Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



The month of September was spent in blockading Cadiz. The Canopus, as already stated, was one of the squadron of five told off to keep close in shore and watch the port. So close were they that one time the Tigre nearly ran aground and had to be towed off. The log on September 16th gives an account of what could be seen of the enemy's fleet.

"We stood in till all the enemy's fleet were open of the town, and had an opportunity of distinctly counting them. Their whole force consisted of thirty-three sail of the line and five frigates, all apparently quite ready for sea, with the exception of two ships of the line; one of which (French) had her topmasts struck, and main top-gallant mast down on the deck; the other (Spanish) had her fore-mast struck and fore-stay slack as if doing something to the bowsprit. Of the ships of the line seventeen were French and sixteen Spanish, of which last two were three-deckers. The frigates were all French, and one of them appeared to have a poop. We saw also at the Carracas three large ships (two of them appearing to be three-deckers) and two small ones, all of them in a considerable state of forwardness in point of rigging."

On September 28 the Victory arrived from England, with Nelson on board, and three days later the Canopus joined the main part of the fleet, and was almost immediately told off to take her turn in the duty of fetching water from Gibraltar. The story of the month of October, with its hopes, fears, and disappointments, is best told by Francis Austen himself in the following letter to Mary Gibson:

"Canopus AT SEA, off GIBRALTAR, October 15, 1805.

"MY DEAREST MARY,—Having now got over the hurry and bustle which unavoidably attends every ship while in the act of compleating provisions, water and stores, I think it high time to devote some part of my attention to your amusement, and to be in a state of preparation for any opportunity which may offer of dispatching letters to England. But in order to make myself understood I must endeavour to be methodical, and therefore shall commence the account I have now to send you from the date of my last, which was finished and forwarded by the Nimble brig on the 2nd of this month. We had then just joined the fleet from the in-shore squadron, and, I believe I mentioned, were about to quit it again for Gibraltar and Tetuan. We sailed that evening with four other ships of the line, a frigate, and five merchant vessels under convoy, and on the following morning fell in with the Euryalus, which we had left off Cadiz to watch the enemy. Captain Blackwood informed us by signal that he had received information by a Swedish ship from Cadiz that the troops had all embarked on board the men-of-war, and it was reported they were to sail with the first easterly wind. Though much confidence could not be placed on the accuracy and authenticity of this intelligence, it was, however, of such a nature as to induce Admiral Louis to return with four of the ships to Lord Nelson, leaving the Zealous and Endymion (both of them crippled ships) to proceed with the convoy to Gibraltar. We rejoined the Commander-in-Chief on the morning of the 5th, and were again dispatched in the course of the day.

"The wind being directly against us, and blowing very strong, we were not able to reach Gibraltar until the 9th, when every exertion was made to get on board such supplies of stores and provisions as we were in want of, and the Rock could supply. This was effected in three days, at which time the wind changed to the westward and became favourable for our watering at Tetuan, where we anchored on the evening of the 12th. We sailed again last night to return to the fleet, having got on board in the course of two days, with our own boats alone, 300 tons of water, and every other ship had got a proportionate quantity. You will judge from this that we have not been idle. We are now expecting a wind to take us out of the Mediterranean again, and hope to accomplish it in the course of the next twenty-four hours; at present it is nearly calm, but appearances indicate an easterly wind. We are, of course, very anxious to get back to the fleet for fear the enemy should be moving, for the idea of their doing so while we are absent is by no means pleasant. Having borne our share in a tedious chace and anxious blockade, it would be mortifying indeed to find ourselves at last thrown out of any share of credit or emolument which would result from an action. Such, I hope, will not be our lot, though, if they do venture out at all, it must happen to some one, as a part of the fleet will be constantly sent in to compleat as fast as the others arrive from having performed that duty.

