Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



IN April 1809 the St. Albans was again at sea, this time on a voyage to China convoying East Indiamen.

The first place which Captain Austen describes on this voyage is Port Cornwallis, Prince of Wales Island, or Penang. He writes: "This harbour is formed by Prince of Wales Island (better known by the native name of Pulo Penang, signifying in the Malay language 'Betel-nut Island') and the opposite coast of the Malay Peninsula, from which at the nearest part it is distant about two miles. The approach to it is from the northward, and is neither difficult nor dangerous." After further remarks on the best way of sailing in and anchoring, the notes deal with the more generally interesting facts about the island. It must be remembered that at this time the Malays were giving constant trouble to British ships, by small but very ferocious attacks. "Wood is in the greatest abundance, the whole coast of the Malay Peninsula in the vicinity of this harbour being a forest, in which any quantity may be had for the trouble of cutting. Ships of war do not, however, usually procure it in that way, from the danger of introducing sickness amongst their crews by the exposure to the sun, which would be unavoidable. It may be purchased on the island at a reasonable price. Water is plentiful, and it has been generally considered of an excellent quality, and to keep well at sea.

"Buffalo beef may be procured here in any quantity. The meat is generally very coarse, lean, and ill-flavoured. Sheep are rarely to be procured, and never but at a very high price. It should seem to be an animal which the Malays have not got, as all those on the island are imported from Bengal, at a great expense, by individuals for their consumption. Fish is neither plentiful nor particularly good in kind; fruit and vegetables are abundant and excellent. They are of those species usually met with in tropical climates, with some peculiar to the eastern parts of India.

"The fortifications are by no means considerable, consisting in a square fort, situated on the extremity of the point which separates the outer from the inner harbour. It is probably quite sufficient to intimidate the Malays, or repel any attack they could make were they so disposed, but I should think it would be far from difficult for two or three ships of war to destroy it in a short time. The whole of the works are in a very dilapidated state. It is obviously incapable of affording any protection to the greater part of the town, as an enemy might land to the northward and destroy most of the buildings, or lay the inhabitants under contribution, without being exposed to a single gun from the fort. To the shipping in the harbour, indeed, it could give some protection, and that probably was the principal consideration in selecting the spot which it occupies. There was formerly a work called (from its shape, I presume) the Frying-pan Battery, but it is now in a state of ruin, a great part of it having fallen in. The sea appears to be gradually washing away the soil from under its foundations.

"The military force usually kept on the island consists in a battalion of Sepoys about 600 strong, and a company of European artillery. I did not understand that there was any militia or means of increasing the effective force in case of an attack or other emergency. The public wharf is built of wood, is of considerable breadth, and, being roofed over for its whole length, seems well adapted for sheltering goods of all sorts, in landing or shipping off, from the effects of the weather, and especially from the sun, which is generally very powerful there. The sides being open admit a free draught and circulation of air, so that it is perhaps, during the middle of the day, the coolest place in the town, and as such is resorted to by the Europeans, who make it a kind of Mall or lounging-place.

"Shortly after this island was settled by the English, the trade became considerable, and bid fair to increase, as it was found a very convenient situation for ships to touch at on their voyage between India and China, or any of the islands in the Eastern seas, having many local advantages over Malacca, which had previously been used for that purpose.

"It was also considered favourable for the cultivation of pepper, large plantations of which were made and throve exceedingly. In consequence of the war, however, which has so long desolated Europe, and in its progress gradually shut nearly every port on that continent against British ships and trade, the market for pepper grown here has been much straitened, and is now chiefly confined to China. The pepper plantations having in consequence thereof been found very unprofitable concerns, and in many instances I believe heavy losses, are now much reduced in number and extent; nor, so far as I could learn, has any other species of cultivation been introduced to occupy the soil and give employment to the labour and capital which have been so diverted.

"Many spots, which had been cleared and produced crops, are now neglected, and, as the progress of vegetation here is exceedingly rapid and luxuriant, are verging fast to their original wild, forest-like state.

"Within the last two or three years attempts have been made by a few gentlemen to introduce the culture of the nutmeg, clove and cinnamon; several plants have been procured which are in a thriving state, and it is generally thought that the soil and situation will suit them; but no return can possibly be obtained for the first five or six years, which must effectually prevent any but persons of large capitals embarking in such a concern.

"Many parts of the island would do very well for the growth of rice, but it has been the policy of the Government to discourage that species of husbandry as much as possible, from an idea that it would render the settlement unhealthy; and as that grain can always be procured in any quantity, and at a very cheap rate, from the Malay coast, the measure of obstructing its cultivation on the island seems to have been a prudent one.

