Relieved as they were by recent events from all apprehension about the conduct of the Falmouth Packets, my Lords the Postmaster General yet found themselves involved in anxieties and difficulties, which were daily growing more acute. It was the growth of the Continental System, the blockade of all intercourse with the ports of Europe which give rise to these difficulties ; and to follow plainly the efforts made to cope with this new situation of affairs, it will be necessary to revert once more to the outbreak of hostilities in 1803.
The inhuman decree issued by Napoleon at the commencement of the war, ordering the seizure and detention of all English subjects between the ages of 18 and 60 who, for whatever reason, were present on territory subject to French control at the moment when war was declared, has no defenders now. That barbarous seizure of peaceful travellers, both men and women, of merchants following their lawful callings, and of Government servants, who had not yet been ordered to quit their posts, stands universally condemned as the act of a savage rather than of a civilized enemy. “It was an act” says M. de Bourrienne, “which no consideration can justify”; and in face of this emphatic condemnation of Napoleon’s private Secretary, it might not have been necessary to refer to the matter had not the decree struck the Packet Service with peculiar force.
The war broke out suddenly, and almost without warning. At Helvoetsluis the business of the Packet Station was in full progress. Four Packets lay in the roadstead ; the commanders were on shore, the agent was transacting business in his office. No hint or rumour of danger to themselves had reached them. They knew that the negotiations between their own Government and that of France had reached a critical stage ; but they believed that timely notice would be given of any rupture, and they continued their peaceful avocations in reliance on the good faith which regulates the intercourse of nations.
So strong was the confidence in this good faith that not one of the Packets was armed. Their guns were lying in store at home, as was the practice in time of peace ; for to make show of readiness of war would not only have been unnecessary but insulting, and might well have precipitated a catastrophe. Thus, when a small force of French soldiers marched suddenly into Helvoetsluis, no apprehension was felt at first ; and no other feeling than incredulity was excited by the intimation of the officer in command that the English must consider themselves prisoners, and their ships prizes of war.
Remonstrance was utterly useless. The agent, the commanders, the seamen, even the British envoy, Mr. Leston, whose character as a diplomatist should have rendered his person sacred, all were seized, and thrown into the common prison of the Brill. The unfortunate men did not yet doubt that the French commander had exceeded his authority, and would be promptly disavowed by his Government ; and as more and more prisoners were continually added to their number, they kept up their spirits by the confident anticipation of a speedy release.
Somewhat earlier on this memorable day, two messengers, Mr. East and Mr. Wagstaff, had left the Hague charged with despatches of great importance. They found themselves in some danger of arrest while they were still within the city but having gained the open country, they did not doubt that in some one of the Packets which were lying at Helvoetsluis they would be able to get a passage home. They had not travelled far when the news of what had happened at Helvoetsluis was given them by some country people. Mr. East did not believe it ; and, being directly connected with the Diplomatic Service, he felt confident of his personal safety even if the intelligence were correct.
Mr. Wagstaff was in a different position ; and was inclined to attach more credence to the story. It was decided that the two travellers should separate ; Mr. Wagstaff making for Scheveningen, in charge of the despatches, while Mr. East, who acquainted with their tenor, continued his journey to Helvoetsluis, where he was promptly arrested, despite his protestations, and sent to join his countrymen in the Brill prison.
Mr. Wagstaff, travelling on foot through the night, managed, after several narrow escapes, to reach the seashore, along which he proceeded to Scheveningen, sheltering himself among the sand-hills which line that coast. Scheveningen, though within two miles of the Hague, where French soldiers already swarmed, proved to be unguarded. The town was then, as it is still in these days, no more than a small fishing village, possessing neither pier nor harbour, but only an open shore, on which the fishing luggers beach themselves on returning from voyage. Perhaps the French thought the place too insignificant to need a guard ; but, however that may be, Mr. Wagstaff found a fisherman willing to take him across the channel, and landed safely in England on May 26th, 1803.
It may be that the kidnapping of the unlucky prisoners at Helvoetsluis, and many another town in Holland and France, was a symptom rather than a cause of the peculiar exasperation with which the coming war was fought, but it certainly added vastly to the hatred with which Napoleon was regarded in this country ; and when it was found that the release even of the diplomatists could be obtained only with the greatest difficulty, while all the remaining prisoners were reserved for a confinement of indefinite length, the general indignation knew no bounds.
