Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



IT will, perhaps, be as well to recall some of the principal events ef the war, during the few years before Francis took up his command of the Peterel in order that his work may be better understood.

Spain had allied herself with France in 1796, and early in the following year matters looked most unpromising for England. The British fleet had been obliged to leave the Mediterranean. Bonaparte was gaining successes against Austria on land. The peace negotiations, which had been begun by France, had been peremptorily stopped, while the French expedition to Ireland obviously owed its failure to bad weather, and not in the least to any effective interference on the part of the British Navy. Altogether the horizon was dark, and every one in England was expecting to hear of crushing disaster dealt out by the combined fleets of France and Spain, and all lived in fear of invasion. Very different was the news that arrived in London early in March. Sir John Jervis, with Nelson and Collingwood, met the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent on Valentine's Day, and we all know the result. As Jervis said on the morning of the fight, "A victory was essential to England at this moment." The confidence of the nation returned, and was not lost again through the hard struggle of the following years. An extract from the log of Lieutenant F. W. Austen, on board the frigate Seahorse, in the Hamoaze, October 6, 1797, reads as follows: "Came into harbour the San Josef, Salvador del Mundo, San Nicolai, and San Isidore, Spanish line-of-battle ships, captured by the fleet under Lord St. Vincent on the 14th February."

After their defeat, the remainder of the Spanish fleet entered the port of Cadiz, and were for the next two years blockaded by Admiral Jervis, now Earl St. Vincent. In this blockade, Francis Austen took part, serving in the London.

During this time of comparative inaction, the fearful mutinies, described in a former chapter, seemed to be sapping the strength of the Navy. The greater number of the British ships were concentrated in the Channel under Lord Bridport, and were employed in watching the harbour of Brest, in order to prevent the French fleet from escaping, with what success we shall presently tell. Our flag was scarcely to be seen inside the Mediterranean except on a few sloops of war. Each side was waiting for some movement of aggression from the other. Now was Bonaparte's chance to get to the East. His plans were quietly and secretly formed. An armament was prepared at Toulon almost unknown to the British, and at the same time all possible measures to avert suspicion were taken. The Spanish fleet in Cadiz formed up as if for departure, and so kept Lord St. Vincent on the watch, while Bonaparte himself stayed in Paris until the expedition was quite ready to start, in order to give the idea that the invasion of England was intended. Still it was not practicable to keep the preparations entirely secret for any length of time.

Early in April 1798 Nelson sailed from England, joined St. Vincent at Cadiz, and immediately went on into the Mediterranean, with three ships of the line, to reconnoitre. He was reinforced by nine more under Troubridge, and Lord St. Vincent had orders from home to follow with the entire squadron if it should prove necessary. Nelson searched for Bonaparte in the Mediterranean, and missed him twice. The French seized Malta for the sake of getting their supplies through, but the British as promptly blockaded it. At last, on August 1, Nelson came upon the French fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay, and the Battle of the Nile was fought. The situation now created can be briefly summarised. Bonaparte was in Egypt, cut off from all communication with France, and however determinedly he might turn his face towards Africa or Asia his position was a serious one. Turkey almost immediately declared war against France. Malta was still closely blockaded by the British. Nelson had established himself at Palermo, on friendly terms with the King of Naples, who had taken refuge in Sicily. The news of the Battle of the Nile had spread far and wide, and France had good reason to fear that the tide had turned against her.

Early in 1799 Bonaparte attacked Acre, and Sir Sydney Smith was sent to harass his forces, and to compel him, if possible, to raise the siege.

At this time occurred one of those events which show how a slight advantage, properly used, may decide the final issue. Matters were in this critical state; every British ship in and near the Mediterranean was employed at some important work, when that happened which might have been the cause of serious disaster. Admiral Bruix got away from Brest with a fleet of twenty-five sail of the line and ten smaller ships.

The blame of this mishap is not at all easy to attach. Lord Bridport was still in command of the Channel Fleet, but the Admiralty seemed to prefer to keep him in touch with headquarters off the coast of Kent, rather than to allow him to maintain a position whence he could more easily keep watch on the French fleet. Now ensued an exciting time. No one knew where the French fleet was, much less whither it was bound. They had escaped in a thick fog, being seen only by La Nymyhe, one of the British frigates, whose officers, owing to the density of the fog, imagined that they saw the fleet bring to under the land, and signalled accordingly to Lord Bridport. When the fog lifted the French fleet was no longer in sight.

