Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



DURING the cruises of the Canopus, we have only one letter from Jane Austen with any mention of Frank, and that is before his disappointment of Trafalgar, or his success at St. Domingo. The full quotation serves to show some of the difficulties of correspondence. She writes to Cassandra "I have been used very ill this morning. I have received a letter from Frank which I ought to have had when Elizabeth and Henry had theirs, and which in its way from Albany to Godmersham has been to Dover and Steventon. It was finished on the ióth, and tells what theirs told before as to his present situation; he is in a great hurry to be married, and I have encouraged him in it, in the letter which ought to have been an answer to his. He must think it very strange that I do not acknowledge the receipt of his, when I speak of those of the same date to Eliz and Henry, and to add to my injuries, I forgot to number mine on the outside." This plan of numbering was a certain safeguard against misunderstandings, as it made it easy to find out if a letter had been lost. The "present situation" was that off Ushant, after the chase of Villeneuve across the Atlantic, and before the orders to return southward had been received.

In July 1806, Francis was married to Mary Gibson, known hereafter by her sisters-in-law as "Mrs. F. A." to distinguish her from the other Mary, "Mrs. J. A."

Among the many social functions subjected to Jane Austen's criticism, it is not likely that the absurdities of a fashionable marriage would escape her attention. The subject is treated with more than ordinary severity in "Mansfield Park"—"It was a very proper wedding. The bride was elegantly dressed, the two bridesmaids were duly inferior, her father gave her away, her mother stood with salts in her hand, expecting to be agitated, her aunt tried to cry, and the service was impressively read by Dr. Grant. Nothing could be objected to, when it came under the discussion of the neighbourhood, except that the carriage which conveyed the bride and bridegroom and Julia from the Church door to Sotherton was the same chaise which Mr. Rushworth had used for a twelvemonth before. In every thing else the etiquette of the day might stand the strictest investigation."

Such was Jane Austen's comment on the worldly marriage. Her estimate of her own brother's wedding may be better gathered from the account of that of Mr. Knightly and Emma.

"The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery and parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own, 'very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business. Selina would stare when she heard of it.' But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union."

From the time of his marriage till the following April, Francis was free to spend his time with his wife at Southampton, where they were settling not far from the house where his mother and sisters now lived.

This time was evidently a very pleasant one for Jane. She makes several mentions of Frank and his wife and their common pursuits in her letters to Cassandra.

"We did not take our walk on Friday, it was too dirty, nor have we yet done it; we may perhaps do something like it to-day, as after seeing Frank skate, which he hopes to do in the meadows by the beach, we are to treat ourselves with a passage over the ferry. It is one of the pleasantest frosts I ever knew, so very quiet. I hope it will last some time longer for Frank's sake, who is quite anxious to get some skating; he tried yesterday, but it would not do.

"Our acquaintance increase too fast. He was recognised lately by Admiral Bertie, and a few days since arrived the Admiral and his daughter Catherine to wait upon us. There was nothing to like or dislike in either. To the Berties are to be added the Lances, with whose cards we have been endowed, and whose visit Frank and I returned yesterday. They live about a mile and three-quarters from S., to the right of the new road to Portsmouth, and I believe their house is one of those which are to be seen from almost anywhere among the woods on the other side of the Itchen. It is a handsome building, stands high, and in a very beautiful situation."

The next letter is an answer to one from Cassandra delaying her return, evidently a matter of regret to the whole household.

"Frank and Mary cannot at all approve of your not being at home in time to help them in their finishing purchases, and desire me to say that, if you are not, they will be as spiteful as possible, and choose everything in the style most likely to vex you—knives that will not cut, glasses that will not hold, a sofa without a seat, and bookcase without shelves. But I must tell you a story. Mary had for some time had notice from Mrs. Dickson of the intended arrival of a certain Miss Fowler in this place. Miss F. is an intimate friend of Mrs. D., and a good deal known as such to Mary. On Thursday last she called here while we were out. Mary found, on our return, her card with only her name on it, and she had left word that she would call again. The particularity of this made us talk, and, among other conjectures, Frank said in joke, 'I dare say she is staying with the Pearsons.' The connection of the names struck Mary, and she immediately recollected Miss Fowler's having been very intimate with persons so called, and, upon putting everything together, we have scarcely a doubt of her actually being staying with the only family in the place whom we cannot visit.

