Jane Austen and Her Times

Chapter 11 - The Navy

The last few years of the century which passed so quietly at Steventon were times of continual change and stir in the larger world, a world in which both Francis and Charles Austen were taking an active part. But except for the personal matters that affected them, Jane does not refer to these events. It is true that from September 1796 to October 1798 we have no letters of hers, which may be due to the fact that she and her sister were not much parted then. This is one of the disadvantages of a correspondence carried on with such a near relation. But subsequently to this break the allusions to her brothers' promotions and prospects are fairly frequent.

"Admiral Gambler, in reply to my father's application writes as follows, 'As it is usual to keep young officers in small vessels, it being most proper on account of their inexperience, and it being also a situation where they are more in the way of learning their duty, your son has been continued in the Scorpion, but I have mentioned to the Board of Admiralty his wish to be in a frigate, and when a proper opportunity offers and it is judged that he has taken his turn in a small ship, I hope he will be removed. With regard to your son, now in London, I am glad I can give you the assurance that his promotion is likely to take place very soon, as Lord Spencer has been so good as to say he would include him in an arrangement that he proposes making in a short time relative to some promotions in that quarter.'

"There, I may now finish my letter and go and hang myself, for I am sure I can neither write or do anything which will not appear insipid to you after this."

Again, "Frank is made. He was yesterday raised to the rank of Commander, and appointed to the Petterel sloop now at Gibraltar. . . . As soon as you have cried a little for joy you may go on, and learn further that the Indian House have taken Captain Austen's petition into consideration, and likewise that Lieutenant Charles John Austen is removed to the Tamar frigate."
Nearly a month later--
"Charles leaves us to-night, the Tamar is in the Downs and Mr. Daysh advises him to join her there directly, as there is no chance of her going to the westward. Charles does not approve of this at all, and will not be much grieved if he should be too late for her before she sails, as he may then hope to get into a better station."

And two days after, "I have just heard from Charles, who is by this time at Deal. He is to be second lieutenant, which pleases him very well. He expects to be ordered to Sheerness shortly as the Tamar has never been refitted."
Frank apparently remained on the Petterel until he received promotion in the beginning of 1801, for his sister writes jestingly: "So Frank's letter has made you very happy, but you are afraid he would not have patience to stay for the Haarlem, which you wish him to have done as being safer than the merchantman. Poor fellow, to wait from the middle of November to the end of December, and perhaps even longer, it must be sad work; especially in a place where the ink is so abominably pale. What a surprise to him it must have been on October to, to be visited, collared, and thrust out of the Petterall by Captain Inglis. He kindly passes over the poignancy of his feelings in qnitting his ship, his officers, and his men. What a pity it is that he should not be in England at the time of his promotion, because he certainly would have had an appointment, so everybody says, and therefore it must be right for me to say it too. Had he been really here, the certainty of the appointment, I dare say, would not have been half could not be brought to the proof, his absence will always be a lucky source of regret."

The real name of the ship was evidently the Petrel but it is very variously spelt by other writers beside Jane, for orthography was not considered of great moment in the eighteenth century.

Captain Francis Austen had done good service on board and had well earned his promotion; in William James's Naval History of Great Britain, his name is mentioned with praise. On the 20th March, 1800, in the evening, while the Mermaid, a twelve-pounder thirty-two gun frigate, under Captain K. D. Oliver, and the ship sloop Petrel, under Captain Francis William Austen, were cruising together in the Bay of Marseilles, the Petrel, which was nearer the coast than the Mermaid, came into action with three armed vessels; two escaped by running on shore, but the third, the Ligurienne of "fourteen long six pounders two thirty-six pounder carronades all-brass" and with one hundred and four men on board to the Petrel's eighty-nine, for the first lieutenant and some of the crew were absent on prizes,-- began to fight. They kept up a running fight of an hour and an half's duration, within two hundred and fifty yards, and sometimes half that distance. Then the Lingurienne struck her colours, her commander being shot. The Petrel was at that time only six miles from Marseilles. No one was hurt on the Petrel, though four of her twelve pounder carronades were upset, and the sails riddled with shot holes. The Mermaid apparently stood in the offing, giving moral support throughout. The Ligurienne was a fine vessel, only about two years old, and her capture must have meant good prize-money into the pockets of the captain and crew of the Petrel. After describing this action, Mr. James continues--

