Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



THE truism that absence strengthens more ties than it weakens is clearly demonstrated by the letters of the Austen family. In spite of the difficulty of sending letters, and the doubt of their reaching England, the brothers managed to get news through whenever it was possible. To know that their efforts were appreciated one has only to read how every scrap of this news was sent from one sister to the other in the constant letters they interchanged on those rare occasions when they were parted. The Austen family had always a certain reserve in showing affection, but the feeling which appears in this longing for tidings, in the gentle satires on small failings or transient love-affairs of their brothers, combined with the occasional "dear Frank" or "dear Charles," was one which stood the test of time, and was transmitted to the brothers' children in a way that made the names of "Aunt Jane" and "Aunt Cassandra" stand for all that was lovable in the thoughts of their nephews and nieces.

The scarcity of letters must have been a severe trial. Just at this time, when those at home knew of Frank's promotion, and he had as yet no idea of it, the longing to send and receive news must have been very great. He was hard at work in the summer of 1800 with Sir Sydney Smith's squadron off Alexandria. From there, early in July, he wrote to Cassandra. This letter was received at Steventon on November 1, when Cassandra was at Godmersham with Edward, so Jane sent her word of its arrival. "We have at last heard from Frank; a letter from him to you came yesterday, and I mean to send it on as soon as I can get a ditto (that means a frank), which I hope to do in a day or two. En attendant, you must rest satisfied with knowing that on the 8th of July the Peterel with the rest of the Egyptian squadron was off the Isle of Cyprus, whither they went from Jaffa for provisions, &c., and whence they were to sail in a day or two for Alexandria, there to await the English proposals for the evacuation of Egypt. The rest of the letter, according to the present fashionable style of composition, is chiefly descriptive. Of his promotion he knows nothing; of prizes he is guiltless."

An event which would no doubt have made a point of interest in this letter happened the day after it was sent, but is recorded in the log for July 9:

"Received two oxen and fifty-two gallons of wine, being the Peterel's portion of a present from the Governor of the Island."

The same letter from Jane to her sister contains news of Charles, who had been at home comparatively lately, and was on the Endymion, which was "waiting only for orders, but may wait for them perhaps a month." Three weeks later he was at home again.

"Naughty Charles did not come on Tuesday, but good Charles came yesterday morning. About two o clock he walked in on a Gosport hack. His feeling equal to such a fatigue is a good sign, and his feeling no fatigue a still better. He walked down to Deane to dinner, he danced the whole evening, and to-day is no more tired than a gentleman ought to be. Your desiring to hear from me on Sunday will, perhaps, bring you a more particular account of the ball than you may care for, because one is prone to think more of such things the morning after they happen, than when time has entirely driven them out of one's recollection.

"It was a pleasant evening; Charles found it remarkably so, but I cannot tell why, unless the absence of Miss Terry, towards whom his conscience reproaches him with being now perfectly indifferent, was a relief to him.

"Summers has made my gown very well indeed, and I get more and more pleased with it. Charles does not like it, but my father and Mary do. My mother is very much resigned to it, and as for James he gives it the preference over everything of the kind he ever saw, in proof of which I am desired to say that if you like to sell yours Mary will buy it.

"Farewell! Charles sends you his best love, and Edward his worst. If you think the distinction improper, you may take the worst yourself. He will write to you when he gets back to his ship, and in the meantime desires that you will consider me as your affectionate sister J. A.

"P.S. Charles is in very good looks indeed.

"I rejoice to say that we have just had another letter from our dear Frank, it is to you, very short, written from Larnaca in Cyprus, and so lately as October 2nd. He came from Alexandria, and was to return there in three or four days, knew nothing of his promotion and does not write above twenty lines, from a doubt of the letter's ever reaching you, and an idea of all letters being opened at Vienna. He wrote a few days before to you from Alexandria by the Mercury, sent with despatches to Lord Keith. Another letter must be Owing to us besides this, one if not two; because none of these are for me."

The scenes of home life which these extracts give us form a strong contrast to the readings in the log of the Peterel between the dates of Frank's two letters.

