Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



FRANCIS AUSTEN in the letter to Miss Gibson expresses two wishes, neither of which was to be fulfilled.

He never got into a frigate, as he himself foresaw.

Service in a frigate would have been more exciting, as well as more profitable, than in a ship of the line. The frigates got the intelligence, and secured most prizes.

His other wish, that his letters might seek him in vain in the West Indies, was also not to be gratified, for before two months were over he was again on the passage thither, though whether he had the consolation of meeting his letters is another matter. As this voyage culminated in the action of St. Domingo, and the capture of several valuable prizes, the need for "comfort and support" was certainly not so great as after the disappointment of missing Trafalgar. How great that disappointment was his letter testifies. And something must be added to, rather than taken away from, this, in allowing for his natural reserve. From a man of his temperament every word means more than if Charles had been the writer. The fact that the log of the Canopus, on the day when the news of Trafalgar was received, is headed "Off Gibraltar, a melancholy situation," is the only indication to be found there of the state of feeling on board. Otherwise, there is nothing but rejoicing in the greatness and completeness of the victory, and sorrow at the death of the Commander-in-Chief.

The account of this second cruise begins with the arrival of Sir John Duckworth.

"November 15. Superb (Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth) and Powerful joined company off Cape St. Mary (Portugal).

"Order of sailing:

Superb. Canopus.
Spencer. Donegal.
Agamemnon. Powerful.

"November 29.—Saw a man-of-war in the E.N.E. standing towards us; perceived the stranger had the signal flying to speak with the Admiral, and for having intelligence to communicate. The Agamemnon showed her number, and made telegraph signal 'Information of the enemy's squadron. Six sail of the line off Madeira.'

"Let off rockets to draw the attention of the squadron in the W.N.W.

"Sir Edward Berry came on board, and stated that at eight yesterday evening, Captain Langford of the Lark informed him that on the 20th of this month he fell in with a French squadron of six ships of the line, three frigates and two brigs, in Lat. 30 N., Long. 19W., which chased his convoy to the S.S.E. He escaped by altering his course in the night. Two days after he fell in with the West India outward-bound convoy, and was directed by Captain Lake of the Topaz to proceed with the intelligence to the senior officer off Cadiz."

This news was confirmed on December 1, and by the 5th the whole squadron had reached Madeira, only to find, as usual, that the enemy had gone somewhere else. They went on to the Canary Islands, still cruising in search of the French. The entries on December 24 and 25 tell of the meeting with and chase of another squadron, not that which was afterwards engaged at St. Domingo.

"December 24, Arethusa and convoy met the enemy's squadron which we were in search of on December 16 in Lat. 40, Long. 13. The convoy dispersed, and it is hoped that none were taken. By the last accounts from the Continent, the French had suffered an important check, in which 8026 were taken beside those killed." This was, of course, an entirely unfounded report, as no severe check had occurred to Napoleon's arms, in the great victory of Austerlitz was just won.

"December 25, half-past six A.M., saw seven sail in the S.W.; tacked ship and made all sail. Answered signal for a general chace. Perceived the strangers to be vessels of war, and not English. At eight, answered signal to prepare for battle, at nine tacked, at ten cleared the ship for action. Light baffling airs. The strange squadron standing to the southward under all sail; Superb, Spencer, and Agamemnon south, six or seven miles; Powerful, N.W., three miles; Donegal and Amethyst, S.S.W., four or five miles ; Acasta, E. by S., one mile.

"At sunset the chace just in sight ahead from the top-gallant yard. Our advanced ships S.E. five or six leagues. At six lost sight of all the squadron but the Donegal and Powerful.

"When the strange sails were first seen, they appeared to be steering to the S.W., and to be a good deal scattered, the nearest being about ten miles from us, and some barely in sight from the deck. They all were seen to make a multiplicity of signals, and it was soon discovered, from their sails, signals, and general appearance, that they were French.

"Their force was five ships of the line and two frigates. At eight o'clock the weathermost bore down as if to form a line of battle, and, shortly after that, made all sail on the larboard tack. Owing to the baffling and varying winds, and the enemy catching every puff first, we had the mortification of seeing them increase their distance every moment."

