HMS Modeste (1793)

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Engraving by Nicolas Ozanne showing the capture of Modeste in the harbour of Genoa
Career (France) Ensign of the French Navy during the Revolution
Name: Modeste
Builder: Toulon
Laid down: February 1785
Launched: 18 March 1786
Completed: January 1787
Captured: By the Royal Navy on 17 October 1793
Career (UK) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HMS Modeste
Acquired: 17 October 1793
Fate: Broken up in June 1814
General characteristics
Class and type: 36-gun fifth rate frigate
Tons burthen: 940 35/94 bm
Length: 143 ft 8 in (43.8 m) (overall)
118 ft 3 in (36.0 m) (keel)
Beam: 38 ft 8 in (11.8 m)
Depth of hold: 12 ft 1.5 in (3.70 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Full rigged ship
Complement: 270
  • Upper deck: 26 x 18pdrs
  • Quarter deck: 14 32pdr carronades
  • Forecastle: 2 x 9pdrs + 2 x 32pdr carronades

HMS Modeste was a 36-gun fifth rate frigate of the Royal Navy. She had previously been a ship of the French Navy under the name Modeste. Launched in France in 1786, she served during the first actions of the French Revolutionary Wars until being captured while in harbour at Genoa, in circumstances disputed by the French and British, and which created a diplomatic incident. Taken into British service she spent the rest of the French Revolutionary and most of the Napoleonic Wars under the white ensign. She served with distinction in the East Indies, capturing several privateers and enemy vessels, including the French corvette Iéna. She also saw service in a variety of roles, as a troopship, a receiving ship, and a floating battery, until finally being broken up in 1814, as the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close.

French service and capture

Modeste was a Magicienne-class frigate built at Toulon between February 1785 and January 1787, having been launched there on 18 March 1786.[1] In September 1793 she entered the neutral port of Genoa, where according to British reports, her captain was seized by the French Republican agent in the port, as he suspected the frigate as having come from the Royalist-held Toulon on some secret mission.[2] The British had been dissatisfied with the actions of the neutral Genoa, in allowing the Modeste and two French tartanes to 'insult' and 'molest' the frigate HMS Aigle while she was also in Genoa.[3] Furthermore the French were alleged to have seized a ship travelling under an assurance of safe passage from Lord Hood. The British envoy in Genoa, Francis Drake, was instructed to seek reparations from the Genoese, and to put a stop to the shipment of grain to the French republicans.[3]

Drake was unsuccessful, so Hood sent Rear-Admiral John Gell to Genoa with orders to capture Modeste, the two tartanes and any other French ships. Drake was to secure assurances from the Genoese that they would comply with Hood's wishes, or failing that, Gell was to blockade the port.[3] Gell was also to travel to Leghorn and capture the French frigate Impérieuse, and instruct the British envoy to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Lord Hervey, to demand the expulsion of the French Jacobins.[3] To back up these demands Gell had a squadron consisting of HMS St George, the 74-gun ships HMS Bedford, HMS Captain and the French Scipion, and the smaller vessels HMS Mermaid, HMS Tartar, HMS Alert, HMS Speedy, HMS Eclair, HMS Conflagration and HMS Vulcan.[3]

The squadron entered Genoa on 17 October and Bedford ranged alongside Modeste. Accounts then differ as to what happened next. A later French version described that the British ship had moored alongside, and her master had civilly requested the French ship remove a boat that was hampering the British manoeuvres. The French readily agreed, but half an hour later the British captain asked the French to hoist the white flag, saying that he did not know what the tricolour was. Offended, the French refused, whereupon the British suddenly attacked the unprepared French, and captured the frigate.[4] One British account states that Bedford came alongside and after warning the French not to resist, captured her after a short struggle, while another stated that while the fort was saluting the arrival of Rear-Admiral Gell, the French on Modeste came up on deck and behaved with such insolent gestures and language that the British attacked them.[5] The British reported that two Frenchmen had been killed during the fighting on the tartanes, while French sources alternately reported five dead, thirty wounded, or between 30 and 40 killed.[5] The attack outraged the Genoese, who were being threatened both by Drake and by representatives of the French republic, and created a diplomatic incident.[5] They finally bowed to French pressure, and ordered the expulsion of all foreigners with the exception of the French. All diplomatic ties were broken and in response Gell's squadron began to blockade Genoa, capturing neutral merchants bound for the city.[5]

British career

Modeste was taken into service with the Royal Navy, retaining her original name, and was commissioned in November 1793 under Captain Thomas Byam Martin.[1] After some service in the Mediterranean Martin sailed her back to Britain, arriving in Portsmouth on 4 December 1794.[1] Modeste was then laid up, until being converted to a receiving ship in 1798, and was then fitted out between August and October 1799 to sail to the Thames.[1] On arriving at Deptford in November she was fitted out as a troopship, a process that lasted until June 1800. She was commissioned in June that year under Commander Martin Hinton as a 24-gun troopship. She spent some time in the Mediterranean under Hinton in 1801, but was back in Britain soon afterwards, being fitted out at Woolwich between September and October 1803 for service with Trinity House.[1] She was then used as a floating battery in 1804.[6]

Modeste then underwent a middling repair at Woolwich between April and November 1806 and was recommissioned in October that year under Captain George Elliot.[1] Elliot departed Britain on 15 February 1807, bound for China and the East Indies.[1] On 8 October 1808 he chased down and captured the 18-gun French corvette Iéna while in the Bay of Bengal. Iéna, under the command of Captain Maurice, was bound for the Persian Gulf with despatches, and had captured several ships. When taken by Modeste she was carrying 25,000 dollars she had taken from a vessel named Swallow, and had also captured an Arab vessel named Frederick, which Elliot retook.[7] Iéna had mistaken Modeste for another merchant vessel and had tried to close on her. On discovering her mistake she had tried to escape, but had been caught after a nine hour chase and exchange of fire that left four or five Frenchmen dead or wounded, and one man killed and one wounded on Modeste.[7]

On 15 July 1809 boats from Modeste and HMS Barracouta cut out the 8-gun Tuijneelar in the Sunda Straits.[1] Elliot then took part in the operations to capture Java between August and September 1811, during the Anglo-Dutch Java War.[8][1] Elliot left Modeste in 1812, and was succeeded by Captain James Crawford, who on 6 February 1813 captured the 14-gun privateer Furet off Sicily.[1] Modeste was finally placed in Ordinary at Woolwich in 1813 and after spending a year in this state, was broken up at Deptford in June 1814.[1][6]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Winfield. British Warships of the Age of Sail. p. 191. 
  2. Debrett. A Collection of State Papers. p. 353. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Rose. Lord Hood and the Defence of Toulon. p. 47. 
  4. Jomini. Life of Napoleon. pp. 84–5. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Rose. Lord Hood and the Defence of Toulon. p. 48. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Colledge. Ships of the Royal Navy. p. 230. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Campbell. The Asiatic Annual Register. p. 88. 
  8. "Elliot, Sir George (1784–1863)" (subscription required for online access). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/8657.