Jane Austen & the Wars

Part II: 1796-1800

January 1796 opened with Frank Austen (and Tom Fowles) setting sail for the West Indies aboard the Glory as part of an expedition to put down the slave revolts. That January, Henry was continuing his studies, with some thoughts to joining the 86th Foot, a Regular Army regiment. Jane wrote, “I heartily hope that he will, as usual, be disappointed in this scheme.” The 86th was slated to (and eventually did) capture the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope. That same month, Charles became a Midshipman at Portsmouth, serving under his cousin Jane William’s husband.

The year 1796 saw Napoleon Bonaparte make his name in Italy.

That summer, Midshipman Charles, was serving aboard the frigate Unicorn (32 guns, built 1794 at Chatham). On June 3 the Unicorn encountered three French ships, and gave chase. One of them, La Tribute (44) tried to escape in a running fight lasting over ten hours and covering 210 miles. Finally, the French ship was dismasted and captured. The British suffered no casualties. (Captain Thomas Williams was later knighted, allowing Jane to jokingly refer to her cousin’s husband as “HRH”.) Lieutenant Frank was in his sixth year aboard the Glory.

In the autumn of 1796 an invasion of England by France (backed by the Dutch) continued to be a possibility. Jane Austen’s brothers continued to do their duty. Frank was with the Home Fleet. Charles followed Captain Williams from the Unicorn to the sloop Scorpion (16 guns, built 1785 at Shoreham), and was hoping to transfer to a larger ship and promotion. Henry was alternating between duty with the Oxfordshire Regiment and his studies at St. John’s College. That October, Jane began writing First Impressions (later revised into Pride and Prejudice), featuring several characters serving in the ___shire Militia.

As fall moved into winter, tensions mounted. In November, the government called out the “Supplementary Militia.” These were men who were to receive twenty days training while billeted in homes within their home county. In December, a French fleet was off Ireland. The British had few troops to prevent a landing, and no large naval vessels to oppose them. However, contrary winds rose to gales, the French command lost its his nerve, and the fleet returned to France. On January 17, 1797, James Austen married Mary Lloyd.

February 1797 brought the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (14th) and the victory of Admirals Jervis and Nelson over the Spanish fleet. That same month saw the almost farcical “invasion” of Fishguard in Wales. Less happily that month, Tom Fowles (former student of Mr. Austen) died of malaria on Santo Domingo and was buried at sea. He was only one of thousands who died or were permanently debilitated by disease whilst serving in the West Indies.

Henry was appointed Adjutant of the Oxfordshire Militia that same February. This position made him responsible for the training of the regiment. (This was a duty often given to a Regular Officer.). In March he was made “Captain Lieutenant," which meant while officially a Lieutenant, he would command the Colonel’s Company. The combined wages from his rank, and positions of Adjutant and Paymaster gave him £23-8-8 per month, or £281-4-0 per year. From February to April, the Supplementary Militia detachments were busy training, often alongside the regular militia.

Things took a darker turn in April and May with the Spithead and Nore Mutinies. The former, being more of a “strike” was resolved relatively and quickly. The latter showed far graver elements of politicisation with even some Marines joining in, and raised fears of Jacobin elements amongst what had hitherto been Britain’s first line of defence. Finally, the mutineers gave in and turned over some of the ringleaders, A total of 412 men were tried: three hundred were pardoned, twenty-nine were executed, and others received floggings. All this occurred against the grave danger of invasion. In the long run, it did bring about much needed reforms in living conditions below decks and overall improvements in the efficiency of the service. It did, however, temporarily lower the high reputation which sailors had in the psyche of the nation. Such troubles did not seem to directly affect the ships on which Frank and Charles were serving. However, all this must have added one more concern for Jane whose brothers already had to face the dangers of the sea and battle.

The summer brought a great surge in Volunteerism. Thousands joined the scores of local units that were appearing across the nation. Many were based upon occupation or other criteria. It offered a chance for a man to don a fancy uniform and engage in a bit of excitement. Amongst such was a young Walter Scott, QM with the Royal Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons, who rose at five each morning to charge imaginary Frenchmen. The regular Militia continued to do their duties. In May, the Oxfordshire Militia went to summer camp at Norwich, a centre of radical agitation. In August of 1797, Jane Austen was finishing First Impressions.

Invasion fears continued into the fall, but were lessened greatly by another victory for the Royal Navy. In October, the Dutch Fleet was smashed in the Battle of Camperdown, ending that North Sea menace. On November 1, Rev. Austen offered First Impressions to publisher Cadell on behalf of his daughter. The manuscript was rejected. That same month, Jane begins converting Elinor and Marianne into Sense and Sensibility.

