Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



IT will be remembered that at the close of 1796 scarcely a British man-of-war was to be seen in the Mediterranean. To estimate the work that St. Vincent and Nelson had since accomplished, it is only necessary to say that by the summer of 1799 the British Navy was everywhere, blockading Genoa and Malta, patrolling the Egyptian and Syrian coasts, and in possession of Minorca, while Nelson was stationed at Palermo. The French armies in Italy were cut off from reinforcements by our ships before Genoa. Bonaparte's soldiers in Egypt were equally helpless, though he himself managed to get home in spite of the danger of capture.

Attempts were of course made by the French to change this position. Rear-Admiral Perrée had served on the immense fleet which Bonaparte took to Egypt in 1798, and there was appointed to the command of the light flotilla intended to patrol the Nile. Most of his seniors were shortly afterwards killed or captured by Nelson's fleet in Aboukir Bay, and he then took charge of the remaining frigates which had safely anchored at Alexandria, and which were compelled to remain there, as Captain Troubridge had established a blockade of the coast. When Bonaparte marched for Syria, early in i 799, Perrée was ordered to bring battering cannon to Haifa for the attack on Acre. It was some time before he got the opportunity to slip out of Alexandria, and he then found Jaffa the only place available for landing the guns. Accomplishing this, he vainly endeavoured to co-operate in the siege of Acre, but was driven off by the Tigre and Theseus under Sir Sydney Smith. The blockade made it impossible for Perrée to re-enter Alexandria. The five vessels therefore sailed for Toulon, and on June 18 we have in the log of the Peterel the account of the capture of this unlucky squadron, within a few hours of their French haven.

June 7.—"Admiral (Lord Keith) and fleet in company. The Emerald made signal for five sail in sight. The Admiral signalled for general chace. Answered his signal to us to keep between the Admiral and the chacing ships in N.E., to repeat At 8 P.M. Emerald N.E., six or seven miles, Admiral west, four miles.

June 18.—"One o'clock P.M. Saw four sail bearing N.W. At six, five sail of strangers in sight. At seven, perceived the Centaur open a fire on the chace, which was returned. Saw two of them strike and shorten sail. Half-past seven, the Emerald got up with, and took possession of, another. At eight o'clock the Centaur brought to a fourth. The Success and the Triton in chace of the fifth.

June 19.—"At daylight, ten of the fleet and five prizes in company. Boats of the fleet employed on the 19th getting the prisoners out of the prizes. These ships proved to be a squadron which had escaped out of Alexandria on the 19th of March, and, after cruising a considerable time off Joppa, were returning to Toulon. Their names are as follows:

La Junon . . . . . 38 guns, 600 men (with a Rear-Admiral on board).

L'Alceste . . . . . 36 guns.

La Courageuse . . . . . 32 guns, 300 men.

L'Alerte . . . . . 16-gun brig.

La Salamine . . . . . 16-gun ditto."

Marshal Suwarrow, in command of the Russian and Austrian armies, was now making use of Bonaparte's enforced detention in Egypt to drive the French out of Italy. By June, after the battle of the Trebbia, he had not only shut up Moreau's army in Genoa, but had driven Macdonald back into Tuscany. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the two French Commanders were able eventually to join forces in Genoa. With characteristic want of confidence in their generals, the French Directory sent out General Joubert to take command in the place of the two who had been worsted. Almost immediately after his arrival, he was himself utterly defeated and killed at the battle of Novi. Nothing was left of the French possessions in Italy except Genoa, and a few smaller fortified places. To Genoa Massena came after his successful exploits in Switzerland, and made his memorable stand, against the Austrian army besieging by land and the British blockading by sea.

With these events during 1799 and 1800, the Peterel was in constant touch. On one occasion, off Savona, a vessel was taken containing two hundred and fifty wounded soldiers, who were being conveyed from Genoa back to France after the indecisive battle of the Trebbia. On this Captain Austen remarks, "As many of them were in such a state as not to be moved but at the risque of their lives, Captain Caulfield (of the Aurora), from motives of humanity, let the vessel proceed."

Another capture shows how much the French were hampered by our blockade, their general being unable to reach his army excepting by sea. In Francis Austen's own words:

August 2, 1799.—"Last night at 9 P.M. the Minerve's boats came alongside; sent them along with our own, armed, under the command of the first lieutenant to cut out some vessels from the Bay of Diano.

