Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

Chapter III


FRANCIS obtained his Lieutenant's commission in 1792, serving for a year in the East Indies, and afterwards on the home station. Early promotions were frequent in those days of the Navy; and, in many ways, no doubt, this custom was a good one, as the younger men had the dash and assurance which was needed, when success lay mainly in the power of making rapid decisions. Very early advancement had nevertheless decided disadvantages, and it was among the causes that brought about the mutinies of 1797. There are four or five cases on record of boys being made captains before they were eighteen, and promotions often went so much by favour and so little by real merit that the discontent of the crews commanded by such inexperienced officers was not at all to be wondered at. There were many other long-standing abuses, not the least of which was the system of punishments, frightful in their severity. A few instances of these, taken at haphazard from the logs of the various ships on which Francis Austen served as Lieutenant will illustrate this point.

Glory, December 8, 1795.— "Punished P. C. Smith forty-nine lashes for theft."

January 14, 1796.— "Punished sixteen seamen with one dozen lashes each for neglect of duty in being off the deck in their watch."

Punishments were made as public as possible. The following entry is typical:

Seahorse, December 9, 1797.— "Sent a boat to attend punishments round the fleet."

In the log of the London, one of the ships of the line blockading Cadiz, just after the fearful mutinies of '797, we find, as might be expected, that punishments were more severe than ever.

August, 1798.—"Marlborough made the signal for punishment. Sent three boats manned and armed to attend the punishment of Charles Moore (seaman belonging to the Marlborough), who was sentenced to receive one hundred lashes for insolence to his superior officer. Read the articles of war and sentence of Court-martial to the ship's company. The prisoner received twenty-five lashes alongside this ship."

In the case of a midshipman court-martialled for robbing a Portuguese boat, "the charges having been proved, he was sentenced to be turned before the mast, to have his uniform stripped off him on the quarter-deck before all the ship's company, to have his head shaved, and to be rendered for ever incapable of serving as a petty officer."

No fewer than six executions are recorded in the4g of the London as taking place among the ships of the fleet off Cadiz. Only one instance is mentioned where the offender was pardoned by the commander-in-chief on account of previous good conduct. Earl St. Vincent certainly deserved his reputation as a disciplinarian. When, in addition to the system of punishment, it is further considered that the food was almost always rough and very often uneatable, that most of the crews were pressed men, who would rather have been at any other work, and that the seamen's share in any possible prizes was ludicrously small, one wonders, not at the mutinies, but at the splendid loyalty shown when meeting the enemy.

It is a noticeable fact that discontent was rife during long times of inaction (whilst blockading Cadiz is the notable instance), but when it came to fighting for their country men and officers alike managed to forget their grievances.

On May 29, the log of the London is as follows:

"The Marlborough anchored in the middle of the line. At seven the Marlborough made the signal for punishment. Sent our launch, barge and cutter, manned and armed, to attend the execution of Peter Anderson, belonging to the Marlborough, who was sentenced to suffer death for mutiny. Read the sentence of the court-martial, and the articles of war to the ship's company. At nine the execution took place." This is a record of an eye-witness of the historic scene which put a stop to organised mutiny in the Cadiz fleet.

The narrative has been often told. Lord St. Vincent's order to the crew of the Marlborough that they alone should execute their comrade, the leader of the mutiny—the ship moored at a central point, and surrounded by all the men-of-war's boats armed with carronades under the charge of expert gunners—the Marlborough's own guns housed and secured, and ports lowered—every precaution adopted in case of resistance to the Admiral's orders—and the result, in the words of the commander-in-chief: " Discipline is preserved."

Perhaps the relief felt in the fleet was expressed in some measure by the salute of seventeen guns recorded on the same day, "being the anniversary of King Charles' restoration."

Gradually matters were righted. Very early promotions were abolished, and throughout the Navy efforts were made on the part of the officers to make their men more comfortable, and especially to give them better and more wholesome food—but reforms must always be slow if they are to do good and not harm, and, necessarily, the lightening of punishments which seem to us barbarous was the slowest of all.

