Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

Chapter II


BOTH Francis and Charles Austen were educated for their profession at the Royal Naval Academy, which was established in 1775 at Portsmouth, and was under the supreme direction of the Lords of the Admiralty. Boys were received there between the ages of 12 and 15. They were supposed to stay there for three years, but there was a system of sending them out to serve on ships as "Volunteers." This was a valuable part of their training, as they were still under the direction of the College authorities, and had the double advantages of experience and of teaching. They did the work of seamen on board, but were allowed up on deck, and were specially under the eye of the captain, who was supposed to make them keep accurate journals, and draw the appearances of headlands and coasts. It is no doubt to this early training that we owe the careful private logs which Francis kept almost throughout his whole career.

Some of the rules of the Naval Academy show how ideas have altered in the last hundred and more years. There was a special law laid down that masters were to make no differences between the boys on account of rank or position, and no boy was to be allowed to keep a private servant, a rather superfluous regulation in those days.

Three weeks was the extent of the holiday, which it seems could be taken at any time in the year, the Academy being always open for the benefit of Volunteers, who were allowed to go there when their ships were in Portsmouth. Those who distinguished themselves could continue this privilege after their promotion. Francis left the Academy in 1788, and immediately went out to the East Indies on board the Perseverance as Volunteer.

There he stayed for four years, first as midshipman on the Crown, 64 guns, and afterwards on the Minerva, 38.

A very charming letter from his father to Francis is still in existence.

"Memorandum for the use of Mr. F. W. Austen on his going to the East Indies on board his Majesty's ship Perseverance (Captain Smith).

"December, 1788.

"MY DEAR FRANCIS.—While you were at the Royal Academy the opportunities of writing to you were so frequent that I gave you my opinion and advice as occasion arose, and it was sufficient to do so; but now you are going from us for so long a time, and to such a distance, that neither you can consult me or I reply but at long intervals, I think it necessary, therefore, before your departure, to give my sentiments on such general subjects as I conceive of the greatest importance to you, and must leave your conduct in particular cases to be directed by your own good sense and natural judgment of what is right."

After some well-chosen and impressive injunctions on the subject of his son's religious duties, Mr. Austen proceeds:

"Your behaviour, as a member of society, to the individuals around you may be also of great importance to your future well-doing, and certainly will to your present happiness and comfort. You may either by a contemptuous, unkind and selfish manner create disgust and dislike; or by affability, good humour and compliance, become the object of esteem and affection; which of these very opposite paths 'tis your interest to pursue I need not say.

"The little world, of which you are going to become an inhabitant, will occasionally have it in their power to contribute no little share to your pleasure or pain ; to conciliate therefore their goodwill, by every honourable method, will be the part of a prudent man. Your commander and officers will be most likely to become your friends by a respectful behaviour to themselves, and by an active and ready obedience to orders. Good humour, an inclination to oblige and the carefully avoiding every appearance of selfishness, will infallibly secure you the regards of your own mess and of all your equals. With your inferiors perhaps you will have but little intercourse, but when it does occur there is a sort of kindness they have a claim on you for, and which, you may believe me, will not be thrown away on them. Your conduct, as it respects yourself, chiefly comprehends sobriety and prudence. The former you know the importance of to your health, your morals and your fortune. I shall therefore say nothing more to enforce the observance of it. I thank God you have not at present the least disposition to deviate from it. Prudence extends to a variety of objects. Never any action of your life in which it will not be your interest to consider what she directs! She will teach you the proper disposal of your time and the careful management of your money,—two very important trusts for which you are accountable. She will teach you that the best chance of rising in life is to make yourself as useful as possible, by carefully studying everything that relates to your profession, and distinguishing yourself from those of your own rank by a superior proficiency in nautical acquirements.

"As you have hitherto, my dear Francis, been extremely fortunate in making friends, I trust your future conduct will confirm their good opinion of you; and I have the more confidence in this expectation because the high character you acquired at the Academy for propriety of behaviour and diligence in your studies, when you were so much younger and had so much less experience, that riper years and more knowledge of the world will strengthen your naturally good disposition. That this may be the you will readily believe when you are assured that your good mother, brothers, sisters and myself will all exult in your reputation and rejoice in your happiness.