"What a contretemps!—in the language of France. What an unluckiness!—in that of Madame Duval. The black gentleman has certainly employed one of his menial imps to bring about this complete, though trifling mischief. Miss Fowler has never called again, but we are in daily expectation of it. Miss P. has, of course, given her a proper understanding of the business. It is evident that Miss F. did not expect or wish to have the visit returned, and Francis is quite as much on his guard for his wife as we could for her sake or our own."

What the mysterious disagreement with the Pearson family may have been it is impossible to tell. That it caused more amusement than heartburn is clear, but Jane was always an adept, as she says herself at constructing "a smartish letter, considering the want of materials."

The next we hear of Frank (beyond the fact that he has "got a very bad cold, for an Austen; but it does not disable him from making very nice fringe for the drawing-room curtains") is on the question of his further employment. He was very anxious indeed to get into a frigate, but feared that the death of Lord Nelson, who knew of his desire, would seriously damage his chances of getting what he wanted. Jane writes: "Frank's going into Kent depends of course upon his being unemployed; but as the First Lord, after promising Lord Moira that Captain A. should have the first good frigate that was vacant, has since given away two or three fine ones, he has no particular reason to expect an appointment now. He, however, has scarcely spoken about the Kentish journey. I have my information chiefly from her, and she considers her own going thither as more certain if he should be at sea than if not." This was in February 1807. Mrs. Frank Austen was very soon to feel the loneliness of a sailor's wife. In April 1807, Captain Austen took command of the St. Albans, then moored in Sheerness Harbour.

Naval matters, though much better than they had been, were by no means in order yet, and great was the difficulty experienced in getting the ship properly equipped. Letter after letter was written by the Captain to "the principal Officers and Commissioners of His Majesty's Navy" before the ship could be got ready for sea, properly supplied with stores and men. It was not until late in June that they at last got away on convoying duty to the Cape of Good Hope.

The account of Simon's Bay in the notebook of Francis Austen is interesting, when compared with the state of things now existing at the Cape. After sundry very instructive but entirely nautical directions for sailing in and out, and anchoring, he goes on to make a few remarks respectively on wooding and watering, fortifications and landing-places, trade and shipping and inhabitants, from each of which we give extracts.

"Wood is not to be had here, except by purchase, and is extravagantly dear; nor is there any sort of fuel to be procured.

"Water is plentiful and of an excellent quality; a stream is brought by pipes to the extremity of the wharf, where two boats may fill with hoses at the same time, but as the run of water which supplies it is frequently diverted to other purposes by the inhabitants, it is rather a tedious mode of watering, and better calculated for keeping up the daily consumption after being once completed, than for supplying the wants of a squadron or ship arriving from a voyage.

"The method generally used by the men-of-war is to land their casks on the sandy beach on the N.W. part of the bay, a little to the Westward of the North battery, where there are two or three considerable runs of water down the sides of the mountains, and make wells or dipping-places by sinking half-casks in the sand. In this way, many ships fill their water at the same time without at all interfering with or retarding each other's progress. The casks so filled must be rafted off, as there is generally too much surf to get them into the boats, and when the South-easters set in strong it is impracticable to get them off at all. The casks may however remain on shore without injury, and being ready filled may be got off when the weather suits. Both watering-places are completely commanded by the batteries as well as by the ships at anchorage.

"The anchorage is protected and commanded by two batteries and a round tower. One on the South-east point of the bay, called the Block-house, on which are three twenty-four-pounders, and a ten-inch mortar. It is elevated about thirty feet above the level of the sea, and commands the whole of the bay, as well as the passage into the westward of the Roman Rocks.

