Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



ON June 20, 1808, on the St. Albans' passage towards England, there is an entry in the log: "Exchanged numbers with the Raven brig. The brig is from off Lisbon. The French have taken possession of Spain. The Spanish Royal Family are prisoners in France. It is not certainly known where the Rochefort squadron is gone, but supposed into the Mediterranean."

This was the beginning of the Peninsular War, in its results disastrous to Napoleon. Napoleon's calm supposition that he could turn out the King of Spain and put in Joseph Bonaparte at his own pleasure, was formed without reference to the feelings of the people of Spain and Portugal; and futile as their objections might have been if unsupported, their appeal to England was far-reaching in its consequences. Not only was the seat of war transferred to a country which, with its long sea-coast, was favourable to British arms, but the actual naval gain was very great. Such ships of the French Navy as had escaped from Trafalgar were still lying in Cadiz, and had now no course open to them but surrender, while the Spanish and Portuguese fleets, on which Napoleon counted, were of course entirely hostile to him.

The feeling in England over this war was very strong. Added to the hatred of Napoleon, which would have made almost any of his actions abhorrent, there was a real impulse of generous anger at the oppression shown in pretending to buy the nation from its wretched King, in order to establish a purely arbitrary dominion. At the same time it was a grave question whether Napoleon, with his many legions, was to be resisted successfully.

As yet, however, Napoleon had not entered Spain, and Junot was in command of the French army in the West of the Peninsula.

Sir Arthur Wellesley was first appointed to command the British expedition, but England does not always know her best men, and almost at once Sir Harry Burrard was despatched to take over the work. The battle of Vimiera was the first serious encounter, and, but for the hesitation of Burrard to follow up his advantage, might have been decisive.

Sir Hew Dalrymple next day arrived from England to supersede Burrard, and after some vacillation, not unnatural under the circumstances, between the policy of Wellesley and that of Burrard, he prepared to push on, and was met by French proposals of a Convention. The Convention of Cintra secured that the French should evacuate Portugal, leaving for France on board British ships, and as they were determined to take everything with them that they could lay their hands on, this was not a bad arrangement for the French. Such, at least, was the opinion in England, and a court of inquiry soon came to the conclusion that it would have been better to leave the entire matter in the hands of Wellesley, who was first on the scene, and had consequently other qualifications for accurate judgment besides those which his genius gave him.

Napoleon, however, saw very clearly how much harm the battle of Vimiera had done him, and came himself to Spain, enraged at Junot's defeat. The campaign of Sir John Moore, ending at Corunna, is too well known for any description to be necessary. The fact that Napoleon could not have everything his own way was established, and the struggle in the Peninsula went on, until it closed five years later with the capture of San Sebastian.

Some extracts from the log of the St. Albans and two letters, tell us of the small share which Francis Austen had in this business. "St. Albans, in the English Channel, July 22nd, 1808. Received on board Brigadier-General Anstruther with his staff and suite. Weighed and made sail, twenty-three sail of transports in company.

"July 23.—At a quarter past nine hove to and called the masters of the transports on board by signal. Issued to them a sealed rendezvous."

The transports were bad sailors, so it was not until August 5 that they got away from the English Channel on the passage towards Portugal. On the 12th, off Corunna, news was received from the Defiance, which caused a deviation in the route in order to bring Anstruther into touch with Wellesley, who was then near Figuero, just before the battle of Vimiera.

"August 16.—Saw a number of ships at anchor in Figuero Roads. At two o'clock Captain Malcolm came on board, and brought instructions for the General as to the disposition of the troops.

"August 17.—Sent a boat with despatches for Sir Arthur Wellesley on board the transport sent from Figuero (for this purpose).

"August 19.—At anchor off the Burlings. Light airs and cloudy weather. At three o'clock a Portuguese boat came alongside with a messenger having despatches for Brigadier-General Anstruther from Sir Arthur Wellesley. At daylight a very thick fog. At eleven the fog cleared away, weighed and made sail to the southward. At three, anchored off Panago in company, hoisted out all the boats and sent them to disembark the troops. At six, the General and his staff quitted the ship. Light airs and fine weather. All the boats of the fleet employed landing the troops."

