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HMS Alceste (1806)

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For other ships with the same name, see HMS Alceste and French ship Minerve.
La Pomone contre les fregates Alceste et Active.jpg
French frigate Pomone engaging with Alceste and Active on 29 November 1811
Painting by Pierre Julien Gilbert
French Navy EnsignFrance
Name: Minerve
Namesake: Minerva
Builder: Rochefort
Laid down: May 1804
Launched: 9 September 1805
Completed: November 1805
Captured: By the British on 25 September 1806
Royal Navy EnsignUnited Kingdom
Name: HMS Alceste
Acquired: Captured on 25 September 1806
Reclassified: Troopship in 1814
  • Wrecked on 18 February 1817,
  • wreck then burned on 22 February
General characteristics
Class and type: 38 gun Armide-class frigate; re-rated as 46 guns in 1817
Tons burthen: 1,097 bm
  • 152 ft 5 in (46.46 m) (overall)
  • 128 ft 8 in (39.22 m) (keel)
Beam: 40 ft (12.2 m)
Draught: 12 ft 8 in (3.86 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Full rigged ship
Complement: 284 (later 315)

UD: 28 × 18-pounder guns QD: 14 × 32-pounder carronades

Fc: 2 × 9-pounder guns and 2 × 32-pounder carronades

HMS Alceste was built at Rochefort in 1804 for the French Navy as the Minerve, an Armide-class frigate. As part of a French squadron, anchored in the roads of the Île-d'Aix, in the spring of 1806, she engaged HMS Pallas, then under Lord Cochrane. During the duel, the ships became entangled and ran aground but Cochrane, having spotted French reinforcements arriving, managed to free his ship and take off.

Captured by the British in an action on 25 September 1806, Minerve was brought into Royal Navy service as HMS Alceste in March 1807. Continuing to serve throughout the Napoleonic Wars, on 29 November 1811 she led a British squadron that captured a French military convoy bound for Trieste, and in doing so, may have changed the course of the war. In 1814 she was converted to a troopship and used to transport British soldiers to North America during the War of 1812.

Following the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, Alceste was chosen to carry Lord Amherst on his 1816 diplomatic mission to China. On the return journey, she foundered on a reef in the Java Sea where, after the evacuation of her passengers and crew, she was plundered and burned by Malayan pirates.

Construction and armament[edit]

Alceste was built to a design by Pierre Rolland for the French Navy as the Minerve, an Armide-Class frigate. Built at Rochefort with construction starting in May 1804, she was launched in September 1805 and finished in November.[1] Measuring 152 feet 5 inches (46.46 m) along her gundeck with a 40 feet (12 m) beam and a depth in the hold of 12 feet 8 inches (3.86 m); she had a capacity of just over 1,097 tons BM. When first fitted out, Minerve carried twenty-eight 18 pounders (8.2 kg) as her main battery and fourteen 32 pounders (15 kg) carronades on her quarter-deck, while her forecastle had two 9 pounders (4.1 kg) long guns and two 32 pounders (15 kg) carronades.[1]

French service[edit]

Minerve was commanded by Capitaine Jaques Collet in April 1806, in a squadron under Contre-Amiral Zacharie Allemand which comprised five ships-of-the-line, five frigates and four smaller vessels, and was anchored under the shore batteries of the Île-d'Aix[2][3] Sent by Sir Edward Thornbrough to count the enemy ships in the roadstead behind the island, Pallas under the command of Thomas Cochrane arrived on 25 April. Minerve and three corvettes, Lynx, Sylphe and Palinure, were ordered to meet the British frigate[2] and as they approached, Pallas discharged her guns leading to a small engagement in which no ship incurred much damage. Collet then spotted the frigate Iris, the 16-gun Hazard and a cutter, and decided to seek shelter beneath the island's guns. The British then left.[4]

