Indefatigable v Virginie – 20 April 1796
On the morning of 20 April, having detached the Révolutionnaire 38, Captain Francis Cole, and her prize of eight days, the Unité 36, into Falmouth, the frigates Indefatigable 44, Commodore Sir Edward Pellew, Amazon 36, Captain Robert Carthew Reynolds, and Concorde 36, Captain Anthony Hunt, were laying too off the Lizard when a large frigate came in sight.
A private recognition signal was hoisted which the stranger failed to answer, and instead, she spun on her heel and fled towards France on a south-easterly wind. Pellew immediately ordered the Amazon and Concorde to join him in a chase, but the commodore’s Indefatigable soon left her consorts floundering in her wake. The unknown frigate was not to be so easily out-ran however, and it was only after a chase of fifteen hours and one hundred and sixty miles under a bright moon, together with the wind that prevented the stranger from making for Ushant and a lost topgallant yard which retarded her flight, that Pellew was able to rein in his quarry.
The unknown frigate would prove to be the French Virginie 44, Captain Jacques Bergeret, which had sailed from Brest the day before on a cruise. Launched in the summer of 1794, she had a nominal armament of twenty-eight French 18-pounder cannons on her upper gun deck and twelve 8-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, in addition to four 36-pounder carronades on her quarterdeck, amounting to an equivalent English broadside weight of metal that has been calculated at three hundred and forty-two pounds. She boasted a crew of three hundred and thirty-nine men, and her commander, 24-year-old Captain Bergeret, had at least thirteen years of service at sea, both in the merchant marine and in the navy. A thorough-going seaman, he had deservedly enjoyed a rapid advancement through the ranks of the French service, and he was regarded as one of its finest officers; indeed, Pellew would later describe him as ‘a complete master of his profession’.
Her pursuer, the much larger Indefatigable, had been launched as a 64-gun vessel in 1784 but had not seen any service prior to being re-fitted as a 38-gun frigate in 1794. She boasted an armament of twenty-six 24-pounder cannons on her gun deck, in addition to two 12-pounder cannons and eighteen 42-pounder carronades, equating to a broadside weight of metal totalling seven hundred and two pounds, or almost twice that of her imminent opponent. She carried a crew of three hundred and thirty men, and her commander, 39-year-old Sir Edward Pellew, enjoyed a reputation as the Navy’s star captain, with a long list of exploits behind him and many more to come.
Shortly after midnight, Pellew was at last able to bring his smaller enemy to action; however, the Virginie’s opening broadside, later described by Captain Bergeret as ‘immense’, demonstrated that the Frenchman was as impressive a fighter as he was a seaman. The two ships continued to batter one another whilst racing across the seas under a heavy sail, but although the French vessel acquitted herself well, the Indefatigable’s superior firepower gradually began to assert itself. Within an hour and forty-five minutes the Virginie had lost her mizzen and main topmasts, she had four feet of water in her hold, and with the crew beginning to abandon their guns, there was little that Bergeret could do to maintain his resistance. Yet in return, the Indefatigable had lost her own gaff and mizzen-topmast as well as the use of her main topsail, and being unable to back her mizzen topsail, she overreached her gallant opponent. In this exposed position she was liable to a raking broadside by the Virginie and so the commodore decided to stand off and effect repairs.
Any notions that the Frenchman may have harboured of survival dissolved as the Concorde now surged into the fight, and once Captain Hunt got astern of the Virginie, he unleashed such a fire that Captain Bergeret had no option but to surrender, which was signalled by the striking of her light.
Her brave resistance had cost the Virginie casualties of fifteen men killed and twenty-seven wounded, whereas the Indefatigable was fortunate to come away with an entirely clean bill of health. Three days later Pellew’s command was back at Falmouth, from where the commodore wrote to the Admiralty advising their lordships of the capture. Having already sent the Concorde with the Virginie to Plymouth, the Indefatigable then followed to undertake her own repairs.
The Virginie was bought into the British service as the Virginie 38, with her first commander being the Concorde’s Captain Hunt. In 1797 she went out to the East Indies where she captured a number of French privateers, and after returning home during the brief Peace of Amiens, she enjoyed a more modest career in home waters, the highlight being her capture of the Dutch frigate Gelderland 32 in 1808. Paid off in 1810, she saw no further service, and her eventual demise could not have been more demeaning, for after being sold off to a ‘Mr Freake’ in 1826, the transaction was cancelled when the purchaser was declared to be insane, and she was instead broken up a year later.
Her erstwhile commander, Captain Bergeret, was initially hosted at Plymouth by Pellew, with whom he would enjoy a lifelong friendship, and in the days following his arrival the Frenchman was often seen escorting the British commodore’s wife around town. Within weeks it was reported that the French authorities had been approached with a request to exchange him for Captain Sir William Sidney Smith of the Diamond 38, who had been taken prisoner in the River Seine the day before the Virginie’s own capture, and Bergeret actually returned to France on parole in the expectation that the exchange would be effected; however, when the French government blocked Smith’s release, Bergeret laudably returned to England aboard the French packet Displai, reaching Cawsand Bay, Plymouth on 13 July and thereafter being imprisoned at Stapleton in Bristol. In January 1798 he received the Admiralty’s permission to go to France on six week’s parole in another attempt to exchange with Smith, but once more he was unsuccessful, and in April he returned to England. His honourable conduct did not go unnoticed however, and when Smith escaped France in early May, the first lord of the Admiralty, Henry Dundas, sent Bergeret home.