"Before quitting Captain Austen we shall relate another instance of his good conduct; and in which, without coming to actual blows, he performed an important and not wholly imperilous service." On the thirteenth of August, the Petrel being then attached to Sir Sydney Smith's squadron on the coast of Egypt, he was the means of burning a Turkish ship so as to prevent the French from stealing her guns, and for this service the Captain Pacha presented him with a handsome sabre and rich pelisse. Though his service seems to have landed the Turkish vessel "out of the frying-pan into the fire." Charles Austen had seen active service when only a lad of fifteen, and both brothers frequently took part in the small actions which were continually occurring on the seas.
There was, as we have seen, six years' difference in age between them, but they were both at sea during some of the most glorious years in the whole annals of England. In spite of bad provisions, bad quarters, bad discipline, all of which will be again referred to, the English seamen at this time showed pluck and energy that was limitless. Britain was absolutely supreme on the seas. In 1794, Tobago, Martinique, St. Lucia, and Guadaloupe were all taken in less than a month. In the same year, Lord Howe, encountering twenty-six ships which the French by great exertions had sent to sea, manoeuvred for three days, but on the "glorious first of June" bore down upon them and broke their line, captured six, and dispersed the rest, while 8000 men were killed or wounded on the French side against 1158 of the English. On September 16 of the following year, the Cape of Good Hope was taken by the English under Sir James Craig. The Dutch made an attempt to retake the Cape in 1796, but the whole of the armament they sent was captured by Admiral Elphinstone. In 1797 the Spaniards, who had declared war against Great Britain, put forth their full naval strength to attempt to raise the blockade which bound the ports of France. They were met by Sir John Jarvis, who had only fifteen ships of the line against their twenty-seven, and half the number of frigates.

By the well-known manoeuvre the Admiral broke the Spanish line, cutting off a number of their ships, and when three of the largest wore round to rejoin their comrades, they were met by Nelson and Collingwood. Two of these Spanish ships got entangled with each other, and Nelson, driving his own vessel on board of one of them, carried both sword in hand, and received the sword of the Spanish Rear-Admiral in submission; this was afterwards awarded to him for his own possession. The Spaniards were totally routed and comparatively few ships were taken; the battle, which earned its commander the title of Lord St. Vincent, is considered one of the most important in the whole history of England.

In October of the same year, the battle of Camperdown was gained by Admiral Duncan, and these two victories together, by making the British complete masters of the home seas allayed for a while the terror of a French invasion. The mezzotint by James Ward from Copley's famous picture, given in illustration, shows the variety of costume adopted by the British seamen at that time, the style of the officers' dress, and gives a very good idea of the appearance of the picturesque old wooden sailing-ships in which such heroic services were performed.

The most amazing part of this splendid series of victories, all of which contained much boarding and hand-to-hand fighting, demanding personal pluck and endurance, is, that the sailors, as a mass, were either unwilling men pressed into a service which they disliked, or the very off-scourings of the country. On board there was bad food, bad water, wretched accommodation, and often rank brutality. There was the discipline of terror not of respect, and insubordination was only held down by fear.

The officers fared a little better than the men in regard to comfort, but it speaks well for young Charles Austen that he followed in his brother's steps when he must have known by word of mouth of all the discomforts, to speak of nothing worse, which must be his lot on board ship.

For the sons of gentlemen, the first entrance into the navy was a most precarious venture, and the system, if system it can be called, so haphazard, that one marvels men should have been found to let their sons attempt it. A boy first obtained interest of some sort from an admiral or captain on board a ship, and was taken by him in any odd capacity for a voyage. He might go as "boy" or even as servant, and though nominally a midshipman, was in reality without a position or standing save what his patron allowed to him. He could not go in for an examination until he had served bn board for six years, then he might do so to qualify for a lieutenancy. Once a lieutenant his position was secured, and he had authority and consequently a very different life. Captain Edward Thompson, writing in the middle of the eighteenth century to a young relative who thought of following the sea for a trade, says, "Besides, the disagreeable circumstances and situations attending a subaltern officer in the navy, are so many and so hard, that, had not the first men in the service passed the dirty road to preferment, to encourage the rest, they would renounce it to a man. It is a most mistaken notion that a youth will not be a good officer unless he stoops to the most menial offices, to be bedded worse than hogs, and to eat less delicacies. In short, from having experienced such scenes of filth and infamy, such fatigues and hardships, that are sufficient to disgust the stoutest and bravest, for alas there is only a little hope of promotion sprinkled in the cup to make a man swallow more than he digests the rest of his life."

