Moored at Hartlepool, England, is a unique example of maritime history, a frigate built exactly 200 years ago, restored and now part of the Royal Navy’s National Museum. She is the oldest British warship afloat, a sleek fighting machine, a ‘heavy interceptor’ with excellent weaponry. And her name just happens to be HMS Trincomalee. Two [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

The voyage of HMS Trincomalee through the ages


 Moored at Hartlepool, England, is a unique example of maritime history, a frigate built exactly 200 years ago, restored and now part of the Royal Navy’s National Museum. She is the oldest British warship afloat, a sleek fighting machine, a ‘heavy interceptor’ with excellent weaponry. And her name just happens to be HMS Trincomalee.

Trincomalee in her current location in Hartlepool. Pic Courtesy Wikipedia

Two new Leda Class Frigates for the Royal Navy were ordered in 1812. One, HMS Trincomalee, was named after the 1782 Battle of Trincomalee, fought between a British fleet under Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes and a French fleet under the Bailli de Suffren. This was one of four battles between the two fleets off the coast of the Indian subcontinent during the Anglo-French War (1778-1783).

The frigates could not be built in England due to the plunder of oak-tree forests for shipbuilding during the recent Napoleonic Wars. So the decision was taken to construct the ships in Bombay by the East India Company for the Admiralty from Malabar teak.

During the voyage to India, HMS Java, the vessel carrying the construction plans, was attacked and defeated by the USS Constitution (the world’s earliest warship afloat, 20 years older than second-place HMS Trincomalee). HMS Java was taken in tow but sank during this indignity, together with the plans, causing a two-year delay while the Admiralty dispatched a duplicate set.

In May 1816 work finally began on HMS Trincomalee and her sister frigate Amphitrite at the Wadia Shipyards, Bombay. Master shipbuilder Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia supervised the construction: he built 14 vessels for the Royal Navy. In conformity with Zoroastrian tradition, a silver nail was hammered into the keel to ensure HMS Trincomalee’s good fortune.

She was the twelfth of 47 Leda-Class Frigates, based on a French design, to be built between 1800 and 1830. To be precise, her length was 179.87 ft (54.86m), beam 17.48 ft (5.33m) and depth 13.48 ft (4.11m). She cost £23,000 to build (relative value today £1 million). A crew of 315 officers and sailors was required. She was heavily armed with 46 guns: on the gun-deck alone were 28 18-pounders.

HMS Trincomalee was launched on October 12, 1817 with temporary masts, yards and rigging, and four 12-pounder carronades – short, large-calibre cannons – for the maiden voyage of delivery to England. Escorted by HMS Fowey, she left Bombay initially for Ceylon: Lady Fate decreed the first stop was to be her namesake port to board guns, ammunition and stores – seven tons of water (7,100 litres) and live, but doomed, pigs, sheep and fowl.

John and Eliza Bunt

There were wounded personnel to be repatriated from the British Squadron based in Trincomalee. In addition were recently-widowed Eliza Aricha Bunt and her two children. Born around 1790, Eliza became the partner of John Bunt, boatswain (in charge of equipment and crew) of HMS Victory (Nelson’s flagship of the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar),from 1810 to 1816. That ultimate year John was appointed boatswain at the Trincomalee Dockyard and possibly because of this, the couple, who had a daughter, got married.

The family sailed to Trincomalee, arriving in March 1817. John started work in the dockyard earning the substantial salary of £250 a year and a £30 housing allowance. Life was looking good for the family, the offspring of which consisted of child Charlotte and baby John Hope Jnr, born in 1816 on the voyage off the Cape of Good Hope, and William, 15, John’s son from his first marriage. He was employed as a Trincomalee dockyard clerk at the surprising salary for someone so young of £75 a year.

However in June 1818 John contracted a fever and despite being moved to Jaffna, where the air was considered ‘more curative’, died on July 3, 1818, aged 48. He was laid to rest in the burial ground on Jaffna’s esplanade, fittingly close to the sea. As Eliza was legally married it was the Royal Navy’s responsibility to return the family to England, which turned out to be aboard HMS Trincomalee. Eliza and children embarked on October 28, 1818. Stepson William decided to stay, but returned to England later.

Eliza resolved to write a diary of the five-month voyage (and beyond as it transpired), which was discovered, then transcribed and annotated, by relative Mary Hope Monnery (John Hope Jnr was her great, great grandfather), and published as From Trincomalee to Portsea: The Diary of Eliza Bunt featuring her Voyage on HMS Trincomalee 1818-1822 (2001). The information above regarding the Blunt family is courtesy of Ms Monnery’s introduction.

Regarding the purpose of the diary, Monnery reveals: “It soon becomes apparent that sometime between the death of her husband and joining the ship she had fallen passionately in love with the foreman of the dockyard, Thomas Craven. He appears to have befriended Eliza and led her to believe he would follow her home to England and that they would marry.

“I think the journal was written with Thomas in mind, so that when they were married they could read it together and share Eliza’s experiences, laughing and crying over all the events of the voyage.”


