Nelson’s Four Frigates, Story

Nelson’s Four Frigates, the Story, the painting.

Nelson's frigates
Nelson’s four frigates

53 x 91.5 cm (21″ x 36″) Offers from £ 12,000. 

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Here lives an intriguing, timeless story.

Nelson’s Four frigates, two Spanish, two French and a moonlit engagement 19 December 1797, “Nelson’s Four Frigates,” with Nelson in command?

What made Horatio Nelson the most famous admiral in history?

My ‘Nelson and Trafalgar’ series, “at last I have a real painting in my house” T. M., Wiltshire, all these paintings are eminently suitable for public International exhibition.

Many distinguished people and renowned companies have chosen Frickers paintings as you can discover by reading my illustrated résumée.

After this incident Nelson gave us a demonstration of his leadership and why he still generates so much admiration and love.

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Nelson’s Frigates Painting

Four frigates, two Spanish, two French and a moonlit engagement with Nelson in command?

What made Horatio Nelson the most famous admiral in history?

Nelson’s Frigates, this new painting will soon be a worthy addition to my ‘Nelson and Trafalgar’ series.

Nelson's Frigates, a detail
Nelson’s four frigates, a detail

There is no better example of the qualities that made Nelson’s reputation than his cruise in the frigate ‘Minerve’ which within days of sailing from Gibraltar included this desperate action.

And yet, surprisingly, very few of the hundreds of books on this subject mention this action during Nelson’s voyage with the frigate ‘Minerve’.

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Story time

December 1796

Nelson’s four frigates, each is detail twice life size

Admiral John Jervis received orders to evacuate the Mediterranean island of Elba.

Jervis gave the duty of evacuating the island to the 38 year old Nelson “I have left entirely to the judgement of Commodore Nelson and it cannot be in better hands”

Mr. Knight in his book ** gives us more details of the ‘diplomatic problems’ involved in making the evacuation of the people, supplies and ships a success**

Nelson wrote to his wife though “most important it is not a fighting mission, therefore be not uneasy”.

The assurance was doubtless well meant and honestly intended.

Given Nelson’s career to that date and that he would be sailing into what had become very much enemy territory hence the need for the evacuation, it may not have been implicitly accepted.

Nelson then at Gibraltar

Nelson transferred from his command, H. M. Ship Captain (74 guns) to take command as Commodore of two frigates, Minerve, Captain George Cockburn (destined to become Admiral of the Fleet Sir George Cockburn, 10th Baronet, GCB, PC, FRS) and Blanche Captain D’Arcy Preston (He became a rear-admiral in 1819 and died in 1847 as an admiral of the white) as portrayed by my painting “Nelson and Minerve” 46 x 91 cm (18″ x 36″). 

Hyperlink >Nelson at Gibraltar

Two Nelson ships for the price of one, HMS Captain and HMS Minerve!

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Both frigates were formerly French built.

Minerve was considered a large frigate, the fastest and most powerful British prize in the Mediterranean and Cockburn an ambitious and talented young captain resulting in a ‘crack ship’.

Jervis had a talent for spotting rising stars among his young officers and the wisdom to encourage and develop their potential.

Nelson left his admiral on the evening of December 14th (Knight writes 15th) bound for Porto Ferrajo, Elba.

It didn’t take long for “not a fighting mission” to turn into a fighting mission.

On the 19th of December * off Cape de Grata close to Cartagena at about 23.00 (11.00 p. m.) the two frigates closed with two large Spanish Frigates.

The enemies pairing off

a double action ensued.

The voyage to Elba was chronicled by Jacob Nagle, a seaman serving on Blanche.

The first action was the stopping a Spanish coaster but Nelson let her go only ‘confiscating’ a small part of her cargo. (R. Knight page 208).

At this point books give somewhat varied accounts of the action.

I have based my painting primarily upon the account by Captain A. T. Mahan as while taking intro account the personalities involved and the demands of seamanship, this seems to me the most factual version.

Sabina (40 guns)and Minerve paired off

Captain George Cockburn states, he hailed the stranger demanding her surrender stating “this is an English frigate”.

