The immense engine of Generosity
On 18 February 1800, some 217 years ago today, the French Téméraire-class 74-gun ship of the line Généreux (Generosity) carrying the flag of Rear Adm. Jean-Baptiste Perrée and commanded by Capt. Mathieu-Cyprien Renaudin, ran into a British squadron a week out of Toulon on the way to relieve the embattled French garrison on Malta.
The French force, consisting of Généreux, the 20-gun corvettes Badine and Fauvette, the 16-gun Sans Pareille and the fluyt Ville de Marseille, wound up facing the British squadron just off the island, composed of four (4) 74-gun ships– HMS Alexander, Northumberland, Audacious and Foudroyant— as well as the 64-gun HMS Lion and the 32-gun frigate HMS Success. The leader of the Brits was a chap by the name of Nelson.
The action was heroic on both sides, with the faster Success overtaking Généreux and Perrée electing to engage the British squadron alone in a holding action, allowing the rest of his ships to escape what would have been certain destruction or capture.
In the resulting maiming of the Généreux by the Brits, Perree lost first an eye to a splinter and a leg to a cannonball, but eeked out, “Ce n’est rien, mes amis, continuons notre besogne” (It is nothing, my friends, continue with your work) like a true 18th Century naval hero. He later died that evening, probably telling “your mama” jokes about Nelson to the leeches.
Généreux eventually struck her immense (53 x 27 ft.) tri-color after an hour of terrific battle and went on to be repaired and pressed into service with the RN as HMS Généreux, serving Nelson for a while until broken up in 1816.
On Nelson’s orders, Perrée was interred in Saint Lucy church in the Dominican convent of Syracuse on nearby Sicily and remains there today.
Généreux‘s skipper, Renaudin, after he was paroled was acquitted at a court martial for losing his ship and sought to continue his service in the French Navy, though he was cashiered on direct orders from Napolean. Just 43 at the time, Renaudin had over two decades of sea service under his belt including numerous ship-to-ship combats and likely could have been useful for a good while longer. C’est la vie.
Renaudin retired to the quiet coastal town of Saint-Denis-d’Oleron on a nominal pension of 900 francs per year. He was later offered the Legion of Honor and its associated knighthood by the Bourbon government, which he refused. He died on Valentine’s Day 1836, you could say of a broken heart. A book was written about him in 2010 entitled, Un marin d’infortune (Sailor of misfortune).
As for the Généreux Tri-Color, it is believed to be one of the earliest still in existence and is preserved by the BNPS, though it is deteriorating. The ensign, after being captured, was sent to Norwich, where it was put on display until 1897. Brought out and shown off once more for the 1905 centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, it has been in storage since then.
Set to be put on public display at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery from July 29 to October 1, it was recently unfurled and examined. Fragments of wood, likely splinters from battle-damaged ships, and traces of gunpowder were found as was a nail used to hammer it up at one point, likely for display.
To ensure this amazing object– the oldest Napoleonic flag in the UK– is available for future generations to enjoy, the Costume and Textile Association have launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise £5,000 towards the total costs of £40,000 needed for vital conservation work.