Eliza Bunt’s diary

October 27 1818: “Dined with my best friend [Thomas Craven] and spent the night with my family at the beloved little cottage. Left it with sincere regret at gunfire the next morning October 27 and proceeded with my friend and family to embark for England in the Trincomalee

October 31: “Arose at seven o’clock. Point de Galle in sight . . . came to an anchor 10 o’clock . . . ship rolling dreadfully . . . brought some eggs fruit & bread . . . gave the butcher a gulp of grog being a Saturday night for taking care of the stock.”

November 13: “Nothing to be seen but the same sameness the sky and the sea each day doomed to the same sad reflections . . . one of my sheep died and obliged to kill another sheep [as it was] dying.”

November 14: “Shocking weather again heavy rains and tremendous sea. Our cabin floating with water cannot sit in our chairs – carried away from one side of the cabin to the other. Sent my large liquor case and a small box of rice down into the magazine.”

Eliza made no proper diary entries for six weeks from early January 1819 due to sickness, so did not record an important event of the voyage. HMS Trincomalee arrived at St Helena on the 24th where she stayed for six days, leaving with an additional passenger, surgeon John Stokoe who had attended Napoleon on the island. Eliza does not mention him.

March 27: “Blowing hard a man fell overboard and lost in an instant our cabins all floating not a dry place in the ship . . . the children completely washed out of their beds. My chair broke to pieces, dishes and plates flying about.”

March 30: “Anchored in Spithead [off Portsmouth] at 7 o’clock.”

The diary continues until an auspicious event on July 18, 1822, much of it spent in agonizing, heart-rending passages devoted to Tom:

August 16 1820: “Heard Mr Thomas Craven was married married married. Shall make no comments on the strange news I have heard. What my feelings are can only be known to myself.”

The story has a happy ending however, for Eliza writes:

July 17 1822: “William Bone was married to Eliza Bunt.”

HMS Trincomalee: History and restoration

After HMS Trincomalee reached Portsmouth (the journey cost £6,600, a quarter of the construction), the ship was permanently fitted out for £2,400. It is astonishing she was then placed in reserve for 26 years until 1845, when she was commissioned for service in areas lacking coaling stations to fuel the modern steam vessels. She was re-armed with fewer guns but which had greater firepower; her stern was modified to a striking elliptical style; and she was reclassified as a spar-decked corvette.

Of her military service Wikipedia reports: “Trincomalee departed from Portsmouth in 1847 and remained in service for ten years, serving on the North-Western and West Indies station. During her time she was to help quell riots in Haiti and stop a threatened invasion of Cuba, and serve on anti-slavery patrol. In 1849, she was dispatched to Newfoundland and Labrador before being recalled to Britain in 1850. In 1852 she sailed to join the Pacific Squadron on the west coast of America.”

In 1857, after her stint of Pacific patrols, she was put into reserve once again, later became a training ship, and eventually sold to shipbreakers in 1897. Fortunately, entrepreneur and philanthropist George Wheatly Cobb acquired HMS Trincomalee, restored her, and renamed her Foudroyant in 1901 in honour of HMS Foudroyant, his earlier, but wrecked, training ship. Foudroyant remained in service until 1986 (in too many forms to reference here) and a year later the Foudroyant Trust decided to transport the vessel in a colossal semi-submersible barge to Hartlepool.

Hartlepool was chosen as it was there that HMS Warrior (1860), the Royal Navy’s first iron-clad battleship, had been restored. It’s now on display at Portsmouth. The highly-skilled team that had worked on the HMS Warrior was retained for the restoration of the Foudroyant, the daunting task begun on January 1, 1990.

Indeed the restoration covered a decade, during which, in 1992, the Foudroyant Trust became the HMS Trincomalee Trust with the Duke of Edinburgh as its patron. Fittingly, the ship reverted to her original name. But it was a period more chaotic than her naval service: she caught fire three times and sank at her moorings. Restoration funds, however, kept materialising and in 1998 it was revealed that a visitor centre would be built around the small dock containing the ship.

The UK’s National Historic Ships Committee initially declined to add HMS Trincomalee to the National Historic Ships register (containing over 1,000), arguing that the vessel was not built in Britain. Fittingly, after much consideration the committee not only added HMS Trincomalee to the register but placed the ship in a special sub-group, The National Historic Fleet, consisting of some 150 vessels of great variety and distinction.

Today HMS Trincomalee is the much-visited centrepiece of the Hartlepool Maritime Experience, a recreation of an 18th-century seaport. The decks are filled with period items, replica cannons and crew effects. Audio clips, some motion activated, give a touch of authenticity. And a viewing balcony overlooking the ship provides a great perspective. Though restored the ship retains 65% of the original timber due to the high quality of the Malabar teak. Surviving vessels of similar age, generally of oak, have mostly been rebuilt.

I doubt many Sri Lankans know of HMS Trincomalee’s existence; fewer still of the widow from Trincomalee who sailed to England aboard her, writing one of the best accounts of sea passage of the era. And I doubt many visitors to the ship in temperate, often fog-bound Hartlepool will understand what the name Trincomalee conjures up for those who know and love this tropical magnificence, the second-largest natural harbour in the world, overlooked by terraced highlands and its entrance guarded by two outstanding headlands.

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