Of course the first idea was that they had gone to Ireland, and off went Lord Bridport to pursue them. A little later news was received that they had sailed southward, and a correspondent at this time writes: "Lord St. Vincent will have a fine field to exert his talents if the French fleet join the Spanish, after capturing Lisbon."

On the morning of May 5, from the Rock of Gibraltar, Lord St. Vincent saw, with the deepest anxiety, the French fleet running before a westerly gale into the Mediterranean. His most immediate fear was lest Bruix should be on his way to help Bonaparte at Acre, and to overwhelm Sydney Smith's squadron. If so, the question was how to stop him. Lord Bridport's fleet was useless, as it was not until nearly four weeks later that he was able to send help. Lord Keith was blockading Cadiz. If he left, the whole Spanish fleet would be released and at liberty to attack where they would. Nelson was at Palermo with only one British line-of-battle ship, and great would be the consternation in the town if that one ship were to be withdrawn. A small squadron was blockading Malta, and a few ships were at Minorca under Commodore Duckworth, but Port Mahon was not yet fully garrisoned. Troubridge was outside Naples. Bruix might attack any of these divisions with the full force of his fleet, or he might proceed straight to Egypt. St. Vincent had to determine which of these positions should be abandoned in order to meet the French fleet. He decided on ordering Keith into the Mediterranean so as to concentrate the available forces, sending word as far as possible to the outlying squadrons.

To Nelson at Palermo he wrote that he expected the enemy to proceed to Malta and Alexandria. This despatch was entrusted to the Hyena, which fell in with the Peterel, now under the command of Francis Austen. The Peterel was already on the way to Nelson with a despatch from Minorca, and, being a fast-sailing sloop, the captain of the Hyena at once handed on the important paper to be delivered by Captain Austen.

The entries in the log of the Peterel at this date tell their own story:

"May 10.—On the passage from Minorca to Palermo.

"12 noon.—Off shore four or five miles.

"2 o'clock.—Answered the private signal made by a ship in the S.S.E.

"4 o'clock.—Showed our pendants to a ship in the S.S.E.

"5 o'clock:—Joined H.M.S. Hyena; lowered the jolly-boat, and went on board.

"10 past 5.—Up boat and made all sail; the Hyena parted company, standing to the N.W.

"May 12. A quarter past 9.—Saw a sail on the lee bow, made the private signal to her, which was answered. Made the signal for having gained intelligence, and repeated it with four guns, but it was not. answered.

"15 minutes past 11.—Hove to; lowered the jolly-boat and went on board the stranger, which proved to be H.M.S. Pallas, with a convoy for the westward.

"20 minutes past 11.—Up boat, filled, and made all sail as before. Observed the Pallas bear up and follow us with her convoy.

"May 13.—At daylight, Cape Trepano (in Sicily). S.S.W. five or six leagues.

"A quarter-past 3 P.M.—Shortened sail, backed ship, hove to and lowered the boat. The first lieutenant went on shore with despatches for Lord Nelson at Palermo.

"A quarter before 4.—The boat returned, hoisted her up, and made all sail.

"NOTE.—The place at which the first lieutenant landed was on the east side of the Bay, between Cape St. Vito and Cape Alos, and about twenty-four miles by road from Palermo."

The following is the letter which Captain Austen sent to the Admiral, with the despatches:

"Peterel AT SEA, OFT CAPE ST. VITO, May 13, 1799.

"My LORD,—I have the honour to inform your Lordship that I sailed from the Island of Minorca with his Majesty's sloop under my command, at 11 A.M. on Friday, the 10th inst., charged with the accompanying despatch for your lordship, and the same evening met his Majesty's ship Hyena, about five leagues S. E. by S. of Fort Mahon, from the captain of which I received the paper enclosed; and judging from the contents of it that its speedy arrival must be of the utmost consequence, and that a passage by land may be performed in much less time than by sea, with the wind as it now is at the E.S.E., I have directed Mr. Staines, my first lieutenant, to land with the despatch at Castella, and proceed with all possible expedition to your lordship at Palermo, to which place I shall carry his Majesty's sloop as soon as I can.

"I fell in with his Majesty s ship Pallas and convoy yesterday at 11 A.M., about fifteen leagues E.S.E. of Cape Carbonera, and, in consequence of the intelligence I gave the captain of that ship bore up with his convoy for Palermo. I enclose the state and condition of his Majesty's sloop under my command, and have the honour to be,

"My lord,
"Your lordship's most obedient
"humble servant,

"To the Rt. Hon. Lord Nelson, K.B.,
Etc., etc., etc."

"May 14.—At four o'clock hove to in Palermo Bay. The first lieutenant returned on board. At six o'clock filled and made all sail on the larboard tack, pinnace ahead towing."