The landing went on all night, and was finished next morning.

On Sunday, the 21st: "Observed an action between the English and French armies on the heights over Merceira." This was the battle of Vimiera, where Kellerman and Berthier vainly endeavoured to dislodge the British from the crest of the hills.

August 22.—"Sent all the boats on shore to assist in taking off the wounded of our army to the hospital ships. Boats also employed embarking French prisoners on board some of the transports."

August 24.—"On the passage towards Oporto." Thence they went back to England, where on September 2 the French prisoners were discharged at Spithead to the prison ships in the harbour.

Two letters written to the Honble. W. Wellesley Pole, brother of Sir Arthur Wellesley, give this story in a different form.

"St. Albans OFF THE BUHLINGS, August 18, 1808.

"SIR,—I have to state to you for the information of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that in consequence of intelligence respecting the British Army in Portugal, communicated by Captain Hotham, of his Majesty's ship Defiance, on the 12th inst. off Corunna, Brigadier-General Anstruther commanding the troops embarked on board the transports under my convoy, requested us not to pass Figuera without affording him an opportunity of obtaining some further intelligence relative to the situation of Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley; with this, from existing circumstances, I thought it my duty to comply, although contrary to the strict letter of my orders, and accordingly when round Cape Finisterre, steered for Cape Mondego, off which I arrived at noon on the 16th. The Brigadier-General receiving there orders to proceed along the coast to the southward and join the convoy under his Majesty's ship Alfred, whose captain would give him further information respecting the position and operations of the army by which he was to guide his own, I proceeded in consequence thereof with the fleet, and yesterday at 1 P.M. joined the Alfred off Phenice.

"At four o'clock, in compliance with the Brigadier-General's wish, I anchored with the transports under the Burlings, to prevent their dispersion, and to await the arrival of directions from the Lieutenant-General, to whom an aide-de-camp was yesterday despatched to announce our arrival, force, and position.

"One of my convoy, having a detachment of the 2nd battalion of the 52nd Regiment on board, parted company on the night of the 12th instant, and has, I suppose, in compliance with the secret rendezvous I issued on the 23rd of July, proceeded off the Tagus.

"I have the honour to be, Sir,
"Your obedient humble servant,

From the same to the same.

St. Albans, SPITHEAD, September 2, 1808.

"SIR,—In my letter to you of the 18th ultimate from off the Burlings forwarded by the Kangaroo, I had the honour to announce for the information of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, the arrival of his Majesty's ship St. Albans, and the transports under my charge at that anchorage. I have now to state to you, for their Lordships' further information, that the following morning the fleet moved on to the southward, and anchored at 3 P.M. off Paymago, where dispositions were immediately made for disembarking the troops, which was effected in the course of the night. On the 20th, I proceeded with the empty transports, agreeably to the directions I received from Captain Blight, to join the Alfred off Merceira, about six miles more to the southward, and anchoring there at noon of the 21st, remaining until the 24th, my boats being all that time employed in landing provisions and stores for the army, and embarking a number of French prisoners and wounded British soldiers on board such of the transports as had been appropriated for their reception.

"On the 24th at noon, in obedience to directions contained in a letter I received the evening before from Admiral Sir Charles Cotton, I put to sea with twenty-nine transports under my convoy, and proceeded with them off Oporto, where I anchored on the evening of the 27th, and remained for twenty-four hours until I had seen all safe over the bar. I then weighed, and, making the best of my way to England, anchored at Spithead at 8 A.M. this day."

The St. Albans remained in British waters until March in the following year, for the greater part of the time at Spithead, where, in January 1809, Captain Austen took charge of the disembarkation of the remains of Sir John Moore's army on their arrival from Corunna.

Two of the very few references to public matters which occur in Jane Austen's letters are made concerning Sir John Moore and his army.

