Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

CHAPTER XVIII

TWO ADMIRALS

WE have shown, so far as is possible, the influence that the lives of her two sailor brothers had upon the writings of Jane Austen. It now only remains to show how both of them, in their different ways, fulfilled her hopes for them. This can be best done by a brief summary of the chief events in their careers. At the time of her death they were men on either side of forty. Francis lived to be ninety-one, and Charles to be seventy-three, so both had many more years of activity and service before them.

In 1826 Charles was again on the West Indies station. Here he stayed for more than two years, and was chiefly employed in suppressing the slave-trade. He was always very happy in the management of crews. It was partly owing to his more than usual care in this respect while stationed here on board the Aurora, and partly to his general activity as second in command, that he gained his appointment as Flag-Captain to Admiral Colpoys in the Winchester on the same station in 1828. He was invalided home in 1830, as the result of a severe accident. This prevented him from being again employed until 1838, when he was appointed to the Bellerophon, still only a Captain after nearly thirty years' service in that rank.

Some years before this, Mehemet Au, Pasha of Egypt, had conquered Syria from his Suzerain, the Sultan, and now wished to declare himself independent, thereby coming into collision with the traditional policy of England and France in the Levant. In 1840 Admiral Stopford's fleet was sent to the coast of Syria to interfere with communications between the Pasha's army and Egypt. Charles Austen in the Bellerophon (called by the seamen the "Billy Ruffian") took part in the bombardment of the Beyrout forts, and afterwards was stationed in one of the neighbouring bays, guarding the entrance of the pass by which Commodore Sir Charles Napier had advanced up the Lebanon to attack Ibrahim Pasha and the Egyptians. In Napier's words: "It was rather a new occurrence for a British Commodore to be on the top of Mount Lebanon commanding a Turkish army, and preparing to fight a battle which should decide the fate of Syria." He won the battle and returned to the Powerful, with some reluctance, making way for Colonel Smith, who was appointed by the Sultan to command his forces in Syria.

The Admiral and Colonel Smith shortly afterwards decided on capturing Acre, the chief stronghold now remaining in the Egyptian occupation.

In a letter to Lord Palmerston, Colonel Smith describes the action: "On October 26 it was finally determined, between Sir Robert Stopford and myself that the siege of Acre should be undertaken. Owing to the light winds the ships did not get into action till 2 P.M. on November 3, when an animated fire commenced, and was maintained without intermission until darkness closed the operations of the day. About three hours later the Governor, with a portion of the garrison, quitted the town, which was taken possession of by the allied troops at daylight the following morning. The moral influence on the cause in which we are engaged that will result from its surrender is incalculable. During the bombardment the principal magazine and the whole arsenal blew up."

There is an extract from Charles Austen's journal, which also gives a slight account of the bombardment:

"9 A.M.—Received a note from the Admiral (Stopford) telling me the Powerful (Commodore Napier) was to lead into action, followed by Princess Charlotte (flag), Bellerophon and Thunderer, who were all to lay against the Western Wall.

"Later.—Working up to the attack with light airs.

"11.30.—Piped to dinner.

"1 P.M.—Bore up to our station, passing outside the shoal to the south, and then to the westward again inside.

"2.30.—Anchored astern of the Princess Charlotte, and abreast of the Western Castle, and immediately commenced firing, which the enemy returned, but they fired high, and only two shots hulled us, hitting no one.

"At sunset. —Admiral signalled 'Cease firing,' up boats, and then piped to supper, and sat down with the two boys to a cold fowl, which we enjoyed much.

"At 9 P.M.—A dish of tea, then gave my night orders and turned in."

The "two boys" were his two sons, Charles and Henry, who were serving under him.

There is a further account of a difficulty with Commodore Napier, who had a firm belief in his own judgment, which made obedience to orders something of a trial to him. Napier, who was "as usual a law unto himself," disobeyed the Admiral's signals, and, when reprimanded, demanded a court-martial, which was refused. The journal then relates that Captain Austen, with two other captains, went on board the Powerful to endeavour to persuade the Commodore to climb down, "but the old Commodore was stubborn, and we returned to our ships." However, a second visit to the Commodore in the afternoon appears to have been more successful, and "I left hoping the affair would be settled," which it was. The result of this bombardment was altogether satisfactory, though some of the ships suffered considerably from the Egyptian firing. Charles was awarded a Companionship of the Bath for his share in this campaign.

