The End of the Abuses

Disaster came treading close on the heels of success, and while the reports of Captain Skinner’s gallant defence were still being digested in Lombard Street, the news arrived that the “Duke of York” outward bound for Barbados and Jamaica, had been captured by a Privateer carrying twenty “long double-fortified four-pounders” and no less than one hundred and seventy men.

The remaining months of 1798, and the early ones of 1799 passed away without further misfortunes. If it had been otherwise, it is not easy to see how the service could have been maintained with any sort of regularity, for the recent captures had caused the very greatest embarrassment. Sixteen established Packets were commonly employed on the West India voyage, a supply which was certainly not more than barely adequate to keep up the usual fortnightly service, but of these sixteen only seven were available in December, 1798 ; and though by hiring temporary vessels the numbers were made up to ten, the extra vessels were less efficient than the regular ones ; and the delay of mails and despatches, which were kept waiting at Falmouth for a Packet, grew very serious. The agent, who was immediately responsible, was bitter in his protestations against being blamed for what he could not help.

The commanders, he declared, were very much in fault. No less than nine of them had received permission to remain ashore to supervise the building of new Packets. It was doubtless most desirable that the commanders should supervise this work. The construction of the Packets was a matter of vital concern to the officers who had to sail and fight them ; and, besides, it was only reasonable to suppose that under the commander’s eye the work would be done more quickly as well as better.

Such were the arguments put forward by the commanders, very plausible as all their reasonings were, but breaking down in some odd way in actual practice. Each one of the nine captains demonstrated quite clearly that he was bestirring himself with zeal. Yet, somehow or other, the new Packets did not advance ; and the Postmaster General, on calling for a return, could not but be struck by the astonishingly long time which it took to complete the brigs of one hundred and eighty tons, or thereabouts, which were required for the service. Captain Servante, for instance, with his utmost exertions, as he himself testified on repeated occasions, could not get one built in less than two years and five months, during the whole of which time his personal supervision was given to the work.

At this period the Post-Office administration had passed into the hands of men whose habit it was to draw direct and forcible inferences from facts such as these. Lord Auckland who, jointly with Lord Gower, now held the office of Postmaster General, possessed a dry and penetrating intellect, with an instinctive comprehension of the value of arguments used before him and of the worth of the persons using them. In writing, his style was direct and pungent; he knew how to state a principle and give it force without appearing to drive it down the throats of unwilling subordinates. He was thoroughly dissatisfied with the condition of the Packet Service, and determined to improve it as opportunity served during his term of office.

The other man whose strong hand began to influence the Post-Office at this crisis was Mr. Francis Freeling, lately appointed Secretary, an administrator whose brilliant and courageous work throughout the whole period of the war is by no means yet forgotten.

Two rulers so clear sighted and sagacious, acting together and supporting each other as they did in every emergency, could scarcely fail to discover the roots of the mischief at Falmouth ; but before entering on a description of the measures taken, and while the assuming office at much the same time, are making their preliminary survey, taking note now of some indefensible practice which must be stopped, now of some suspicious action which demands stringent inquiry, it will be well to complete the tale of disasters to the Packets, which furnished so much material to these dissatisfied watchers at headquarters.

The earlier months of 1799 passed away as uneventfully as the later ones of 1798 ; and it was not until April that bad news reached the Post- Office. The “Chesterfield” was captured on the 23rd of that month ; and three months later the “Carteret” hauled down her colours to a Privateer. Then there was again a period of success ; and, except for the loss of one of the small schooners employed among the West India islands, the Packets made their voyages in safety until November.

Comparatively speaking, the captures had been so few during the last sixteen months, that there was doubtless some exultation at Lombard Street, and a growing confidence that the great problem how to convey the mails in safety during war-time was approaching a solution. The agitation of West India merchants had died away ; complaints from irascible Colonial Governors, whose despatches were adorning some coral reef, or washing about in mid-ocean, were few and far between. It seemed indeed as if a golden age had dawned at last ; but in the last six weeks of the year these bright anticipations were rudely shaken.

Towards the end of November the same Privateer which had captured the “Chesterfield” in July took possession of another Packet, the “Lady Harriet” outward bound for Lisbon ; and only a few days later the “Halifax” homeward bound from the Leeward Islands, was seized by the “Vengeance” of sixteen guns and one hundred and thirty men. 