The wonder is that such boys as went to sea picked up enough seamanship to pass any but the most practical examination. Navigation was in those days even more difficult than at present, owing to the dependence on the wind and the necessity for understanding the exact management of sails. There were no engineers who could make the vessel go in any direction the captain thought best at a moment's notice; and the man on the bridge had a heavy responsibility.

That matters in regard to the service were improving is evident, for the same writer quoted above continues--

"The last war, a chaw of tobacco, a ratan, and a rope of oaths were sufficient qualities to constitute a lieutenant, but now education and good manners are the study of all."
Yet the surroundings on board ship were enough to prevent any but the most earnest and determined youth from studying; food and accommodation were alike revolting. "At once you resign a good table for no table, and a good bed for your length and breadth. Nay, it will be thought an indulgence too to let you sleep where day ne'er enters; and where fresh air only comes when forced. You must get up every four hours, and they never forget to call you, though you may forget to rise.

"Your light for day and night is a small candle which is often stuck on the side of your platter at meals for want of a better convenience. Your victuals are salt and often bad; and if you vary the mode of dressing them you must cook yourself . . . in a man-of-war you have the collected filth of jails; condemned criminals have the alternative of hanging or entering on board. There is not a vice committed on shore but is practised here, the scenes of horror and infamy on board a man-of-war are so many and so great, that I think they must rather disgust a good mind than allure it."
Smollet's pictures of life on board are too well known to quote.

The between decks, where the men slept, had not been ventilated at all up to the middle of the eighteenth century, when a hand-pump was invented to expel the foul air, the fresh air being left to find its own way in. The noisome smells, the cramped space, the continual darkness and disorder, must have bred sickness and debility in many, which all the open-air life on deck could not counteract.

Victory of Lord Duncan (Camperdown) 1797

Victory of Lord Duncan (Camperdown) 1797

As for the food served for the men, it seems to have been loathsome. In Tracts relating to the Victualling of the Navy, we read of "sour tainted pickled meat. If such can be called food--human food--when dogs that I have offered it to have flaged their tails, ran away, and would not even smell to it;" of "rotten, musty, weevily flour," and "as for the butter, cheese, oil, raisins, they might have been expended, the cheese into ammunition, cast into cannon balls, the raisins as wadding, the butter and oil to grease their tackle with, for which it may be thought very fit--stinking slush. It is no longer a wonder at the pursers being tormented with execrations and bitter wrath from remediless, aggrieved, and tortured men on board."

It is said that any man who had been long a sailor, got into the habit of tapping his biscuit on the table to knock the weevils out before he ate it, a trick that old salts were seen to do at the tables of their friends on shore!

As for the state of the hospitals in India and elsewhere, the following story tells a tale. "Soon after the last action with the French fleet, I observed a wounded seaman, who had lost part of his hand by a shot, climbing up the side with one hand, and holding his bread bag in his teeth. I asked why he had left the hospital. He answered they were so much in want of provisions that he had come on board to beg some biscuit (which was full of maggots) for his messmates. At that time I understood Government was charged a rupee a day for every man in the hospital (about 1000 or 1500) but I believe seven or eight pence was all it cost the contractor for their provisions, and it was reported that he was obliged to share the profits with the admiral and his secretary, said to amount to about £ 70 a day."

We have had some revelations of official corruption recently, but there is nothing to compare with the openly recognised stealing of the eighteenth century, when, so late as 1783, a minister could say in earnest to a purser who had been a commissary and complained of poverty, "You had your hand in the bag, sir, why did you not help yourself?" And help themselves everyone apparently did, from the highest to the lowest. Enquiry first began to be made by Lord St. Vincent, who set himself to clean this Augean stable.