At the end of 1797, Prime Minister Pitt faced a deficit of nineteen million pounds. Many taxes were raised: on larger houses and windows, male servants, horses, carriages and other luxuries. This, along with general inflation, forced many to cut back on various indulgences. [Did this provide further examples for JA when the topic of “retrenchment” or money issues appeared in her stories?] On the last day of the year, Henry married Eliza de Feuillide in London.

The year 1798 brought more of the same high prices, shortages and fears of invasion. The last was not entirely unwarranted. Hundreds of flat-bottomed boats being built along the opposite coast. In January, Britain increased the number of embodied militia from 45,000 to 100,000 men. Despite the fear of the training and arms being turned against the home government, the Volunteer movement continued to be encouraged. The response, as in the previous year, continued high. Even some clergymen considered donning scarlet, a decision seen in some of Austen’s novels. (The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811 had “lobster” refer specifically to the change of coat colour from black to red.) On February 20, the government formally embodied the Supplementary Militia.

Meanwhile, the Regular Army was undergoing a series of reforms, largely based upon those instituted under the Duke of York. The size of the army was also increased. One potential source was recruitment from the (regular) militia, which could provide thousands of already trained recruits. A bounty was offered to any militiaman willing to enlist. The response proved very poor, in part due to fear of being sent to the “fever islands” of the West Indies.

Resentment had long been seething in Ireland, with the local garrisons barely able to keep order. On May 24, 1798, a revolt broke out in Ireland, involving some 30,000 armed Irish peasants. Arsons and massacres followed. What reinforcements could be spared were sent. Many militia regiments offered their service, including the Oxfordshires. However, it was felt their primary duty should remain guarding the Channel coast. By June the rebels had been crushed, and the rebellion dwindled into an ongoing guerrilla war. In August a force of French troops landed at Mayo, but surrendered in September. This sad affair left some 25,000 dead. There were not enough troops to truly pacify the island and the Irish Parliament was abolished.

That summer, Charles, was hoping for a transfer to the Home Fleet and more active service. Frank, still a Lieutenant, was serving in the Mediterranean. Being in a small vessel (a sloop), he did not take part in the Battle of the Nile (August 1). Otherwise he kept very busy. News of the victory took two months to reach England, during which rumours circulated that Nelson had been defeated. Meanwhile, Jane spent August visiting Godmersham with her parents and Cassandra. At this time she began work on Susan (later Northanger Abbey). It was in this novel that she introduced the Tilneys, including the General and Captain Frederick of the 12th Light Dragoons, and Catharine Morland imagined bloody riots in London. News of Nelson’s victory reached England on October 1, resulting in a widespread joyous celebration in reaction after an almost unbroken string of bad news. At the end of the month Jane and her family returned to Steventon in late October.

In October 1798, San Domingo was finally evacuated, and after five years the West Indian campaign came to a close. For Tobago, St. Lucia and Martinique, the cost had been 50,000 dead and an equal number incapacitated for life. On top of which were the costs in taxes, and the damage done to the islands themselves. Elsewhere, the British captured Minorca in November.

December of 1798 was a month of promotions for two of the Austen brothers. Henry was officially gazetted as Captain on the sixth. On December 28 Jane wrote to Cassandra, “Frank is made” Commander of the Sloop Petterel (16 guns, built 1794 at Frindsbury), stationed at Gibraltar. The Royal Navy at that time was blockading Genoa and Malta, and patrolling the Syrian and Egyptian coasts, preventing the French from resupplying their troops. Frank was involved in the capture of nearly forty small vessels. In April 1799 a captured fishing boat turned out to be carrying $9000 dollars worth of specie -- Frank’s share come to $750. In June, he took part in the capture of the French squadron near Toulon. Charles, after two years aboard the Scorpion, was promoted to Lieutenant and moved to the frigate Tamar (38 guns, built 1796 at Chatham), but almost immediately transferred to the Endymion (44 guns, built 1797 at Rotherththe), again coming under the command of Sir Thomas Williams. (The Endymion is mentioned in Mansfield Park as being in Portsmouth harbour when Fanny Price visits her family.)

On a side note, Dec 24, 1798 in a letter to Cassandra, she mentions a ball at which was a “Mr. Butcher" who belonging to the Temples, a sailor and not of the 11th Light Dragoons. (Who this individual was, and of his connection with the Austens is not immediately clear.)

In early 1799, the imminent threat of invasion had declined somewhat and it was felt troops could be spared from guarding the Channel coast. Ireland continued to simmer, although open revolt had been suppressed. The Oxfordshire Militia was slated for six-months service on that island. In March the regiment marched to port and departed. A storm prevented them from landing and they returned to England. They set out again and despite gales and rain landed in Ireland. On April 26 they entered Droghea Barracks, Dundalk. Their duties consisted of guarding the coast and keeping the Irish in order until the end of August.