"December 27, 1808.—The St. Albans perhaps may soon be off to help bring home what may remain by this time of our poor army, whose state seems dreadfully critical." "I am sorry to find that Sir J. Moore has a mother living, but, though a very heroic son, he might not be a very necessary one to her happiness. Deacon Morrel may be more to Mrs. Morrel. I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the hero in his death. Thank heaven, we have no one to care for particularly among the troops, no one, in fact, nearer to us than Sir John himself. Colonel Maitland is safe and well; his mother and sisters were of course anxious about him, but there is no entering much into the solicitudes of that family."

It was in November of 1808 that Mrs. Edward Austen, the 'Elizabeth' of the letters, died. Great grief was evidently felt by all her husband's family. Jane's letters at the time are full of love and sympathy. Cassandra was staying with her brother, and Frank got a few days' extra leave in order to go there, about a month after the death.

Jane writes to tell his plans.

"November 21.

"Your letter, my dear Cassandra, obliges me to write immediately, that you may have the earliest notice of Frank's intending, if possible, to go to Godmersham exactly at the time now fixed for your visit to Goodnestone. He resolved almost directly on the receipt of your former letter to try for an extension of his leave of absence, that he might be able to go down to you for two days, but charged me not to give you any notice of it, on account of the uncertainty of success. Now, however, I must give it, and now perhaps he may be giving it himself; for I am just in the hateful predicament of being obliged to write what I know will somehow or other be of no use. He meant to ask for five days more, and if they were granted to go down by Thursday's night mail, and spend Friday and Saturday with you; and he considered his chance of success by no means bad. I hope it will take place as he planned, and that your arrangements with Goodnestone may admit of suitable alteration."

During Francis Austen's commands of the Leopard, Canopus, and St. Albans, covering the eventful years of the Boulogne blockade, and of Trafalgar, and up to 1819, Charles Austen was serving on the North American station in command of the Indian sloop. The work to be done on the coast of the United States was both arduous and thankless. It consisted mainly in the enforcement of the right of search for deserters, and the curtailment of the American carrying trade, so far as it was considered illicit.

British war policy had made it necessary to forbid trading by neutrals between European countries under the sway of Napoleon, and their dependencies in other parts of the world. American ingenuity succeeded in evading this prohibition by arranging for the discharge and reshipment of cargoes at some United States port, en route. The ship would load originally at a West Indian port with goods for Europe, then sail to a harbour in Massachusetts (for example), where the cargo was warehoused, and the vessel repaired. When ready for sea, the captain got the same cargo on board again, and departed for the designated market on this side of the Atlantic. No wonder that American vessels were so frequently spoken by the Canopus and the St. Albans, for in 1806 and the following years nearly all the carrying trade was done under the Stars and Stripes. American shipmasters were able to pay very high wages, and desertions from British men-of-war were frequent. Our cruisers had to take strong measures in face of this growing evil, and finally an American frigate was boarded, and several of the crew forcibly removed as deserters. Such action was possible only on account of the great strength of the British naval force, a practical blockade of the United States ports being enforced along the whole Atlantic seaboard. This had been done in consequence of decisions of the Admiralty Court against some of the reshipments, which were held by the Judges to be evasions of the actual blockades of hostile ports. The state of tension gradually became acute, but both Governments were so loth to fight that negotiations were on foot for several years before the President of the United States declared war in 1812. In 1809 a settlement seemed to have been reached, and a fleet of six hundred American traders had already got to sea, when it was discovered that the treaty could not be ratified. It was indeed almost impossible for England to alter her policy as regards neutral traders, or to abandon the right of search for deserters, so long as every resource was necessary in the struggle against Napoleon.

Captain Mahan, writing on the "Continental System," puts the matter in a nutshell when he says: "The neutral carrier, pocketing his pride, offered his services to either (combatant) for pay, and the other then regarded him as taking part in the hostilities."

In 1808 the Indian, Charles Austen's ship, captured La Jeune Estelle, a small privateer, but the work on the North-American station was unprofitable as regards prize-money. In 1810 Charles gained post rank as captain of the Swiftsure, flagship to Sir John Warren. The great event of these years for him was his marriage in 1807 with Fanny Palmer, daughter of the Attorney-General of Bermuda.

In Jane's letters there are constant mentions of him.

