Constitution Defeats HMS Java
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
USS Constitution had been in port hardly two months following her stunning victory over HMS Guerriere when she was on her way to sea again on another war cruise.
The country was ecstatic over her earlier success and was hungry for more. But the ship had a new Captain, William Bainbridge, a man who three times in his career had been a loser. The crew was unhappy, to say the least.
Departing Boston on 27 October 1812 in company with warbrig USS Hornet, in accordance with orders “to annoy the enemy and to afford protection to our commerce, pursuing that course, which to your best judgment may…appear to be best.” Bainbridge had decided to follow the broad wind patterns of the Atlantic, sweeping across to the Cape Verde Islands, then southwest below the Equator to the sea lanes off Brazil, where the British had considerable trade. If all went well, his small force would raise a ruckus like a fox in a chicken coup, and draw stronger British forces away from the United States to try and stop him. With luck, he would be off to prey on the British trade coming around the southern tip of Africa from India before these forces could catch him.
The cruise proceeded largely without incident, and the two Americans arrived off Sao Salvador, Brazil (Bahia, today), on 13 December. Staying offshore so as not to reveal his full strength to the pro-British Portuguese who then ruled Brazil, Bainbridge sent Hornet in to the port with orders for her Captain, Master Commandant James Lawrence, to report to the American Consul and discover what the current military and political situation was in the area.
Lawrence rejoined Bainbridge on the 18th, reporting that the ship of the line Montague (74 guns) and two other lesser units of the Royal Navy were at Rio de Janeiro or farther south, but that the war-sloop Bonne Citoyenne (18) was in Bahia, carrying a reported $1.6 million in specie. Lawrence had issued a challenge to the British Captain to fight him one-on-one, with Bainbridge pledged to remain out of it regardless of the outcome, but Pitt Barnaby Greene rightly refused. The possibility of capturing so much money and gaining a considerable share of it for himself kept Bainbridge lingering out of sight off Bahia for the next ten days, hoping the Britisher might try to break out.
That’s where Constitution still was between 9 and 10 in the morning on 29 December 1812, when two sail were sighted closer to the shore and to windward (northwest) of the Americans. The day was pleasant and the sea nearly calm; the wind was light from the northwest but would shift to the eastnortheast as the day wore on.
By 11, Bainbridge and his officers believed that the larger of the two contacts was a ship of the line. As that unit was coming toward him, he tacked Constitution to the southeast to avoid being maneuvered into pro-British Portuguese waters by a larger enemy. The smaller contact continued to make for port. (She was an American merchantman, prize to the British warship, and was recaptured later by Hornet, which was closer inshore.)
The American was sailing as close to the wind as possible with all sails set to the royals.
After an hour, Constitution showed her colors, and shortly thereafter her pursuer set an British red ensign. He then flew a series of recognition signals appropriate to British, Spanish, and Portuguese warships, which, of course, Bainbridge could not answer.
By about 1:26, it was certain that the enemy was closing on Constitution, something no ship of the line could do, and so Bainbridge tacked (turned through the wind) toward an opponent he now recognized as another frigate, taking in his mainsail and royals and clearing for action. At 1:50, the enemy attempted to cross Bainbridge’s bow and rake him, which maneuver was prevented by the American wearing around (turning away from the wind) on a southeasterly heading, placing the Britisher to windward on his larboard quarter and closing. Clearly, the enemy had a speed advantage.
At 2, Bainbridge opened fire at extreme range with his 24-pounder long guns, apparently in the hope of destroying rigging and the enemy’s speed advantage. It didn’t work as the enemy continued to close until at his chosen range, when both went at it “hammer and tongs,” the Briton’s fire at its most effective of the whole battle. By 2:10, the battlers were within range for grape and cannister shot. Commodore Bainbridge probably received his first thigh wound in this period.Constitution’s jib halyards were shot away, and the sail would have been lost had not Seaman Asa Curtis slid down the foretopgallant stay amidst the hail of iron to reattach it. The enemy’s speed advantage was letting him draw ahead. He appeared to be about to turn across Constitution’s bow for a devastating raking shot when the Commodore loosed a broadside, then masterfully wore around in the smoke. The enemy saw the maneuver and followed, but once again was in a position somewhat astern — this time to starboard — and having to catch up. For a second time, he moved up and somewhat ahead, and Bainbridge repeated his broadside-and-turn-in the smoke maneuver.
The enemy again began moving up, but this time, he suddenly turned downwind and unleashed a murderous raking broadside at the American’s stern. The mizzen mast was hurt, but not dropped. Fourteen men were killed or wounded on her quarterdeck, including the Commodore a second time and three of the four helmsmen. The wheel itself was destroyed. Bainbridge remained in command despite his wound and quickly had auxiliary steering rigged.
