HMS Diamond Rock - the Royal Navy's 19th Century 'Stone Frigate'

On passage from St Lucia towards Martinique, Alacazam's Red Ensign was alone among the tricolours of a number of French cruising yachts as she rounded Diamond Rock.

Fortunately for the outnumbered crew of Alacazam, the French and British vessels cruising in the West Indies get on relatively well these days - but it wasn’t always so... 

At the turn of the 19th century the British controlled most of the Caribbean waters, but France still had possession of several of the Windward and Leeward Islands.

The British had lost possession of Martinique to France in 1802 and were keen to get it back. But being engaged in defending territories on both sides of the Atlantic, naval resources were stretched to breaking point.

Diamond Rock - Where is it?

Map showing the location of Diamond Rock off Martinique

About a mile off Pointe du Diamant, the southwest tip of Martinique, sits Roche du Diamant, which was identified by the Admiralty as exactly where they would station a warship if they had one to spare.

Which they hadn't, so in 1804 - and with imagination worthy of C S Forester himself - this towering basalt monolith was renamed HMS Diamond Rock and commissioned as a frigate.

With a great deal of stealth, food, water, cannons and all provisions necessary to construct and support a garrison of British Marines was ferried to the foot of the snake-infested rock, and hauled to strategic positions from which to bombard the French.

The pic below which I took from Alacazam's cockpit in March 2016 shows what a herculean task this must have been.

HMS Diamond Rock Engages the Enemy

HMS Diamond Rock, off the French Island of MartiniqueDiamond Rock, the former British 'warship' off the coast of Martinique

More than a few unsuspecting vessels rounding Pointe du Diamant received a nasty surprise from HMS Diamond Rock. Those in the know wisely chose to give the rock a wide berth, consequently losing ground to leeward along with the time associated with making it back up. 

Perhaps even more importantly for the Admiralty, HMS Diamond Rock served also as a signalling station between Martinique and the British fleet stationed in the anchorage now known as Rodney Bay, St Lucia.

British spies in Fort-de-France, on seeing the French fleet under Counte de Grasse hoist their yards, reported the fact to HMS Diamond Rock, who in turn signaled a British sloop stationed in the channel between Martinique and St Lucia. The sloop would then relay the signal to the fleet under Admiral Rodney in St Lucia, thereby alerting him to any surprise attacks by the French from a windward position.

But this satisfying state of affairs was not destined to continue for long. The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, having something of a soft spot for Martinique - with it being the birthplace of his beloved Josephine - was not overly impressed at the havoc caused by the tiny British garrison clinging to Diamond Rock. Nor was he a great fan of one Admiral Horatio Nelson, and so hatched a cunning plan to deal with both.

Boney's Cunning Plan

It went like this...

A Franco-Spanish fleet under the command of the french Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve was ordered to set sail for Martinique and deal with HMS Diamond Rock, whilst simultaneously luring Nelson's Mediterranean fleet after him to the West Indies.

Villeneuve would then return toute suite when Nelson wasn’t looking, and together with other French and Spanish ships, enter the English Channel with an overwhelming naval force for the invasion of England. Nelson in the meantime would be left swanning around in the West Indies, presumably wondering where everybody had gone.

So in March 1805 Villeneuve set out for the West Indies with Nelson in hot pursuit. In the mistaken belief that Villeneuve was heading for Trinidad, Nelson made that fair island his landfall, unwittingly leaving Villeneuve free to try to bring to an end Britain’s 18 month occupation of Diamond Rock. 

Already short of water, the defenders held on in the summit for several days, while the French - who had forgotten to bring scaling ladders - could make little progress up the rock.

But after several days under fire, The British Marines - short of both water and ammunition - eventually negotiated the surrender of the rock. After repatriation to Barbados, the Marine commander was subsequently tried by court martial for loss of his 'ship', but was honourably acquitted. 

Following the recapture of Diamond Rock, and in accordance with Napoleon’s master plan, Villeneuve's fleet then immediately returned to Europe, encountering an English squadron of warships off Cape Finnesterre.

Admiral Villeneuve's Fall from Grace

Disregarding Napoleon's orders to proceed immediately to the English Channel and rendezvous with the other French and Spanish naval forces assembled there, Villeneuve turned away from the action and headed south to the Spanish port of Cádiz.

Not surprisingly, Napoleon was incensed at this apparent act of timidity, which effectively put paid to his intended invasion of England while Nelson's fleet was playing away from home.

Consequently, Napoleon relieved Villeneuve of command and ordered him to report personally in disgrace. Villeneuve, preferring death to dishonour and in an act of extraordinary defiance, sailed his fleet out of Cádiz to face the now waiting fleet of Nelson.

The result was the historic Battle of Trafalgar, in which Villeneuve fought with great bravery. Ironically, Villeneuve who wished to die, survived, and Nelson though victorious, was killed.

Villeneuve was captured by the British and imprisoned in England. Before long this desperately troubled man was repatriated to France. Unable to live with his shame he committed suicide at an inn in Rennes, where he had been waiting to learn the extent of Napoleon's displeasure with him.

To this day British warships dip their ensigns in salute when passing HMS Diamond Rock. 

As did Alacazam...

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