There being a prospect of a vacancy in the office of the Admiralty, a satirical correspondent to the Morning Chronicle in 1792 forwarded the following list of qualities essential for any candidate applying:--

He should know nothing of a ship.
He should never have been to sea.
He should be ignorant of geography.
He should be ignorant of naval tactics.
He should never attend office until four in the afternoon.
He should be unfit for business every day.
He should be very regular in keeping officers waiting for orders.
He should not know a bumboat from a three decker.
His hair should always be well dressed,
And his head should be empty!
Though matters were bad enough for the officers they were fifty times worse for the men, and it is not at all singular that men should have been procured with difficulty to enter a service where they were liable to all sorts of hardships; to great risk of life; where they were at the mercy of an irresponsible commander, who could order them to be strung up on the slightest provocation, and given any number of lashes he thought fit; where they could be hanged for disobeying or manifesting the smallest revolt to this tyrant; where prize-money, which was freely distributed to officers, sometimes never reached the men. There were instances of prize-money fairly due to the men being held over for a year or more as "not worth distributing."

The deficiency of men was, as we have seen, supplied by using the criminals of the gaols. Bounty money was also liberally offered, the authorities realising that a few pounds ready money were likely to be a valuable bribe to a man out of luck. The St. James Chronicle remarks at the beginning of the war, "Five pounds bounty, and two pounds extra from the Corporation of London; surely no tars can be found backward."

In 1770 the Government had offered thirty shillings a head, which was augmented by various towns; London offering forty shillings additional, and Edinburgh forty-two shillings. In 1788 a prohibition forbidding seamen to serve in foreign navies was issued, and in 1791 the bounty money of London rose to two pounds for an ordinary seaman, and sixty shillings for an able seaman. The city added twenty shillings to the one, and forty shillings to the other at the beginning of the warin 1793. And in 1795 the total bounties in some places even amounted to thirty pounds a head!

In 1795 an Act was passed demanding levies of men from the whole country, the proportions varying according to the size of the county or port; from Yorkshire more than a thousand were demanded. In addition to this the pressgang was hard at work, and the monstrous injustice perpetrated by it makes one wonder how, even in times of greatest stress, it could have been allowed.

The difference between an ordinary press and a "hot press" was that in the latter all protection was disregarded, and men of every sort, even apprentices usually protected by law, were seized and carried off to serve, utterly regardless of mercy. The odd part of it is that, when it was found to be inevitable, the men who had been taken against their will plucked up spirit and performed their duties well.

John Ashton in Old Times quotes a number of cuttings from The Times of 1793 and 1794 giving details of these presses. "The press in the river Thames for the three last days has been very severe. Five or six hundred seamen have been laid hold of." (February 18, 1793.)

"A hot press has, for the last two nights, been carried on from London Bridge to the Nore; protections are disregarded, and almost all the vessels in the river have been stripped of their hands." (April 26, 1793.)

"Sailors are so scarce that upwards of sixty sail of merchant's ships bound to the West Indies, and other places, are detained in the river, with their ladings on board; seven outward bound East Indiamen are likewise detained at Gravesend, for want of sailors to man them." (January 7, 1794.)

"That part of Mr. Pitt's plan for manning the navy, which recommends to the magistrates to take cognizance of all idle and disorderly people, who have no visible means of livelihood, may certainly procure a great number of able-bodied men who are lurking about the Metropolis." (February 11, 1795.)

"There was a very hot press on the river on Friday night last, when several hundred able seamen were procured. One of the gangs in attempting to board a Liverpool trader, were resisted by the crew, when a desperate affray took place, in which many of the former were thrown overboard, and the lieutenant who bearded them killed by a shot from the vessel." (June 9, 1795.)

In 1798 all protection from the operations of the pressgang was suspended, even in the case of the coal trade, for one month!

To counterbalance all the manifold disadvantages of service in the navy, for the officers at least, there were some attractions; that of prize-money was very great, for a man might literally make his fortune at sea in a few years by lucky captures, and the spirit of gambling and adventure to which this gave rise must have had a very strong effect in attracting young officers.

The account of the sums received in prize-money is perfectly amazing; the best haul of all was perhaps the Hermione, a Spanish ship taken long before the Austens' day, in 1762. The treasure was conveyed to London in twenty waggons with the British colours flying over those of Spain, a sight that would confound those of our own time, who seem to think the true way to celebrate a victory is to give compensation to those who have provoked war, and brought defeat upon themselves! The share of one ship alone, the Active, amounted to over £ 250,000; and the proportion given to the ships of the same squadron not actually present amounted to nearly £ 67,000. The value of the St. Jago, taken in 1793, as adjudged to the captors was £935,000, of which about £100,000 went to Admiral Gell. (The Times, February 4, 1795.) Each captain got nearly £ 14,000.