A few of the Packets’ men, headed by Captain Flynn, managed to burst out of the Brill prison on the last evening of their sojourn there. They succeeded in reaching the beach, seized an open boat, and after many hours of great danger, were picked up by an English ship. The rest of the prisoners were taken to Verdun, where they appear to have been not ill-treated. Mr. Sevright, the Post-Office agent at Helvoetsluis, retained during the whole period of his captivity, which lasted for nine years, the authority with which he had been invested, keeping up some sort of discipline, and constituting himself the protector of the sailors. He received and distributed the allowance of six sous a day which the English Government granted to each captive sailor ; and, being gifted with strong sense and discretion, was able to intervene with good effect whenever his men came into conflict,as restless seamen will, with the Commissary or his subordinates ; to secure justice for them, and many ways to mitigate the hardships of their unfortunate position.
Before leaving these men in their dreary captivity, it may not be out of place to refer to the extraordinary courage and endurance shown by some of the prisoners who attempted to escape. John Carne, a native of Penryn, had been captured on one of the Falmouth Packets. He lay in prison for fifteen months ; until one night he found an opportunity of climbing the prison wall. The wall was forty feet high ; but Carne took the chance and leapt down. He fell upon his head and shoulders, broke his collar bone, and bruised himself very severely; but fortunately he was still able to walk, and, injured as he was, got clear away from pursuit. Travelling always by night, through bye roads and over hedges, half-crippled with his broken bone which remained unset, he lay by day concealed under bridges, or among reeds in river beds; and so, toiling on doggedly, he reached the coast at last, and in some way managed to cross to his own country.
Bourrienne in his memoirs tells on good authority a still more extraordinary story. Two English sailors in the year 1804 made good their escape from Verdun, and arrived at Boulogne without having been discovered, though all the roads were watched with great care. When these men reached the sea-coast, whence England was in sight, they were still as far from liberty as at Verdun. Napoleon was at Boulogne, supervising the collection of the flotilla which was to convey his armies into England. Every craft for miles along the coast was registered and watched. The two seamen had no money, and lay in hiding, desperate and almost hopeless.
At last they determined to construct a boat, and began gathering such scraps of wood as they could find. They had no tools except their knives, but with these the ingenious fellows fashioned a boat at last, though it was no more than three or four feet wide, and a trifle more in length. They covered it with a piece of sailcloth. It was so light that a man could easily carry it on his shoulders ; and in this frail cock-boat they determined to cross the channel.
An English frigate one day lay off the coast, reconnoitring, and the two sailors made a bold effort to reach her. They pushed off in their skiff, but not unobserved ; for they had made only a few hundred yards when they were pursued and brought back by the Custom-house officers. They then ran an excellent chance of being shot as spies,but their story reached Napoleon’s ears. He sent for them, and questioned them. Their boat was brought with them.
“Is it really true” he asked, “that you thought of crossing the sea in this thing?”
“Sire!” they answered, “if you doubt it, give us leave to go, and you shall see us depart”.
Napoleon could not but admire their audacity, and, acting on a generous impulse, gave the men their liberty, and caused them to be placed on board an English ship. The incident was never forgotten by him ; and even in his last days at St. Helena he referred to it with admiration.
One more incident of the same nature is worth recording. A number of sailors of the Packet Service were in confinement at Amboise on the Loire. The gaol was densely crowded, the food was bad and insufficient : fever broke out, and the havoc among the unhappy sailors was immense.
To relieve the congestion in the prison some of the men were allowed a certain amount of liberty, and permitted to earn a few sous by ferrying persons across the river. One day they escaped, and after long wanderings reached the town of Nantes, where they were at once arrested, and brought before the prefect. They declared themselves to be Americans, but the prefect was incredulous and questioned them in a very searching manner. The men however had some knowledge of New York, and answered his inquiries well enough. The prefect was thrown back by the accuracy of their replies, but still not satisfied. At last a final test occurred to him.
“You say you were in New York in the year 17 – ” he observed, and the men assented.
“Do you remember anything of particular interest which occurred in that year?”
“Certainly” the spokesman of the party answered “A large vessel lying at the pierhead foundered suddenly and unaccountably”.