In 1846 he became Rear-Admiral, and in 1850 was appointed Commander-in-Chief on the East India Station.

He left England in the P. & 0. steamer Ripon for Alexandria, and crossed the desert to Suez, as was usual in the overland route. The description of the mode of travelling by vans, and the selection of places therein by lot, has often been made.

Lord Dalhousie, as Governor-General at Calcutta, had taken steps to protect British traders from the exactions of the Burmese officials at Rangoon by sending a Commission of Inquiry, with power to demand reparation. The Commissioner (Commodore Lambert) decided to treat only with the King of Ava, who consented, in January 1852, to remove the Governor from Rangoon. This action did not, however, prove effectual in settling the grievances, and Commodore Lambert declared the Burmese coast in a state of blockade; his vessel was fired upon, and he retaliated by destroying a stockade on the river-bank, and some Burmese war-boats. Shortly afterwards he received orders to forward to the King a despatch of Lord Dalhousie's, demanding apology and an indemnity. The same vessel again went up the river with the despatch, and was attacked by the Burmese. The Governor-General thereupon ordered a combined military and naval expedition, which was on the coast by the end of March. This was to be the last of Charles Austen's many enterprises. He shifted his flag from the Hastings to the steam sloop Rattler at Trincomalee in Ceylon, and proceeded to the mouth of the Rangoon river. On April 3, accompanied by two ships and the necessary troops, he was on his way to Martaban, which they attacked and captured on the 5th. The place was held by 5000 men; but after a bombardment of an hour and a half it was taken by storm with small loss.

On the 10th began a general combined movement on Rangoon, which fell on the 14th, the Rattler taking a leading part in attacking the outlying stockades. The large stockade round the town and the pagoda was carried at the point of the bayonet. The navy suffered but little loss from the enemy; but cholera set in, and the Admiral fell ill. He was persuaded by the doctors to leave the river, as all active proceedings of the expedition had ceased for the time. He went to Calcutta, where, through the kind hospitality of the Governor-General, he gradually recovered his health. Rangoon, with its wonderful solid pagoda, and all its Buddhist traditions, was now in British hands; but the Burmese Government were bent on recapturing it, for certain royal offerings to the shrine were among the conditions of the King's tenure of his throne. The war was therefore continued, and it was decided to penetrate further up the river, and with a yet stronger force. Admiral Austen thereupon returned to duty. Qn arrival at Rangoon in the Hastings he transferred his flag to the steam sloop Pluto, and went up the river on a reconnaissance, in advance of the combined forces. The main body proceeded direct to Henzada, by the principal channel of the Irrawadi, while the contingent following the Pluto was delayed by the resistance of the Burmese leader at Donabyu. It became necessary for the main body to make for this point also, while Admiral Austen was by this time much further north, at Prome. He was anxiously awaiting their arrival, while his health grew worse during the two or three weeks spent in this unhealthy region. On October 6, his last notes at Prome are as follows: "Received a report that two steamers had been seen at anchor some miles below, wrote this and a letter to my wife, and read the lessons of the day." On the following morning he died. The Burmese leader was also killed during the assault, which took place at Donabyu not long afterwards, and his army then retreated. The British battalions were eventually quartered on the hill above Prome, overlooking the wide river, not far from Lord Dalhousie's new frontier of Lower Burmah. Now thick jungle covers alike the camp and the site of the fort of Donabyu (White Peacock Town), for Upper Burmah is British too, and there is no king to make offerings at the Rangoon shrine.

The death of Charles was a heavy blow to Francis. The only other survivor of all his brothers and sisters, Edward Knight, of Godmersham and Chawton, died at about the same time; but Francis had still thirteen years of life before him. To realise what his life had been we must return to the close of the long war, when he came on shore from the Elephant, and was not called upon to go to sea again for thirty years. It is easy to imagine the changes that had taken place in the Navy in the interval between his times of active service.

