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The action of 31 March 1800 was a naval engagement of the French Revolutionary Wars fought between a Royal Navy squadron and a French Navy ship of the line off Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. By March 1800 Valletta, the Maltese capital, had been under siege for eighteen months and food supplies were severely depleted, a problem exacerbated by the interception and defeat of a French replenishment convoy in mid-February. In an effort to simultaneously obtain help from France and reduce the number of personnel maintained in the city, the naval commander on the island, Contre-amiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, ordered his subordinate Contre-amiral Denis Decrès to put to sea with the large ship of the line Guillaume Tell, which had arrived in the port shortly before the siege began in September 1798. Over 900 men were carried aboard the ship, which was to sail for Toulon under cover of darkness on 30 March.
The British had maintained a blockade off Malta since the beginning of the siege, ostensibly led by Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson, who by March 1800 was defying a direct order from his superior officer Lord Keith by remaining in Palermo with his lover Emma, Lady Hamilton. In his absence the blockade was under the command of Captain Manley Dixon of HMS Lion and Nelson's flag captain Sir Edward Berry, who were notified of Decrés' departure by the patrolling frigate HMS Penelope and gave chase. The large ship of the line was initially only attacked by Penelope, which manoeuvered around Guillaume Tell's stern, causing severe damage and delaying the French ship sufficiently for Berry to bring his squadron into action. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Decrés continued to fight for more than three hours, fighting off two British ships but ultimately unable to resist the combined weight of Berry's attacks. Casualties and damage were severe on both sides, and the defiance of the French ship was celebrated in both countries as a brave defence against overwhelming odds.
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The Capture of the ‘Guillaume Tell’ | Thomas Luny | 1835
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