In spite of the fact that viewed as a whole this was a breathing space between engagements, each side standing back to recover and to watch for the next movement on the part of the other, yet, in detail, it was a time of activity. Now and then, in the log, occurs the chace of a germe (or djerm) carrying supplies for the French, and a boat expedition is organised to cut Out one or two of these craft, from an inlet where they had taken refuge.

"At twelve the boats returned without the germe, having perceived her to be under the protection of a field piece and a body of soldiers." Next day one was captured "with only 17 bales of tobacco on board" (Captain Austen was not a smoker). Then "condemned by survey the remaining part of the best bower cable as unserviceable." "Held a survey on and condemned a cask of rice. "The senior lieutenant was surveyed by the surgeons of the squadron and found to be a fit object for invaliding."

The next incident is described in the following report:

"Peterel, OFF ALEXANDRIA,August 14, 1800.

"SIR,—On the morning of the 10th, the day subsequent to my parting with the Tigre, I joined the Turkish squadron off this place, consisting of one ship of the line, and three corvettes under the command of Injee Bey, captain of the gallies, with whom I concerted on the most proper distribution of the force left with him. It was finally agreed that one corvette should be stationed off Aboukir, a second off Alexandria and the third off the Tower of Marabout, the line-of-battle ship and the Peterel occasionally to visit the different points of the station as we might judge fit. It blowing too hard to admit of any germes passing, I thought it advisable to stretch to the westward as far as the Arab's Tower, off which I continued till the afternoon of the 12th, when I stood back to the eastward, and was somewhat surprised to see none of the Turkish squadron off Alexandria. At 8 o'clock the following morning, having an offing of three or four leagues, I stood in for the land, and in about an hour saw three of the Turkish ships a long way to the Eastward, arid the fourth, which proved to be the line-of-battle ship, laying totally dismasted, on the Reef, about halfway between the Castle and Island of Aboukir. Thinking it possible, from what little I knew of Aboukir Bay, to get the Peterel within gunshot of her, and by that means to disperse the swarm of germes which surrounded her, and whose crews I could plainly discern busy in plundering, I stood in round the east side of the island, and anchored in quarter less four fathoms, a long gun-shot distance from her, and sent Mr. Thompson, the master, in the pinnace to sound in a direction towards her, in order to ascertain whether it was practicable to get any nearer with the ship, and if he met with no resistance (the germes having all made sail before we anchored) to board and set fire to the wreck. Though it blew very strong, and the boat had to row nearly two miles, almost directly to windward, yet by the great exertions of the officers and boat's crew, in an hour and twenty minutes I had the satisfaction of seeing the wreck in a perfect blaze, and the boat returning. Mr. Thompson brought back with him thirteen Greek sailors, part of the crew, and one Arab left in their hurry by the germes.

"From the Greeks I collected that the ship went on shore while in the act of wearing about 9 o'clock on the night of the 11th, that about half the crew had been taken on board the corvettes, and the Bey, with the principal part of the officers and the rest of the crew, having surrendered to the French, had landed the next evening at Aboukir. At the time we stood in, the French had 300 men at work on board the wreck, endeavouring to save the guns, but had only succeeded in landing one from the quarter-deck.

"Shortly after my anchoring I sent an officer to the corvette, which had followed us in, and anchored near to us, to inform their commander what I propoSed doing, and to desire the assistance of their boats in case of resistance from any persons who might be remaining on board the wreck, a demand which they did not think proper to comply with, alleging that, as all the cloathes, &c., had been landed, there was nothing of value remaining, and besides that it would be impossible to get on board, as the French had a guard of soldiers in her.

"I cannot sufficiently praise the zeal and activity with which Mr. Thompson and the nine men with him performed this service, by which I trust the greatest part, if not al], of the guns, and other useful parts of the wreck, have been prevented from falling into the hands of the enemy. The thirteen Greeks I sent on board one of the Turkish corvettes, and intend, as soon as I have communication with the shore, to land the Arab.

"I have the honour to be, Sir,
"Your obedient servant,

"To Sir Sydney Smith, K.S.,
"Senior officer of H.M. Ships and Vessels
"employed in the Levant."

