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. Five Dutch East India Company vessels were captured and another was destroyed by a squadron of Royal Navy warships under the command of commodore George Johnstone.
Johnstone had been directed to capture the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. However, France had learned of his mission, and his design was frustrated by French admiral the Bailli de Suffren. Suffren was en route to the Indian Ocean, but had been warned by the French marine ministry, and sought to reach the cape before Johnstone. After an indecisive chance encounter 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. From this ship 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. This was successful, and the prizes they took were the Dankbaarheid, Perel, Schoonkop and Hoogcarspel, most of them armed with around 24 guns. The Middleburg was however burnt furiously and was left alone. She blew up after very nearly colliding with two of the prizes. A pinnace laden with sails of the captured ships was discovered hidden away and also captured. By the end of the day another two pinnaces were captured but they were given back to the Dutch by Johnstone. The prizes were sent back to England with some difficulty after some fighting in the English Channel. Hoogcarpel was attacked by a French frigate but succeeded in getting to Mount's Bay where she was escorted. The Perel was also attacked by two French privateers but succeeded in escaping.
- Clowes, Laird The royal navy: a history from the earliest times to the present: Volume 4 London: S. Low, Marston and company, limited, (1897)
- Webster, Roger The illustrated at the fireside: true South African stories
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