The work of the pressgang is always a subject of some interest and romance. It is difficult to realise that it was a properly authorised Government measure. There were certain limits in which it might work, certain laws to be obeyed. The most useful men, those who were already at sea, but not in the King's service, could not legally be impressed, unless they were free from all former obligations, and the same rule applied to apprentices. These rules were not, however, strictly kept, and much trouble was often caused by the wrong men being impressed, or by false statements being used to get others off The following letter, written much later in his career by Francis Austen when he was Captain of the Leopard in 1804, gives a typical case of this kind.

Leopard, DUNGENESS, August 10, 1804.

"SIR,—I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 17th inst., with the enclosure, relative to Harris Walker, said to be chief mate of the Fanny, and in reply thereto have the honour to inform you that the said Harris Walker was impressed from on board the brig Fanny, off Dungeness, by Lieutenant Taylor of his Majesty's ship under my command, on the evening of the 7th inst., because no documents proving him to be actually chief mate of the brig were produced, and because the account he gave of himself was unsatisfactory and contradictory. On examining him the following day he at first confessed to me that he had entered on board the Fanny only three days before she sailed from Tobago, in consequence of the captain (a relation of his) being taken ill, and shortly afterwards he asserted that the whole of the cargo had been taken on board and stowed under his direction. The master of the Fanny told Lieutenant Taylor that his cargo had been shipped more than a fortnight before he sailed, having been detained for want of a copy of the ship's register, she being a prize purchased and fitted at Tobago. From these very contradictory accounts—from the man's having no affidavit to produce of his being actual chief mate of the brig, from his not having signed any articles as such—and from his handwriting totally disagreeing with the Log-Book (said to have been kept by himself) I felt myself perfectly justified in detaining him for his Majesty's service.

"I return the enclosure, and have the honour to be,
"Sir, your obedient humble servant,

"Thomas Louis, Esq.,
"Rear-Admiral of the Blue."

The reason assigned, that the reports Harris Walker gave of himself were "unsatisfactory and contradictory," seems to us a bad one for "detaining him for his Majesty's service," but it shows clearly how great were the difficulties in keeping up the supply of men. Captain Austen had not heard the last of this man, as the belief seems to have been strong that he was not legally impressed. Harris Walker, however, settled the matter by deserting on October 5.

An entry in the log of the newly built frigate Triton, under Captain Gore, gives an instance of wholesale, and one would think entirely illegal action.

November 25, 1796, in the Thames (Long Reach).

"Sent all the boats to impress the crew of the Britannia East India ship. The boats returned with thirty-nine men, the remainder having armed themselves and barricaded the bread room.

"26th, the remainder of the Britannia crew surrendered, being twenty-three. Brought them on board."

So great was the necessity of getting more men, and a better stamp of men, into the Navy, and of making them fairly content when there, that in 1800 a Royal Proclamation was issued encouraging men to enlist, and promising them a bounty.

This bounty, though it worked well in many cases, was of course open to various forms of abuse. Some who were entitled to it did not get it, and many put in a claim whose right was at least doubtful. An instance appears in the letters of the Leopardof a certain George Rivers, who had been entered as a "prest man," and applied successfully to be considered as a Volunteer, thereby to procure the bounty. He evidently wanted to make the best of his position.

The case of Thomas Roberts, given in another letter from the Leopard, is an example of inducements offered to enter the service.

Thomas Roberts "appears to have been received as a Volunteer from H.M.S. Ceres, and received thirty shillings bounty. He says he was apprenticed to his father about three years ago, and that, sometime last October, he was enticed to a public-house by two men, who afterwards took him on board the receiving ship off the Tower, where he was persuaded to enter the service."

The difficulty of getting an adequate crew seems to have led in some cases to sharp practice among the officers themselves, if we are to believe that Admiral Croft had real cause for complaint.

