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Royal Naval Biography/Searle, John Clarke

Rear-Admiral of the White.

This officer entered the naval service in 1774; and early in the following year received a wound in the hand in an action with the Americans. During the Spanish and Russian aimaments, he commanded, as a Lieutenant, the Liberty, of 16 guns; and whilst in that vessel, at the commencement of the war with revolutionary France, drew the attention of the French frigate San Culotte from several merchantmen, then under his convoy, bound to Guernsey, and had nearly succeeded in decoying the enemy on shore on the Casket rocks, after having experienced a very heavy fire from her for more than an hour and a half, during which the Liberty sustained considerable damage in her hull, sails, and rigging. About the year 1795, he was advanced to the rank of Commander in the Pelican sloop of war, and in that vessel captured several of the enemy’s privateers. He was also present at the reduction of St. Lucia, St. Vincents, and Grenada, in the spring of 1796[1]. His post commission bears date July 13th following.

Previous to his quitting the Pelican, Captain Searle appears to have fought a very gallant action with the Médée French frigate, and notwithstanding the absence of 23 of his crew, succeeded in beating her off. The following account of an affair which reflects so much credit on all those concerned therein, we extract from a work recently published, under the title of James’s Naval History.

“At day-break on the 23d Sept. 1796, the island of Deseada bearing S.E. by S. six or seven leagues, the British 18-gun brig Pelican (mounting sixteen 32-pounder carronades, and two long 6’s), Captain John Clarke Searle, found herself close on the lee-beam of an enemy’s frigate. Not over-desirous of engaging, where the odds were so decidedly against him, Captain Searle made sail to the N.W., and was followed by the frigate; who, having the weather-gage, and sailing remarkably fast in the prevailing fresh breeze, rapidly approached the Pelican. The brig, at this time, had on board only 97 officers and men of her complement; and some of the latter seemed to hesitate about engaging a ship of such evident superiority of force. But Captain Searle calling to their recollection the frequent occasions on which they had distinguished themselves while under his command, and expressing a hope that they would not now sully their well-earned reputation, nor place less confidence in him than they had been accustomed to do, the fine fellows immediately gave three cheers, and declared their resolution, rather to sink with their commander, than forfeit his good opinion.

“Having made all ready, the Pelican, to the great surprise, no doubt, of the Frenchmen in the frigate, shortened sail; and, at 7 o’clock, the latter, having arrived within gun-shot, opened her fire. The brig reserved her’s till her carronades could reach with effect; and then a very brisk fire was kept up till seven minutes before nine; when the frigate, whose crew appeared to be in some confusion, hauled on board her main-tack, and made off to the northward under all possible sail. Nor was the Pelican in a condition for an immediate pursuit, having had every brace and bowline, all the after back-stays, the main-stay, several of the lower shrouds, the top-sail-tyes, and other parts of her rigging shot away; the sails very much torn; and the main-mast, main-top-sail-yard, and fore-yard, a good deal injured. With all this damage, however, the Pelican fortunately had no person killed, and only 1 slightly wounded. Her opponent being left to herself, soon ran out of sight.

“At 10 o’clock, while the Pelican was repairing her damages, the man at the mast-head discovered a large ship on the lee-beam. At 11, having got her rigging and sails in tolerable order, the Pelican gave chace; and at 3, Englishman’s Head, Guadaloupe, bearing S.S.E. a mile and a half, succeeded, after firing several shot, in cutting away the ship’s main-topsail-yard. Upon this, the latter brought to, and proved to be the Alcyon, late a British army-victualler, but then in the possession of the French 32-gun frigate Médée, who had captured her on the 9th, about 100 leagues to windward of Barbadoes. At 4, the Pelican made sail to the southward, with the prize in tow; but, at midnight, owing to a calm and a heavy westerly swell, in which the Alcyon fell on board the Pelican three times, the latter was compelled to cast her off. At day-break the Alcyon was found to have drifted very near to the shore at Anse la Barque; and at about a gun-shot within her, was seen the Médée herself, having a light air from the land, while the Pelican and her prize lay quite becalmed. The Médée’s boats soon regained possession of the Alcyon; and Captain Searle knowing that the Thetis and another French frigate lay at anchor in Anse la Barque, thought it the most prudent course to abandon his prize. Scarcely had the Pelican, taking advantage of the breeze that then sprang up, set sail from the spot, when one of the frigates came out and joined the Medde; but neither frigate evinced any further disposition to molest the Pelican, and she proceeded to the Saintes to refit.

“On the day succeeding that of her arrival at this anchorage, where also was lying the 74-gun ship Bellona, Captain George Wilson, an aid-de-camp arrived, with a flag, from Victor Hugues, then Governor of Guadaloupe, expressly to ascertain whether there was any truth in the statement made by the Captain of the Médée, that the English vessel he had engaged on the 23d, was a frigate with her mizen-mast out. The mistake was soon cleared up, if not to the satisfaction, to the confusion of the French officer; who actually went on board the Pelican, to be certain that she mounted only 18 guns. About the same time arrived an officer of the 60th regiment, who had been a prisoner on board the Médée during the action, and got released on her arrival at Guadaloupe. He confirmed every statement; adding, that the Médée mounted 40 guns, with a complement of nearly 300 men; that she sustained much damage, and lost several men in killed and wounded. At the subsequent capture of the Médée by the British, she was found to be armed precisely as the Prudente or Régénérée; mounting not 40, but 36 guns[2].”

After the above brilliant exploit, Captain Searle was appointed to the Cormorant, a 20-gun ship. He subsequently commanded the Garland frigate, and Tremendous, 74, the latter bearing the flag of Sir Hugh C. Christian, on the Cape of Good Hope station, where he continued until after the demise of that officer, which took place Jan. 31, 1799.

His next appointment was to the Ethalion, in which fine frigate he had the misfortune to be wrecked on the Saintes rocks, Dec. 24th following. On the 10th Jan. 1800, Captain Searle was tried by a Court-martial for the loss of his ship, and most honorably acquitted. It appeared that the accident was occasioned by an unusual course of tide, and but little wind; that every exertion which skill and zeal could effect, was made by him and his officers; and the utmost discipline and subordination observed by the ship’s company, so highly honorable to British seamen in times of danger.

Soon after this event, Captain Searle obtained the command of la Determinee, of 24 guns; and on the 25th July, 1801, he captured a French corvette of 10 guns, with specie on board to the amount of 10,000l. sterling. During the Egyptian campaign he served as Flag-Captain to Lord Keith, in the Foudroyant, and returned to England with that officer on the 3d July, 1802. In Nov. following, he commissioned the Venerable, of 74 guns; and on the renewal of hostilities, in May 1803, upon Lord Keith being appointed Com mander-in-Chief of the North Sea fleet, he was selected to command the Monarch, another third-rate, bearing his Lordship’s flag, in which he continued until the summer of 1806, when he obtained a seat at the Victualling Board, of which he afterwards became the Chairman.

Commissioner Searle was passed over at the general promotion, Aug. 12, 1819; but on his retirement from the Board, he obtained the rank of Rear-Admiral (by commission, dated Feb. 8, 1822), with the same advantages he would have enjoyed had he accepted his flag at the former period.

  1. See p. 134.
  2. If the Médée mounted 40 guns in 1796, the additional pieces were probably brass 36-pounder carronades.