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Battle of Saldanha Bay (1781)

The Battle of Saldanha Bay was a naval action that occurred off the Dutch Cape Colony on 21 July 1781 during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. A squadron of Royal Navy warships under the command of commodore George Johnstone captured five Dutch East India Company ships; her own crew destroyed a sixth. Casualties on the Dutch side were minimal if any, and there were no British casualties.

Battle of Saldanha Bay
Part of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War
Present day Saldanha Bay
Date21 July 1781
Coordinates: 33°01′S 17°57′E / 33.017°S 17.950°E / -33.017; 17.950
Result British victory
 Great Britain  Dutch Republic
Commanders and leaders
George Johnstone Gerrit Harmeyer
12 warships + 7 armed transports 8 vessels of the Dutch East India Company
Casualties and losses
none light
5 ships captured
1 ship destroyed

Note: inconsistency in the spelling of the Dutch vessels' or their masters' names below reflects inconsistency among the sources.



Johnstone had been directed to capture the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. However, France had learned of his mission, and the French admiral Bailli de Suffren frustrated the mission. Suffren was en route to the Indian Ocean, but the French marine ministry had warned him so he sought to reach the Cape before Johnstone. After an indecisive chance encounter (Battle of Porto Praya), between the two fleets in the Cape Verde Islands on 16 April 1781, Suffren sailed for the Cape while Johnstone remained at Porto Praya for repairs. As a result, Johnstone found the Dutch settlement well defended when he arrived there in July and decided against an attack.

The Dutch had, as a precaution, directed their westbound merchant fleet, laden with goods, to anchor in Saldanha Bay where they would be concealed from the British fleet. They were under orders to ground and burn their ships if the British were to appear; however they were not vigilant in their watches.

One of Johnstone's frigates, flying French colours, intercepted a Dutch merchantmen that had left the bay several days earlier, heading east. The Dutch vessel was the Heldwoltenmade, Vrolyk, master, which had sailed from Saldanha Bay on 28 June carrying stores and £40,000 in bullion to Ceylon. She struck to Active on 1 July.[1][Note 1] From Heldwoltenmade Johnstone learned of the whereabouts of the Dutch fleet.


Bearing off Saldanha Bay Johnstone sighted the Dutch fleet, and entered the bay flying French colors. He then raised the British ensign and opened fire, totally surprising the Dutch. The Dutch could not escape and decided to destroy their ships rather than let them fall into British hands; so they cut their cables, loosed their top sails, and tried to drive them on shore. Once this was done they attempted to torch the ships, and the British, now in their boats, attempted to extinguish the fires. The British were successful, taking as prizes the Dankbaarheid, Perel, Schoonkop and Hoogcarspel. The Middleburg however burnt furiously and was left alone. She blew up after very nearly colliding with two of the prizes.

Rattlesnake surprised and captured a hooker (a type of coastal craft), laden with the sails of the captured ships and hidden away behind Schapin (Schaapen) Island. The Dutch had put the sails on board and hidden the hooker to make seizing the Indiamen more difficult.[3]

By the end of the day the British had captured another two hookers, which Johnstone could not easily remove. In order not to leave any marks of "barbarity towards a settlement where our wants had so often been relieved", he gave them back to the Dutch.[3]


After the British Royal Navy captured the Dutch East Indiamen, a boat rowed out to meet the British warships. On board were the "kings of Ternate and Tidore, and the princes of the respective families". The Dutch had long held these captives on "Isle Robin", but then had moved them to Saldanha Bay.[3]

The British sent their prizes back to England. Only two reached their destination, and that with difficulty and after some fighting in the English Channel. A French frigate attacked Hoogcarspel, but she succeeded in getting to Mount's Bay where she was escorted. Also, two French privateers attacked Perel, which succeeded in escaping. Dankbaarheit and Hencoop were lost, though it is not clear whether to perils of the sea or to recapture.

Lloyd's List reported the following information on the Dutch vessels captured at Saldhana Bay.[4]

Name Master Tons burthen Guns Voyage Notes
Dankbaarheit Streetsel 1000 24 Bengal to Rotterdam Lost on passage to England[5]
Paerl Plockker 1100 20 China to Amsterdam
Hencoop (or Honcoop) Land 1100 20 China to Amsterdam Lost on passage to England[5]
Hoogcarspel Harmeir (or Harmeyer[6]) 1000 20 China to Amsterdam
Heldweltermade Vrolyk 1100 14 Amsterdam to Ceylon Captured prior to the "battle"[1]
Middleburgh Genoop (or Van Geunip[6]) 1100 24 China to Amsterdam Burnt

The British insured the Dankbaarheyt and the Hencoop, so when they were lost in transit to Britain, the captors still benefited from the insurance money.[7] The total prize money for Paerl and Hoogskarspel, which was divided between Johnstone's squadron and the Army under the command of General Sir William Meadows, amounted to £68000.[8]

Johnstone's squadronEdit

Warships (per prize money announcements):
HMS Hero (74)[9]
HMS Monmouth (64)[10]
HMS Isis (50)[9]
HMS Jupiter (50)[9]
HMS Romney (50)[9]
HMS Jason (36)[9]
HMS Active (32)[9]
HMS Diana (28)[9]
HMS Rattlesnake (16; sloop)[9]
HMS Lark (16; sloop)[9][Note 2]
HMS Infernal (fireship)[9]
HMS Terror (bomb vessel)[9]

In addition to the warships, the following armed transports also shared in the prize money for the Paerl and the Hoogkalspel: San Carlos, Porpoise, Raikes, Royal Charlotte, Resolution, Manilla, and Pondicherry.[9]

Notes, citations and referencesEdit

  1. ^ Both Lark and Rattlesnake, and probably the rest of the squadron as well, shared in the prize money for Heldwoltenmade.[2] That prize money for Heldwoltenmade was paid suggests that she arrived safely at a British port and was condemned there.
  2. ^ Some sources state that HMS Tapageur (14-gun cutter), under Lieutenant Philippe d'Auvergne, was part of the squadron, not Lark. However, Tapaguer had sunk a year before. Furthermore, Lark, under d'Auvergne, was part of Johnstone's squadron.
  1. ^ a b The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 50, pp.503-4.
  2. ^ "No. 12624". The London Gazette. 22 February 1785. pp. 104–105.
  3. ^ a b c The New Annual Register, Or General Repository of History ..., (October 1781), Vol. 2, p.90.
  4. ^ Lloyd's List,[1] - accessed 17 December 2013.
  5. ^ a b "No. 13902". The London Gazette. 18 June 1796. p. 583.
  6. ^ a b The New Annual Register, Or General Repository of History ..., (1781), Vol. 2, p.89.
  7. ^ "No. 12593". The London Gazette. 6 November 1784. p. 1.
  8. ^ "No. 13914". The London Gazette. 23 July 1796. p. 705.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "No. 12654". The London Gazette. 7 June 1785. p. 280.
  10. ^ "No. 12657". The London Gazette. 18 June 1785. p. 303.
  • Clowes, Laird (1897) The royal navy: a history from the earliest times to the present: Volume 4 London: S. Low, Marston and company.
  • Potgieter, Thean, 'Maritime defence of the Cape of Good Hope, 1779-1803', Historia, Vol 48, No1.
  • Webster, Roger The illustrated at the fireside: true South African stories.