Le Superbe was designed by the most renowned marine engineer of the eighteenth century, Jacques Sane. She was launched at the shipyard in Brest in 1784, representing a class of famous French battleships built during the waning years of the monarchy. Although she carried 74 cannon and was one of the largest (and most beautiful) warships afloat at the time, she was considered to be as fast and maneuverable as a frigate.
When Napoleon ascended to power, Le Superbe formed part of the powerful French fleet led by Admiral Villaret Joyeuse. Napoleon had determined to challenge the British fleet by severing its maritime communications with India which went through the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt. His fleet was engaged by the British, under Admiral Horatio Nelson, off Alexandria in what has become known as the Battle of the Nile and which proved to be the most decisive naval engagement of the 18th century. The naval battle went on for a day and a night with heavy losses on the French side, even though their ships were considered to be superior. Of Napoleons's grand fleet, the flagship went to the bottom, four other large ships went aground, and six ships of the line, including the Superbe, struck their colors and were captured. Repaired and refitted, she was subsequently commissioned into the Royal Navy as the Superb.
Napoleon responded by rebuilding his shattered fleet, strengthening his army, assembling a huge flotilla of landing barges, and planning an invasion of England. The British counter-plan called for a blockade of French ports. Napoleon replied with a diversionary move, dispatching his fleet, together with Spanish reinforcements, to the West Indies in order to decoy the British into fruitless pursuit, then racing back to clear the Channel for the invasion of England. Nelson fell for the feint and pursued, but failing to make contact, headed back to England and got there before the French. He trapped the French off Trafalgar in the Bay of Cadiz and inflicted a disastrous defeat which terminated Napoleon's threat to the security and independence of England.
The Superb, fighting under the British flag participated valiantly even though she was so storm-weakened that she had cables wrapped around her hull to keep her seams from parting. The Superb's Captain Keats kept the ship in action with all sails flying and the studding-sail booms lashed to the yards while his men worked constantly at the pumps. Nelson paid tribute with the message: "My dear Keats, be assured I know and feel that the Superb does all which is possible for a ship to accomplish".