The Spanish Captain counter hailed Minerve with “this is a Spanish frigate, you may begin when you wish”.

keeping in mind this was a night action no flags were flown.

Sabina’s captain was Don Jacobo Stuart, a Roman Catholic descendant the Duke of Berwick of the British royal house of Stuart and son of James II.

Certainly Sabina gave a good account of herself although she was out manoeuvred by Cockrane’s skilful ship handling.

He successfully placed Minerve on the Sabina’s starboard fore quarter and occasionally wore ship to prevent the Sabina getting to leeward which she tried to effect.

Thus Cockburn’s manoeuvring made accurate gunnery more difficult for the hapless Spaniards.

The Minerve then took full advantage of her faster rate of fire by out shooting Sabina, “a perfect Hell” the Spaniards later said.

The Spaniards fought bravely not surrendering to Minerve until half-past one in the morning by which time her mizzen mast had been shot down at 23.30 (11.30 p.m.) and both frigates had seriously damaged rigging.

Minerve had 7 men killed and 34 wounded.

Opinions vary regarding the Spanish casualties, Nelson claimed 164 dead.

The Spanish Admiralty admitted 14 killed and 40 + wounded.

The Blanche was similarly successful.

Minerve put a prize crew onboard Sabina lead by her first Lieutenant John Culverhouse and seconded by Lieutenant Thomas Hardy.

Nelson's Frigates
Nelson’s four frigates, a detail, Blanche verses Ceres

They removed some of her officers to Minerve which then took Sabina in tow.

At half past three another Spanish frigate came up, was fought for 30 minutes then retired

At first light that frigate was seen to have been joined by a fourth frigate and a pair 74 gun ships of the line.

According to Jacob Nagle, Blanche who had not been idle, raking her opponent the Ceres, and firing so fast the disconcerted Spaniards mostly fired over rather than into the Blanche.

D’Arcy Preston reported “the enemy made a trifling resistance, 8 or 9 broadsides completely silenced her”.

A third Spanish frigate appeared.

Blanche saw her first and was by her prevented from taking possession of her antagonist which ‘struck’, that is, had surrendered.

The phrase used in olden times to describe a ship surrendered was “lowered her topsails”.

By Nelson’s time the phrase was still in occasional use though more usually ships were usually said to have “lowered their colours” even if the colours had been shot away or in a night action, not hoisted.

This latter phrase in common usage leads some people of today to the misconception that ships fighting at night usually flew their colours which in fact they very rarely did.

To meet this new enemy of fairly equal terms Minerve and Blanche cast off their well earned trophies, the prizes and an action began at four thirty which lasted a half hour.

At that time the Spaniard hauled off.

With daylight two Spanish ships of the line appeared and by some accounts another one or two Spanish frigates, all chasing towards the sound of the guns.

Minerve and Blanche

their rigging and deck furniture much damaged found themselves in a perilous situation.

Much to the disappointment of the British crews, the prizes had to be abandoned and to the delight of the Spaniards, were recaptured but not before Sabina’s remaining tottery masts had gone over her side.

Minerve, hotly pursued, ran South with her men hard at work repairing damaged rigging.

Meanwhile Blanche found herself entangled in a Spanish convoy but managed to extract herself and escape.

The pursuit lasted all the day with the Minerve the Spaniards principal objective and hard pressed in consequence of the multiple injuries she had sustained during the Sabina engagement.

Later Nelson wrote “we very narrowly escaped visiting a Spanish prison” (p 145 Nelson’s Ships)

Minerve got two long 18 pounder cannon out of the gun room ports, two out of the cabin windows and two more firing from the quarter deck.

The surprisingly heavy fire sufficiently discouraged the leading Spaniards as to buy time for Minerve to make good her repairs and after what must have been a long day for her people, at dusk, escape to reach Porto Ferrajo on December 27th (according to Mr. Knight’s book, 3 days ahead of Blanche).

Nelson and Minerve later took as a prize the privateer, Monica.

She was fresh out of Marseilles.

