The Indefatigable (44) was one of the best loved and most successful ships of the age of sail. During the two decades of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, she was involved in the capture or destruction of an unprecedented 27 enemy warships and privateers, with a collective broadside of 628 cannon. This figure does not include all the many merchantmen and smaller craft that were also captured by the frigate, and that were too numerous to count. As a ship, she will forever be associated with her most famous commander, the brilliant Sir Edward Pellew.
Yet when she was launched in 1784, she looked like an embarrassing mistake. Built as a small 64 gunned, two-decked ship of the line, she was almost the last of the Ardent class that Sir Thomas Slade had designed forty years earlier to supply the Royal Navy of the Seven Year’s War. The War of American Independence was a time of crisis for Britain, as country after country lined up against her. The Royal Navy found itself fighting almost every maritime power in Europe simultaneously, and in danger of losing command of the Channel. In a panic, ships were built to bridge the gap, with small 64s that could be turned out quickly taking priority. But that war ended before the Indefatigable was completed. By the time of the next war ships like the Indefatigable, were virtually redundant. They were now though too small to take a place among her fellow ships of the line in a fleet action, and yet were too slow to carry out the patrol work of a frigate. The Indefatigable was in danger of being scraped, without ever having fired a shot in anger.
But then in 1794 came a reprieve. Along with two of her sister ships, it was decided to remove her upper gun deck, a process called razéed. In a substantial refit that cost almost a third of her original price, she was rebuilt as a heavy frigate with a single gun deck. The work was a success, producing a ship that was reasonably fast, perfectly weatherly, and yet still carried the 24 pounder cannon and thick sides of a small ship of the line. The nearest equivalents to her were Joshua Humphreys’s designed US frigates being built in America at the time for the US Navy. Re-commissioned as a 44 gun frigate, and given to Sir Edward Pellew, she was an instant success. In her first few years, she was involved in numerous victories against French, Dutch and Spanish ships, including the defeat of the French heavy frigate Virginie (44).
But the Indefatigable’s most famous battle was to come in January 1797 when still under the command of Pellew. In company with the smaller frigate Amazon they encountered the French 74 gun Droits de l’Homme in stormy weather off the treacherous coast of Brittany. An epic running battle followed that lasted throughout the night, with the two frigates remorselessly harassing their huge opponent. The battle ended the following day with both the Droits de l’Homme and the Amazon driven ashore, and only the Indefatigable surviving.
In 1804 the Indefatigable was involved in the most controversial incident of her career. The Spanish Government was at peace, but about to join Napoleon’s war with Britain on the French side. Spain decided to delay her declaration of war until the annual treasure fleet of bullion from South America had arrived home. News of this plan was discovered by the British, and the Indefatigable, now under the command of Commodore Graham Moore, was sent along with three other frigates to intercept the Spanish bullion. The two forces met in the Atlantic near Cadiz. Even though the countries were still technically at peace, Moore delivered London’s demand that the Spanish ships accompany him to Britain. The Spanish commander refused, and the British then attacked. The Spanish suffered several hundred casualties, and the loss of one frigate which was destroyed in an explosion. The rest of the Spanish ships were captured.
When the Napoleonic war finally ended in 1815, the Indefatigable was paid off after her long and productive career. The following year she was decommissioned and broken up at Sheerness. This might have been the end for this wonderful frigate, had her story not proved irresistible to writers of naval fiction. CS Forester chose her as the ship that Horatio Hornblower would spend most of his time in as a midshipman, as well as having her return for a cameo in Hornblower and the Hotspur. Patrick O’Brian has her sailing in company with his twin heroes Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in The Post Captain. Alexander Kent refers to her in his work, and she features in my third novel, On the Lee Shore. In this way, she sails on, still fighting her battles, over the printed page and across the screen.