“Pass them on” said the prefect, “their story is true, I was there myself, and saw the vessel founder”
When it was no longer possible to forward mails to Calais or to Helvoetsluis, the administrators of the Post-Office turned their attention to the Hamburg route, as in former years. But Napoleon was already pressing his great policy of excluding English trade from the Continent, and one of his first measures was to station a considerable force at Cuxhaven for the express purpose of stopping all commerce with this country. The independence of Hamburg was not yet violated, and the Senate of the ancient Hanse town was quite ready to receive in secret any mails which could be smuggled into the city. To manage this was not impossible, though very difficult, and throughout the year 1804 a considerable number of letters appear to have filtered through.
For their greater convenience in plying this dangerous system, the North Sea Packets frequently made Heligoland their station ; but as mails alone could be disembarked upon that island, while all passengers must find a safer route, the normal passage was to Gothenburg.
The voyage to Gothenburg was long and stormy, and it became advisable to select a point nearer Hamburg. Husum in Holstein was admirably situated for the purpose and throughout 1805 and the early months of 1806 the mails were sent thither. There does not appear to have been any insuperable difficulty in forwarding them from Husum to Hamburg. There was still a British agent in the latter city, and the Danish Government which controlled the former was as yet neutral, if not friendly to England.
It was by no means in accordance with Napoleon’s purposes, however, that the Hamburg gates should remain ajar to English commerce and correspondence. Closely occupied as he was throughout the year 1805, he found time to advance his great design for striking at England through her commercial supremacy. “Go to Hamburg” he said to Bourrienne in March, “it is there I will give a mortal blow at England”.
And so the power of France grew steadily in Hamburg, while the ancient Syndic of the city saw its independence gradually sapped. Already violent outrages were committed by the French agents upon messengers carrying English letters. A courier on his way from Vienna to England was seized in a forest, robbed of his despatches, and left bound to a tree, where he would certainly have perished, had he not been released by a woman who was accidentally passing through the forest. Such were the risks confronted by the English messengers but despite all such dangers the Postal Service was maintained, irregularly indeed, and with delays and interruptions which caused wide-spreading losses. The wonder is not that the Service was imperfect, but that it was maintained at all.
The difficulties grew as the months went by. The decrees of March, 1806, which Prussia was forced to issue, excluding British ships from all the ports of Prussia and Hanover, added little to the difficulties of the Post-Office, for neither Denmark nor Hamburg was concerned in it. But a darker cloud was rising fast. The French began to menace actively the independence of Hamburg. In October it was notified by the Hamburg Post-Office that the situation of affairs no longer admitted of the receipt of mails for Prussia, Russia, or Germany, and for many days after the receipt of this gloomy notification no news whatever reached London from the Elbe.
Late in November a few bags of letters filtered through, giving a more hopeful account of the situation, but even while these letters were being read, the French had entered Hamburg, and the revenues of the Post-Office, the ancient property of the House of Tour and Taxis, had been appropriated by the agent of Murat.
Quickly on the heels of the messengers who carried this intelligence followed others bringing the notorious Berlin decrees, of which the paragraph affecting the Post-Office was short and simple. “All trade and correspondence with the British Islands are prohibited. In consequence, all letters and packets addressed to England, or to an Englishman, or written in English, shall not be transmitted by the Post-Office, but shall be seized. Napoleon had struck his “mortal blow” and the clang of the Custom-House doors closing against British goods along the whole coast of Europe, north, west, and south simultaneously, save only in Portugal and Denmark, sounded in his eager ears the knell of England’s power.
Thus was created the most serious situation which had ever confronted the General Post-Office, the most serious, one might say, if it is ever safe to forecast the complications of international affairs, with which it can possibly have to deal. The public looked to the Postmaster General to carry their correspondence, commercial and private; the Government called on them for the safe delivery of despatches. My Lords took down the map of Europe and found that from the Elbe to Dalmatia their Packets could land in Portugal alone, a country whence mails must be forwarded not only through a hostile territory, but across lofty mountain passes, and through provinces so wild and unsettled that it appeared hopeless to think of organizing mail routes from Lisbon for Germany or Austria.
The chances of smuggling letters into Hamburg was the only one worth consideration, and the thoughts of the officials in Lombard Street remained fixed on Northern Europe.
