A little while ago someone asked me what kind of ship a frigate was. When you’re as immersed in naval culture and terminology as you become when writing a novel on the subject, it’s easy to lose track of terms that many people might not be familiar with. These aren’t necessarily things you need to know to follow and enjoy a novel of the sea, but layers of meaning undoubtedly start to appear with greater understanding of the context.
A typical frigate of the late 18th-early 19th century
The frigate has a long and illustrious relationship with sea fiction, for a number of reasons. Part of the significance of the frigate in my first novel is that she started life as a frigate, but due to the arcane manner in which navies classify their vessels, was re-rated as something else.
In technical terms, a frigate from the age of sail is a warship with a single main gun deck, and more than 20 guns. So far so unhelpful. To anyone who has ever picked up one of the many novels about naval fighting ships in the age of sail, the frigate is far more than its technical description. It’s the ship every young captain wants to command, that every officer and seaman wants to serve on. It’s the ship with a public profile is far in excess of its power. It’s the ship that Nelson said he’d be finished if he couldn’t get more of.
In the sailing navies, ships were defined by their physical characteristics and the jobs they were expected to do. A frigate was not just a single gundeck, it was a freelancing, prize-taking, symbol of romance, dash and superiority. Frigates were used as scouts by the main battle fleets, but their other main role was to cruise the seas, usually on their own, harrying the enemy’s merchant shipping, and preventing enemy frigates from attacking friendly merchant shipping. For Britain, this was crucial. As an island nation without much land-based military might, protection of its own trade was essential while attacking the enemy’s trade was one of the main weapons at its disposal.
The Lutine – a French frigate captured by the British. French designs were particularly well-respected in the Napoleonic wars and many designs were copied
Frigate captains like Broke, Pellew and Cochrane became celebrities through their success in tackling enemy frigates, and rich through their skill at taking prizes. The press and the folks back home could not get enough of tales of one ship against another or more or less equal strength. Wars tended to be won or lost by battle fleets – sometimes in battle, more often by blockading enemy ports and preventing shipping from coming and going. The former could be complex and indecisive, while the latter was generally dull for everyone concerned and did not make for good newspaper stories. Frigates, on the other hand, were the essence of excitement, and their battles were as easy to understand as a match of gladiators.
This was well understood by the fledgeling navy of the United States at the end of the 18th century. A country with little naval heritage could not hope to compete with the established powers in the size and power of its fleet, but could hurt enemy trade or pick off the odd individual warship, with all the attendant PR value. As a result, the US built a small number of ‘super frigates’, which were bigger and more heavily armed than the typical RN vessel. Early in the War of 1812, these big frigates scored some well-publicised victories over British frigates which were flaunted at the time as a triumph of equal rivals. They sent shockwaves through British society and were a great morale boost to the US. Even though America was beaten in the naval war by the slow grind of blockade, it still celebrates those individual victories, and the most successful of the big frigates, Constitution, is preserved in much the same way as HMS Victory is preserved in Britain.
HMS Daedalus – built in 1826 but based on a French prize from the 1780s, proving the basic soundness of the design
Frigates have a long and happy relationship with literature for all these reasons. Hornblower served his naval apprenticeship with the famous frigate HMS Indefatigable and its real life Captain Sir Edward Pellew, while Jack Aubrey of the ‘Master and Commander’ novels was inextricably bound with the 28-gun frigate HMS Surprise. Most series of fighting sail novels feature frigates quite heavily – Bolitho, Drinkwater, Kydd etc all give their heroes significant spells aboard frigates.
There’s another good reason for the relationship between literature and the frigate – that other great staple of sea fiction, mutiny. As frigates tend to be ‘lone wolves’ there is more scope for their captains and officers to practice barbaric behaviour towards the men, and more scope for the men to react against it. In a fleet, bad behaviour on either side would be more likely to be picked up and nipped in the bud.
I hope this helps explain a bit of the background.