Pallas returned on 12 May with Indefatigable and a 16-gun ship-sloop, Kingfisher. The unfavourable winds, plus the two large frigates and three brigs, Allemande had despatched, caused the British to withdraw.[5] Two days later, Pallas was once more sighted and Allemande again ordered Minerve, Lynx, Sylphe and Palinure to chase Cochrane off.[3] Collett ordered all sail in the hope of catching Pallas before she could escape, but Cochrane was in no hurry to leave and even attempted to draw Minerve on by backing his topsails. Once in range, Pallas fired into the enemy, bringing down the main topsail yard of one of the smaller vessels, before making off among the shoals with Minerve in pursuit.[3] By 13:00, Minerve had come up on the leeward side of Pallas, whereupon Pallas fired into her and closed with the intention of boarding. Just at that moment, Minerve hit a sandbank and Pallas crashed into her with such force that her guns were jolted from their positions.[3] Pallas then unleashed a devastating broadside.[6] Both ships were damaged in the collision but because Pallas drew less water than Minerve, her crew were able to free her and take off, having spotted two forty-gun French frigates, Armide and Infatigable, approaching. Kingfisher, disobeyed her orders to keep offshore, and sailed in to take Pallas in tow, which had lost her jib-boom, spritsail and stunsail yards, main topsail yard and fore topmast. [7] The damage to Minerve was relatively minor, she was later re-floated and taken to Rochefort for repair. The engagement on 14 May cost the lives of seven seamen aboard Minerve, with a further fourteen injured. The casualties aboard Pallas were light; one dead and five wounded.[8]


With the large frigates; Armide, Gloire, Infatigable, Thémis, and the brig-corvettes Lynx and Sylphe; Minerve formed a squadron under Eléon-Jean-Nicolas Soleil, which left Rochefort on 24 September 1806, bound for the West Indies. At 01:00 the following morning they were spotted near the Chasseron lighthouse, by a powerful British squadron under Samuel Hood comprising the five 74-gun ships; Centaur, Achille, Monarch, Revenge and Mars, the 98-gun Windsor Castle, and the 16-gun brig, Atalante. Mistaking the large frigates for ships-of-the-line, Hood ordered his scattered ships to form line-of-battle but before they could comply, the error was realised and the signal for general chase was given.[9]

Having seen Hood's squadron, the French made all sail to the south-south-west but after three hours, Monarch had come within range of Armide, the closest French frigate. The next nearest British ship, however was Centaur, over eight miles further back and seeing an opportunity, four of the French ships decided to run for it. Infatigable, set off north but was pursued and later caught by Mars; Thémis and the two brigs headed south and eventually escaped.[10] The remaining French frigates closed-up for mutual protection. At 10:00, Minerve and Armide were engaged by Monarch which, being prevented by the weather from opening her lower gun ports, was badly mauled. An hour later, Centaur caught up and began firing at Armide and Gloire, leaving Monarch to continue her fight with Minerve. Armide struck to Centaur at 11:45 and Minerve surrendered to Monarch shortly after.[10][11] Gloire, veered west in an attempt to throw her pursuers but Centaur and Mars chased her down and forced her to strike at 15:00.[10]

British service[edit]

Pencil portrait of Murry Maxwell in uniform
Captain Murray Maxwell. Alceste's first and last commanding officer

The captured Minerve arrived at Plymouth on 26 October 1806, and after languishing there for some months, was taken into service as HMS Alceste. Commissioned in March 1807 under Captain Murray Maxwell and refitted between April and August, she was sent to the Mediterranean in December.[1] Following the French invasion of Portugal in November 1807, a British expedition to capture the island of Madeira was proposed. Admiral Samuel Hood's squadron comprising ships-of-the-line, Centaur, York, Captain and Intrepid; and the frigates, Alceste, Africaine, Shannon and Success, escorted troopships into Funchal bay on 24 December. The island was peacefully occupied two days later.[12]

In the Action of 4 April 1808 Alceste, in company with Mercury and Grasshopper attacked a Spanish convoy off Rota. While at anchor about three miles to the north-west of the San Sebastián lighthouse, the British ships noticed the large convoy, escorted by 20 gun-boats and sailing close to the land so as to additionally benefit from the protection of mobile artillery following on the shore. Coming under heavy fire, the three ships closed with the convoy at around 16:00. Grasshopper, requiring less water than the frigates, was able to stand in close to the town and bombard the batteries there while Alceste and Mercury concentrated their fire on the gun-boats, destroying two of the escorts and driving many of the merchants ashore. Seven were subsequently captured and sailed back out to sea by marines and sailors of the British ships.[13][14]

On 22 May 1810, Alceste encountered some French feluccas, lightly-armed merchant vessels with lateen rigs, that were forced to seek refuge under the guns of the bay of Agay. Under cover of darkness, two boats from Alceste, one under Lieutenant Andrew Wilson, the other led by the ship's master, Henry Bell, were sent in to attack the shore batteries. This was only partially successful; Wilson was unable to achieve his objective, while Bell's section managed to spike the guns of the second battery but only after taking heavy fire.[15] Alceste stood out to sea for three days, and on the night of 25 May, Maxwell sent two armed boats to lay in wait in a rocky cove. The following morning Alceste set sail. The French, assuming Alceste had gone, attempted to leave, but the two British boats lying in ambush attacked. Despite fierce resistance and fire from the guns on shore, four ships of the French convoy were captured and two driven on to the rocks. The remainder made it safely back to their anchorage.[15][16]

