of Captain Ball, R.N., his wife's son by her first marriage, Edward Hughes Ball Hughes (d. 1863), a social celebrity of the early part of the present century, when he was familiarly known as the ‘Golden Ball.’ In 1819 Ball took the additional name of Hughes, married Mdlle. Mercandotti, a celebrated Spanish dancer, in 1823, and, having by gambling and reckless expenditure dissipated great part of his fortune, removed to St. Germains, near Paris, where he died in 1863