"Were I to die at this moment, want of frigates would be found stamped on my heart."
So said Admiral Lord Nelson in 1798 when he mistakenly believed himself mortally wounded at the Battle of the Nile. The speedy, dashing frigate was a vital part of Britain's seafaring supremacy, and the 'Leda' class - of which Trincomalee was one of 47 - was one of the most successful types.
The Lure of the Frigate
The general type of vessel made famous to many by Patrick O'Brien's Master and Commander series, frigates were light, fast and agile warships that generally concentrated their firepower on one deck. In terms of both firepower and armour they were no match for a ship of the line, but were more than able to outturn and outrun one. Frigates were essentially predators, stretching out from the grand fleets of the day to seek and destroy hostile merchantmen, pirates, slavers, and other naval vessels of similar size - in most of these cases, the sight of a frigate bearing down on their vessel instilled a sense of real terror in the crew on board, and if they unwisely chose to not surrender, defeat was highly likely.
Frigates were the eyes of the fleet, expanding far into the oceans to carry dispatches and orders to and from the sluggish squadrons, and locating and harassing enemy vessels until the bulk of the fleet could catch up and engage in battle proper. With British colonies all over the world,it was a safe bet a frigate would be somewhere near to offer comforting protection. There can be little wonder as to why many midshipmen aimed to command these vessels, with such a dashing and adventurous role in the public eye.
While frigates were a British concept, the first purpose-built one appearing in 1748, it was France that saw their immediate value and made the most significant advances in design. When Britain and her great arch-rival went to war again in 1793 the Admiralty, suddenly made acutely aware of their lack of ships of this type, chose to copy the Hebe, a French frigate captured in 1782. This was a relatively common practice for the Royal Navy, many of whose ships would be backward-engineered from captured examples.
The Leda Class, 1794
Approved in 1794, between 1800 and 1830 47 frigates were built from the pattern set by Hebe, known as the Leda-class from the first vessel of the type as was traditional. The name was taken from Greek mythology, as was common at the time, from that of a woman seduced by Zeus while he was masquerading as a swan. Many artists of the time depicted this somewhat risque and popular scene, and so the name no doubt seemed appropriate for the dash and allure of these fast and sleek hunters of the sea.
As the oak forests of England were straining under the demands of the war against Napoleon and centuries of shipbuilding might (an average man of war like HMS Victory could consume over 2000 mature trees), some examples were ordered to be built in India, in the British colony of Bombay, which had easy access to the vast forests of Malabar Teak to be found inland. Trincomalee was one such example, the twelfth Leda-class ship to be launched. As originally intended, the Leda-class would carry 28 18-pounder guns, ten 9-pounders,and 8 carronades (mortar-like cannons with a shorter range but higher accuracy) - however, as Trincomalee would exemplify, this was not always the way they would turn out!
Leda Class General Specifications
Given the imprecise construction methods employed on Leda-class ships,not to mention the RN's rostering system, their exact dimensions and complements, while similar, fluctuated to a degree. On average, each ship was as follows:
Type - Fifth Rate Frigate
Length - lower deck 150 ft; keel 125 ft
Breadth - 40 ft
Weight - 1053 tons
Crew - 284
Vessels of type included (in no particular order) -
Leda, Trincomalee*, Unicorn*, Pomone, Diamond, Shannon, Leonidas, Surprise, Briton, Penelope, Minerva, Lacedemonian, Tenedos, Lively, Thetis, Arethusa, Proserpine, Hamadryad, Blanche, Fisguard, Venus, Aeolus, Melampus, Amazon, Latona, Nercus, Diana, Thisbe, Hebe, Cerberus, Circe, Clyde, Thames, Fox, Daedalus, Mermaid, Mercury, Thalia
* surviving examples