Boats of Alceste and Topaze captured two vessels in the bay of Martino, Corsica on 21 June 1810.[Note 1] Protecting the entrance to the bay was a three gun battery which was captured by a landing party and put out of action. Several of the garrison were wounded or killed during the attack. British casualties amounted to one killed and two wounded.[17]

In 1811, Alceste entered the Adriatic and on 4–5 May, she and Belle Poule participated in a raid at Parenza (Istria). Having chased a brig into the harbour, but unable to follow due to the rocks and lack of water, the two frigates stood outside and opened fire on her and the battery protecting her. After an hour, the brig was forced to move nearer the shore, out of range.[18] At 23:00 the British landed 200 seamen and all their marines on an island nearby and brought on to it two 9-pounders and two howitzers, which they placed in one battery, and a field piece that they placed further away. From there, they were able to engage the French in Parenza in a five hour mutual bombardment. The brig was eventually destroyed and the men and cannons returned to their ships. Belle Poule had one man killed and three wounded, and Alceste had two men killed during the action. All casualties occurred ashore.[19][20]

At the Action of 29 November 1811, Alceste led the British frigate squadron that outran and defeated a French military convoy carrying a cargo of cannon. The day before, Alceste had been stationed at the island of Lissa (now Vis), with the frigates Unité and Active, when word was received of a similar sized French squadron heading north.[21] The British frigates could not immediately set sail however, because Maxwell feared an attack from a strong French force nearby. As a defence therefore, two batteries were placed on an island in the harbour’s entrance and garrisoned with the ships’ marines, and three previously captured gun-boats were manned with around 30 seamen from the Alceste and Active. These precautions not only weakened but delayed Maxwell's squadron which put to sea at 19:00, twelve hours later.[22]

The British eventually caught up with the French ships at 10:00 the following morning, identifying them as the two large frigates Pomone and Pauline and the smaller Persanne. The first shots were fired at 12:30 by Persanne, off the coast of Pelagosa (Palagruža), and an hour later, Alceste and Pomone exchanged shots from their bow and stern guns respectively. Alceste began to overhaul Pomone at 13:40 and fired a broadside into her while simultaneously spreading more sail in the hope of catching Pauline, a little further ahead. This plan was thwarted though when a shot from Pomone brought down Alceste's main topmast, slowing her suddenly.[23] When Active arrived at 14:00 and also started firing into Pomone however, Pauline was obliged to come about in order to protect her now out-gunned colleague. Just after 15:00 the British sloop, Kingfisher appeared on the horizon and Pauline, now in danger of capture herself, disengaged and sailed off. Pomone struck shortly after.[23] Unité which had set off in pursuit of Persanne, forced her surrender at 16:00 after a single exchange of broadsides.[24]

The captured frigates contained more than 200 cannon, which were being transported to Trieste, a city in north-east Italy on the border of the Balkan States.[21] It has been suggested by British historian James Henderson that this action was a factor in Napoleon's decision to change the direction of his planned eastward expansion in 1812 from the Balkans to Russia.[21]

In late 1812, Alceste was decommissioned and placed in ordinary at Deptford. Between February and July 1814 she was converted at Deptford into a troopship; in this role, she was recommissioned in May 1814 under Commander Faniel Lawrence, and sailed with troops to North America. Alceste left Pensacola on 8 December 1814, in tandem with the 50 other vessels in Admiral Alexander Cochrane's convoy.[25]

Diplomatic mission to China[edit]

After the the Treaty of Paris, the British government sought stronger ties with China. William Amherst was the diplomat chosen to inform the emperor of the peace in Europe and to offer Britain's friendship, and he in turn specifically requested Maxwell and the frigate Alceste to accompany him.[21] Maxwell, who had been without a ship since HMS Daedalus was wrecked three years previous, commissioned Alceste at the beginning of 1816.[26] The journey out was uneventful; Alceste left Spithead for China on 9 February with Amherst aboard, and after stopping at Madeira, Rio de Janeiro, the Cape of Good Hope, Anyer and Batavia, sailed through the Bangka Strait into the South China Sea. After calling to pay respects at Canton, Alceste passed the Straits of Formosa and hove-to in the Bohai Sea on 28 July. There she met the 10-gun brig-sloop, Lyra, despatched earlier to herald the arrival of Britain's ambassador.[26]

Exploration of Korea and Ryukyu Islands[edit]