The French were quite ready to take possession of all that the predatory Arab germes were likely to leave on board the Turkish line-of-battle ship. There was of course much less difficulty in getting the Peterel into Aboukir Bay than in navigating the larger corvettes of the Turks; but, where Nelson had brought in his fleet, before the Battle of the Nile, there was water enough for any vessel, if properly handled.

The following letters give the conclusion of the matter:

"August 16, 1800.

"SIR,I avail myself of the present flag to set on shore with an unconditional release eleven Arabs, prisoners of war. Should it be not inconsistent with the instructions you may be acting under, the release of an equal number of the subjects of the Sublime Porte will be considered as a fair return.

"I have the honour to be, &c.,
Your obedient servant,

"To General Lariusse,
Commandant of Alexandria."

"Peterel, OFF ALEXANDRIA, August 7.

"SIR,—The King George transport is this morning arrived here from Rhodes, and as I find, by the report of the master, that the object of his mission in landing the powder has not been accomplished, I shall send him off directly with orders to follow you agreeable to given rendezvous. . . . I enclose herewith a letter received five days ago by a Turkish transport from Jaffa; one from myself containing the particulars of the loss of the Turkish line-of-battle ship, a copy of my letter to General Lanusse, which accompanied the Arabs on shore yesterday (the first day since my leaving the Tigre, that the weather has been sufficiently moderate to admit of communicating with the shore), and lastly a letter from the Vizir, which I received yesterday from Jaffa by a Turkish felucca. As the weather becomes more settled I hope to annoy the germes, though I must not count on any support or assistance from the Turks, as Injee Bey, when I first joined him, declared he had received directions from the Capitan Pacha not to molest them. Two of the corvettes are gone to join the Capitan Pacha, but this I learnt only two days after they went. The officer who accompanied the flag yesterday could not obtain any certain intelligence of Captain Boyle and his people, for in answer to his inquiries he was told they were still at or near Cairo.

"I have the honour to be, &c.

"To Sir Wm. Sydney Smith, K.S.,
"Senior officer of H.M. Ships and Vessels
"employed in the Levant."

This Capitan Pacha was a man of some note. His career is an example of the inefficacy of the greatest talents under such a government as that of Turkey. He was in every way an able man—strong and determined—considering all circumstances not to be called cruel—enlightened in his ideas. His chief lack was that of education, but he was anxious to learn from all. He had great respect for Europeans and sympathy with their outlook. Altogether, though he did a great work for the Turkish navy—improving the construction of the ships—taking care that the officers should be properly educated, and drawing the supply of men from the best possible sources, and all this in a country where reform seemed a hopeless task, yet, so great was the power of his personality, that one is more surprised that he did so little than that he did so much.

The Captain Courtney Boyle spoken of in this letter was evidently an acquaintance of the family, as we find him mentioned in one of Jane's letters. His ship, the Cormorant, had been wrecked on the Egyptian coast, and the whole crew made prisoners by the French. He must have obtained his release very shortly afterwards, for the following letter from Jane to Cassandra was clearly written when the family at Steventon were looking forward to Frank's return, but before they had direct news from himself:

"I should not have thought it necessary to write to you so soon, but for the arrival of a letter from Charles to myself. It was written last Saturday from off the Start, and conveyed to Popham Lane by Captain Boyle, on his way to Midgham. He came from Lisbon in the Endymion. I will copy Charles's account of his conjectures about Frank: 'He has not seen my brother lately, nor does he expect to find him arrived, as he met Captain Inglis at Rhodes, going up to takecommand of the Peterel as he was coming down; but supposes he will arrive in less than a fortnight from this time, in some ship which is expected to reach England about that time with despatches from Sir Ralph Abercrombie.' The event must show what sort of a conjurer Captain Boyle is. The Endymion has not been plagued with any more prizes. Charles spent three pleasant days in Lisbon. When this letter was written, the Endymion was becalmed, but Charles hoped to reach Portsmouth by Monday or Tuesday. He received my letter, communicating our plans, before he left England; was much surprised, of course, but is quite reconciled to them, and means to come to Steventon once more while Steventon is ours."

Captain Charles Inglis, who was to succeed Francis Austen, had served as lieutenant in the Penelope, and specially distinguished himself in the capture of the Guillaume Tell.