"Our stay at Gibraltar was not productive of much gaiety to us; we dined only twice on shore, and both times with General Fox, the Governor. We had engagements for several succeeding days on our hands; but this change of wind making it necessary for us to move off, our friends were left to lament our absence, and eat the fatted calf without us. I believe I have mentioned in a former letter that the young lady I admired so much (Miss Smith) was married to the Colonel Keen, whom Sutton will not acknowledge as an acquaintance. As a matter of civility, I called with the Admiral Louis to make them a morning visit, but we were not fortunate enough to find them at home, which, of course, I very much regretted. The last evening of our stay at Gibraltar we went, after dining with the General, to see Othello performed by some of the officers of the garrison. The theatre is small, but very neatly fitted up; the dresses and scenery appeared good, and I might say the same of the acting could I have seen or heard anything of it; but, although I was honoured with a seat in the Governor's box at the commencement of the performance, yet I did not long profit by it, for one of his aide-de-camps, happening to be married, and his lady happening also to come in during the first scene, I was obliged to resign my situation, happy to have it in my power to accomodate a fair one. The play was 0thello, and by what I have been able to collect from the opinions of those who were more advantageously situated for seeing and hearing than myself, I did not experience a very severe loss from my complaisance. I believe the Admiral was not much better amused than I was, for, at the expiration of the first act, he proposed departing, which I very readily agreed to, as I had for some time found the house insufferably close and hot. I hardly need add that the evening was not quite so productive of pleasure to me as the last theatrical representation I had witnessed, which was at Covent Garden some time in the beginning of February last, when I had the honour of being seated by a fair young lady, with whom I became slightly acquainted the preceding year at Ramsgate.

"Do you happen to recollect anything of the evening? I think you do, and that you will not readily forget it.

"October 18.—The hopes with which I had flattered myself of getting out of the Straits two days ago have not been realised, and, from the circumstances which have since occurred, it is very uncertain when we shall get to the fleet again. The wind on the evening of the 15th came to the westward and forced us back to Tetuan, where we remained till yesterday evening, at which time a frigate came over with orders for Admiral Louis to give protection to a convoy then collected at Gibraltar for Malta, as far as Cartagena, after which he is to return to the Commander-in-Chief. We accordingly came over to the Rock this morning, and are now proceeding as fast as possible with the trade to the eastward. Our force consists of five sail of the line and three frigates, which last we shall leave in charge of the convoy as soon as we have seen them safe past the Carthagena squadron. I can't say I much like the prospect. I do not expect to derive any advantage from it, and it puts us completely out of the way in case the enemy should make an attempt to get to sea, which is by no means improbable, if he knows Lord Nelson's force is weakened by the detachment of so many ships. It is since I last wrote to you I believe that your No. 3 has come to hand; it was brought by Brigadier-General Tilson, and was enclosed under cover from Henry. It has been months on the journey. There are still three of yours missing, Nos. 5, 6 and 7, some of which I suppose are gone to seek me in the West Indies, but I trust they will do so in vain there. We have heard from the fleet off Cadiz, and learn that it has been reinforced by the arrival of five men-of-war from England, some of which I hope have brought letters, or they might as well have stayed away. Sir Robert Calder is gone home in the Prince of Wales, which I am sorry has happened during our absence, as by it a very fine opportunity of writing has been lost, which is always a source of regret to me when it occurs. I cannot, however, accuse myself of any neglect, and you will, I hope, as readily acquit me of it; indeed, when you know the circumstances, I am sure you will, though I daresay you will feel rather disappointed to hear a man-of-war has arrived from the Cadiz fleet and find no letter arrived from me, unless you happened to recollect that I expected to go to Gibraltar and, therefore, would probably have been absent when she left the station.

"October 21.—We have just bid adieu to the convoy, without attending them quite so far as was originally intended, having this day received intelligence, by a vessel despatched in pursuit of us, that on Saturday, 19th, the enemy's fleet was actually under way, and coming out of Cadiz.

"Our situation is peculiarly unpleasant and distressing, for if they escape Lord Nelson's vigilance and get into the Mediterranean, which is not very likely, we shall be obliged, with our small force, to keep out of their way; and on the other hand, should an action take place, it must be decided long before we could possibly get down even were the wind fair, which at present it is not. As I have no doubt but the event would be highly honourable to our arms, and be at the same time productive of some good prizes, I shall have to lament our absence on such an occasion on a double account, the loss of pecuniary advantage as well as of professional credit. And after having been so many months in a state of constant and unremitting fag, to be at last cut out by a parcel of folk just come from their homes, where some of them were sitting at their ease the greater part of last war, and the whole of this, till just now, is particularly hard and annoying.

"You, perhaps, may not feel this so forcibly as I do, and in your satisfaction at my having avoided the danger of battle may not much regret my losing the credit of having contributed to gain a victory; not so myself!

"I do not profess to like fighting for its own sake, but if there have been an action with the combined fleets I shall ever consider the day on which I sailed from the squadron as the most inauspicious one of my life.