1818 chart showing "The tracks and discoveries of His Majesty's ships Alceste and Lyra in the Southern and Yellow Seas", published in "Narrative of a Voyage, in His Majesty's late ship Alceste, to the Yellow Sea, along the coast of Corea"

Having arranged to travel back overland from Peking and rendezvous with Alceste at Canton, Amherst was ferried to the mouth of the Hai River on 9 August. The mission and return journey would take several weeks, thus Maxwell was provided with an opportunity to explore the area. Alceste headed north while Lyra, under the command of Lieutenant Basil Hall, was sent south. The General Hewitt, an Indiaman chartered to carry gifts for the Emperor of China, was to explore the centre channel.[27] Alceste first undertook a survey of the Gulf of Liaodong, at that time virtually unknown to Europeans and after spending some time exploring the Liaodong Peninsula, proceeded southward to Jiaozhou Bay on the coast of Shandong, where she encountered the General Hewitt, and was later joined by Hall in the Lyra.[28] Alceste and Lyra left the bay on 29 August for the west coast of Korea, an area that had not been surveyed since the Jesuit missionaries visited in the 16th and 17th centuries. Finding the coast to be some 130 miles further east than expected, Maxwell also discovered the archipelago that forms the south-western tip of the Korean peninsula.[29] Maxwell then turned his attention the Loo Choo Islands, now known as the Ryukyu archipelago, dropping anchor in the Napakiang roads on the south-west side of Okinawa on 16 September 1816. After a six-week stay, Alceste returned to China, via the southern end of the island of Taiwan, arriving at the mouth of the Pearl River on 2 November.[30]

Return to Whampoa[edit]

Alceste sails up the river Tigris, engaging shore batteries on either side. In the foreground, Chinese war-junks wait
Alceste attacking the Chinese defences in Bocca Tigris

Alceste required some repairs after a long journey in inclement weather so Maxwell petitioned the viceroy of Canton for permission to travel up the Tigris to a secure anchorage, unaware that Amherst's mission had been unsuccessful.[31] The emperor's attitude towards the British envoy had been off-hand, showing little interest in Europe and its affairs, and refusing to accept a gift from King George which he had thought insufficient.[32] Having received an insulting message in response to his request, Maxwell decided to enter the river regardless but was soon hailed by a local mandarin who threatened to have the batteries guarding the entrance sink Alceste if she went any further.[31] Still in need of repairs and requiring navigation to Whampoa to collect Amherst, Maxwell told the mandarin that he would proceed in any event. Alceste quickly dealt with the shore defences and 17 or so war-junks sent to stop her, and continued up the river to Whampoa. There she anchored and awaited the arrival of Lord Amherst and his suite.[33] Having completed as much of his mission as possible, Amherst boarded Alceste which left Whampoa on 21 January 1817.[32]


With the many uncharted shoals and reefs, and frequent storms, the South China Seas remain some of the most dangerous waters in the world.[34][35] Despite the continual use of a sounding lead, on 18 February 1817, Alceste grounded on one of the many hidden reefs in the Java Sea.[Note 2] Maxwell ordered the anchor dropped to prevent the ship from slipping into deeper water, an undesirable situation if the hull had been breached, which indeed turned out to be the case. The pumps were unable to cope with the influx of water and the ship's carpenter, Cheffy, reported that Alceste was beyond repair.[34]

Painting of British sailors and Royal Marines behind the ramparts of Fort Maxwell
The encampment Fort Maxwell on Pulau Liat Island - nearby the shipwreck of the Alceste

Three miles away was an island, known today as Pulau Liat, and Maxwell ordered the first lieutenant, Henry Parkyns Hoppner, to take Lord Amherst and his party off in two of the boats. The island's thick vegetation prevented an assessment of whether it was inhabited or not and forced the crews to row a further three miles before finding a suitable landing spot between the mangroves. The rest of the ship's company were evacuated in the remaining boats and a large raft.[36] Because of the lack of provisions, in particular drinking water, it was decided that Hoppner would continue with Amherst and his embassy to Java, 200 miles to the south. Once there, a rescue could be initiated. A return journey to Java could not be accomplished in less than nine days so further supplies would be required for the 200 remaining.[37]

