Following the battle off Negapatam, Hughes had spent two weeks at see before putting into Madras for repairs. There he was joined by Sceptre and San Carlos. Notified by one his scouts that the French were anchored outside Trincomalee, Hughes lifted anchor and made haste to come to the garrison's aid, but arrived one day too late.
Suffren, now safe within the harbor, held council with his captains. Some of them, led by his second-in-command, had persistently opposed offensive actions against the British, and vigorously renewed their objections to the need for combat. Suffren, after confirming that his fleet outnumbered that of Hughes, argued in favor of action, as the destruction of the British fleet would greatly simplify land operations in pursuit of objectives of the French and their Mysorean allies. He accordingly gave orders to sail out and meet the British fleet.
When they exited the harbor Suffren gave the signal to form the battle line. This command, even after being repeated several times, was poorly executed by his recalcitrant subordinates, and only a ragged line was arranged. Frustrated by this insubordination, Suffren then gave orders to hold fire until close quarters, and tried to communicate this by firing a gun from his flagship, Héros. This shot was misinterpreted by his captains as an order to open fire, and the whole line opened fire on the British fleet, beginning the action.
The heaviest action was at the center of the lines, where Suffren and Hughes again faced off against each other. Héros was assisted by Illustre and Ajax, while Hughes, leading from Superb, was assisted by Burford, Sultan, Eagle, Hero, and Monarca. This lopsided conflict went on for about one hour before Suffren signaled for assistance. St. Michel and Annibal, commanded by insubordinate captains, stayed away, while Brillant eventually neared the action and gave some assistance. Thirty minutes later Ajax was forced to withdraw with heavy damage, and was replaced by ...