Diamond Rock

It’s such fun, writing this blog: You throw out a story like a seed in the wind – and back comes a saga.

This is Diamond Rock. It looks uncannily like Rockall, except that Diamond Rock is a lot bigger – 175 metres. Also, it’s much more important: While Rockall only manages to extend UK waters out into the wastes of the Atlantic, Diamond Rock brought down an empire.

Here’s the story, courtesy of Chris Doyle’s Sailor’s Guide to the Windward Island, a little bit of Wikipedia – and my sister Carol (she of the stepped-on face in the 1960’s Folkboat).

In 1804 the British navy jealously guarded its control of the Caribbean and made a point of harassing shipping calling at the French island of Martinique. Indeed, when they could spare the odd frigate, they would blockade the capital, Fort de France.

The trouble was  that ships were scarce, and the navy was busy. Then a Lieutenant William Donnett, a bright young officer in the mould of Horatio Hornblower, decided that since Diamond Rock was more or less in the best position for a British ship blockading the harbour, why not put some guns on the rock and dispense with the ship?

The fact that the rock was precipitously steep, totally barren and infested with the poisonous couresse grass snake did nothing to put off the tenacious young officer. Soon “HMS Diamond Rock” had a two 18 pounders on the summit and two 24 pounders sited in caves halfway up – together with a complement of 120 men and two lieutenants.

Water and supplies came from the main island, where the local population were happy to do anything to upset their French masters, and for 18 months, the “stone frigate” was a highly unpleasant surprise for unsuspecting shipping.

And all of this would be an interesting side-note to the naval history of the Caribbean were it not for the fact that Martinique just happened to be the birthplace of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. It turns out she was born on a 200-acre, 150-slave estate on the other side of the bay from the capital. Consequently, the Emperor was more than usually incensed by the British impertinence and ordered Admiral Villeneuve to go and take back the rock – and destroy Nelson while he was about it.

Napoleon had it in for Villeneuve because the French navy never seemed to do as well as the French army (nothing to do with Bonaparte’s total lack of understanding of maritime matters, of course). Anyway, he ordered the admiral to report in disgrace.

Villeneuve’s forces managed to re-take the island – after an intense 70-hour battle which ended only when the British ran out of water and ammunition. But that still left the admiral with the problem of what to do about Nelson. He knew his fleet was ill-prepared for a full-scale engagement but, preferring death to dishonour; he met Nelson at Trafalgar.

The irony is that Villeneuve survived while Nelson died.

And although Napoleon’s empire collapsed about him, Martinique and Diamond Rock remained French to this day. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than this – I’d better admit to that now – before squadrons of naval historians embark on a campaign of correction.

But they may not know about the cheeky assault on French sovereignty 150 years later. This is where my sister Carol comes in.

She tells me that her husband John Guthrie, sailing to the island with a friend in the 1960s, scaled the rock and left a union flag flying impudently from the summit.

It was a while before the French authorities noticed – apparently, they were not best pleased with having to mount an expedition to remove it.

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