From mid-May to end of June, Jane and her mother visited Bath, before returning home. Around the end of June, she finished her work on Susan (MP).

Reforms and improvements continued to take hold in the British Army. Again, bounties were offered to militiamen to join the Regulars, this time with the promise they would not be sent outside Europe.

August 1799, preparations were underway for another Lowlands campaign, part of an overall offensive against the French. The plan was for an Anglo-Russian army under the Duke of York to drive the French from the Netherlands Meanwhile, the Austrians would expel them from Germany and Switzerland, and Russo-Austrians would clear Italy. The British also invited the Militia to take part in the offensive in Holland. Some 10,000 came forward. They were well trained but their effectiveness was wasted by putting them together into “Provisional Battalions”, instead of using them to leaven existing units. They did well in defending prepared positions, but poorly when involved in manoeuvring in larger organisations. The result was a repeat of the past. It was another story of initial successes, frittered away through indecision and lack of proper supplies and leadership. In addition, the Russians and British failed to co-operate or co-ordinate operations. Finally, in October, the British agreed to surrender all prisoners taken in Holland in exchange for an unobstructed evacuation. This was carried out in November. Once again, the army (unlike the navy) had lost the esteem of the general population.

Meanwhile, the Oxfordshire Militia moved to Dublin in September, slated to remain there until their six-month engagement ended. Guard duty amongst a surly populace was not surprisingly an unpopular service. Despite this, the regiment (after a mixture of threats and bribes) agreed to extend their stay until Christmas. There is considerable conjecture as to Henry’s possible association with Lord Cornwallis in Dublin at this time.

In October, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Egypt, and landed at Frejus. Arriving in Paris, he overthrew the Director. Soon afterwards he was made First Consul with a ten-year term. The initial reaction in England was that it was just another twist in a sordid tale, and a sign it all would simply collapse. France’s actual recovery under Napoleon was far too quick and thorough to be apparent immediately.

Through the end of 1799 and into 1800, Charles and the Endymion were in the Western Mediterranean. Amongst other duties, he took part in attacks upon Spanish gunboats off Algiers. He was involved in the capture of the privateer La Furie, a privateer which netted him £40. After the French Scorpio was captured in a violent gale, he and four sailors took control of the prize and brought it into port. His ship returned to Gosport in the early fall of 1800, where he waited new sailing orders. (A letter dated Nov. 20 puts him at home).

In January 1800 the Oxfordshires arrived back in Liverpool, where Henry rejoined them. The Regiment had been out of the County for seven years. They moved to Birmingham for a month, and then, finally to Oxfordshire. Henry took leave about this time (December), possibly to offer what support he could in the trial of Jane Leigh-Perrot. (She was acquitted, March 29, 1800.) He was gazetted to Captain and officially made Paymaster.

In Early 1800, Frank and Charles were very active in the Mediterranean. Frank captured three French vessels in March. One of these was the brig La Ligurienne, taken without loss to his crew. For this, he was promoted Post-Captain (May 13), but did not learn of it until October. In August, he was part of the force blockading Alexandria, where he burned an 80-gun Turkish ship. In October, news of his promotion finally reached him and he turned over command of the Peterel.

On April 16, the Oxfords again left their home for the south coast and eastern Dorset. In June they moved to the Isle of Wright. The regiment was much reduced in size and Henry could often afford to be absent. In September he was away most of the time, although he did return in time for an audit of the books, the auditor expressed he was “perfectly satisfied”.

The summer of 1800 was very wet, followed by a series of crop failures and high prices. In July wheat, which had cost about 45s a quarter before the war, reached 134s. Many of the poor resorted to tramping about getting what work they could, or resorting to begging. To add to the woes, Napoleon tightened restrictions on trade with the UK. Torrential rains arrived just at harvest time, ruining crops for a second year. More bread riots followed, aggravated by anti-Jacobin acts and actions of magistrates and others in power. The Militia and army were frequently called in to restore order. In November, France went to war with Austria, destroying the latter’s army within a few weeks.

In December 1800, Jane’s father, the Reverend Mr. Austen unexpectedly declared his intention to retire and move to Bath. It caused Jane great distress (some accounts claim she fainted), which was not helped by her parents’ keenness for the move.


Further details on the Royal Navy ships mentioned in this series can be found at Ships of the Old Navy.

If you are interested in commenting or discussing anything in this series the Dregston Chronicle Board has graciously been made available.

The author may be contacted at: jeverett@sympatico.ca

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