The enemy, surprised by the fact his opponent didn’t maneuver, recrossed Bainbridge’s wake firing another raking broadside at long range and sought to resume his windward position, it was clear to Bainbridge that unless he could reduce his enemy’s speed advantage, the odds were against him. At 2:40, he decided to gamble and steer closer, hoping to get in range to use the smashing power of his 32-pounder carronades to destroy masts and rigging before suffering any further damage himself. It worked. American gunfire shattered the enemy’s flying jib and jib booms, and he turned into the wind, becoming temporarily taken aback. Bainbridge wore again and was able to get in a stern rake of his own before the Briton regained control. The tide was beginning to turn, and the British Captain knew it. His rate of fire was dropping off and the loss of headsails made maneuvering difficult. As Constitution wore away yet again, returning nearly to her former course, he decided his best hope was to run aboard the American frigate and send boarders away to achieve victory in hand-to-hand combat before further damage made it impossible.
The attempt was made at 3:35, but the best he could do was to get hung up in Constitution’s mizzen rigging instead of nicely alongside. This left the Briton at the mercy of many American guns while being able to use only a few of her own. The British foremast was severed just below the fighting top by American cannon fire, and plunged downward through two decks. Sergeant Adrian Peterson, the Marine sniper in Constitution’s main top, delivered a mortal wound to the British Captain. The enemy’s main top and topgallant masts went next, shot through just above the cap. The tangled mass of rigging and broken spars further disrupted British gun crews.
The two antagonists separated after about ten minutes, still heading in a southeasterly direction. Seeing his opponent almost inert, with only sails on the mizzen mast providing propulsion, Commodore Bainbridge wore his ship about and came across the enemy’s bow, unleashing a blazing raking fire at his leisure.
Crossing to the northward, at 4:13 the British gaff and spanker boom were shot away in a stern rake. He wore again and took a position on his foe’s leeward quarter, from which position he could use the total force of his heavy guns from a blind spot. When the enemy slowed because of further rigging damage, Constitution slid forward to a position abeam. The enemy tried to resume fire, but each time a cannon roared it set fire to the masses of ruined rigging shrouding the ship. A few moments after 4 o’clock all British fire ceased. Since there were no colors flying anywhere he could see, Bainbridge assumed his opponent had surrendered. He drew off to windward a short distance and made some prudent repairs to his own rigging before moving in to claim his prize.
The Briton had not, in fact, surrendered. With the fall of the Captain, the First Lieutenant had taken command and was making efforts to continue the fight. A spare spar was secured to the stump of the fore mast and a staysail rigged between it and the remains of the bowsprit to try and regain some maneuverability. While this was being done, the remains of the main mast tottered and fell.
When Constitution began to close in again at about 5:10, an ensign had been rehoisted at what was left of the mizzen mast, and other attempts were being made to set more sail. Only when it was apparent that the American frigate could not be prevented from taking a dominating position across her bow did HMS Java finally surrender. It was about 5:50.Constitution’s toughest fight had ended in victory, and William Bainbridge ended his long history of ill fortune.
His Majesty’s Ship Java was rated as a 38-gun frigate, although she carried thirty long guns and seventeen carronades into the battle. But for sixteen of the carronades, all of her weapons were less powerful than the thirty long guns and twenty-four carronades in the larger American ship. So wrecked was she — at least ten of her guns had been upended in addition to the loss of all masts — that all Bainbridge could do was take all her survivors and their personal belongings off the hulk and sink it. The process was hampered by the fact that all of Java’s boats, and all but one of Constitution’s, had been destroyed in the fighting. It wasn’t until 1 January 1813 that Bainbridge could get to Sao Salvador and off-load his paroled prisoners. The defeated British Captain, Henry Lambert, died of his wound on the 3rd.
Assessing the damage his ship had suffered, and his own wounded state, William Bainbridge decided that they both needed to return home for repairs. She arrived safely in Boston on 18 February 1813.
Java was the third British frigate in four months to succumb to a Yankee 44-gun frigate in a one-on-one duel. In the United States, euphoria reached a new pitch. The Congress voted $50,000 for victory; that gave Constitution’s sailors who also had won against HBMS Guerriere $100,000 to share. In addition to sharing the money, the winning Captain was awarded a gold medal and each of his lesser commissioned officers ones of silver. When news of this latest defeat reached London, the Admiralty directed that henceforth no American 44-gun frigate was to be challenged except when the odds were two-to-one or better in favor of the British.
Fowler, William M., Jr. Jack Tars & Commodores. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.
Long, David F. Ready To Hazard. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1981.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
—. Undefeated: Old Ironsides In The War Of 1812. Chapel Hill: Tryon Publishing Company, 1996.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM