Following on from my previous post Jemmett Mainwaring and the start of a Mainwaring naval tradition – part 1 …
In June 1797, at the age of thirty-four, Jemmett Mainwaring was given command of HMS Babet, a four-year-old 20-gun French corvette, captured by the British three years previously. In the Royal Navy system she became a sixth-rate post ship, too small for a frigate, but big enough to require the command of a captain.
Between 25 July and 5 October 1797 under Captain Mainwaring HMS Babet captured three merchant vessels:
- the brig Decision, of 200 tons and eight men, recaptured while sailing from Cape to Puerto Rico in ballast;
- the brig Schuylkill, of Philadelphia, 100 tons and eight men, sailing from New York to Puerto Rico with a cargo of flour, supposedly Spanish property; and
- the barque Æolus, of Copenhagen, 180 tons and 10 men, sailing from Marseilles to St. Thomas, with a cargo of wine, French property.
The London Gazette “No. 14073”. 12 December 1797. p. 1192 includes an account of the captures.
On 16 January 1798 Babet‘s boats captured the French schooner Désirée between Martinique and Dominique.
Between July and December 1798 HMS Babet was refitted at Portsmouth at a cost of £5,194 [about £230,000 today] .
After her refit HMS Babet under Mainwaring began another successful run of captures:
- in December 1798 she recaptured the American ship Helena.
- on 18 and 19 January 1799, she captured two French fishing vessels, Deux Freres Unis, with a cargo of herring, and another small vessel, the Jacques Charles.
- on 24 June HMS Babet in company with HMS Harpy, an 18 gun brig-sloop, captured the ship Weloverdagt.
In 1799 HMS Babet took part in an Anglo-Russian invasion of the North Holland peninsula. There Babet briefly served as Vice-Admiral Andrew Mitchell‘s flagship in the Zuider Zee. Babet was listed with other ships of the British fleet as qualifying for prize money for the capture of several Dutch hulks and ships on 28 August 1799. On 30 August 1799, a squadron of the Batavian Navy with 632 guns and 3,700 men surrendered to the British navy under Vice-Admiral Mitchell in the Vlieter near Wieringen, North Holland.
Loss of HMS Babet
In September 1800 HMS Babet left Spithead with orders to convey General John Knox to Jamaica, where he was to take up the position of Governor. On 24 October she arrived at Fort-Royal Bay, Martinique, sailing the next day for Jamaica. HMS Babet was never seen again. It seems likely that she foundered in a storm.
Newspaper reports in early 1801 reported on the probable loss. There were also a few suggestions that she had in fact survived.
Letters concerning the loss of the Babet
“About this time  we got the melancholy account of the loss of the Babet, the ship in which our dear John (General Knox) was gone out as Governor and Commander in Chief to Jamaica. Many, many tears did I shed for him, I loved him as a brother, and never, I believe, was there a man so deserving of the regard and regret everyone expressed for him. We long had hopes that the ship was not lost, as it was not seen to go down, but years have elapsed since, therefore no hope can be indulged, though I am sometimes fool enough to feel some, in spite of my almost conviction that it is impossible they ever should be realised.” [The Honourable Frances Calvert nee Pery at An Irish beauty of the regency page 13 retrieved through archive.org]
The letters of Henry Swinburne concerning the fate of his son who was aide-de-campe to Knox, document the uncertainty of the fate of the Babet.
“London , January 3rd, 1801. … I am uneasy at not hearing yet of Harry’s arrival in Jamaica, though various persons conversant with those seas laugh at my fears . [footnote: He went out as secretary and aide-de-camp to General Knox, commander-in-chief at Jamaica. The ship was never more heard of, and must have foundered between Martinique and Jamaica.]