An unarmed expedition to Alceste to see what could be salvaged was forced back by the arrival of Malay Dyak pirates who plundered the wreck.[38] Maxwell ordered the construction of a stockade and the improvisation of additional weapons to counter the threat of an attack.[39] The digging of a well solved the problem of water. On 22 February, an armed party was sent out to reclaim the ship but the pirates set light to Alceste and made off. The wreck was completely destroyed by the fire which lasted throughout the night but the following morning, Maxwell sent out a boat which managed to retrieve some barrels of flour, cases of wine and a cask of ale.[40] At dawn on 26 February two proas and two canoes entered the cove but the second lieutenant, Hay, led a sortie in which one of the proas was boarded, four pirates were killed and two captured. The boat could not be brought in however as she was scuttled beforehand and sank quickly.[40] Later that day the pirates returned in force and the following day more reinforcements arrived. The pirates did not attempt to land but behaved aggressively, firing their swivel guns towards the shore. Fourteen more proas arrived during the day, on 1 March, and several more during the night.[41] With the provisions running low, the build-up of pirates, and a rescue now overdue, Maxwell formulated a plan to capture sufficient proas to escape from the island.[42] While the plan was being proposed, a sail was spotted on the horizon, heading toward the island. The appearance of this vessel, coupled with a sudden attack spearheaded by Alceste's marines, caused the pirates to flee.[43]

The rescue ship turned out to be the Ternate, an East Indiaman, despatched by Lord Amherst on the day of his arrival in Batavia.[44] The Ternate returned to Batavia with the castaways, where Amherst chartered another ship, Ceaser, for the journey to England. During a stop at St Helena, Maxwell met Napoleon, who remembered the action on the 29 November 1811, when Alceste had captured La Pomone, and remarked, "...your government must not blame you for the loss of Alceste, for you have taken one of my frigates." Later, at his court martial, Maxwell was exonerated of all blame for the loss of Alceste.[45] He received much praise for his actions, and £1500 from the British East India Company. He was knighted in 1818.[46]


  1. ^ This may be San-Martino-di-Lota, near Bastia.
  2. ^ Alceste was a little undermanned, carrying a complement of 257, including Lord Amherst and his entourage. It would have been usual practice to remove some guns in order to create more space for distinguished guests. Fewer guns allowed for a smaller crew and this may have been a contributing factor.[34]


  1. ^ a b c Winfield, p 178
  2. ^ a b Henderson, P 101
  3. ^ a b c d Woodman, p 224
  4. ^ Henderson, p 102
  5. ^ Henderson, pp 102–103
  6. ^ Woodman, pp 224–225
  7. ^ Woodman, p 225
  8. ^ Henderson, p 104
  9. ^ James (Vol.IV) p262
  10. ^ a b c James (Vol.IV) p.263
  11. ^ Henderson, pp 104–105
  12. ^ James (Vol.IV) p.350
  13. ^ The London Gazette: no. 16139. p. 570. 23 April 1808.
  14. ^ James (Vol.V) p.38
  15. ^ a b Woodman, p 251
  16. ^ James (Vol.V) p.251
  17. ^ The London Gazette: no. 16395. p. 1205. 11 August 1810.
  18. ^ James (Vol.V) p.364
  19. ^ The London Gazette: no. 16511. p. 1547. 6 August 1811.
  20. ^ James (Vol.V) p.364
  21. ^ a b c d Henderson, p 168
  22. ^ James (Vol.V) p.376
  23. ^ a b James (Vol.V) p.377
  24. ^ James (Vol.V) p.379
  25. ^ Marley, p 462
  26. ^ a b The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1832 (Volume XVI). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 1832. p. 229. 
  27. ^ The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1832 (Volume XVI). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 1832. pp. 229–230. 
  28. ^ The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1832 (Volume XVI). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 1832. p. 230. 
  29. ^ The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1832 (Volume XVI). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 1832. p. 231. 
  30. ^ The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1832 (Volume XVI). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 1832. pp. 231–232. 
  31. ^ a b The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1832 (Volume XVI). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 1832. p. 232. 
  32. ^ a b Henderson, p 169
  33. ^ The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1832 (Volume XVI). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 1832. pp. 232–233. 
  34. ^ a b c Henderson, p 170
  35. ^ Domonique Mosbergen (11 June 2013). "World's Most Dangerous Seas". Huffington Post. Retrieved 29 August 2016. 
  36. ^ Henderson, p 171
  37. ^ Henderson, pp 171 – 172
  38. ^ Henderson, p 172
  39. ^ Henderson, p 173
  40. ^ a b Henderson, p 174
  41. ^ Henderson, p 175
  42. ^ Henderson, p 177
  43. ^ Henderson, pp 176–177
  44. ^ The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1832 (Volume XVI). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 1832. p. 253. 
  45. ^ The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1832 (Volume XVI). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 1832. p. 254. 
  46. ^ Hepper (1994), p. 156.


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