Photographs by the author.]
Memorial to Captain George Nicholas Hardinge. John Bacon the Younger (1777-1859). Location: St Thomas Cathedral, Bombay (Mumbai). [Click on images for larger pictures.]
The most impressive memorial in St Thomas Cathedral Bombay (Mumbai) is to Captain George Nicholas Hardinge who died in a small but epic naval struggle against the French frigate Piedmontaise. A far less arresting memorial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in London seems curiously out-of-place alongside the tombs of Nelson and Wellington. Thereby hangs a tale.
Executed by John Bacon in marble the Bombay monument commemorates the battle off Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) in 1808. The monument, as Barbara Groseclose points out, which takes “pride of place along the west wall of Bombay’s St Thomas Cathedral,” has
four sections that compete for the viewer’s eye, and the whole monument rises to a height of more than twelve feet. The relief combines the realistic – Hardinge in his uniform – and the allegorical – he rides in a conch shell pulled by two sea horses and accompanied by an acolyte of Neptune. A delicate allegorical figure envelops Hardinge in the embrace of Death while handing him a thunderbolt... The Bombay relief overflows with tiny and flexed muscles, scalloped contours, fastidiously traced profiles. There is nothing so frothy in all of Bacon’s prodigious Indian work. [58-59]
Hardinge was given command of the San Fiorenzo in 1807. It was a remarkable ship which began life in 1782 as a French frigate, the Minerve, before being captured by the British in 1794. It frequently saw action in the English Channel before being assigned to the Indian Ocean from 1804. Hardinge, the son of a clergyman, was sent to Eton but left early to join the Royal Navy. Although he impressed some of the eminent Admirals of his day and enjoyed a degree of patronage, Hardinge was unlucky in being assigned to elderly or damaged ships. He was probably less than impressed to be given command of the old “fifth rate” frigate San Fiorenzo in Bombay.
William James describes the action as follows:
On the 4th of March , at half past eleven in the forenoon, the British 36-gun frigate San Fiorenzo, (Captain George Nicholas Hardinge) sailed from Pointe de Galle, Ceylon, on her return to Bombay. On the 6th, at seven in the morning, the San-Fiorenzo, passed, off Cape Comorin, the three British East-India Company's ships, Charlton, Metcalfe, and Devonshire, from Bombay bound to Colombo, and shortly afterwards discovered on her starboard beam, in the north-east, the French 40-gun frigate Piedmontaise. (Captain Jacques Epron) advancing to intercept the Indiamen.”
Over the next 3 days the two ships fought a running action. It was a brutal affair with broadsides being fired from close quarters and both ships suffering considerable damage to their hulls, masts, and rigging. On the third day Hardinge himself was killed by grape-shot from a broadside after which command devolved to his deputy Lieutenant William Dawson. According to James, “the total British loss, on the three days, [was] thirteen killed and twenty-five wounded. The loss on the part of the Piedmontaise, who, besides her regular crew of 366 Frenchmen, had 200 Lascars to work the sails, amounted to forty-eight officers, seamen, marines, and Lascars killed, and 112 wounded”.
The Bombay Courier of the 23rd April recorded from Colombo “We yesterday witnessed, but with mixed feelings of regret and pride, the animating and gratifying spectacle of La Piedmontaise entering the harbour, under the charge of the San Fiorenzo. “She came in under jury masts, and was towed in by the boats of the men-of-war from the mouth of the harbour to her mooring ground. The flags of all the vessels in the harbour were hoisted half-mast high, and minute guns corresponding to the age of the excellent, brave, and lamented. Captain Hardinge, were fired from the flag-ship, the Powerful.”
A local Merchant in Colombo later wrote to a naval friend “I yesterday visited the two ships, and was really confounded at their shattered condition. The San Fiorenzo was damaged most in her hull, and I counted on her larboard side alone eleven great shot-holes, between wind and water, which they were busily patching up with sheet lead. The Piedmontaise had every mast shot away ten feet above the deck, and all three of them cut at near the same height. But it was dreadful to see the effect of the grape shot on both ships-the whole of their sides, from stem to stern, stuck thick over with them; in contemplating them, one is amazed how any one exposed to so destructive a fire could have remained alive”.
It is perhaps understandable that Bombay would wish to recognise Hardinge’s heroic action and death. The French had made life difficult for the East India Company over the previous 20 years and this rare victory doubtless deserved recognition. Furthermore the action had a slight resonance with Trafalgar fought just over 2 years before by Admiral Horatio Nelson; the main similarity being the Commander dying on the cusp of victory. But that is where comparisons begin and end. Trafalgar was a fleet action involving 60 ships of the line (far larger than frigates) and saw the deaths of nearly 5000 men. By comparison Hardinge’s battle was a mere skirmish.
Hardinge’s uncle saw an opportunity for the family to benefit from his nephew’s fame. He submitted a bid to the King George III to augment the family’s armorial bearings. His account of the battle was somewhat embellished and led to a certain amount of irritation from naval experts. One complained that “Aware of the latitude allowed to a ‘Biographical Memoir’ in the ‘Naval Chronicle,’ we should not feel disposed to find fault with it .....but our duty compels us to reprobate the introduction of so gross a falsehood into a solemn memorial presented to the king in council.”
In the House of Commons on 18th Mary 1809 Mr. Ward moved, "that an humble address be presented to his Majesty, praying that he would be pleased to order a monument to be erected to the memory of the late Capt. G. N. Hardinge, in St. Paul's Cathedral, in commemoration of his gallant services, and glorious fall." This motion experienced some opposition from Mr. Windham, and one or two others, on the ground that the honours of the House ought to be conferred only in cases of great and important result, however exalted might be the merit of the party; but it was at length agreed to”.
George Hardinge by Charles Manning, Sculptor, Engraved by Willm. Sharp and Pubd. March 25, 1813, by Sarah Manning.
Barbara Groseclose is less than complimentary about the memorial in St Pauls. “The commission for Hardinge’s memorial went to a lesser presence in the art community, Charles Manning. Manning centred his monument on a sarcophagus, turned to the short side and left almost plain. Seated on the inscription ledge to the left is a well muscled Hindu, chin in hand and legs crossed, who lets the standard cradled in his right arm fall back across the sarcophagus. Fame disconsolately hugs the inscription from the right, her outstretched hand limply holding a victor’s wreath.”
Another person who clearly felt aggrieved at the distribution of honours was young Lieutenant Dawson. An entry in the Naval Chronicle reads “Rio de Janeiro. 1st May, 1808. I beg to state that you do not appear to have inserted in your Naval Chronicle the promotion of Lieutenant William Dawson,...for his very gallant conduct in March, 1808. .. It is the same William Dawson who was dangerously wounded in the breast with a boarding pike in the act of boarding la Psyche, in the action between that frigate and the San Fiorenzo, at that time commanded by Captain Henry Lambert, when she was taken in February, 1805”.
Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900 Vol 24.
Groseclose, Barbara. British Sculpture and the Company Raj. Church Monuments and Public Statuary in Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay to 1858. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1995.
James, William. The Naval History of Great Britain 1793-1820. Vol IV. London: Bladwin, Cradock and Joy, 1824. Pp. 272-78.
The Bombay Courier (April 23, 1808),
The Naval Chronicle for 1809. Vol. 21 (January to June). London: Joyce Gold, 1809.
Last modified 37 February 2017