The frigate reached Porto Ferrajo, Elba

on December the 26th where she had to have her seriously damaged main and mizzen lower masts replaced.

According to Captain Mahan, Blanche had already safely anchored.

It was now the Nelson began to display the qualities of leadership that have become legendary.

Nelson to Cockburn

Nelson gave full credit and later generously presented George Cockburn with a gold hilted sword.

A more individual, unusual and significant gesture was made to the people of Blanche.

Nagle who would have been an eye witness wrote “Nelson came on board and ordered the Captain to beat to quarters, and as we were in a line before our guns, he came round the decks and shook hands with us as he went along and telling us he was rejoiced to find that we had escaped”.

Nelson was taking the time to nurture this crew knowing they were still recovering from the horror of a bad captain.

Nelson’s relationship with the crew was for his time, remarkable and in sharp contrast to the majority of officers who very rarely fraternise with the ‘lower deck’ sailors.

Nelson’s origins. 

Nelson sailed for a time in the merchant navy, voyages that did much to mould his character and attitudes.

This together with his experiences voyaging to the Arctic Circle with H. M. ships Carcass and Racehorse were beginning to pay off.

There was to be a further and more surprising ‘incident’ on board Blanche, were again Nelson demonstrated his remarkable talent for leadership when on the 7th of January 1797, Blanche’s crew, to the last man, mutinied.

That’s another story perhaps for another time, perhaps for you to discover.

Nelson found at Porto Ferrajo although the prizes had been abandoned, he received a very warm and flattering welcome.

Britain’s affairs were at a low ebb, the action was considered very creditable particularly having been fought so close to the enemy coast.

It was also appreciated that the escape from a fresh and very superior force had been handsomely made, requiring steadiness and skill.

Though on a small scale the action was considered a fair fight so represented a considerable contrast with the general depression then weighing on the British cause.

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Author’s notes

when in British service the Minerve was not referred to as La Minerve, the latter being a common error in many books on this subject, an error Captain Mahan’s excellent ‘The Life of Nelson’ published in 1897, does not make.

Blanche had been with Nelson since March 1796 ** however following a change of captains, the crew where sailing under a temporary captain, D’Arcy Preston.

Unsettling for her crew, her previous Captain Charles Sawyer was to be court martialled for homosexual practices.

Nelson told Jervis “the Captain is certainly not fit, in his present state of mind, to command that ship. I spoke to him fully, but he never once said “I am an innocent man”.

The case shocked Jervis who had promoted Charles Sawyer to post captain.

A Blanche seaman, Jacob Nagle wrote of Captain Charles Sawyer, “having a fondness for young men and boys”.

The court martial found that Sawyer had several times been found in bed with his coxswain.

Two midshipmen and a seaman were also involved.

The homosexuality became impossible to ignore when the coxswain publicly denounced his captain.

Then the affair went beyond the ship as a result of a quarrel between the first lieutenant and the captain during the scramble to evacuate Corsica.

Sawyer was dismissed from the service by the court martial on the 10 October1796.

Minerve, frigate, 5th rate, 38 guns

designed by M. Sané, launched Toulon 1794.

1,101 tons, lower deck length 154 feet.

Minerve could deliver a broadside of 324 lbs.

Captured by Dodo (28) Captain G. H. Towry & Lowestoffe, Captain R. G. Middleton, 24 June 1795.

Minerve (or Minerva) this name is taken after the goddess, Jupiter’s most astute councillor.

Minerva represents we are told by the ancients, wisdom, war and the liberal arts.

In all official British documents of the time I’ve see the ship’s name is always given as ‘Minerve’, never as ‘La Minerve’ as so often appears in books.

Minerve replaced an earlier 1782 Minerve, also by Coulomb, which was captured in 1794.

She was however cap­tured in the Mediterranean in her turn in 1795*.

The draught I have used for my painting dates from 1798 and appears to have been taken off before any British modifications were made.

The midship bend has a roundness which is characteristic of J.-M.-B. Coulomb’s style and which re-emerged much later with the 30-pdr frigates.

The stern is not of the usual horseshoe shape leading to the question as to whether or not it is original.