"About midnight saw a very heavy fire of cannon and musketry in Diano Bay. Towards dawn the boats turned on board, having brought out a large settee laden with wine, and a French armed half-galley, mounting six guns, and rowing twenty-six oars. This galley had lately arrived from Toulon with General Joubert, appointed to supersede Moreau in the command of the French army of Italy, and was to have proceeded to-day with the general to the headquarters, near Genoa. She was manned with thirty-six people, twenty of which jumped overboard and swam ashore as soon as our boats attacked them. The other sixteen were made prisoners, amongst which was the commander of her, having the rank of ensign de vaisseau in the service of the Republic. The vessel is called La Virginie, is Turkish built, and was taken by the French at Malta when they got possession of that place last year."

Another time the chace is described as follows:

July 14.—This vessel proved to be the El Fortunato Spanish ship polacre of about 100 tons burden, from Cagliari bound to Oneglia, laden with wine, and having on board an officer charged with despatches from the King of Sardinia to General Suwarrow, Commander-in-Chief of the combined armies of Russia and Austria in Italy."

The autumn and winter of 1799 were spent by the Peterel cruising again in the west of the Mediterranean, chiefly off Minorca; but in the spring of 1800 they were again near Marseilles. The capture of the French brig La Ligurienne, described in the following letter, is another witness to the fruitless attempts of the French to get help to the army which Bonaparte had left behind in Egypt.

"Peterel AT SEA, March 22, 1800.

"SIR,—I have to inform you that the vessels with which you saw me engaged yesterday afternoon near Cape Couronne, were a ship, brig, and xebecque, belonging to the French Republic; two of which, the ship and xebecque, I drove on shore, and, after a running action of about one hour and a half, during the most of which we were not more than two cables length from the shore, and frequently not half that distance, the third struck her colours. On taking possession, we found her to be La Ligurienne, French national brig, mounting fourteen six-pounders, and two thirty-six-pound howitzers, all brass, commanded by François Auguste Pelabon, lieutenant de vaisseau, and had on board at the commencement of the action one hundred and four men. Though from the spirited conduct and alacrity of Lieutenant Packer, Mr. Thompson, the master, and Mr. Hill, the purser (who very handsomely volunteered his services at the main deck guns), joined to the gallantry and determined courage of the rest of the officers, seamen and marines of his Majesty's sloop under my command, I was happily enabled to bring the contest to a favourable issue; yet I could not but feel the want, and regret the absence, of my first lieutenant, Mr. Glover, and thirty men, who were at the time away in prizes. I have a lively pleasure in that this service has been performed without a man hurt on our part, and with no other damage to the ship than four of our carronades dismounted, and a few shots through the sails. La Ligurienne is a very fine vessel of the kind, well equipped with stores of all sorts, in excellent repair, and not two years old. She is built on a peculiar plan, being fastened throughout with screw bolts, so as to be taken to pieces and put together with ease, and is said to have been intended to follow Bonaparte to Egypt. I learn from the prisoners that the ship is called Le Cerf mounting fourteen six-pounders, xebecque Le Joillet, mounting six six-pounders, and that they had sailed in company with a convoy (two of which, as per margin, I captured in the forenoon) that morning from Cette, bound to Marseilles. I enclose a return of the killed and wounded, as far as I have been able to ascertain it,

"And am, your very humble servant,

"To Robert Dudley Oliver, Esq.,
"Captain of H.M. Ship Mermaid.

"Return of killed and wounded in an action between his Britannic Majesty's sloop Peterel, Francis Win. Austen, Esq., Commander, and the French national brig La Ligurienne, commanded by François Auguste Pelabon, lieutenant de vaisseau.

"Peterel: Killed, none; wounded, none.
"La Ligurienne: Killed, the captain and one seaman; wounded, one gardemarin and one seaman.


The captures, "as per margin," are of a French bark, name unknown, about two hundred and fifty tons, and of a French bombarde, La Vestic, about one hundred and fifty tons, both laden with wheat, and both abandoned by their crews on the Peterel's attack.