"October 27, off Tetuan.—Alas! my dearest Mary, a]l my fears are but too fully justified. The fleets have met, and, after a very severe contest, a most decisive victory has been gained by the English twenty-seven over the enemy's thirty-three. Seventeen of the ships are taken and one is burnt; but I am truly sorry to add that this splendid affair has cost us many lives, and amongst them the most invaluable one to the nation, that of our gallant, and ever-to-be-regreted, Commander-in-Chief, Lord Nelson, who was mortally wounded by a musket shot, and only lived long enough to know his fleet successful. In a public point of view, I consider his loss as the greatest which could have occurred; nor do I hesitate to say there is not an Admiral on the list so eminently calculated for the command of a fleet as he was. I never heard of his equal, nor do I expect again to see such a man. To the soundest judgment he united prompt decision and speedy execution of his plans; and he possessed in a superior degree the happy talent of making every class of persons pleased with their situation and eager to exert themselves in forwarding the public service. As a national benefit I cannot but rejoice that our arms have been once again successful, but at the same time I cannot help feeling how very unfortunate we have been to be away at such a moment, and, by a fatal combination of unfortunate though unavoidable events, to lose all share in the glory of a day which surpasses all which ever went before, is what I cannot think of with any degree of patience; but, as I cannot write upon that subject without complaining, I will drop it for the present, till time and reflection reconcile me a little more to what I know is now inevitable.

"We arrived off the Rock of Gibraltar two days ago, and having heard of the action as well as that our fleet was in want of assistance to repair their damages and secure their prizes, we proceeded on with a fine, fresh wind at east to run through the Straits; but before we were out of sight of the garrison the wind chopped round to the westward, directly in our teeth, and came on to blow a very heavy gale of wind, which effectually prevented our proceeding. We bore away for this place and wait a change of wind and weather, not a little anxious for our friends outside, who could have been but ill prepared to encounter such a severe storm as they must have experienced on a lee shore, and probably with crippled masts. Indeed, I hardly expect to hear they have all escaped.

"Off Cadiz, October 31.—Having at length effected our escape from the Mediterranean prison and rejoined our friends, I will proceed to such particulars as have come to my ears relative to the action, and present situation of our ships. The object of the enemy was avowedly to get into the Mediterranean, but at the same time they did not, as their conduct proved, wish to avoid a battle, expecting, no doubt, their superiority would have ensured them at least a drawn action, and that they would have disabled our fleet so much as to deprive us of the means to prevent their proceeding to Toulon; but in this they were fortunately mistaken. Indeed, they acknowledge that they had considered Lord Nelson's whole force as only twenty-seven, and knowing that he had detached six into the Mediterranean expected to find him with only twenty-one ships, and the irregular mass in which our ships bore down to the attack prevented their counting them, so that till after the action was closed the French Admiral did not discover how great a force he had encountered. The van of our fleet which led the attack have suffered very much, especially the Victory, Royal Sovereign, Téméraire, Belleisle, Mars, and Bellerophon; but some of the rear vessels hardly got into action at all. Had we been there our station would have been the fifth ship from the van, and I trust we should have had our share.

"The battle was hardly concluded when the weather set in so stormy (and continued so for nearly a week) as to prevent our taking possession of many ships which had surrendered, and of keeping several others. Nineteen are known to have struck; four of which have since got into Cadiz; three are in our possession; and the rest, to the number of twelve, are either burnt, sunk, or driven on shore. Of thirteen, which are now in Cadiz, out of their whole force the greatest part have lost nearly all their masts, and are so completely disabled as to make it impossible they can be again ready for service during the winter. On the whole, therefore, we may fairly consider their loss as equal to twenty sail of the line.

"Our ships have been so much dispersed since the action, by the blowing weather, that Admiral Collingwood has not yet been able to collect reports of their damages or loss; but he has strong reason to hope every ship has been able to keep off the shore, and are now in safety. The action appears in general to have been obstinately contested, and has doubtless been unusually bloody; but it has also been so decisive as to make it improbable the Spaniards or French will again risque a meeting with a British fleet. Had it taken place in the open sea, away from the rocks, shoals, and leeshores there is no doubt but every ship would have been taken, but we engaged them under every disadvantage of situation.