February 2nd . Another Jamaica mail arrived this morning, which left the island on the 21st of December, at which time no account had been received of General Knox. They are very low at the Admiralty concerning it. I have been all the morning in the city, hunting for information ; but there are so many contradictory reports and conjectures that I returned just as I went, except feeling my spirits depressed by the fatigue. I assure you I keep nothing from you, nor palliate nor exaggerate; spero contra spent . I do all I can to resist the weight of despondency, but, indeed, I am cruelly alarmed, and prepare myself for the worst. I cannot pretend to bid you keep up your spirits, or hope or despond, for I know not what to do or to say. My thoughts are on the rack about your health, and the improbability that your shattered nerves will be able to resist such a blow as this may prove. Colonel Barry sits all day over the fire crying, and is angry if one suggests a hope. He quite kills me. I had got so far when Mr. Higgins came in, who declares upon his honour he would not buoy me up with false hopes, but his opinion is not the least altered by the arrival of this packet, nor will it till we hear from Honduras. There is nothing so common as ships driving past Jamaica and being lost for months; Admiral Parker was so for four months.
February 6th. Barry has quite got up his spirits, but I fancy from no reason but Higgins’s persevering in his opinion, or perhaps from forcing himself out into the fresh air. How often have I admired and felt the force of the Marquis of Ormond’s exclamation about his dead son! Ours, if gone, is gone “with- out a blot upon his fair fame.” How time runs on! — every day sinks so much of my hopes, that I feel myself unmanned by every desponding expression or look of other people.
February 12th. I write to save the last post. We had just dined when a letter came from Colonel Barry, enclosing one just received from the General, the date of which was the 25th of October, from Martinique. They had arrived, after an agreeable passage in a good ship, the day before. They were to re-embark that evening for Jamaica, where the General expected to be landed about the 1st of November. His letter is written in uncommon spirits. He says they were all well, but that he keeps Swinburne so busy he has no time to write, and therefore begs Barry to acquaint his family that he is safe and well. It was almost too much happiness to bear when these tidings came amidst all our anxiety, and we were quite overcome at such unusual ways of digestion.
February 21 st. … Higgins says there is a letter arrived to a Mr. Miller, announcing the safety of all the crew of the Babet. By that I should imagine they have been shipwrecked. I care not, so he is safe.
February 24th Nepean has just written to me in a style you must like: “I am a father, and can therefore participate in your feelings on the news of your son’s safety ; long may he live ! I am sure he will be an honour to his name.”
March 2nd , 1801. Another month begun, and yet no satisfactory accounts of my dear son ! My hopes and fears are exactly what they were, and I wait in silence and sullen patience the accounts from Jamaica.
March 4th. … This strong south-west wind might have blown some ships in from Jamaica. I dare not say I long for their arrival.
March 28th . Every day takes away part of our hopes ; there are letters by the Jamaica mail, and accounts have been received from Honduras and other parts of the island. They have seen nothing of the unfortunate Babet , so that little opening remains but the chances of capture, which I am afraid would have been known before now. The Knox family and Colonel Barry give it up as a lost case. I write illegibly, for my eyes are dim, and every letter appears double.Can it be that the Almighty made my Hariy so good, so perfect, and protected him through so many perils, to take him away so early? I cannot believe it, till compelled by time and circumstances. I will still hope, till hope itself shall turn to despair. Pray look among my papers for all his precious letters, and put them carefully together. Happy is the farmer whose son learns to plough his land, and remains with him till his dying day !” [Secret Memoirs Of The Courts Of Europe Letters Written At The End Of The Eighteenth Century Vol Ii by Henry Swinburne pages 264 to 274 retrieved through archive.org]
Lines on the loss of the Babet by the Poet Laureate
Jemmet Mainwaring’s second cousin Henry James Pye (1745 – 1813) was appointed Poet Laureate in 1790, and held the post for 23 years. (Justly or otherwise Henry Pye is widely regarded as England’s worst Poet Laureate). Among his work is a poem on the loss of HMS Babet and the deaths of Mainwaring and Knox. The poem was reproduced in The Naval Chronicle.
Captain Jemmett Mainwaring’s will was probated in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 1 July 1801. [PROB 11/1360/15] He left the bulk of his estate to Anne Mainwaring, daughter of his cousin William Mainwaring.