If, as is stated, La Ligurienne was intended to go to Egypt, it seems not improbable that the reason for her peculiar construction was that she might be taken to pieces, carried across the desert, and launched again in the Red Sea, there to take part in an attempt on India.

This exploid, though related in a matter-of-fact way by Captain Austen in his letter, was not inconsiderable in the eyes of the authorities, and the result was his immediate promotion to post rank. He himself knew nothing of this advancement until the following October; only an instance of the slowness and difficulty of communication, which was so great a factor in the naval affairs of that time.

It should be mentioned that the frigate Mermaid was in sight during part of this action, which perhaps had something to do with the two French vessels running themselves ashore, also that the capture of La Ligurienne was within six miles of Marseilles. The Peterel took her three prizes to Minorca, where the prisoners were sent on board the Courageuse one of Perrée's frigates captured in 1799 as already described.

The next voyage was to Malta, where the fortress of Valetta was still in French hands, with a few ships under the command of Rear-Admiral Villeneuve. The British blockading squadron had just taken the Guillaume Tell in the endeavour to escape from Valetta harbour, after eighteen months' stay. This ship of the line was the only one remaining to the French from Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt and the Battle of the Nile.

The Peterel took on board, in the Bay of Marsa Sirocco, thirty-five of the crew of the Guillaume Tell, by orders of Commodore Troubridge of the Culloden, and with these prisoners made sail for Palermo, where for a few days she hoisted Nelson's flag. Arrived once more at Port Mahon, in Minorca, the French sailors were added to the number on the Courageuse, and the Peterel found her way to Lord Keith's fleet, now closely investing General Massena in Genoa.

The great events of the campaign of Marengo are matters of European history. The British fleet's blockade of the coast was clearly a determining factor in the choice of the St. Bernard route by the First Consul, inasmuch as the Riviera road was commanded from teh sea. It must remain a question whether Bonaparte deliberately left Massena's army to risks of starvation and capture, in order that the destruction of the Austrian forces in Piedmont might be complete. Massena had been compelled to extend his lines too far, so that he might secure from a mountainous country the supplies which could not reach him from France. This made it possible for the Austrians to press their advantage, and to isolate the fortresses of Nice, Savona, and Genoa. The unceasing patrol of the sea completed the circle of hostile forces. The French army was entirely shut up in Genoa, and throughout the month of May the town was several times bombarded by the ships and the armed boats of the fleet. These armed boats had already reduced the small garrison of Savona. It is recorded in the Peterel log that a "polacre laden with artillery and ammunition for the army of General Baron d'Ott" came from that port. The Peterel was detailed by Lord Keith to cruise in shore as near as possible to Genoa, and Captain Austen received the thanks of this Admiral for his energetic performance of that duty. One night the vessel was under fire from the lighthouse forts, and received several shots. A feature of the blockade was the plan of "rowing guard" each night, in order to prevent access to the harbour after dark. The Peterel's pinnace was frequently on this duty in turn with the other boats of the fleet, and took part in cutting out the Prima galley after midnight on the 21st of May. This galley was intended to take part in an attempt on the smaller vessels of the British fleet, but was attacked by the boats' crews at the Mole when just ready to come out. She was boarded in the most gallant manner, in spite of a large force of fighting men on board, and of a heavy fire from the harbour forts. The capture was greatly helped by the conduct of the 300 galley slaves, who rowed out so fast that they almost outstripped the boats that were towing her. These slaves were allowed on deck when the prize was out of gunshot range from the harbour, and great were their manifestations of joy at their release. The sequel of the incident was tragic. Lord Keith sent most of them back to Genoa with the other French prisoners, no doubt with the idea of forcing their support on the half-starved garrison. The galley slaves were shot as traitors in the market-place.

During the preliminary conference with General d'Ott and Lord Keith, preceding the French surrender at Genoa, it is said that some contempt for Austria was expressed by Massena, who went on as follows: "Milord, si jamais la France et l'Angleterre s'entendre, elles gouverneraient la monde." This almost foreshadows the "entente cordiale" of 1904.

On June 4 the French army capitulated. Genoa town was handed over to the Austrians under General Melas, and the port was occupied by Lord Keith in his flagship Minotaur.