"If you look across the street,' he says to Anne Elliot, 'you will see Admiral Brand coming down, and his brother. Shabby fellows, both of them! I am glad they are not on this side of the way. Sophy cannot bear them. They played me a pitiful trick once; got away some of my best men. I will tell you the whole story another time.'" But "another time" never comes, so we are reduced to imagining the "pitiful trick."

The unpopularity of the Navy, and the consequent shorthandedness in time of war, had one very bad result in bringing into it all sorts of undesirable foreigners, who stirred up strife among the better disposed men, and altogether aggravated the evils of the service.

Undoubtedly the care of the officers for their men was doing its gradual work in lessening all these evils. To instance this, we find, as we read on in the letters and official reports of Francis Austen, that the entry, "the man named in the margin did run from his Majesty's ship under my command," comes with less and less frequency and we have on record that the Aurora, under the command of Captain Charles Austen, did not lose a single man by sickness or desertion during the years 1826-1828, whilst he was in command. Even when some allowance is made for his undoubted charm of personality, this is a strong evidence of the real improvements which had been worked in the Navy during thirty years.

With such constant difficulties and discomforts to contend with, it seems in some ways remarkable that the Navy should have been so popular as a profession among the classes from which officers wore drawn. Some of this popularity, and no doubt a large share, was the effect of a strong feeling of patriotism, and some was due to the fact that the Navy was a profession in which it was to get on very fast. A man of moderate luck and enterprise was sure to make some sort of mark, and if to this he added any "interest" his success was assured. Success, in those days of the Navy, meant money. It is difficult for us to realise the large part played by "prizes" in the ordinary routine work of the smallest sloop. In the case of Captain Wentworth, a very fair average instance, we know that when he engaged himself to Anne Elliot, he had "nothing hut himself to recommend him, no hopes of attaining influence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession," yet we find that his hopes for his own advancement were fully justified. Jane Austen would have been very sure to have heard of it from Francis if not from Charles, if she had made Captain Wentworth's success much more remarkable than that of the ordinary run of men in such circumstances.

We are clearly told what those circumstances were.

"Captain Wentworth had no fortune. He had been lucky in his profession; but spending freely what had come freely had realised nothing. But he was confident that he would soon be rich; full of life and ardour, he knew that he would soon have a ship, and soon be on a station that would lead to everything he wanted. He had always been lucky; he knew he should be so still." Later, "all his sanguine expectations, all his confidence had been justified. His genius and ardour had seemed to foresee and to command his prosperous path. He had, very soon after their engagement ceased, got employ; and all that he had told her would follow had taken place. He had distinguished himself, and early gained the other step in rank, and must now, by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune. She had only Navy Lists and newspapers for her authority, but she could not doubt his being rich."

Such were some of the inducements. That "Jack ashore" was a much beloved person may also have had its influence. Anne Elliot speaks for the greater part of the nation when she says, "the Navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts we must allow."

That Sir Walter Elliot represents another large section of the community is, however, not to be denied, but his opinions are not of the sort to act as a deterrent to any young man bent on following a gallant profession.

"Sir Walter's remark was: 'The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it."

"'Indeed!' was the reply, and with a look of surprise.

"'Yes, it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and, secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the Navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust to himself, than in any other line. One day last spring in town I was in company with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of: Lord St. Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat: I was to give place to Lord St. Ives, and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top.'

"'In the name of heaven, who is that old fellow?' said I to a friend of mine who was standing near (Sir Basil Morley), 'Old fellow!' cried Sir Basil, 'it is Admiral Baldwin.'

"'What do you take his age to be?'

"'Sixty,' said I, 'or perhaps sixty-two.'

"'Forty,' replied Sir Basil, 'forty, and no more.'

"'Picture to yourselves my amazement. I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a seafaring life can do; they all are knocked about, and exposed to every climate and every weather till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age.'"