It is clear that the escape of this squadron was largely due to the slow sailing of some of these ships. The Canopus herself did not sail well in light winds, having been more than two years in commission without docking, and the Powerful, a few days afterwards, sprung her foreyard, and had to be detached from the squadron. At the end of the chase, the distance between the leading ship, Superb, and the Donegal, the last of the squadron, is estimated in James' Naval History at forty-five miles.

The squadron then made sail for Barbadoes in order to revictual, and, after coming in for a heavy gale, arrived there on January 12. On the 11th, news was received by a vessel from England, which had been spoken, that Denmark had joined the coalition against France.

It is perhaps noteworthy that the highest records in any of these logs are those during the gale on January 8, 9, and 10, when the Canopus attained ten knots per hour, and made six hundred and sixty-one miles in three days.

Rear-Admiral Cochrane joined the squadron with the Northumberland, and acted as second in command to Sir John Duckworth. He had held the same post under Nelson in June 1805, for the few days when the fleet was in West Indian waters.

From Barbadoes they went on to St. Christopher. It is an instance of the difficulties of warfare in the then state of the Navy, that thirteen men took the opportunity of the Canopus being anchored close inshore to desert from her, by swimming ashore in the night. No doubt similar trouble was felt on other ships of the squadron.

"On February 1, Kingfisher brought intelligence that a Danish schooner belonging to Santa Cruz had, on January 25, seen a squadron of French men-of-war, seven of the line and four frigates, in the Mona passage. The master was on board the Alexandre, a 74, and the Brave, a three-decker, where he was informed they were part of a squadron of ten of the line, and ten frigates and one brig, which had sailed from Brest forty days before, and had separated in crossing the Atlantic.

"February 2. At four the Superb made signal for the flag-officers of the squadron."

On February 3 this intelligence of the arrival of the enemy at St. Domingo was confirmed, and great must have been the joy thereat.

On February 6 took place the battle of St. Domingo. The log gives an account which is bare of all detail, except that which is entirely nautical.

"At daylight the frigates ahead six or seven miles.

"Extent of land N.E. by E., and N.W. by W.; nearest part three or four leagues. Alcasta made signal for one sail W.N.W. at a quarter past six, 'That the strange sail had been observed to fire guns.'

"Half-past six, 'For eight sail W.N.W.'

"A quarter before seven, 'Enemy's ships of war are at anchor.'

"Ten minutes to seven, 'Enemy's ships are getting under way.'

"Five minutes before seven, 'Enemy's ships are of the line.'

"At seven, saw eight sail under the land, standing to the westward, under press of sail. Answered signal, 'Prepare for battle.'

"At eight, signal, 'Engage as coming up with the enemy, and take stations for mutual support.'

"Five minutes past eight, 'Make all sail possible, preserving the same order.' Perceived the enemy's force to consist of one three-decker, four two-deckers, two frigates, and a corvette.

"At a quarter past ten, the Superb commenced to fire on the enemy's van. At twenty past ten, the Northumberland and Spencer began firing. At half-past, we opened our fire on the first ship in the enemy's line, at that time engaged by the Spencer, passing close across her bows, with one broadside brought her masts by the board. Stood on towards the three-decker, firing occasionally at her and two other of the enemy's ships, as we could get our guns to bear. All the squadron in action.

"At a quarter to eleven, the Atlas ran on board of us, and carried away our bowsprit, but got clear without doing us material damage.

"At ten minutes to eleven, the dismasted ship struck, as did shortly after two others. Engaged with the three-decker, which appeared to be pushing for the shore. At ten minutes to twelve, gave her a raking broadside, which brought down her mizen mast, and appeared to do great damage to her stern and quarter.

"At twelve o'clock she ran ashore. Wore ship and fired our larboard broadside at the remaining two-decker, which was also making for the shore. At ten past twelve, discontinued the action."

A rather more stirring account of the action is given in a private letter from an officer on board the Superb.