But already the First Consul had descended into Italy, had taken possession of Milan, and was in full march to defeat Baron d'Ott at Montebello. On the 14th Marengo was fought, and the tide of fortune turned. Genoa, Savona, and all the fortresses of Piedmont were made over to the French. Massena came back on June 24, and Lord Keith had just time to move out of the harbour and to resume his blockade. The victorious First Consul was again in full possession of Northern Italy.

Before the end of May the Peterel was already on her way southward, and the log records the transport of thirty-two men to H.M.S. Guillaume Tell (recently captured) off Syracuse, then another call at Malta (St. Paul's Bay) where the blockaders were busy with the later stages of the reduction of Valetta. The destination of the Peterel was the coast of Egypt, where Sir Sydney Smith was locally in command. Alexandria and other harbours were still held by the French, now quite cut off from outside support. A Turkish fleet of twelve ships was at anchor off Alexandria, and the blockade was supposed to be maintained by them, but in actual practice the burden devolved upon the three British vessels, Tigre, Transfer, and Peterel. They appear to have joined forces at Jaffa, and to have cruised off the Egyptian coast, with an occasional visit to Cyprus, for some months. They were all this time without news from England.

The allied fleets of France and Spain were by no means inactive, and, though they did not accomplish much in the Mediterranean, there was always a serious risk for a single vessel, and despatch-boats were particularly unsafe carrying, as they did, intelligence that might be useful to the enemy. At this time the Spanish ports in the neighbourhood of Gibraltar were strongly held, and it was a great object with the British Government to relieve this pressure, which seriously threatened their communications with the whole of the Mediterranean. Algeciras was specially dangerous, and we find constant attacks upon the enemy there, in which Charles Austen as Lieutenant of the Endymion had a considerable part, under Sir Thomas Williams and his successor Captain Philip Durham. His service was varied by the capture of several privateers, among others of La Furie. The Endymion afterwards convoyed ten Indiamen home from St. Helena, for which service Captain Durham received the thanks of the East India Company. On the occasion of the capture of the Scipio, Lieutenant Charles Austen specially distinguished himself. The encounter took place in a violent gale, but, in spite of wind and weather, he put off in a boat with only four men, and boarded the vessel, which had just surrendered. The Scipio was a fine craft of 18 guns, manned by 140 men.

Charles was particularly lucky at this time in his shares of prize-money. Jane tells us in one of her letters to Cassandra how generously he spent it.

"Charles has received £30 for his share of the privateer, and expects £10 more; but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents for his sisters? He has been buying gold chains and topaz crosses for us. He must be well scolded. I shall write again by this post to thank and reproach him. We shall be unbearably fine."

It is a good instance of the way in which Jane Austen "worked up" her incidents that the brother's present of a cross and a gold chain should form the groundwork on which is built up the story of Fanny's flutterings of heart over her adornments for the ball at Mansfield.

"The 'how she should be dressed' was a point of painful solicitude; and the almost solitary ornament in her possession, a very pretty amber cross which William had brought her from Sicily, was the greatest distress of all, for she had nothing but a bit of riband to fasten it to; and though she had worn it in that manner once, would it be allowable at such a time, in the midst of all the rich ornaments which she supposed all the other young ladies would appear in? And yet not to wear it! William had wanted to buy her a gold chain too, but the purchase had been beyond his means, and therefore not to wear the cross might be mortifying to him. These were anxious considerations; enough to sober her spirits even under the prospect of a ball given principally for her gratitfication."

Then follows Miss Crawford's gift of a necklace to wear with the cross, with all its alarming associations with Henry Crawford; then Edmund's gift of a chain; her resolve to wear Miss Crawford's gift to please him; and lastly the delightful discovery that the necklace was too large for the purpose. Edmund's chain, "therefore, must be worn; and having, with delightful feelings, joined the chain and the cross, those memorials of the two most beloved of her heart; those dearest tokens so formed for each other by everything real and imaginary, and put them round her neck, and seen and felt how full of William and Edmund they were, she was able, without an effort, to resolve on wearing Miss Crawford's necklace too. She acknowledged it to be right. Miss Crawford had a claim; and when it was no longer to encroach on, to interfere with the stronger claims, the truer kindness of another, she could do her justice even with pleasure to herself. The necklace really looked very well ; and Fanny left her room at last, comfortably satisfied with herself and all about her."