When the French entered Hamburg, Mr. Thornton, the British Consul, retired to Husum. He saw no prospect whatever of forwarding the mails which arrived from England, and being somewhat uncertain how long his position in Holstein might be secure, he thought it well to send the bags back to London. This was in November ; and in the following July those mails were lying still at the General Post-Office, waiting for some chance of conveyance to their destination. It needs but a small effort of the imagination to realize what widespread mischief might result from the detention of a mail for seven months. Such a fact, more than pages of description, brings home to our minds how hard and heavy was the burden which our grandfathers bore in the days of the great war.
The scope of the present work, concerned as it is solely with the difficulties and successes of Postal administration, does not demand any relation of the various measures and counter-measures taken by one or the other of the parties in the struggle for supremacy. It is enough to observe that the great system proved scarcely more successful than any other attempt to fetter the natural impulses of nations by any artificial restriction. Licenses to import English goods were granted in great numbers by Napoleon himself, as a source of revenue. His officers in many places, seeing that the chief burden of the system fell on the German merchants not on the English, evaded their instructions. “I received orders,” says Count Rapp, “to commit all articles of English merchandise to the flames. This measure would have been most disastrous. I evadedit . . and Dantzic lost no more than what amounted to 200 francs, and Koenigsberg still less”. A gigantic system of smuggling grew up, and on this contraband trade Count Rapp also looked benevolently. “I frankly confess” he writes, “that I did not watch the coast of the Baltic with the vigilance that was prescribed to me”. And thus it happened that what with licenses, a convenient blindness of the executive, and a bold and daring trade by smuggling, the great barrier erected against England proved to be rather a trellis than a barricade, and was penetrable at many different points.
Of course it was more difficult to introduce letters than goods into Germany. Mail-bags must be consigned to some responsible person.They betrayed their origin moreover, and were thus a certain source of trouble in case of discovery at any point of the route by which they travelled. All letters addressed in English or bearing English post-marks were opened and read by the French officials before being destroyed. If they contained any reference to property, that property was liable to be seized and burnt as being English or of English origin. These risks were avoided for the present by sending all letters from England to correspondents in Altona, who enclosed them in fresh covers and re-posted them to Hamburg or to places beyond.
The following extract is from a letter written to the Secretary of the General Post-Office by Mr. Nicholas, British Consul at Altona, to whose judgement and knowledge of the various changes in the situation of affairs the Department was very frequently indebted.
“I am sorry to tell you” Mr. Nicholas writes, under date of May 30th, 1807, “that we this moment receive the intelligence of Dantzig being in possession of the French on the 26th inst…..Such letters for that place as I may receive from you before this letter reaches you, I shall keep in my office until I receive your directions, as the French will at first look after all letters to discover British property. I have made many inquiries how English letters sent under cover to merchants of this town addressed to Austria and Italy have gone. A banker of this place, Messrs. Israel and Dehn, assures me that they forward at least 50 to 200 a week, which he receives under cover from England, and that he has as yet never known one miscarry, nor heard of their being opened. I readily believe this, as to judge from the general conduct of the persons employed, their only object is to make money…..I am convinced that the mercantile correspondence is not interrupted in the least, and that the revenue alone suffers, as from what I saw in Husum, the practice of the merchants is to write on a very thin paper and put their letters under one cover. I observed some instances of this nature where certainly 30 or 40 letters were enclosed, and the postage charged was not the amount which ought to have been paid for five single letters”.
Mr. Nicholas was firmly persuaded that the patriotism of the Duke of Berg’s (Murat’s) agents in Hamburg was so far qualified by respect for the Post-Office revenues which they had seized as to leave them open to a bargain. He accordingly approached them secretly, and found them quite disposed to treat. The Duke’s Postmaster pledged himself that the letters should go safely ; that they never had been, and never would be, opened ; while Mr. Nicholas, who strongly urged the conclusion of this bargain, was persuaded that the greed of the Berg officials was an excellent pledge of their good faith.
Bourrienne, who, in addition to his other functions, was the Duke of Berg’s agent in Hamburg, has nothing to say about this negotiation, so strangely opposite to the policy of Napoleon that one might call it traitorous if one did not acknowledge that the base motive of pecuniary interest may have been mingled with a more honourable desire to avoid the total commercial ruin of the countries which the Continental System was crushing into bankruptcy.