In 1801, Jane tells us that "Charles has received £ 30 for his share of the privateer and expects ten pounds more, but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his sisters? He has been buying gold chains and topaz crosses for us. He must be well scolded."

After this it does not seem so strange to read in Persuasion that in only seven years Anne's lover, Wentworth, "had distinguished himself, and early gained the other step in rank, and must now, by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune," which otherwise strikes oddly on our ears.

The abuses in the navy included those of interest, which in those days honeycombed every branch of professional life. Lord Rodney made his son John a post captain after he had been a midshipman little over a month, and when he was just over fifteen years old. But this, at a time when boys of fourteen held commissions in the Guards, must have seemed a trifle. Mrs. Lybbe Powys, speaking of her brother-in-law, says--

"Our young officer is what I fear too generally young men in the army are, gay, thoughtless, and very handsome; but what boy of fourteen, having a commission in the Guards, can be otherwise?"
The Times of 1797 speaks of the "baby officers," and says--
"Some of the sucking colonels of the Guards have expressed their dislike of the short skirts. They say they feel as if they were going to be flogged."
A peculiar feature of the end of the eighteenth and beginning of nineteenth centuries was the tendency to mutiny, induced doubtless by the terrible hardships and injustices undergone by the men on board. And the wonder is, not that the men did mutiny, but that they endured so long and fought so splendidly without doing so.

Some of the mutineers on board the Téméraire, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, are thus described by an eye-witness. "They were the noblest fellows, with the most undaunted mien, I ever beheld--the beau ideal of British sailors; tall and athletic, welldressed? in blue jackets, red waistcoats, and trousers white as driven snow. Their hair like the tail of the lion, hung in a queue down their back. At that time this last article was considered, as indeed it really was, the distinguishing mark of a thoroughbred seaman. Unfortunately, these gallant fellows were as ignorant as they were impatient, and the custom of the time was to hang everyone who should dare to dispute the orders of his superior officers."

Of the mutinies the most serious were those at Spithead and the Nore, which followed closely upon one another. After the first, concessions in regard to pay and various improvements in commissariat were granted; and both mutinies were put down firmly and sharply, but they were followed from time to time by lesser outbreaks.

All these excitements, and the constant changes in the pay of officers, must have been watched with interest by the Austen family, whom they touched so nearly. Jane certainly understood the best type of naval officer, and had no little admiration and affection for him.

The officers in her novels may easily be divided into two sorts, they are the officers of the old school, of which Admiral Crawford, in Mansfield Park, to whom his nephew and niece were indebted for their bringing up, is a prominent example. Here is the aforesaid niece's account of the type, when Edmund Bertram asks her whether she has not a large acquaintance in the navy. "'Among admirals, large enough, but,' with an air of grandeur, 'we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us. Of various admirals I could tell you a great deal; of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over and all very ill-used. Certainly my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.'"

Mr. Price, Fanny's father, who is in the Marines, with his noise, and his oaths, and his coarseness and ill-temper, is a terrible revelation to his gentle daughter.

On the other side of the scale we may set Admiral Croft in Persuasion, a polished and delightful man, "rearadmiral of the white. He was in the Trafalgar action, and has been in the East Indies since; he has been stationed there, I believe, several years."

The younger generation of sailors is represented charmingly in the novels from Fanny's admirable, straightforward, single-minded brother William, who, when he came to Mansfield Park shortly after getting promoted to his lieutenancy, "would have been delighted to show his uniform there too, had not cruel custom prohibited its appearance except on duty. So the uniform remained at Portsmouth, and Edmund conjectured that before Fanny had any chance of seeing it, all its own freshness, and all the freshness of its wearer's feelings must be worn away; for what can be more unbecoming or more worthless than the uniform of a lieutenant who has been a lieutenant a year or two, and sees others made commanders before him."

Captain Wentworth, Anne's lover, who had been treated so cruelly in deference to the wishes of her family, is gallant, handsome, charming, a man of the world, without having lost his freshness, and a man who has won his way and yet been unspoiled by flattery; he is one of the best of Jane Austen's heroes.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.