"Thus far by way of general hints for your conduct. I shall now mention only a few particulars I wish your attention to. As you must be convinced it would be the highest satisfaction to us to hear as frequently as possible from you, you will of course neglect no opportunity of giving us that pleasure, and being very minute in what relates to yourself and your situation. On this account, and because unexpected occasions of writing to us may offer, 'twill be a good way always to have a letter in forwardness. You may depend on hearing from some of us at every opportunity.

"Whenever you draw on me for money, Captain Smith will endorse your bills, and I dare say will readily do it as often, and for what sums, he shall think necessary. At the same time you must not forget to send me the earliest possible notice of the amount of the draft, and the name of the person in whose favour it is drawn. On the subject of letter-writing, I cannot help mentioning how incumbent it is on you to write to Mr. Bayly, both because he desired it and because you have no other way of expressing the sense I know you entertain of his very great kindness and attention to you. Perhaps it would not be amiss if you were also to address one letter to your good friend the commissioner, to acknowledge how much you shall always think yourself obliged to him.

"Keep an exact account of all the money you receive or spend, lend none but where you are sure of an early repayment, and on no account whatever be persuaded to risk it by gaming.

"I have nothing to add but my blessing and best prayers for your health and prosperity, and to beg you would never forget you have not upon earth a more disinterested and warm friend than,

"Your truly affectionate father,


That this letter should have been found among the private papers of an old man who died at the age of 91, after a life of constant activity and change, is proof enough that it was highly valued by the boy of fourteen to whom it was written. There is something in its gentleness of tone, and the way in which advice is offered rather than obedience demanded, which would make it very persuasive to the feelings of a young boy going out to a life which must consist mainly of the opposite duties of responsibility and discipline. Incidentally it all throws a pleasant light on the characters of both father and son.

The life of a Volunteer on board ship was by no means an easy one, but it no doubt inured the boys to hardships arid privations, and gave them a sympathy with their men which would afterwards stand them in good stead.

The record of Charles as a midshipman is very much more stirring than Francis' experiences. He served on board the Unicorn, under Captain Thomas Williams, at the time of the capture of the French frigate La Tribune, a notable single ship encounter, which brought Captain Williams the honour of knighthood.

On June 8, 1796, the Unicorn and the Santa Margarita, cruising off the Scilly Islands, sighted three strange ships, and gave chase. They proved to be two French frigates and a corvette, La Tribune, La Tamise, and La Legêre. The French vessels continued all day to run before the wind. The English ships as they gained on them were subjected to a well-directed fire, which kept them back so much that it was evening before La Tamise at last bore up and engaged one of the pursuers, the Santa Margarita. After a sharp action of about twenty minutes La Tamise struck her colours.

La Tribune crowded on all sail to make her escape, but the Unicorn, in spite of damage to masts and rigging, kept up the chase, and after a running fight of ten hours the Unicorn came alongside, taking the wind from the sails of the French ship. After a close action of thirty-five minutes there was a brief interval. As the smoke cleared away, La Tribune could be seen trying to get to the windward of her enemy. This manœuvre was instantly frustrated, and a few more broadsides brought down La Tribune's masts, and ended the action. From start to finish of the chase the two vessels had run 210 miles. Not a man was killed or even hurt on board the Unicorn, and not a large proportion of the crew of La Tribune suffered. No doubt in a running fight of this sort much powder and shot would be expended with very little result.

When this encounter took place Charles Austen had been at sea for scarcely two years. Such an experience would have given the boy a great notion of the excitement and joys in store for him in a seafaring life. Such, however, was not to be his luck. Very little important work fell to his share till at least twenty years later, and for one of his ardent temperament this was a somewhat hard trial. His day came at last, after years of routine, but when he was still young enough to enjoy a life of enterprise and of action. Even half a century later his characteristic energy was never more clearly shown than in his last enterprise as Admiral in command during the second Burmese War (1852), when he died at the front.

Francis, during the four years when he was a midshipman, had only one change of captain. After serving under Captain Smith in the Perseverance, he went to the Crown, under Captain the Honourable W. Cornwallis, and eventually followed him into the Minerva. Admiral Cornwallis was afterwards in command of the Channel Fleet, blockading Brest in the Trafalgar year.