"The round tower is close at the back of, and indeed may be considered as appertaining to the Block-house. It has one twenty-four-pounder mounted on a traversing carriage, and contains very good barracks for fifty or sixty soldiers. The other, called the North Battery, is, as its name bespeaks, on the north side of the bay. It stands on a small rocky point between two sandy bays, on an elevation of twenty or twenty-five feet above the level of the sea, and is mounted with three long eighteen-pounders and two ten-inch mortars. Neither of these works could make much resistance if regularly attacked by sea or land, and are all completely commanded by higher ground in their rear within half cannon-shot. There is besides these another battery called Tucker's, about halt a mile to the southward of the Block-house, but not in sight from the anchorage; on it are three eighteen-pounders. It was constructed in consequence of a French frigate running into the bay (not knowing it to be in the possession of the English) and getting aground somewhere near that spot. It is however so placed as to be of no use as a defence to the bay, for a ship, or squadron, coming in with hostile intentions need not, except from choice, pass within reach of its guns, and as a military post it is confessedly ntenable, being completely commanded by higher ground behind it.

The only regular landing—place is at the wharf which runs out about fifty yards into the sea, and is very convenient, having always sufficient water to allow of the largest boats when loaded to lie alongside it without taking the ground. In moderate weather, boats may, if required to do so, land in almost any part of the bay, and it is, except where the rocks show themselves, a beach of very fine sand. There is very little trade here, it having been chiefly used whilst in the possession of the Dutch as a kind of half-way house for their ships on their passage both to and from India and China.

"The produce of those countries may however be generally procured, and on reasonable terms, as duties on importation are so moderate that the officers of the East India ships frequently find it worth their while to dispose of their private investments here, rather than carry them to England. There has been a whale fishery lately established by a few individuals in a bay about four miles to the north-east, called Calp's or Calk's Bay, which appears to be doing very well, but I imagine could not be very much extended. There is no ship or vessel whatever belonging to the place, and only a few small boats used for the purposes of fishing.

"The arsenal or naval yard is a compact row of storehouses under one roof, and enclosed with a wall and gates, well situated for its purpose, fronting a sandy beach and adjoining the wharf. It contains all the necessary buildings and accommodations as a depot of naval and victualling stores on a small scale, adequate however to the probable wants of any squadron which is ever likely to be stationed there.

"The inhabitants are a mongrel breed, a mixture of many nations, but principally descended from the first Dutch settlers whose language (probably a good deal corrupted both in ideas and pronunciation) is in general use. The Government is now English, but the civil, as well as the criminal jurisprudence is regulated by the colonial laws, as originally established by the Dutch East India Company, somewhat modified and ameliorated by the milder influence of English law. The prevailing religion is Calvinistic, but there are many Lutherans, and some of various sects."

The contrast between the Cape in 1807 and the Cape in 1905 is so strong that it needs no emphasising.

After calling at Ascension Island and St. Helena, the St. Albans returned to England. The progress of contemporary history may be noted by the news which they received on their way back, which was duly logged:

"By this ship informed of capture of Copenhagen and the cession of the Danish fleet to the English forces under Lord Cathcart and Admiral Gambier." By January 1 they were back at Spithead, where they remained till the beginning of February, sailing thence, as was so often the custom, under sealed orders. On opening the sealed packet Captain Austen found that he was directed to accompany the convoy to St. Helena.

The following account of the island is interesting when it is remembered that at that time it was an unimportant spot, not yet associated with memories of Napoleon. The note opens with a colossal sentence!

"This island being in the hands of the English East India Company, and used by it merely as a rendezvous for its homeward-bound fleets, where during time of war they are usually met at stated periods by some King's ship appointed to take them to England, has no trade but such as arises from the sale of those few articles of produce, consisting chiefly in poultry, fruit, and vegetables, which are beyond the consumption of its inhabitants, and a petty traffic carried on by a few shopkeepers, who purchase such articles of India and China goods, as individuals in the Company's ships may have to dispose of, which they retail to the inhabitants and casual visitors at the island.