Nelson was at this time short of small vessels by which to send news. He therefore employed the Peterel to go on to the blockading squadron off Malta with orders, which were delivered on board H.M.S. Goliath, about noon on May 19. The Peterel then returned to Minorca.

Bruix, contrary to expectation, did nothing with his chance. Probably the aim of the Directory in sending him was to discover how far Spain was to be relied upon for Support, and there may have been no intention of employing go help Bonaparte, but Bruix seems to have had a free hand in the matter, so that his own want of resolution and failure of insight are the apparent causes of the expedition proving inconclusive.

The Spanish fleet came Out of Cadiz, as was of course to be expected, and on May 30 Bruix sailed eastward from Toulon, getting into communication with General Moreau at Genoa. The great matter was to keep the two fleets from combining, and this might be done by following the French fleet and beating it. Lord St. Vincent's health now entirely gave way, and he was obliged to give up the command to Keith, though it is probable he expected to have his advice still followed. Lord Keith sailed away in pursuit, but Bruix doubled on his tracks, and keeping close in shore repassed Toulon, and got down to Cartagena, where he met the Spanish fleet. Keith, instead of taking up the commanding position earnestly recommended by St. Vincent, let his chance slip by going back to Minorca, which he supposed to be in danger, and thus the conjunction of the fleets took place. It was however followed by no adverse results. Spain was lukewarm, and Bruix sailed back to Brest, having accomplished nothing but an addition of fifteen ships to his fleet, to serve as a pledge for the goodwill of the Spanish Government. Had Bruix joined Bonaparte instead of the Spanish fleet, very different results would almost certainly have followed.

The following proclamation will show clearly how important the support of Spain was felt to be, and how anxious Bruix was lest there should be any cause for disagreement.

"In the name of the French Republic.

"In the Road of Cartagena, on board the Admiral's sloop the Ocean, dated 24th June, in the seventh year of the French Republic, Eustace Bruix commanding the French fleet.

"FRENCHMEN AND REPUBLICANS,—At last, united with our faithful allies, we approach the period when we shall punish England and relieve Europe from all its tyranny. Although I have no doubt, my brave friends, of the sentiments which you have professed, I felt myself bound to call upon you to give proofs of their sincerity by every means in your power. Recollect that it is for the interests of your country, and for your own honour, to give to a nation, whom we esteem, the highest opinion of us. That word alone is enough for Frenchmen. Do not above all forget that you are come among a just and generous people, and our most faithful allies. Respect their customs, their usages, their religion. In a word, let everything be sacred to us. Think the least departure from that which I am now prescribing to you will be a crime in the eyes of the Republic, for which it will be my duty to punish you. But, on the contrary, I am convinced that you will give me an opportunity of praising your conduct, and that will be the greatest recompence I can receive.


Carrying Lord St. Vincent's letter to Nelson seems to have been the first service of importance which fell to the share of Captain Austen. Perhaps some description of the more ordinary happenings of the life on board of a sloop of war may prove of interest. The change from the position of First Lieutenant on board a ship of the line to that of the Captain of a small vessel must necessarily have been very marked.

Towards the end of 1798 the Peterel had had misfortune to be captured by the Spaniards, who treated the captain (Charles Long) and his crew very badly. The following day she was rescued by the Argo, under Captain Bowen. Francis Austen was then given the command, and on February 27 we find him taking over his new duties, the Peterel being then moored in Gibraltar Bay.

The first few months were spent in cruising about the west of the Mediterranean. Almost every day there was a pursuit of some vessel of more or less importance. Sometimes "the chace" proved to be a friendly craft, sometimes she got away, but not infrequently was captured and overhauled. On one occasion, Francis Austen remarks trenchantly, "Our chace proved to be a tower on the land."

Evidently the plan of procedure was always to follow up and find out the nationality of any distant sail. If a friend, news was interchanged, and often some help might be given. If an enemy, an attack usually followed. One of these small encounters is described in the log of the date March 23, 1799, the Peierel then cruising off the south side of Majorca.

"11 o'clock.—Saw a latteen-sail boat, appearing to be a privateer, just within the western point of Cabrera. From the manœuvres of this boat I judge her to be a privateer. When we first saw her she was on the starboard tack, and seemed to be examining us. I could just distinguish her hull from the Catharpins. She appeared to be full of men. She was rigged with one large latteen sail, and might be about fifteen to twenty tons."

