As I’m sure will be the case for many people, the first time I really paid any attention to the name Le Généreux was last year when I saw an article in the local paper announcing that the ensign of this old French warship would be on display as part of Nelson & Norfolk.
At the time, I was in the process of applying for a museums traineeship with Norfolk Museums Service. Seeing this vast textile – measuring 16 metres across and 8.3 metres high – laid out in St Andrew’s Hall made me all the more determined to get through the application process and have a chance to work with this piece of history.
Fast forward to today, and I am helping put together the exhibition which will showcase the flag along with a vast selection of other objects connected with Nelson and Norfolk.
Early on in my traineeship, I decided that I wanted to find out more about the ship from which the ensign was taken. What I found out certainly didn’t disappoint!
Le Généreux was launched at Rochefort in 1785. Carrying 74 guns and measuring just over 55 metres in length, she was a formidable presence and would have earned her place in any French line of battle.
Le Généreux was actually captured by the British twice during her career. She was first captured in August 1793, when a British fleet under Admiral Lord Hood occupied the port of Toulon – where Le Généreux was berthed – in support of a Royalist uprising in the area. The British were driven out of Toulon again that December, and Le Généreux returned to French hands without ever having left port. The British had intended to destroy or seize the French fleet during their retreat but were unable to complete this task in the face of French republican reinforcements, leaving Le Généreux to fight another day.
We know that our ensign would not have been in use during the Siege of Toulon, because modern tricolour was not officially introduced until 15th February 1794. Prior to this, French ships flew a white ensign with a smaller tricolour (ordered red, white and blue) in the upper left corner. Even beyond this date there was some overlap between designs. At the Glorious First of June which took place in June 1794, the French flagship flew the modern blue, white, and red tricolour whilst the rest of the French ships flew the older design.
Le Généreux was present at the Battle of the Nile on 1-2 August 1798, and along with the Guilliame Tell was able to escape from Aboukir Bay before any of Nelson’s ships had the opportunity to capture her.
Following Nelson’s victory at the Nile, he dispatched his flag captain Sir Edward Berry to bring the news of the victory back to Britain. Berry travelled in the 50-gun frigate Leander, which encountered Le Généreux once more on 18th August 1798. The smaller Leander was beaten despite stout resistance, and Berry was captured along with the Leander’s crew. Berry and his compatriots were treated poorly by their captors, with personal possessions being seized and the Leander’s surgeon was left without tools to treat the injured crew.
The next time Berry encountered Le Généreux, it was on vastly different terms. Back at Nelson’s side as the flag captain of HMS Foudroyant, Berry was part of the squadron which forced the surrender of the French ship on 18th February 1800. Berry sent the seized ship’s ensign to Norwich as a gift, where it was proudly displayed above the west window of St Andrew’s Hall for much of the 19th century.
Following the French ship’s surrender, a young officer called Thomas Cochrane was entrusted with getting the captured vessel to a Port Mahón in Minorca. Cochrane went on to become a hugely successful naval officer and also a controversial character. He was the inspiration for the character of ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey in the ‘Aubrey-Maturin’ series of naval historical fiction books by Patrick O’Brian. In the first book Master & Commander, the officer in charge of the Mahón naval yard says to Aubrey ‘I know very well you are not one of these spendthrift, fling-it-down-the-kennel young commanders, not after the care you took bringing in the Généreux’.
In 2003, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World – an adaptation of the 10th book
in the series – was released in cinemas and starred Russell Crowe in the role of Jack Aubrey.
The newly-christened HMS Genereux made the journey to Britain via Gibraltar and arrived back in July 1802. The ship spent some time in Portsmouth before being sent to Plymouth to be mothballed due to her ‘… great draft of water’. She was converted into a prison hulk in around 1805. Whilst serving as a prison ship, Genereux was moored near to the Temeraire – second in Nelson’s line at the Battle of Trafalgar, the San Nicholas – captured by Nelson himself at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 – and the Vanguard – Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of the Nile from which the French ship had escaped 7 years before. The once-mighty Genereux was finally broken up for scrap at Plymouth in 1816.