While these conjectures as to Frank's whereabouts and the possible date of his return were passing between his relations at home, he had been still pursuing the ordinary round of duties such as are described in this letter, quite ignorant until the actual event of any approaching change either for them or for himself.

"SIR,—I have to inform you that I anchored with his Majesty's sloop under my command at Larnaca on the evening of the 1st instant, where I completed my water, and purchased as much wine as the ship would stow, but was not able to procure any bread, as from the great exports of corn which have been lately made to supply the Vizir's army in Syria, the inhabitants are almost in a state of famine. I sailed from Larnaca the evening of the 6th, and anchored here on the 9th at noon. As I had only five days' bread on board I have judged it proper to take on board 50 quintals of that which had been prepared for the Tigre, and not being acquainted with the price agreed on, have directed the purser to leave a certificate with the Dragoman of the Porte, for the quantity received, that it may be included with the Tigre's vouchers, and settled for with the purser of that ship.

"The Governor of Nicosia made application to me yesterday in the name of the Capitan Pacha for assistance to enable him to get a gun on shore from one of the gun-boats which has been wrecked here, which, tho' I knew would detain me a day, I thought it right to comply with; the gun has been to-day got on shore, and I am now going to weigh. I propose stretching more towards Alexandria if the wind is not very unfavourable, and should I find no counter orders, shall afterwards put in execution the latter part of yours of the 23rd ult.

"I have directed the captain of the Kirling Gech, which I found here on my arrival without orders, to wait till the 16th for the arrival of the Tigre, when, if not otherwise directed, to proceed to Rhodes, and follow such orders or information as he may obtain there.

"I have the honor to be, &c.,

"To Sir Sydney Smith."

"The latter part of yours of the 23rd" possibly refers to instructions to proceed to Rhodes, for we find in the log that the Peterel went on there early in October, and there at last Captain Austen was greeted with the news of his promotion to Post Rank. The Peterel anchored in the Road of Rhodes at ten o'clock on the morning of October 20, where the Tigre was 21 days at anchor, and at this point the private log of the Peterel stops short.

Although we have no account from Francis Austen himself of his meeting with Captain Inglis, he evidently wrote a lively description of the incident to his sisters. Jane writes from Steventon on January 21st to Cassandra: "Well, and 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." Frank's great desire was clearly to get home as soon as possible after an absence of nearly three years. It is curious to think of the risks supposed to be incurred by passengers on board a merchantman.

The following comment on the colour of the ink is amply borne out in the log: "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 20th to be visited, collared, and thrust out of the Peterel by Captain Inglis. He kindly passes over the poignancy of his feelings in quitting his ship, his officers, and his men.

"What a pity it is that he should not be in England at the time of this 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 so great; as it could not be brought to the proof, his absence will be always a lucky source of regret."

The "promotion" spoken of in this letter was extensive, and took place on January 1, 1801, on the occasion of the union of Great Britain and Ireland. At the same time there was an increase in the number of line-of-battle ships which is commented on with reference to Charles.

"Eliza talks of having read in a newspaper that all the 1st lieutenants of the frigates whose captains were to be sent into line-of-battle ships were to be promoted to the rank of commanders. If it be true, Mr. Valentine may afford himself a fine Valentine's knot, and Charles may perhaps become 1st of the Endymion, though I suppose Captain Durham is too likely to bring a villain with him under that denomination."

The letters give no account of the homecoming, but from the story of William Price's return in "Mansfield Park," we can see that Jane knew something of the mingled feelings of such a meeting.

"This dear William would soon be amongst them. . . . scarcely ten days had passed since Fanny had been in the agitation of her first dinner visit, when she found herself in an agitation of a higher nature. . . . watching in the hall, in the lobby, on the stairs, for the first sound of the carriage which was to bring her a brother.

"It was long before Fanny could recover from the agitating happiness of such an hour as was formed by the last thirty minutes of expectation and the first of fruition.

"It was some time even before her happiness could be said to make her happy, before the disappointment inseparable from the alteration of person had vanished, and she could see in him the same William as before, and talk to him as her heart had been yearning to do through many a past year."