On December 29, the British frigate, HMS Java, commanded by Capt. Henry Lambert, was en route to India when she met the USS Constitution, commanded by Commodore William Bainbridge, off the coast of Brazil. Although the Java was smaller and heavily laden with supplies and personnel for the Indian station, she was faster than the Constitution. Both sides were eager to do battle.
The battle opened at long range shortly after 2:00 P.M. The Java was on
Constitution's larboard quarter and the wind nearly on the beam as the 2 ships sailed to the southeast. The British shooting was quite good, and bainbridge was wounded in his thigh early in the battle. When he saw the Java moving ahead of him and threatening to turn across his bow, he fired a broadside and wore round to the southwest, placing the Java once more astern, this time to starboard. Again, the Java came charging up and ahead, and again bainbridge wore-back to the southeast. Yet a third time, the Java began closing from the larboard quarter but instead, on drawing abeam, suddenly wore to starboard and delivered raking fire at the Constitution's stern. Bainbridge was hit a second time, and the Constitution's wheel was shot away. Since the Constitution failed to maneuver, Lambert assumed she was running and turned to pursue up her windward side.
Supported by a pair of midshipmen, Bainbridge arranged a temporary steering rig and prepared to close on the Java as she came abeam. As she did, a lucky shot from the Constitution tore away her jibbon and caused her to turn up into the wind, out of control. Seeing this, Bainbridge wore the injured Constitution around and got in a rake of Java's larboard quarter before reversing his swing and resuming his original course. Lambert brought the Java under control and attempted to grapple the Constitution amidships and board her. The plan misfired, however, as the Java struck the Constitution farther aft and had her foremast shot away before falling astern.
The balance was now in bainbridge's favor. He wore his ship across Java's bow, raking her, and continued on around to cross her stern and do it again before reversing coarse for another stern rake. Then, he took up a position off Java's starboard quarter from which he could pound her with impunity. When he had beaten her virtually mastless, he drew off ahead and spent some time making emergency rigging repairs. Shortly after 5:00 P.M., he was about to rake her again from ahead when Java surrendered, Lambert mortally wounded.
When the British Admiralty learned of the defeat, it ordered that henceforth American frigates should be fought only by 2 or more Britons of similar force. bainbridge earned himself a congressional gold medal and became another U.S. naval hero.