This letter also contains the story of the chase of the former squadron on Christmas Day.

"After leaving Lord Collingwood we fell in with a French squadron on December 25, off the Canaries, which we now know was commanded by Jerome Bonaparte.

"You cannot conceive the joy expressed by every one on board. Every individual thought himself a king, and expected that day to be one of the happiest Christmases he had ever spent. But from the very bad sailing of several ships of the fleet, Jerome had the good luck to escape, and the joy of the squadron was turned into melancholy, which had not altogether worn off until we found the squadron at St. Domingo (quite a different one). I can give you very little idea of the exultation expressed by every countenance when we were certain of bringing them to action. The scene was truly grand, particularly when you consider the feelings on board the two squadrons, the one making every exertion to get away, and determined to run the gauntlet in order to escape, and the other straining every nerve to prevent their flight. They were at this time going before the wind, and we were endeavouring to cross them, in order to prevent the possibility of their escape, which fortunately, from the superior sailing of the Superb, we were able to effect.

"The enemy brought their two largest ships together (l'Alexandre, the headmost, and l'Impériale) seemingly with a view to quiet the fire of the English Admiral in the Superb, before any of the other ships could come up; but in this they were disappointed, for the second broadside from the Superb fortunately did such execution on board the enemy's headmost ship, l'Alexandre, that she became quite unmanageable and lost her station. The three-decker was by this time within pistol-shot of the Superb, and apparently reserving her fire for us; but at this critical moment Admiral Cochrane in the Nortumberland came up, and notwithstanding the small distance between the Superb and l'Imperiale, he gallantly placed her between us, and received the whole broadside of the largest, and esteemed the finest, ship in the French navy. Several of the shot passed quite through the Nortumberland into the Superb. The action then became general, and, as you must be already informed, terminated most honourably for the British Navy; for although the enemy was a little inferior, yet, according to the most accurate calculation, they were entirely annihilated in the short space of one hour."

According to the log of the Canopus, the time seems to have been nearer two hours than one, but something must be allowed for the enthusiasm of the young officer who writes this letter, and his pride in the very "superior sailing" and other perfections of the Superb.

Jerome Bonaparte was not in command of the whole squadron sighted on Christmas Day, but was captain of one of the ships, the Veteran. He soon became tired of the sea, however, finding the throne of Westphalia more congenial to his tastes.

The exact comparison between the enemy's force and that of our own is given in the log.

Superb7490Le Dioméde80900
Agamemnon64490Le Jupitre74700
Canopus80700Le Brave74700


Acasta40320La Comette40350
Magicienne36250La Filicité40350
Kingfisher36250La Diligente24200

The following letter was written by Captain Austen to Mary Gibson on the day after the action:

"Canopus, OFF ST. DOMINGO, February 7, 1806.

"MY DEAREST MARY, —The news of an action with an enemy's squadron flies like wildfire in England, and I have no doubt but you will have heard of the one we had yesterday soon after the vessel which goes home shall arrive. It will, therefore, I am sure, be a source of satisfaction to you and my other friends at Ramsgate to have proof under my own hand of my having escaped unhurt from the conflict. We had intelligence while laying at St. Kitts, on the 2nd instant, that a French squadron had arrived at St. Domingo, and immediately quitted that place in pursuit. Happily yesterday morning at daylight we got sight of them at anchor off the town of St. Domingo, consisting of one ship of 120 guns, two of 80, two of 74, and three frigates. Soon as we appeared in view, they got under sail, not to meet, but to avoid us. We had one 80-gun ship, five of 74, and one of 64, besides two frigates and four corvettes. Our situation was such as to prevent their escape. The action commenced at half-past ten, and was finally over by half-past twelve, when three of the enemy's ships were in our possession, and the other two dismasted and on the rocks. The frigates escaped. Had we been two miles farther off the land we should have got the whole. We must, however, be truly thankful for the mercies which have been showed us in effecting such a victory with a comparatively inconsiderable loss. The Admiral is sending the prizes, and such of our own ships as have suffered most, to Jamaica, where, I suppose, we shall follow as soon as we have ascertained that the two ships on shore are in such a state as to prevent their getting off again. I am in hopes this action will be the means of our speedy quitting this country, and perhaps to return to Old England. Oh, how my heart throbs at the idea! The Canopus sails so bad that we were nearly the last ship in action; when we did get up, however, we had our share of it. Our people behaved admirably well, and displayed astonishing coolness during the whole time.

