The Happy Donegal

By Paul Martinovich

Helion recently published my biography of Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm (1768-1838), entitled The Sea is my Element. This Scottish sailor spent his entire active career at sea, commanding half a dozen ships as a captain, and then flying his admiral’s flag aboard several others. Mark Myers’ painting on the cover of the book depicts the ship with which he was most closely associated, HMS Donegal, as she races through stormy seas to join the British fleet after Trafalgar.

Like many ships in the Royal Navy, the Donegal was a prize, a ship captured from the French and transformed into a Royal Navy asset. A large 74-gun ship built to a very successful design by the naval architect Jacques-Noël Sané, she had been launched in 1794 at the Mediterranean naval base of Toulon. Initially named Barras, after an important political figure in Revolutionary France,as the political winds changed her name changed as well, ending up as Hoche, commemorating a famous revolutionary general who had died in 1797. The shipwas captured in 1798 by a British squadron as she attempted to land a force of French soldiers on the northern coast of Ireland to assist the Irish insurgents seeking to overthrow the British connection.

Since the ship was quite new and had suffered relatively little damage in the battle, she was purchased into the Royal Navy, and given the name Donegal to commemorate the location of her capture. As was customary, the ship was refitted to British standards: her masts and rigging were altered to make them more robust, and the French guns were replaced with slightly smaller British ones. At the same time the dockyard installed a new figurehead, portraying a fierce, kilted Irish warrior.

HMS Donegal re-joining the fleet after Trafalgar (Original artwork by Mark Myers)

When rearmed the ship carried thirty 32-pounder guns on the lower deck and thirty 18-pounders on the upper deck, along with sixteen 12-pounders and eight close-range carronades fore and aft. In all, she could fire an 850-pound broadside at an enemy ship. By comparison, at Waterloo Wellington’s forces had a total of about 160 guns firing shot totalling roughly 1600 lbs. So the Donegal’s armament (remembering she had two broadsides) was more powerful than all the artillery of the allied army in the culminating battle of the Napoleonic Wars. These ships were massively-armed floating gun batteries, capable of inflicting enormous destruction on enemy vessels.

Between her commissioning in late 1802 and early 1805, the Donegal was commanded by Sir Richard Strachan, who had made his name as a frigate commander in the French Revolutionary War. The ship formed an important unit of Lord Nelson’s Mediterranean Fleet watching the French fleet at Toulon, and in 1804 captured a Spanish frigate. By January 1805, the rigours of blockade and storm had taken their toll of Strachan’s health, and he asked Nelson to be allowed to return to Britain to recover. Rather than lose a valuable warship, the admiral agreed that Captain Pulteney Malcolm, who had been sitting at anchor in the Bay of Naples for 14 months, could switch ships with Strachan. This allowed Malcolm, who had been pestering Nelson for a more active role, to join the fleet off Toulon in the Donegal, while Strachan took Malcolm’s ship, the leaky Renown, back to a British dockyard for repairs.

Thus began Pulteney Malcolm’s six years in command of one of the finest two-deckers in the Royal Navy. The ship was widely agreed to be among the most handsome in the fleet, and Malcolm took great pride in her appearance. For instance, in September 1810 he decided to have the crew paint the Donegal, but was upset that it rained soon after, streaking the wet paint. As he told his wife, it made his ship look like ‘a painted hag, returning by daylight from a fashionable party’. He claimed that he would be ‘as anxious to repair her charms on the return of sunshine, as the Lady would be before she makes her appearance in the world’. Sailors often attributed human characteristics to their ships.

Captain Pulteney Malcolm by Smart

Appropriately enough, many of her 640 crew were Irishmen—Malcolm delighted in their activity, though he regretted their tendency to get drunk whenever the opportunity presented itself. His style of man-management was both intelligent and humane. Punishments on board the Donegal were limited—only the captain could award floggings, since, as he said, he also had the power to mitigate such penalties. Malcolm was proud that he had never ordered a man court-martialled, and that many of his ex-shipmates approached him for assistance after they had left the vessel. He also encouraged competition with other ships in the squadron, to keep the men healthy and on their toes, fostering what today would be called ‘unit cohesion’. This approach explains why the ship received the nickname ‘the happy Donegal’ during Malcolm’s time in command.

This period (1805-1811) represented the height of the naval war against France, and the ship was involved in a number of dramatic events, as well as the protracted, grinding task of blockade. In the first few months of Malcolm’s command, the Donegal took part in Nelson’s long chase of the enemy Combined Fleet across the Atlantic and back, and came very close to participating in the Battle of Trafalgar, being the last big ship to leave the British fleet before the battle, and the first one to return. A few months later, she played a prominent role in the Battle of San Domingo, being instrumental in the capture of two French ships-of-the-line. Years of strenuous activity followed, as the ship and her crew blockaded the French ports of l’Orient and Cherbourg, were present at the Battle of Basque Roads, and landed the future Duke of Wellington and his army on the shores of Portugal. Throughout this time, Malcolm had only two, relatively brief periods of leave. During the first, when the Donegal was temporarily commanded by his friend (and ex-Bounty mutineer) Peter Heywood, she helped drive three French frigates ashore at Sables d’Olonne near Rochefort. During Malcolm’s second leave, the ship was used to transport the Marquess Wellesley (Wellington’s older brother) to and from Spain, requiring the crew to spend several months anchored in Cadiz harbour, waiting for the diplomat to complete his assignment.

By the spring of 1811, the Donegal needed a major repair. This would require her to be decommissioned, with her officers and crew being discharged and sent to other ships. Malcolm was sorry to leave his home of six years, but recognized that the work was overdue. After waiting a year or so in reserve at Portsmouth, she was moved around to Chatham for a ‘middling repair’, which cost over £50,000, and took about 18 months. This substantial investment (about two-thirds the cost of building a new ship) indicates the Admiralty believed the Donegal to be a valuable asset, with years of useful life ahead of her. However, by the time she emerged from the dockyard, the war was over, and her services were not needed. The ship spent the next 14 years in reserve, mostly at anchor in the backwaters of Sheerness, awaiting the next call to arms.

This came in 1829, when, after a £21,000 refit, she was recommissioned as a guardship, essentially a vessel manned and ready to go to sea at short notice. In 1832, Pulteney Malcolm walked her quarterdeck once again, but now as a vice admiral in command of the Channel squadron, which was used to conduct trials of new ship designs. Despite a reputation for speed, the Donegal proved rather slower than more modern ships, but this was partly attributed to the growth of weed on her hull since her last docking. She remained Malcolm’s flagship throughout the summer of 1832, and then again when he re-joined the ship for a difficult six months commanding an Anglo-French squadron blockading the Dutch coastline. This was his last encounter with the vessel in which he had made his reputation, but she soldiered on in active service for another ten years, finally going to the breakers in 1845. Malcolm did not live to see the end of his ship, since he had died in 1838, after a career of nearly 60 years, mostly spent at sea. The Royal Navy named two later warships Donegal, but neither became as famous as Malcolm’s ‘happy Donegal’.

The Sea is my Element: The eventful life of Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm 1768-1838 is available to purchase here.

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