"December 27.—I must write to Charles next week. You may guess in what extravagant terms of praise Earle Harwood speaks of him. He is looked up to by everybody in all America."

"January 10.—Charles's rug will be finished to-day, and sent to-morrow to Frank, to be consigned by him to Mr. Turner's care; and I am going to send 'Marmion' out with it—very generous in me, I think." "Marmion" was then just published. She was a great admirer of Scott, and doubtless felt the parting from his latest work, even when making a present of it to Charles. In another of her letters she writes:

"Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profits enough as a poet, and ought not to be taking the bread out of other people's mouths. I do not mean to like 'Waverley' if I can help it, but I fear I must."

We hear one more small piece of news concerning Charles in a letter of Jane's dated January 24, 1809: "I had the happiness yesterday of a letter from Charles, but I shall say as little about it as possible, because I know that excruciating Henry will have a letter likewise, to make all my intelligence valueless. It was written at Bermuda on the 7th and 10th of December. All were well. He had taken a small prize in his late cruise—a French schooner laden with sugar; but bad weather parted them, and she had not yet been heard of. His cruise ended December 1st. My September letter was the latest he had received."

We have the sequel to this incident in a letter from Charles to Cassandra, dated from Bermuda on December 24, in which he says:

"I wrote to Jane about a fortnight ago acquainting her with my arrival at this place and of my having captured a little Frenchman, which, I am truly sorry to add, has never reached this port, and, unless she has run to the West Indies, I have lost her—and, what is a real misfortune, the lives of twelve of my people, two of them mids. I confess I have but little hopes of ever hearing of her again. The weather has been so very severe since we captured her. I wish you a merry and happy Xmas, in which Fan joins me, as well as in bespeaking the love of her dear Grandmother and Aunts for our little Cassandra. The October and November mails have not yet reached us, so that I know nothing of you of late. I hope you have been more fortunate in hearing of me. I expect to sail on Tuesday with a small convoy for the island of St. Domingo, and, after seeing them in safety, open sealed orders, which I conclude will direct me to cruise as long as my provisions, &c., will allow, which is generally a couple of months. My companion, the Vesta, is to be with me again, which I like very much. I don't know of any opportunity of sending this, but shall leave it to take its chance. Tom Fowler is very well, and is growing quite manly. I am interrupted, so conclude this by assuring you how truly I am

"Your affectionate friend
and attached brother,

Charles stayed only five months in the Swiftsure. In September 1810 he took command of the Cleopatra, and brought her home in the following April, after an absence of six and a half years.

Jane's letters show how gladly the news of our own particular little brother's " home-coming was welcomed. In an account of an evening party given at the Henry Austens', she tells how she heard that Charles was soon to return. "At half-past seven arrived the musicians in two hackney coaches, and by eight the lordly company began to appear. Among the earliest were George and Mary Cooke, and I spent the greatest part of the evening very pleasantly with them. The drawing-room being soon hotter than we liked, we placed ourselves in the connecting passage, which was comparatively cool, and gave us all the advantage of the music at a pleasant distance, as well as that of the first view of every new comer. I was quite surrounded by acquaintances, especially gentlemen; and what with Mr. Hampson, Mr. Seymour, Mr. W. Knatchbull, Mr. Guillemarde, Mr. Cure, a Captain Simpson, brother to the Captain Simpson, besides Mr. Walter, and Mr. Egerton, in addition to the Cookes, and Miss Beckford, and Miss Middleton, I had quite as much upon my hands as I could do. This said Captain Simpson told us, on the authority of some other captain just arrived from Halifax, that Charles was bringing the Cleopatra home, and that she was by this time probably in the Channel; but as Captain S. was certainly in liquor we must not depend on it. It must give one a sort of expectation, however, and will prevent my writing to him any more. I would rather he should not reach England till I am at home, and the Steventon party gone."

A curious time and place to receive such news, and a still more curious informant according to the ideas of these days, when men do not appear at an evening party "in liquor."

In November 1811 Charles was appointed to the Namur, as Flag Captain to his old friend, Sir Thomas Williams, who was now Commander-in-Chief at the Nore.