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The Indefatigable, the ship so readily granted to Sir Edward, was not an ordinary frigate but a razé, a ship of the line cut down by a deck. She had been a sixty-four gun ship, and had been launched at Buckler's Yard in 1784. Even at that date the sixty-four was becoming unpopular and few ships of this class were built during the next ten years. The seventy-four gun ship had become the normal ship of the line and a sixty-four gun ship was, by 1793, regarded as an anachronism. During the peace these vessels had acted as heavy cruisers. But in 1794 it was decided to convert the Indefatigable into a frigate. At the same time two other surviving ships of this out-of-date class, the Magnanime and Anson, were also converted.
The process of conversion consisted in the removal of the quarter-deck and forecastle, and of part of the main deck. It was the middle part of the main deck that was cut away, and this process left two isolated fragments of this deck to become a new quarter-deck and forecastle. The old lower deck, now partly uncovered, became the main deck. Deprived thus of its lower deck, the ship ceased to be a two-decker, and became ipso facto a frigate. It may, however, be observed that this operation produced a frigate of exceptional size, at least thirty feet too long and six or eight feet too broad.
It is natural to ask at this point why all this trouble should be taken to make a ship less formidable than she was before. In understanding the motive for this alteration the central fact to be grasped is that the French had given up building vessels of this class at an earlier date than the English. Had the French still possessed a few sixty-fours, the Anson, Indefatigable and Magnanime would have been left unaltered in the hope of their encountering them. But the French had only ships of the line and frigates and smaller craft.
Now, the reason why a sixty-four could not be allowed to meet a French seventy-four is obvious - the former would be blown out of the water. But the reason why a sixty-four should not be allowed to pursue French frigates is of a more subtle kind. One consideration to be urged against such a policy was the disproportion of the means to the end. A sixty-four needed a crew of 500 men. To send such a ship to deal with frigates carrying some 300 men would be a waste of force. It would be the mistake of using a cannon to destroy one's neighbour's parrot. The three ships would between them take 600 men in excess of the proper number the work required, without making the desired result any the more certain.
This argument has been stated first as the one most likely to appeal to the reader. It was probably the last consideration to strike the Admiralty of the day. The real obstacle to the use of the sixty-four as a cruiser was Pride. To send big ships to chase small ones was thought to be un-chivalrous, and - what was worse - undignified. Chivalry was far from dead at that time. But the refusal of a ship of the line to fire at a frigate was chivalrous only in part; the primary objection to it was Pride. Dignity only demanded an equality on paper - there was no objection to arming a frigate more heavily than the enemy's frigates - but a theoretical equality there had to be. For this reason the sixty-four had either to be reduced in force until roughly equal to a frigate, or crowded with guns until roughly equal to a ship of the line. As the latter operation was impossible the former had to be adopted.