The next homeward Packet expected from the West Indies was the “Westmoreland”. She was captured on December 7th by a Privateer of twenty-six guns and two hundred and fifty men. In her were lost the duplicates of the letters and despatches captured in the “Halifax”; while, as if resolved that no cautious Colonial Governor or merchant who might have forwarded his correspondence in triplicate should profit by the precaution, the French lay in wait for the next homeward Packet also. It was the “Adelphi” and on December 22nd she fell into the hands of the “Grand Buonaparte” a Privateer of twenty-two guns and two hundred men.

How great a loss was caused by these three captures, how serious the interference in the machinery of government, may be surmised, but can never now be calculated. Grievances sustained a hundred years ago did not become vocal in the public press until they had grown absolutely intolerable, if then. But though there was no newspaper outcry, there was an abundance of personal protests, both from ministers and from the merchants while, if the attitude of Lord Auckland on this important subject may be judged from his subsequent actions, he was doubtless well pleased at finding his hand strengthened at a moment which was big with reform for Falmouth.

So the year 1799 passed away, and the new year opened upon indignant clamour outside the Post-Office, and careful, anxious deliberation within its walls.

One circumstance which struck Lord Auckland as singular was that the number of mails lost on the homeward passage was larger than on the outward voyage. When first observed this fact was brushed aside as an accidental occurrence, with the expectation that the next series of captures would redress the balance, and show that the risks of the outward-bound Packets were no less great.

Time went on, and the balance was not redressed. Persons outside the Post-Office began to notice which way it inclined, and ugly rumours were already circulating when an unparalleled series of disasters riveted the attention of the authorities on this point which at first seemed so insignificant.

The “Princess Royal” whose officers and crew had fought so bravely in June, 1798, was the first Packet reported lost. Her gallant captain had been promoted to a command on the Holyhead station, which was both more lucrative and less arduous than the post in which he had won distinction. How far Captain Skinner might have succeeded in repulsing the “Courier” Privateer, to which the “Princess Royal” struck her colours on February 27th, being then on her homeward voyage from the Leeward Islands, it would be profitless to inquire.

Ten days later the “Carteret” homeward bound from Jamaica, hauled down her colours to the “Bellona” a powerful Privateer of thirty guns and two hundred and fifty men. The “Jane” the outward Packet of March 2nd for the West Indies, was captured, after a sharp engagement, on the 12th of that month ; and though she was recaptured a few days later by an English cruiser, that event happened too late to save her mails. On May 4th the “Princess Charlotte” was captured ; on May 6th the “Marquis of Kildare” succumbed ; on May 11th the “Princess Amelia” was seized by a Bordeaux Privateer ; and, after an interval of some months, the “Duke of Clarence” , was sent into Teneriffe as the prize of a Spanish Privateer.

Every one of the four last Packets was homeward bound. The coincidence was too obvious to be overlooked.

Another fact about these captures must have arrested Lord Auckland’s attention. There was hardly any fighting. Why was there not? The capturing Privateers were, it is true, of overmastering force in many cases, if not in all. But the “Antelope” the “Portland” and the “Princess Royal” had successfully resisted superior forces and when was it ever imputed to English sailors that they feared to defend themselves against an enemy because they could not bring into action man for man, or gun for gun? On this very Falmouth station, in past years, numberless actions had been fought as bravely as any in our annals ; and these glories were by no means eclipsed for ever, but were in a few years to shine again with no less splendour than before, though Lord Auckland had not the satisfaction of foreseeing this.

It is not asserted that every Packet whose capture is mentioned in these pages was surrendered without firing a shot ; but it is certainly true that in hardly one case did any serious fighting occur. The very sailors who were captured were not devoid of spirit, as appeared in the case of the “Marquis of Kildare” whose loss was mentioned above. The greater part of the crew of this Packet remained prisoners on board the Privateer, but twelve were left on their own ship, in charge of a prize crew. In the night these twelve rose upon their captors, drove them into the hold, and triumphantly navigated the Packet into Falmouth. They were doubtless commended, and perhaps rewarded, on arriving there ; but it may be hoped that the agent took occasion to point out to them how much more serviceable their valour would have been had they proved it before their ship was captured and their mails lost.