"Timber fit for naval purposes may be procured at several places in the neighbourhood, particularly Pegu and Rangoon on the coast of Aracan, and Siacca on the north-east coast of Sumatra. There are several species of it, most, if not all, of which are considered very durable, particularly the teak. Poon and other spars fit for masts and yards may also be had from many parts of the Malay coast at very moderate prices, some of which are of a sufficient size to make a mainmast for a seventy-four-gun ship of a single tree. The wood is considerably heavier than fir, but being also much stronger, masts and yards made of it will admit of being reduced in diameter, and nearly, if not quite, equal to the difference in weight. Ships of considerable burden have at different times been built here; the last and largest was a thirty-six-gun frigate built at the expense of the East India Company, and launched in August 1809.

"It was in contemplation a few years back to construct docks here, and the little island of Jerajah was pointed out as a proper situation.

"Gates for the docks were sent out from England, and a steam-engine for working pumps, as the fall of water would not be sufficient to empty the docks; but nothing has yet been done, and the idea seems to have been given up.

"Having the means of docking ships here would on many occasions be productive of very great convenience as well to the public service as to private individuals. For want thereof any ship requiring to be docked must now go to Bengal, or, if a large one, to Bombay, at a great loss of time and increased expense, especially if trading to China or into the Eastern Seas, in which case it certainly would occasion the loss of the season altogether.

"The population of the island is said to be about 50,000 souls, but I should think it considerably over-rated at that statement. It is composed of various nations, Malays, Chinese, Cochin-Chinese, Siamese, Birmans, Bengalees, Malabars, Chulians, and most of the nations and castes of India, with a few Europeans, which last fill situations under the Government, or are engaged in mercantile concerns. The languages are as various as the nations, few of them speaking any other than that of their own country. It is a singular fact that more than thirty, totally distinct from each other, are spoken in the Bazar. The Government, appointed by the East India Directors, is entirely independent of the Presidencies. The present Governor is a military man, having the local rank on the islands of Colonel in the Company's army, and is Commander-in-Chief of all the troops there.

"As the civil code is in many instances suited to the peculiar customs and usages of the different nations composing the population, who are in general fond of litigation, the office of Chief Judge is a very arduous and fatiguing one."

The St. Albans was sent on to China with the convoy of East Indiamen, and anchored in the river of Canton. Various matters kept them here for more than five months, from September 18, 1809, till March 2, 1810.

The river of Canton had for many years been infested with pirates, called Ladrones, who robbed and murdered, devastated the country, attacked villages, and were even a danger to the town of Canton itself. In order to hold them in some measure in check, the Chinese Government had engaged an English vessel called the Mercury to act against them; and immediately on the arrival of the St. Albans, Francis Austen was asked if he would consider it consistent with his duty to give any further help. He replied that, considering the friendly relations between Britain and China, he should feel himself quite at liberty to give what help he could. He stipulated however that he should receive a written application from the Viceroy of Canton, and also that the restrictions which the Chinese Government had imposed on the British ships of war to prohibit them from passing the Bocca Tigris should be removed, and every part of the river made free to them. He pointed out that the Chinese Mandarin (or war) boats would be suitable for the purpose of attacking the Ladrones if overhauled, fitted with European artillery and manned by Europeans, and also that the British ships were of no manner of use in the river, as they were all much too large, and moreover all but the St. Albans would soon be on their passage home. He also expressed a readiness to wait on the Viceroy in order to talk the matter over.

The appointment was made to meet at the Hoppo's house at two o'clock on November 2; and here Captain Austen presented himself, but "after waiting nearly half an hour in a close dirty kind of lobby, exposed to the stare of every blackguard who could squeeze himself into the passage leading to it, and having our noses assailed by a combination of villanous smells, I was informed that the Viceroy had gone away, but that the Hoppo would come and speak to me." This Captain Austen absolutely declined, and retired, leaving word that if the Viceroy wished hereafter to see him, "he would at any time have it in his power to do so by coming to the British factory." He adds "It is not easy to account for the Viceroy's behaviour, but I am inclined to set it down to the score of imbecility, and a struggle between pride and the conviction of his own inability to arrest the progress of the pirates, in which the former has obtained the victory." His dealings with the Viceroy were, however, by no means at an end. About a month afterwards it was necessary to make a serious complaint to the Chinese Government. Some officers of the St. Albans had gone ashore for shooting. One of them was attacked by a buffalo, and was only rescued from being gored to death by his friends, who shot the animal. Numerous Chinamen immediately gathered round full of indignation at the slaughter of the brute, and, in spite of the protestations of the Englishmen, and their assertions that they would make full restitution, they were attacked in a most violent manner, and only got away by buying their liberty. Evidently the "very friendly feelings" supposed to be existing between the two governments were not so cordially shared by individuals.