Charles had an even better experience than Francis had, for he was under Captain Thomas Williams all the time he was midshipman, first in the Dædalus, then in the Unicorn, and last in the Endymion.

The fact that both brothers served for nearly all their times as midshipmen under the same captain shows that they earned good opinions. If midshipmen were not satisfactory they were very speedily transferred, as we hear was the lot of poor Dick Musgrave.

"He had been several years at sea, and had in the course of those removals to which all midshipmen are liable, and especially such midshipmen as every captain wishes to get rid of, been six months on board Captain Frederick Wentworth's frigate, the Laconia; and from the Laconia he had, under the influence of his captain, written the only two letters which his father and mother had ever received from him during the whole of his absence, that is to say the only two disinterested letters; all the rest had been mere applications for money. In each letter he had spoken well of his captain—mentioning him in strong, though not perfectly well-spelt praise, as 'a fine dashing felow, only two perticular about the schoolmaster.'"

No doubt Dick's journal and sketches of the coast line were neither accurate nor neatly executed.

William Price's time as a midshipman is, one would think, a nearer approach to the careers of Francis and Charles. Certainly the account given of his talk seems to bear much resemblance to the stories Charles, especially, would have to tell on his return.

"William was often called on by his uncle to be the talker. His recitals were amusing in themselves to Sir Thomas, but the chief object in seeking them was to understand the reciter, to know the young man by his histories, and he listened to his clear, simple, spirited details with full satisfaction—seeing in them the proof of good principles, professional knowledge, energy, courage and cheerfulness—everything that could deserve or promise well. Young as he was, William had already seen a great deal. He had been in the Mediterranean—in the West Indies—in the Mediterranean again—had been often taken on shore by favour of his captain, and in the course of seven years had known every variety of danger which sea and war together could offer. With such means in his power he had a right to be listened to; and though Mrs. Norris could fidget about the room, and disturb everybody in quest of two needlefuls of thread or a second-hand shirt button in the midst of her nephew's account of a shipwreck or an engagement, everybody else was attentive; and even Lady Bertram could not hear of such horrors unmoved, or without sometimes lifting her eyes from her work to say, 'Dear me! How disagreeable! I wonder anybody can ever go to sea.'

"To Henry Crawford they gave a different feeling. He longed to have been at sea, and seen and done and suffered as much. His heart was warmed, his fancy fired, and he felt a great respect for a lad who, before he was twenty, had gone through such bodily hardships, and given such proofs of mind. The glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance, made his own habits of selfish indulgence appear in shameful contrast; and he wished he had been a William Price, distinguishing himself and working his way to fortune and consequence with so much self-respect and happy ardour, instead of what he was!"

This gives a glowing account of the consequence of a midshipman on leave. That times were not always so good, that they had their share of feeling small and of no account, on shore as well as at sea, is only to be expected, and Fanny was not allowed to imagine anything else.

"'This is the Assembly night,'said William. 'If I were at Portsmouth, I should be at it perhaps.'

"'But you do not wish yourself at Portsmouth, William?'

"'No, Fanny, that I do not. I shall have enough of Portsmouth, and of dancing too, when I cannot have you. And I do not know that there would be any good in going to the Assembly, for I might not get a partner. The Portsmouth girls turn up their noses at anybody who has not a commission. One might as well be nothing as a midshipman. One is nothing, indeed. You remember the Gregorys; they are grown up amazing fine girls, but they will hardly speak to me, because Lucy is courted by a lieutenant.'

"'Oh ! Shame, shame! But never mind it, William (her own cheeks in a glow of indignation as she spoke). It is not worth minding. It is no reflection on you; it is no more than the greatest admirals have all experienced, more or less, in their time. You must think of that; you must try to make up your mind to it as one of the hardships which fall to every sailor's share—like bad weather and hard living—only with this advantage, that there will be an end to it, that there will come a time when you will have nothing of that sort to endure. When you are a lieutenant !—only think, William, when you are a lieutenant, how little you will care for any nonsense of this kind."