This boat was evidently not to be seen again until "At a quarter past 3, perceived the chace run round a point of the island into a cove, under the protection of a castle situated on a high rock. This was the same boat we saw in the forenoon. Our appearance had evidently frightened them, and they judged it prudent to keep snug till we were gone by, and, at the time they ventured out, supposed us too far off to distinguish them. It was, indeed, with difficulty that we could, as the distance was full three leagues, and their sail was nearly the same colour as the rock along which they were passing.

"The cove or haven into which the boat went out three-quarters of a mile from the N.W. point of the island, and is completely land-locked by the two points which form it overlapping. We were close in, not more than a quarter of a mile from the westernmost of these points, but could get no ground with forty fathoms line. The castle is situated on a pinnacle rock or cliff on the eastern side of the entrance, and from its situation I should judge it difficult of access to an hostile approach. They had not more than two guns in it, and those were not more than four or six-pounders. Several of their shot went over us, and others fell within a few yards on each side of us, but not one struck the ship. Ours all went on shore, and I believe most of them struck the castle, but there was too much motion to fire with very great precision. this cove, from its situation, is a most excellent place of resort for small privateers, as they are secure from the effects of any wind, and can from the height discover the approach of any vessel, and be ready to push out on them when they may be too close to the island to effect their escape."

With nightfall this attack had to be abandoned, and by six o'clock the next morning, March 24, the Peterel was in pursuit of another "chace."

"At a quarter past 8, hoisted out the pinnace and launch and sent them to board the chace.

"At 8 o'clock, I could discern with a glass the privateer, with his sail furled, laying in his oars, just within the west point of the cove, ready to pop out on the Spanish boat, and, but for our being so near, certainly would have recaptured her, but when our boats put off from the ship he went in again.

"At 10 o'clock, the boats returned with the chace, which proved to be a Spanish coasting-vessel of 20 tons, from Cadiz bound to Barcelona with wheat, prize to the General Pigot, a privateer belonging to Gibraltar. Supplied him with a few baracoes of water.

"At 11 o'clock, in boats and made sail on the larboard tack."

This account of a twenty-four hours on board the Peterel will give some idea of the constant interest and continual demand on the judgment incidental to this life. This particular day, though a full one, was barren of results. The privateer got out of the way of the Peterel, and the chace which they did succeed in boarding had already surrendered to another British ship. The entries of a few days later, March 28, will show how varying was the success of these encounters. On that day they secured three prizes in twelve hours.

"5 o'clock A.M., saw a strange sail bear S.W. by S. Bore up and set royal and steering sails in chace.

"8 o'clock.—Fresh breezes and clear weather; came up with the chace close off the west end of Ivica. Shortened sail and hove to, sent a boat on board; she proved to be a Spanish brig laden with barley, from Almeria bound to Barcelona. Sent an officer and eight men to take possession, and took all the Spaniards out of her.

"At 10 o'clock.—Took her in tow, and made sail to the eastward.

"At half-past 10.—Saw a brig at the south part of Ivica, cast off the tow, and made all sail in chace.

"Half-past 11.—In steering sails.

"At noon.—Moderate and clear weather, passing through between Ivica and Formenterra, prize in company.

"Half-past 12.—Fired five guns at the chace to make her bring to, but without effect.

"At i o'clock.—She anchored close under a signal tower with four guns on it. Hoisted out the pinnace, and sent her armed under the direction of the second lieutenant to board the vessel.

"Half-past 2.—The pinnace returned with the brig; sent her away to cut out a small vessel, which was then riding about half a mile to the westward of the tower. The brig appears to be French, but no one was found on board her. Sent an officer and five men to take charge of her.

"At 5 o'clock.—The pinnace returned with the other vessel, a Spanish settee, appearing by papers found on board to be the Alicant packet. Her crew had quitted her on seeing our boats approach. Sent an officer and five men on board to take charge of her. Took her in tow and made sail; prizes in company."

Such days as this were of quite frequent occurrence. Sometimes the prizes were of great value, as on April 11, when the Peterel, in company with the Powerful and the Leviathan, assisted in capturing a vessel which they thought to be a despatch-boat, and therefore of the first importance. She proved to be a fishing-boat, employed in carrying a brigadier-general, a lieutenant-colonel, and a captain of the Walloon Guards over to Ivica from Alicant. She had on board specie to the amount of 9000 dollars. The Peterel's share of this valuable prize was 1469 dollars, which was paid out in the following proportions:

To a captain . . . . . 750 dollars
" a lieutenant . . . . . 62 1/2 "
" a warrant officer . . . . . 36 3/4 "
" a petty officer . . . . . 10 1/3 "
" a foremast man . . . . . 2 "

It is to be feared that the prize-money was a doubtful blessing to the foremast hands, especially as the Peterel was then nearing Port Mahon, where they lay at anchor for three days, during which it was no doubt easy to incur the punishments for drunkenness and neglect of duty which we find meted out two days later.