"The first broadside we gave brought our opponent's three masts down at once, and towards the close of the business we also had the satisfaction of giving the three-decker a tickling which knocked all his sticks away. We were so intermingled with the enemy that it was impossible to confine our attack to one, and though no one vessel struck to us in particular, I am sure we had a share in each. The Admiral is sending off his despatches, and I have only a few minutes which I have been able to steal from my duty on deck to write these few hurried lines. They will, I trust, be equal to a volume. . . .

"P.S.—We have not suffered much in masts and rigging, and I fancy not an officer is killed in the whole squadron."

The work of repairs had immediately to be considered after the action was over, and no doubt the "duty on deck" was very exacting when Francis Austen managed to snatch time to scrawl this letter for the relief of anxious ones at home.

The end of the two ships which ran on shore is given in the log.

"February 9, at eight. Saw the two ships which ran on shore during the action of the 6th, appearing to be full of water and quite wrecks.

"Observed the frigates to fire several guns at them. At 9 shortened sail and hove to. The Epervier stood towards the wrecks with a flag of truce. Epervier made telegraph signal: 'There are about twenty men on board the three-decker, and sixty on board the two-decker. Boats can approach; take them off, and fire the hulls if ordered.'

"Admiral made telegraph signal: 'Send two boats to the Acasta to assist in bringing off prisoners.' At a quarter past four, observed the wrecks to be on fire."

Soon after they were all on the passage towards Jamaica.

On February 12, an amusing incident is logged. Amusing it is in our eyes, though perfectly seriously recorded.

"12. Acasta made telegraph signals: An American ship four days from Trinidad. The master reports that he saw there an English gazette, containing particulars of great successes gained by the allied powers on the Continent over the French, who are stated to have been everywhere beaten, their armies destroyed, and Bonaparte flying or killed. This had been brought to Trinidad by the mail boat from Barbadoes, and the garrison fired a night salute on the joyful occasion."

This was, of course, quite at variance with facts.

The voyage home from Jamaica was uneventful, except for the constant trouble given by l'Alexandre, which had evidently been badly damaged in the action, and had at last to be taken in tow. It was a happier home-coming for Captain Austen than he had looked forward to soon after Trafalgar. To return after a successful action with three prizes in company was a better fate than had then seemed possible.

They arrived on April 29, when the record stands:

"Saw the lighthouse of St. Agnes bearing N.N.E. by E., distant six or seven leagues; made signal for seeing land," with what feelings it is easier to imagine than to describe. Such a description has been attempted over and over again, with varying degrees of success. Jane Austen tells of a sailor's leave-taking and return only once, and then, as is her way, by the simple narration of details. Anne Elliot and Captain Harville are having the time-honoured argument as to the relative strength of the feelings of men and women, and to illustrate his point Captain Harville says: "If I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, 'God knows whether we ever meet again.' And then if I could convey to you the glow of his soul when he does see them again; when coming back after a twelvemonths' absence, perhaps, he calculates how soon it be possible to get them there, pretending to deceive himself, and saying, 'They cannot be here till such a day,' but all the while hoping for them twelve hours sooner, and seeing them arrive at last, as if heaven had given them wings, by many hours sooner still. If I could explain to you all this, and all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do for the sake of these treasures of his existence. . ."

Jane Austen must, indeed, have known something of the feelings of "such men as have hearts," and the troubles and joys of the seafaring life.

Several of the West Indian Governments and Trading Associations voted addresses, as well as more substantial recognition, to the Admirals and officers engaged at St. Domingo, who also received the thanks of Parliament on their return to England.