"I was on board the Euryalus yesterday, in which ship Admiral Collingwood has his flag at present, and was introduced to the French Admiral Villeneuve, who is a prisoner there. He appears to be about forty-five years of age, of dark complexion, with rather an unmeaning countenance, and has not much the appearance of a gentleman. He is, however, so much of a Frenchman as to bear his misfortunes with cheerfulness.

"I do not yet know in what way we are to be employed, but imagine that, as the Canopus is a perfect ship at present, we shall be left with such others as are fit to remain at sea, to watch the enemy in the port; while those ships which have been damaged will go to Gibraltar to refit. Many of them will, I daresay, be sent home, as well because proper masts cannot be procured for them here, as that it will now be unnecessary to keep so large a fleet on this station.

"By the death of Lord Nelson I have again lost all chance of a frigate. I had asked his lordship to appoint me to one when he had the opportunity, and, though I had no positive promise from him, I have reason to believe he would have attended to my wishes. Of Admiral Collingwood I do not know enough to allow of my making a similar request; and not having been in the action I have no claims of service to urge in support of my wishes. I must, therefore, remain in the Canopus, though on many accounts I am more than ever anxious to get into a frigate.

"November 4.—We have just rejoined the fleet after having been detached to examine the coast and assist distressed ships, and hear the Euryalus is to sail very shortly for England with the Admiral's despatches, containing, I presume, the details of the action, with the particular loss of each ship, all of which you will learn from the public papers more correctly than I can possibly relate them, for, indeed, I have as yet learnt scarce anything more than I have already given you.

"I am anxiously expecting letters from England, and as our last news from Lisbon mentioned four packets being due I hope soon to hear of their arrival, and to be again blessed with the sight of a well-known handwriting, which is always a cordial to my heart, and never surely did I stand more in need of some such support. I yesterday received a letter from Henry, dated the 1st of October, which was brought out by Captain MacKay of the Scout, who is an acquaintance of mine, and an intimate friend of my brother Charles. The Scout came away on too short a notice to admit of Henry's writing to you or he would have done it. He sends me pleasing accounts of all my family, which is, of course, gratifying to me.

"I must now, my dearest love, bid you farewell, having said all I had got to say. Make my kindest remembrances to all your family at Ramsgate and elsewhere."

Miss Gibson must, indeed, have been hardhearted if she did not acquit her lover of neglect on receiving such a letter as this while he was on active service. It is written, as was usual, on one large sheet of notepaper, the "envelope," that is the fourth page, full, except where the folds come outside, and the whole crossed in the fine, neat handwriting of the day, very like that of Jane Austen herself.

The scene in Cadiz Bay, after the action of Trafalgar, can be imagined from the few facts given in the log of the Canopus on her arrival from Tetuan.

"October 30, at 11, saw a French ship of the line dismasted at the entrance of the harbour. On standing in to reconnoitre the position of the enemy's ship it was judged impossible to bring her out with the wind as it was, and that it was not worth the risque of disabling one of the squadron in an attempt to destroy her. She appeared to be warping fast in, and to have a great length of hawser laid out. The batteries fired several shells over us.

"31st.—Passed the Juno and a Spanish 74 at anchor. The Spanish vessel, San Ildefonso, had lost all her masts, but was then getting up jury masts.

"At a quarter past four, closed the Euryalus, having Vice-Admiral Collingwood's flag, shortened sail and hove to. The Admiral (also the Captain) went on board the Euryalus. Several ships at anchor around us.

"A French frigate and brig, with flags of truce, in the squadron.

"At four we had passed the Ajax, Leviathan, and Orion at anchor, all of them, to appearance, but little damaged in the action. The Leviathan was fishing her main yard, and the Ajax shifting her fore-top mast. A large ship, supposed to be the Téméraire, was at anchor to the northward of San Luca, with fore and mizentop masts gone; and eight others were seen from the masthead to the W.N.W.

"November 1.—Saw the wreck of a ship lying on the Marragotes shoal.

"November 19.—Saw the Téméraire, Royal Sovereign, Tonnant, Leviathan, and Mars. These five ships are returning here under jury masts, having suffered considerably in the action of the 21st ult.

"The Sovereign was in tow of the Leviathan, which seemed to be the most perfect ship of the whole."

The Canopus, as Francis Austen foresaw, was left at Cadiz with those ships which had suffered but slightly, as well as those which had shared their own hard fate of being out of the action altogether. Here they stayed till the end of the month, awaiting further developments.