Another capture of political importance is detailed on the 26th April, when a Spanish tartan, the San Antonio de Padua, was brought to, having on board fifty-three soldiers belonging to a company of the 3rd battalion of the Walloon Guards, who were being conveyed from Barcelona to Majorca. These, with sailors and a few recruits also on board, summed up a capture of seventy-nine Spanish prisoners, who were taken on board the Peterel.

The tartan was manned by a midshipman and seven men, and taken in tow. The prisoners were afterwards transferred to the Centaur and the prize, after everything was taken out of her, was scuttled.

These few instances will serve to show the kind of life of which we get such tantalising hints in "Persuasion."

The account Captain Wentworth gives to the two Miss Musgroves and to Admiral Croft of his earlier commands is a case in point. The date is not the same, for we remember that Captain Wentworth first got employ in the year six (1806), soon after he had parted in anger from Anne Elliot.

"The Miss Musgroves were just fetching the 'Navy List' (their own 'Navy List,' the first there had ever been at Uppercross), and sitting down together to pore over it, with the professed view of finding out the ships which Captain Wentworth had commanded.

"'Your first was the Asp, I remember. We will look for the Asp.'

"'You will not find her there. Quite worn out and broken up. I was the last man who commanded her. Hardly fit for service then. Reported fit for home service for a year or two, and so I was sent off to the West Indies.'

"The girls looked all amazement.

" 'The Admiralty,' he continued, 'entertain themselves now and then with sending a few hundred men to sea in a ship not fit to be employed. But they have a great many to provide for; and among the thousands that may just as well go to the bottom as not, it is impossible for them to distinguish the very set who may be least missed.'

"'Phoo! phoo!' cried the Admiral. 'What stuff these young fellows talk! Never was there a better sloop than the Asp in her day. For an old built sioop you would not see her equal. Lucky fellow to get her! He knows there must have been twenty better men than himself applying for her at the same time. Lucky fellow to get anything so soon, with no more interest than his.'

'I felt my luck, Admiral, I assure you,' replied Captain Wentworth seriously. 'I was as well satisfied with my appointment as you can desire. It was a great object with me at the time to be at sea; a very great object. I wanted to be doing something.'

"'To be sure you did. What should a young fellow like you do ashore for half a year together? If a man has not a wife, he soon wants to be afloat again.'

"'But, Captain Wentworth,' cried Louisa, 'how vexed you must have been when you came to the Asp, to see what an old thing they had given you.'

"'I knew pretty well what she was before that day,' said he smiling. 'I had no more discoveries to make than you would have as to the fashion and strength of an old pelisse, which you had seen lent about among half your acquaintance ever since you could remember, and which at last on some very wet day is lent to yourself. Ah! she was a dear old Asp to me. She did all I wanted. I knew she would. I knew that we should either go to the bottom together, or that she would be the making of me; and I never had two days of foul weather all the time I was at sea in her; and after taking privateers enough to be very entertaining, I had the good luck in my passage home the next autumn to fall in with the very French frigate I wanted. I brought her into Plymouth; and here was another instance of luck. We had not been six hours in the Sound when a gale came on which lasted four days and four nights, and which would have done for poor old Asp in half the time, our touch with the Great Nation not having improved our condition. Four and twenty hours later and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me.'

"The girls were now hunting for the Laconia; and Captain Wentworth could not deny himself the pleasure of taking the precious volume into his own hands to save them the trouble, and once more read aloud the little statement of her name and rate, and present non-commissioned class. Observing over it that she too had been one of the best friends man ever had.

"'Ah, those were pleasant days when I had the Laconia! How fast I made money in her! A friend of mine and I had such a lovely cruise together off the Western Islands. Poor Harville, sister! You know how much he wanted money: worse than myself. He had a wife. Excellent fellow! I shall never forget his happiness. He felt it all so much for her sake. I wished for him again next summer, when I had still had the same luck in the Mediterranean.'"

One cannot but feel, when one comes on such a conversation in Jane Austen's novel, how perfectly she understood the details of her brothers' lives. Her interest and sympathy were so great that we can almost hear Francis and Charles recounting experiences to their home circle, with a delicious dwelling on the dangers, for the sake of inward shudders, or "more open exclamations of pity and horror" from their hearers, with sidelong hits at the Admiralty, and with the true sailor's love of, and pride in, the vessels he has commanded.