Nobody believed the Falmouth sailors to be cowards. Indubitable facts and the long experience of the past showed that they were not. The  root of the mischief must be sought deeper than that.

Wherever it might lie, there was clearly no time to lose in searching for it. The complaints of the merchants were incessant; and when Mr. Henry Dundas, at that time Secretary of State for the Colonies, went so far as to instruct the general officer in command in the West Indies to send home duplicate and triplicate copies of his despatches by well-armed merchant vessels, “which appear to have a better chance of safe arrival than the regular Packets” and forwarded a copy of this galling letter to the Postmaster General, no one could any longer doubt that unless some quick and searching remedy could be found, the Post-Office might almost as well lay down the pretence of conveying the mails in safety. Lord Auckland frankly owned that Mr. Dundas’ letter had not surprised him. Long before matters reached this point, he had inquired what evidence was taken that the capture of any particular Packet had occurred in the manner described by her officers. He was told that of evidence, properly so called, there was none at all, except the sworn statement of the captain, made before a notary selected by himself.

An officer of the navy who lost his ship, Lord Auckland observed, was invariably brought to courtmartial. A number of honourable and experienced officers were appointed to judge his conduct ; he was called before them, and required to prove on oath, and by the evidence of witnesses, that his courage and skill had been properly exerted.

A Packet captain in the same situation was summoned before no court at all. He went, in company with one or two of his chief officers, to a notary in Falmouth, and before that gentleman executed a sworn statement, technically called a “protest”. In form, this document “protested” against the conduct of the enemy which had captured, or injured, the Packet. It detailed just so much, or so little, of the facts as the captain thought proper to relate ; and the notary had no other responsibility in the matter than the administration of an oath.

This was the whole the proceeding. When the  “protest” reached the General Post-Office, it was accepted as a matter of course ; and on it steps were taken for repaying to the commander the amount of his loss.

Could it be right, Lord Auckland asked, that there should be no public inquiry, no examination of the whole crew, no statements taken from passengers! The Inspector of Packets was the person to whom it fell to answer this question ; and he at once came forward to testify that he thought it the most satisfactory system in the whole world. It was the time-honoured custom at Lloyds, and therefore be good enough for the General Post-Office. A sworn declaration! Were there no penalties against perjury The fear of incurring these penalties must be a perfect safeguard, if any be needed among honourable men!

The value of the opinions held by this Inspector of Packets, who must have somewhat resembled Dr. Pangloss (except, as shown by mountainous papers still existing, where his own fees were concerned), was quickly put to a fresh test. But in order to make clear the nature of the very important question which now arose, some amount of explanation and of retrospect is necessary.

Allusions have been made in previous chapters of this work to the fact that all Packets throughout the last century carried goods. Now this practice was expressly forbidden by a statute of Charles II.; but it does not appear that the prohibition had ever been enforced. Mr. Freeling, the Secretary of the Post-Office, stated in a report made about this time that he had been unable to trace the steps by which the trade had developed itself in the teeth of the statute, and that in his opinion the custom “was coeval with the Packet Service itself”. However that may have been, the trade was certainly of antiquity sufficient to have struck deep roots at Falmouth. It was carried on without the slightest concealment; and was indeed expressly sanctioned by the Government, though it remained, as it had always been, illegal. In reports made on the capture of Packets, the presence of goods on board the vessel was set down with no more comment than that of provisions. Indeed, so recently as in 1798, in a code of new regulations applicable to the Packet station at Falmouth, the trade had been explicitly recognized, and the only instruction given to the agent in regard to it was that he must satisfy himself that no Packet carried so large quantity of goods, or stowed them in such a manner, as to put her out of trim.

The Post-Office always looked unfavourably on this trade ; and from time to time sought the assistance of the Treasury in abolishing it, and restricting the Packets to their proper use. But in those days of constant war, when the seas were unsafe for merchant vessels, and the ports now of one nation, now of another, were closed to English ships, the Government held that it would be inopportune to stop a commercial outlet on which many merchants of Bristol and other towns in the west depended for a chief part of their trade ; and so the irregular system went on and grew unchecked.