We know from British records Minerve’s captains often complained about the strength of her stern which at times could not wait for dockyard attention, requiring the immediate best efforts of the ship’s own carpenters.


near Cherbourg 1803, retaken by the French.

The name Minerve (or Minerva) has a remarkable history and not just for the French Navy.

No less than ten French vessels of that name (and one Minerva) were captured by the Royal Navy.

In opposition, two English and one Portuguese Minerva were captured by the French.

The frigate which is the subject of this painting actually had the distinction of accounting for three of these fourteen captures.

She having been taken into the Royal Navy as H.M.S. Minerve in 1795 was recaptured by the French in 1803.

Her name was then changed twice (La Canonniere in 1803, La Confiance in 1809), but this made no difference for she was captured yet again by the Royal Navy in 1810.

Many distinguished people and renowned companies have chosen Frickers paintings as you can discover by reading my illustrated résumée.

Sources include

* ‘The life of Nelson, the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain’ by Captain A. T. Mahan DDL, LLD, USN. Published by Sampson Low, Marston & Company limited, London 1897, second edition University Press, J. Wilson & Son, Cambridge, USA, 1899 ( My copy is 2nd edition).

** ‘The Pursuit of Victory’, the Life and achievements of Horatio Nelson by Mr. R. Knight, published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2005, ISBN 0 713 99619 6.

*** A Portrait of Lord Nelson by Mr. O. Warner, published by Chatto & Windus, London, 1958. Pages 102 / 5.

**** The Life of Nelson by Mr. R. Southey, poet Laureate in 1813, published by 1813, page 91. My copy is the 1830 revised edition reproduced by the Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication Data , notes by R. D. Madison, editor J. Sweetman.

***** Horatio Nelson by T. Pocock, published by Pimlico, London, 1987, page 128.

****** The Heavy Frigate volume 1 1778 to 1800 by R. Gardner published Conway Maritime Press 1994, illustrated with draughts from the National Maritime Museum collections.

******* History of the French Frigate 1650 to 1850 by J. Boudriot translated by D. H. Roberts, published by Jean Boudriot Publications of Rotherfield, E. Sussex ISBN 0 948864 15 X

******** The Masting and Rigging of English Ships of War 1625 to 1860 by J. Lees, published by Conway Maritime Press 1979, ISBN 0 85177 290 0.

********* The Anatomy of Nelson’s Ships by C. Nepean Longridge published by Model and Allied Publications Ltd 1955, Hemel Hempstead, Herts,

********** The voyage was chronicled by Jacob Neale to Elba which included stopping a Spanish coaster but let her go. (R. Knight page 208). Nelson’s Ships by P. Goodwin Mpil, Ieng, MIMarEST published by Conway Maritime Press 2002, ISBN 0 85177742 2

*********** Nelson’s Navy by B. Lavery published by Conway Maratime Press 1989, ISBN 0 85177 521 7

************ Uniforms of Trafalgar by J. Fabb & J. Cassin-Scott published by B. T. Batsford Ltd, London 1977, ISBN 07134 0219 9

************* The Dress of the British Sailor complied by Admiral Sir Gerald Dickens KCVO, CB, CMG, published by H . M. Stationary Office 1957, on behalf of the trustees of the National Maritime Museum, ISBN 0 11.881400.

My own experiences, skills and talents as included anyone’s painting, photograph or film is at best an impression, an interpretation.

As is everything we each experience during our individual voyages from cradle to grave.

While I’m all for imagination and a fantasy, I do detest deceit, lies and misinformation ‘sold’ as truth, including in small matters.

One of the reasons I have been draw to the sea is that I like seamen’s perspective of life. With few exceptions I find seamen a direct and honest breed.

After all, you cant ‘argue’ with the sea. it is a beautiful, enchanting but at times a hard mistress.

If you think you have cheated the sea then you don’t know how lucky you are.

Historical inaccuracy, propaganda and outright lies, there is so much in circulation, I make a very considerable effort to present you with art work which at the least gives you a feeling of intimacy and is as near truth as meticulous research can get.

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