On October 1, 1807, a lone British packet was sailing 110 miles off the Northeast Coast of Barbados. The crew of 28, both men and boys, were nearing the end of their journey. They were sailing for Barbados and the Leeward Islands with a hold full of mail and dispatches.
Packet Ships like the Windsor Castle were vital for the Royal Navy. They transferred personnel, news, and orders around the world as quickly as the wind and weather would allow. To do so, they had to be fast, lightly armed, and maneuverable; but that also made them a target for privateers.
Early that morning the crew were finishing their breakfast and beginning their daily tasks of sweeping the decks, repairing sails and spars, and maintaining their ship. Suddenly they heard the most dreaded call of any packet sailor: “Sail Ahoy!”
The acting Captain, William Rogers, looked to the horizon and saw the faint outline of two masts and sails approaching from behind. It could mean one of three things: a friend, a neutral, or an enemy. The unidentified ship was racing towards them sails billowing as it gained speed.
Captain Rogers ordered lead shot be put in the mail bags. If there was a risk of capture, the mail, and all official correspondence, must be destroyed to keep it from an enemy. For almost four hours the two ships sailed as fast as they could hoping to gain any possible speed advantage. Despite their efforts, the ship was closing in on them and Rogers knew they would have a fight on their hands.
The ship bearing down on them was a schooner, with two masts and sails running fore and aft. She was clearly very fast, maneuverable, and did not appear friendly. Rogers ordered his crew to prepare for action and to repel boarders.
Shortly after noon, in a burst of color and canvas, the French Tricolor flag was raised on the schooner. It was their worst fears. A French privateer; their only hope was to fight.
The French ship opened fire, and cannon balls thundered towards the British packet. Rogers responded with two chase guns on the Windsor Castle. Neither ship hit their mark, but the French knew the packet ship was not surrendering.
Rogers knew his ship was more valuable intact than at the bottom of the ocean. A privateer’s goal was to capture an enemy vessel and sell it. They preferred to scare a foe into submission or board and take it by force. While the battle picked up, Rogers considered his options.
As the French ship fired, she continued to close the gap, until she pulled alongside the British packet. Grappling irons flew through the air and hooked onto the Windsor Castle’s rigging and rails. The French pulled the two ships closer and prepared to jump across the ever shortening gap.