On the Lisbon station the trade seems to have been more important than on the West India boats, though it was very profitable on both. The West India boats carried out cheese, potatoes, boots, and shoes, and, curious addition to the list, fighting cocks, for which there was a brisk demand. The Lisbon Packets exported every kind of manufactured goods, often to the value of £4000 on a single voyage. These were by no means the speculations of the captain or of the officers alone. The seamen traded, each on his own account. Every man had his own stowage space reserved under the ceiling of the forecastle. Here his “ventures” were suspended, and no one claimed to interfere with them.

Sometimes the seaman’s ventures consisted of goods entrusted to him by some merchant, to sell on commission at Lisbon or Barbados ; sometimes he had purchased them himself; for not a few of the seamen were capitalists on a small scale, and most of them had formed regular connections with the merchants. The goods once sold in foreign ports, others were of course purchased there. Silks, wines, tobacco, numberless things which by a little ingenuity could be smuggled into Falmouth duty free ; and in order to facilitate disposing of these imported bargains, a whole corps of female pedlars was in existence, locally named “troachers” who trudged the country and hawked about the goods of Jamaica or New York from farm house to country mansion.

There was thus at Falmouth an irregular trade of great value. Every seaman in the employment of the Post-Office was engaged in it. To most it had formed a chief inducement to enter the service for the wages were very low, and would not of away from the themselves have attracted men from the Revenue Service or the Royal Navy.

More than once during the last few years of the century suggestions had been made of scandals connected with the Falmouth trade ; and hints had been thrown out that a stringent inquiry, conducted on the spot, might bring to light facts which would explain the frequent captures of Packets. The West India merchants, in guarded language, “prayed any abuses in the loading of the Packets might be remedied “; but other persons spoke plainly what was here only hinted and roundly declared that it was sometimes very profitable to be captured, and that the officers who were the most often captured were the most quickly growing rich.

The charge soon took clearer shape. It was said that, in accordance with a common practice, the goods received on board the Packets at Falmouth were insured in England for the double voyage, out and home. If then the goods were sold in the West Indies, it would be a – possible thing for the crew to remit the purchase money in bills by some safe channel ; and to surrender themselves quietly to the first Privateer they met. They ran the risk of spending some years in a French prison ; but one cannot grow rich without some risk, and there was a good chance that the Privateer would put them ashore in their own boat.

When they once reached England, they were secure from detection. They declared before the Insurance Company that the Privateer had taken from them large quantities of goods which they had not succeeded in selling abroad, or which they had purchased there hoping to sell at home. They claimed the value of those goods, and by the next Packet received that value a second time in the bills which they had themselves remitted.

This was the charge against the Falmouth officers, – a charge involving so much base dishonesty that one hesitates before accepting it as true of even the smallest section of the Service at which it was levelled.

Lord Auckland declined to believe in the possibility of “so black and desperate a fraud”. Still, whatever incredulity might be felt at headquarters, the accusation was clearly one which demanded instant notice ; and accordingly the optimistic Inspector of Packets was directed to proceed to Falmouth, and report on the matter. Little time was lost by the Inspector. He quickly produced a report which positively asserted the existence of such fraud to be impossible. His reason was that no insurance company would pay the value of its policy in the absence of an affidavit declaring precisely the quantity and quality of the goods on board the Packet at the time of the capture. The honest man forgot that the very nature of the charge involved treachery and lying and that men who could be supposed guilty of those basenesses would not be likely to hesitate at a perfectly safe perjury. Of course the Inspector’s conclusion was not necessarily absurd, because his reasoning was unsound. But there are two stories on record which go some way to prove that the one and the other were equally wrong.

To take the least conclusive story first. The “Earl Gower” commanded by Captain Deake, was on her way home from Lisbon in June 1801 when she encountered the “Télégraphe” Privateer cutter, of fourteen guns and seventy men, a force considerably superior of course to her own. Captain Deake plied his guns with vigour, however, and might perhaps have got clear off, had not fully half his crew gone below in a body, refusing either to work the vessel or to fight her. The action of these men is scarcely comprehensible on any other supposition than that they wished to be captured. Cowardice would have impelled them to flight ; but they refused to work the ship, which was of course taken.

The second case tells a plainer story; and must always stand, exceptional as it may be, as a black disgrace upon the records of the Falmouth Service. The facts are as follows.