For the English Government the question of good faith was not the only one to be considered. It was a strange proposal that a friendly treaty should be made with the agents of a hostile nation. The whole situation was extraordinary ; but even if natural scruples could be set aside, even if honour permitted such a negotiation, it was clear that the ancient friendship of the Hamburg office would be jeopardized by concluding it. The French occupation would pass away, and the lawful owners of the Hamburg revenues would resume them in happier times. Nothing must be done which could be construed into a recognition by the British office of the violent usurpation of the French. And so the provisional agreement concluded by Mr. Nicholas was set aside, much to the disappointment of the Duke of Berg’s officials, who renewed their proposals more than once, but always with the same result. Probably this termination of the matter was lamented also by the English merchants, if indeed they knew of the negotiations ; but they had more ground for complaint a few weeks later.
The device of forwarding letters under cover to Altona had, as Mr. Nicholas showed, proved successful ; but the time was at hand when this channel was to be blocked. Holstein was already threatened by the French. Writing on the 29th July, an old correspondent of the British Post-Office warned the Secretary that in another fortnight Holstein would be beset. The crisis was more serious than the writer of the friendly warning knew. The treaty of Tilsit had been signed. The movement on Holstein was preparatory to a seizure of the Danish fleet, to be used against this country. The English Government struck hard and quickly, and within the period named a British fleet was working into position before Copenhagen.
What followed is well known ; but the measures of the English were taken so secretly that the general public by no means understood what was going on, and two Packets arriving early in August at Tonningen, which for some time had been their station, were greatly perplexed on finding an English gun-brig stationed at the mouth of the river Eyder, giving orders for no British vessels to pass.
Such orders did not in the opinion of the commanders justify them in carrying their mails back to England. Their vessels might be stopped, but boats were allowed to come and go as before; and the two commanders consequently went up the river in their boats, taking the mails with them.
When they approached the town they were hailed from the Danish quarantine cutter, with orders that unless the Packets came up to their usual anchorage, which happened to be exactly under the guns of the battery, the mails should not be landed. The captains insisted ; the Danish officer grew furious, and actually proposed to flog the Danish pilots, who had accompanied the captains, for leaving the Packets outside the bar of the river.
In the end, the dispute was arranged and the mails were landed ; but events were occurring which could not fail to sting the Danes into the bitterest enmity against us ; and most of our countrymen in Denmark were indeed already applying for their passports. The English brig at the mouth of the Eyder seems to have been removed after a few days ; and the Packets came up the river as before.
On August 15th, the “Lord Nelson”, Captain Stewart, arrived at Tonningen with mails from Harwich. The bags were landed without interruption, and were being taken through the town to the agent’s office, when the wagon in which they were carried was suddenly surrounded by a throng of Danish officers and soldiers who, on looking into it and seeing that it contained mails, compelled the driver to proceed not to the office of the British Post-Office agent, but to the Danish Post-Office. “Upon this” wrote the agent in reporting the circumstances to London, “Captain Stewart endeavoured to conceal the bag for the agent containing the despatches and letters for His Majesty’s Ministers on the Continent ; but this bag was also taken from the steward, who had placed it under his coat, and everything was delivered at the Danish Post-Office. Captain Stewart immediately repaired to me, informed me of the circumstance, and also told me that another Packet boat was in sight. I therefore despatched message to the captain of the second Packet ordering him not on any account to land his mails or despatches, and to keep, if possible, out of range of the batteries.
“I then wrote to the Danish Postmaster requesting he would immediately deliver to the gentleman bearing my note those bags ticketed, the agent at Tonningen”. Mr. Schultz who carried this note found sentinels at the door of the Post-Office, and had some difficulty in presenting my note. Ultimately he brought me a verbal answer, refusing the delivery of the bags. The Postmaster told Mr. Schultz he was authorized in what he had done, but refused to name the source of his authority.