"The inhabitants are chiefly English, or of English descent, although there is a considerable number of negroes on the island, which with very few exceptions are the property of individuals or of the Company, slavery being tolerated here. It does not however appear that the slaves are or can be treated with that harshness and despotism which has been so justly attributed to the conduct of the land-holders or their managers in the West India Islands, the laws of the Colony not giving any other power to the master than a right to the labour of his slave. He must, to enforce that right, in case a slave prove refractory, apply to the civil power, he having no right to inflict chastisement at his own discretion. This is a wholesome regulation as far as it goes, but slavery however it may be modified is still slavery, and it is much to be regretted that any trace of it should be found to exist in countries dependent on England, or colonised by her subjects. Every person who is above the rank of a common soldier is in some shape or other a trader. A few acres of ground laid out in meadow, or garden ground, will seldom fail to yield as much produce in the year as would purchase the fee-simple of an equal quantity in England, and this from the extravagant price which the wants of the homeward bound India ships (whose captains and passengers rolling in wealth, and accustomed to profusion, must have supplies cost what they may) enable the islanders to affix to every article they raise. To such an extent had this cause operated, that a couple of acres of potatoes, or a garden of cabbages in a favourable season will provide a decent fortune for a daughter."

The voyage home was uneventful, retarded by masses of floating gulf weed, which continued very thick indeed for over a week.

By the 30th of June the St. Albans was back again in the Downs. The little stir consequent in the family life is indicated in Jane's letters, written when she was away from home at Godmersham. "One begins really to expect the St. Albans now, and I wish she may come before Henry goes to Cheltenham, it will be so much more convenient to him. He will be very glad if Frank can come to him in London, as his own time is likely to be very precious, but does not depend on it. I shall not forget Charles next week." A few days later she writes "I am much obliged to you for writing to me on Thursday, and very glad that I owe the pleasure of hearing from you again so soon to such an agreeable cause; but you will not be surprised, nor perhaps so angry as I should be, to find that Frank's history had reached me before in a letter from Henry. We are all very happy to hear of his health and safety, he wants nothing but a good prize to be a perfect character. This scheme to the island is an admirable thing for his wife, she will not feel the delay of his return in such variety." On the 30th: "I give you all joy of Frank's return, which happens in the true sailor way, just after our being told not to expect him for some weeks. The wind had been very much against him, but I suppose he must be in our neighbourhood now by this time. Fanny is in hourly expectation of him here. Mary's visit in the island is probably shortened by this event. Make our kind love and congratulations to her."

While on these last voyages Captain Austen made two charts, one of Simon's Bay, and one of the north-west side of the island of St. Helena, which are still in use at the Admiralty. An interesting point in the correspondence of the Captain of the St. Albans at this time relates to the conduct of the masters of the various vessels belonging to the convoy. They are very warmly commended for their skill and attention, while some few from the "cheerfulness and alacrity with which they repeatedly towed for many successive days some heavy sailing ships of the convoy, a service always disagreeable, and often dangerous," are specially recommended to the notice of the East India Company. No doubt such praise from captains of the men-of-war engaged in convoying, was a useful means of advancement in the service of the Company, and one which would be earnestly desired. It is an instance of the justice and appreciativeness which was a characteristic of Francis Austen that the master of the very ship which most retarded the progress of the convoy comes in for his share of praise, perhaps even warmer than that given to the more successful officers. "I can not conclude without observing that the indefatigable attention of Captain Hay of the Retreat, in availing himself of every opportunity to get ahead, and his uncommon exertions in carrying a great press of sail both night and day, which the wretched sailing of his ship, when not in tow, rendered necessary, was highly meritorious, and I think it my duty to recommend him to the notice of the Court of Directors as an officer deserving a better command."

One incident of interest occurred on the return voyage, which can perhaps be better dealt with in another chapter.