After these two minor troubles, a very difficult matter came before Francis Austen, and his skill and courtesy in dealing with it earned him the unqualified thanks of the East India Company, besides some more substantial recognition. Just when the St. Albans and her convoy were prepared to put to sea again, they were informed that the "Chops" would not be granted to them, or the ships allowed to depart. The reason given was that a Chinaman had been killed in the town, and, it was stated, by an Englishman. This was a serious matter to deal with, as the evidence was most difficult to collect—the Chinese were thorough-paced liars—and every day of delay now made it more and more likely that the convoy would encounter bad weather on the way home. The Viceroy insisted that the English officers should themselves discover the offender, while Captain Austen pointed out that they had no means of knowing anything about the matter, even if the culprit were one of their own men, and that the police of Canton were more likely to be successful in discovering the offender. In a letter to Admiral Drury, Commander-in-Chief in India, Francis Austen feelingly remarks: "I need not detail to you, Sir, who are so well aware of them, the difficulties that oppose and retard the discussion of any question with the Chinese from various causes, but especially from the want of efficient means of getting our sentiments properly and faithfully rendered into Chinese, nor the pertinacity with which they adhere to any opinion they have once assumed, or assertion once made, in defiance of justice, equity and common sense. You know them all. But when 1 reflect upon these obstacles, and the general character of the people, I cannot help feeling in how very arduous a situation I am placed, and what important consequences may result from my conduct." The evidence of the two witnesses was certainly not of a sort to make matters easy for the Committee appointed to examine the question. "One states there was neither noise nor fighting, the other that there was noise and he saw fighting for ten minutes, although not being present at the commencement of it he knew not how much longer it might have been going on. Again one of them stated that he knew nothing of the business and was not with the deceased when he was stabbed, and immediately afterwards stated that he saw him stabbed, and was only four cubits from him at the time. One of them states it to be quite dark, and the other that it was moonlight."

In spite of all this, when the insufficiency of the evidence was pointed out to the Mandarins, they, "like true Chinese Mandarins (which designation, perhaps, comprises every bad quality which has disgraced human nature), insisted that, as we must now be clearly convinced that the offender was an Englishman, we could no longer have any pretence for withholding him from justice, and therefore would, of course, give him up to be tried according to the laws of China. A Mandarin is not a reasoning animal, nor ought to be treated as a rational one."

The matter was finally settled by allowing the British ships to depart on condition that there was an inquiry held during the voyage home, the result of which was to be communicated from England to China on the arrival of the St. Albans and convoy. This seems a truly Chinese mode of arrangement, but not wholly unsatisfactory, as it was discovered that three of the men on the Cumberland (one of the Indiamen) had been engaged in the riot, and carrying arms at the time, so that there was some presumptive evidence for their being the actual perpetrators of the deed. The St. Albans was back in England by July, with the convoy, calling at St. Helena on the way.

His long service as midshipman must have made the navigation in the China Seas tolerably familiar to Captain Austen. The points mentioned in this part of the log have a peculiar interest at the moment of writing this chapter (May 1905), when we have all been watching the great drama of the Russian fleet's approach to Japanese waters, followed by their destruction, more complete than that of the vanquished at Trafalgar. Cape Varella, Natuna and Saputa Islands, and the Paracels, are all amongst the log records. Passing the latter group seems to have been always an anxious time, as shoals are frequent northward of Singapore, which town, by the way, had no apparent existence in 1809.

There is a curious correspondence, partly by signal, on the passage down the China Seas:

"March 16, 1810.—At 1 P.M. telegraph signal to Perseverance (one of the tea-ships of the convoy): 'Do you know anything of the shoal called the Dogger Bank, and which side would you recommend passing it?"

"Perseverance answers, 'The shoal is doubtful. I should wish to pass to the eastward of it.'

"At 3 o'clock the Glatton (another of the tea-laden Indiamen) made signal to speak with us. Shortened sail.

"At 4, Captain Halliburton informed me that the Dogger Bank is by no means doubtful, having himself been in a ship which was aground on it. They found it exceedingly irregular."

The connection of the name with the "untoward incident" of October 1904 and the Russian fleet is a coincidence.

One of the outline sketches which occur in the logs is that of Krakatoa Island, in the Straits of Sunda. This mountain was partially destroyed in 1882 by the immense eruption of volcanic matter, which coloured the sunsets all over the world many months afterwards.

Francis Austen was superseded in the St. Albans in September 1810 by his own wish. He naturally wanted a short time without employment to spend with his wife, who had not had much of his society since their marriage.

From December in the same year till May 1811 he was stationed off the coast of France as Flag-Captain to Lord Gambier in the Caledonia. After this there was another holiday of about two months, spent with his wife and children in paying visits. Jane's letters speak of their being at Steventon, and of a projected visit to Chawton.

On July 18, 1811, he took command of the Elephant, and became again concerned in the Napoleonic wars.