“I then myself repaired to the Postmaster, who named the Commandant of the port as having authorized the detention of the bags. I immediately wrote in polite terms to the Commandant, requesting he would issue the necessary orders for delivering to me that part of them which was directed to the agent. To this letter I received a verbal message stating he did not think it necessary to answer my letter, and that he was much surprised that those gentlemen who had the day before taken out their passports had not left Tonningen. I believe every person connected in any way with the British Government had the preceding day taken out passports to enable them to depart as circumstances should occur. During these transactions the second Packet boat had arrived, and, the messenger not having been able to deliver my orders, had landed her mails. The captain endeavoured in vain to regain possession of them. He himself with the mails and despatches, was escorted to the Danish Post-Office. After many difficulties the two captains, some English people, and myself got permission for a boat to convey us on board the Packet boats ; and while lying alongside the Danish guardship, waiting for permission to pass her, a gentleman from the shore came on board the boat to say that if I would return, the bags destined for me should be put in my possession the following morning. I then proceeded on board one of the Packets, both of which (from the circumstance of the Battery at Vollonig having received a considerable addition of soldiers in the course of the evening) had thought proper to drop down out of reach of the guns. The following morning I repaired again to Tonningen and received the bags destined for me, their seals perfectly unbroken. I disposed of the contents of the bags according to directions received from Mr. Thornton, and prepared to follow that gentleman, having understood he had already left Altona.
“It being Post-day, I sent to the Danish Post-Office and received the mail as usual for England. Captain Kentzinger and Mr. Agent Schultz, who had disembarked again from the Packets, now waited upon the Commandant to sign our passports again prior to our final departure, who immediately expressed much surprise that we were not departed. We stated that we had returned to execute the business of our different departments, having received an intimation that we might do so in perfect security. The Commandant expressed himself a perfect stranger to any such indulgence or permission having been granted, and said the measure of detaining the mails proceeded entirely from the hostile measures of the English in putting Zealand into a state of blockade ; and conceiving this declaration demonstrative of the insecurity of any despatches that might arrive in future, and Mr. Thornton’s instructions recommending my departure, I left Tonningen with the Packet destined to sail on Sunday, the 16th instant, first leaving instructions to the captain of the Packet who brought the second mail to remain in the river a few days to warn any other Packet that might arrive of the danger, and to bring away any remaining English passengers who might not have had sufficient notice of the necessity of immediately embarking”.
The Danes had shown themselves both honourableand forbearing in allowing the Packets an opportunity of getting clear away, but to permit one of them to remain hanging about the mouth of the Eyder, as the agent had directed, was quite another matter. Accordingly, about 5 A.M. on the 17th August, Captain Deane, who had been left in the “Lady Nepean” upon this service, descried a brig being towed down the river by several boats. It was the guard-ship from Tonningen which was upon them ; and as she had evidently not left her anchorage without hostile intent, Captain Deane thought it prudent to weigh anchor, and make ready for departure.
The sails were hoisted but it was unfortunately almost dead calm, and though the Packetsmen got out their boat and towed, the Danish brig made far quicker progress, and at 6 A.M. had come within musket shot. At that moment, just in the nick of time, a little breeze sprang up from the northward, and the “Lady Nepean” receiving it first, forged ahead once more.
Seeing what had occurred, the Danish boats dropped back alongside the guardship, and Captain Deane could see that a number of muskets and cutlasses were being handed in, while the crews of the boats were increased to about 50men. The situation was growing awkward. The breeze was still light, and the “Lady Nepean” forged only slowly through the water. The boats were fast coming on, the men cheering loudly. Captain Deane hailed them, but received no answer, and thereupon, not choosing to assume that they meant to attack him, ordered one or two muskets to be fired in the air. Instantly the boats replied with a volley of small arms, and at the same moment the brig opened fire. By this time, however, the breeze was rising fast. A few well-directed shots caused the boats to sheer off in some confusion. The fire from the brig did little harm. Ere long the Packet was out of range, and she completed her voyage to England without misadventure.
It is impossible to avoid drawing contrasts between the conduct of the Danes at Tonningen and that of the French under the very similar circumstances at Helvoetsluis. In both cases English ships were in port and English officials engaged on shore, in reliance on their absolute safety until due warning was given to them that they must leave. The circumstances were, it is true, not exactly alike; for the French had no greater cause for exasperation against us than must always exist between hostile nations, whereas the Danes were smarting under an aggression which was unprovoked and intolerably wounding to their pride. Whether it is or is not possible to justify our seizure of the Danish fleet is a question over which historians will wrangle till the end of time. But to the Danes it could have seemed nothing but a gross and wanton outrage, and though the events just described preceded the actual bombardment of Copenhagen, the British expedition had already made such progress that in looking at the self-control exhibited, one can only wonder and admire.