During these years on shore several honours fell to his share. He had been awarded his C. B. in 1815, on the institution of that distinction. In 1825 he was appointed Colonel of Marines, and in 1830 Rear-Admiral. About the same time he purchased Portsdown Lodge, where he lived for the rest of his life. This property is now included within the lines of forts for the defence of Portsmouth, and was bought for that purpose by the Government some years before his death. At the last investiture by King William IV in 1837 he received the honour of K.C.B.; and the next year, on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Coronation, he was promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral. In 1845 he took command of the North American and West Indies Station. This command in the Vindictive forms a notable contrast to his earlier experiences in the West Indies. How often he must have called to mind as he visited Barbadoes, Jamaica, or Antigua, the excitements of the Canopus cruises of forty years ago! How different too the surroundings had become with the regular English mail service, and the paddle-wheel sloops of war in place of brigs such as the Curieux—and, greatest change of all, no such urgent services to be performed as that of warning England against the approach of an enemy's fleet!

Nevertheless, there was plenty to be done. The Naval Commander-in-Chief has no easy berth, even in time of peace. His letters tell us of some of the toils which fell to his share.

"Our passage from Bermuda was somewhat tedious; we left it on February 6, called oft Antigua on the 15th, and, without anchoring the ship, I landed for an hour to inspect the naval yard," rather an exertion in the tropics, for a man of seventy-three. A voyage to La Guayra follows. It appears that Venezuela was giving as much trouble in 1848 as in 1900.

"A political question is going on between the Government of Caraccas and our Chargé d'affaires, and a British force is wanted to give weight to our arguments. I am afraid it will detain us a good while, as I also hear that there is a demand for a ship-of-war to protect property from apprehended outrage in consequence of a revolutionary insurrection."

We find that the Vindictive was at Jamaica within a fortnight or so. It would appear that the Government of the Caraccas (legitimate or revolutionary) was quickly convinced by the weight of the arguments of a 50-gun ship.

The following general memorandum may be interesting with reference to the expedition against Greytown, Nicaragua.

"The Vice-Admiral Commander-in-Chief has much gratification in signifying to the squadron the high sense he entertains of the gallantry and good conduct of Captain Loch, of her Majesty's ship Alarm, and of every officer and man of her Majesty's ships Alarm and Vixen, and of the officers and soldiers of her Majesty's 28th Regiment, employed under his orders on the expedition up the river St. Juan, and especially for the cool and steady intrepidity evinced while under a galling fire from a nearly invisible enemy on the morning of February 12, and the irresistible bravery with which the works of Serapagui were stormed and carried. The result has been an additional proof that valour, when well directed and regulated by discipline, will never fail in effecting its object."

There are also notes about the Mexican and United States War then in progress, and instructions to treat Mexican privateers severely if they interfered with neutral craft. Strong measures were also to be enforced against slave-traders, who still sailed under Brazilian and Portuguese flags, but were now reprobated by international treaties generally.

In May 1848 the Vindictive was met by Vice-Admiral the Earl of Dundonald in the Wellesley. Lord Dundonald was to take over the command from Sir Francis. We have no record of any meeting between these two officers since the days when Lord Cochrane in the Speedy and Captain Austen in the Peterel were in the Mediterranean together, almost half a century earlier. Sir Francis' letters mention with pleasure the desire on the part of his successor to continue matters on the same lines.

His return to England was coincident with promotion to the rank of Admiral. In 1854, at the outbreak of the Crimean War, the Portsmouth command was declined as too onerous for an octogenarian.

In 1860 Sir Francis received the G.C.B., and in 1862 the successive honours of Rear-Admiral and Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom, followed in 1863 by promotion to the senior position in the British Navy as Admiral of the Fleet.

"THE ADMIRALTY, Apri1 27, 1863.

"SIR,—I am happy to acquaint you that I have had the pleasure of bringing your name before the Queen for promotion to Admiral of the Fleet, and that her Majesty has been graciously pleased to approve of the appointment 'as a well-deserved reward for your brilliant services.'

"I am, Sir, your most obedient servant,
"SOMERSET."

From the year 1858 Sir Francis had become gradually less able to move about. He retained all his faculties and his ability to write, almost as clearly as ever, until just before his death in August 1865.

The strong sense of justice, manifest in his rigid adherence to discipline as a young man, was tempered later in life by his love for children and grandchildren, constant through so many years.

Of both Jane Austen's brothers it may be said that they were worthy members of that profession which is, "if possible, more distinguished for its domestic virtues than for its national importance."