The “Duke of York” a Packet homeward bound from Lisbon, was chased throughout September 18th, 1803, by a Privateer of scarcely more than half her size, though more heavily manned. Towards evening the master, who was acting commander at the time, consulted with the surgeon as to the course proper for them to take in view of the fact that the enemy was obviously gaining on them. The surgeon stated that in his opinion resistance was impossible. He advised surrender ; and the master, after a short conversation, adopted his view. They came to this resolution while the enemy’s vessel was still a mile distant from them, and before she had even fired a summoning gun they hauled their colours down.

It was then seven o’clock, and the night was falling rapidly. This circumstance however did not suggest to them that there was a chance of escaping under cover of the darkness ; it brought to their minds only the fear that the enemy might not have seen their flag pulled down. And so, to avoid any misapprehension on the subject of their shame, they sent a boat on board the Privateer and proclaimed it in advance.

The story as here told leaked out by degrees. However, on the first receipt of the news in London, Lord Auckland heard it with so much suspicion that he resolved to use the occasion for instituting the Court of Inquiry, about the necessity of which he and the Inspector of Packets held such divergent views. A Court was accordingly constituted at Falmouth, composed of all the commanders in port at the time, under the presidency of the agent but the result was disappointing. The commanders put their questions in such a manner as to shield the culprits as far as possible ; and finally stultified themselves by finding that all the officers did everything possible to save their ship. Perhaps little else was to be expected at the outset of such inquiries. The commanders doubtless resented the change of system as an insult to themselves. They were all old friends and neighbours; esprit de corps was strong among them in proportion as their numbers were few ; and, moreover, their Court having no legal standing, nor any power to administer oaths, there was nothing to excite a feeling of responsibility, or dignity, among the individuals composing it, such as might have out-weighed the natural dislike to its establishment. The responsibility developed ; the dislike wore off. In course of time these inquiries, which became part of the regular routine of the station, were found useful enough, and even indispensable.

On this first occasion, however, the finding of the Court was useless, if not positively mischievous and some more stringent inquiry was plainly needed. It was entrusted to the Inspector of Packets, who was acute and shrewd when he could cast off the preconceived ideas bred by his long experience, and who had been shaken out of his optimism in some degree by recent events. He set himself to work in Falmouth with zeal and energy, and gradually disclosed a number of very remarkable facts. He traced, so far as possible, the value of the goods which each officer and sailor had on board, what insurances he had effected on the outward voyage, and what on the homeward, and finally what sum (if any) he had gained by being captured.

One man, he found, admitted that he had gained £300 by his misfortune. The surgeon, who advised the surrender, had certainly made £250 out of it; but, by a remarkable lapse of memory, he was quite unable to recollect what sum he had received in Lisbon for goods sold there ; s0 that it was impossible to arrive at the full amount of his profit. The steward’s mate was richer by £250; one of the seamen by £200 and most of the crew had pocketed substantial sums, made in the identical way indicated by the rumours spoken of above.

The next step was to ascertain whether any of these men, and especially those who had made large profits on this occasion, had been captured before.

The surgeon, who had been foremost in counselling surrender, and who was also (probably) the largest gainer among this pack of scoundrels, had also been captured more frequently than any of the crew, except three men, having been taken prisoner no less than three times before. How much money he had made on those three occasions is not stated. Three of the crew had been equally lucky. Four other men had been captured twice before, most of the rest once, and eight of them had been on board the “Earl Gower” at the time of the disgraceful circumstances related above.

The inference from these facts was so plain that not even the Inspector of Packets could fail to draw it. His report was hesitating, but on the whole conclusive : and it contained this striking passage, “I cannot help being of opinion that if during the war officers and seamen are permitted to carry out merchandise on commission or otherwise there is reason to fear that the loss of Packets may be very considerable, unless indeed under disinterested or high-spirited commanders”.

There is a barb in this sentence for all who love Falmouth, and one would fain drop the subject But history has no concern with at this point. sentiment ; and, as the matter is of importance, the following extract may be quoted from the minutes of the Postmaster General, written after a careful review of the whole subject.

“These papers prove beyond a doubt that His Majesty’s Packet could not have been captured if the skill and courage of her crew had been properly exerted. Their Lordships even incline to think that the French Privateer might have been captured if our vessel had been carried into action with the spirit which characterizes British seamen in general. No resistance was made. It was not even seenwhat was the force of the Privateer. The Packet was not even hailed or fired at by the enemy, yet a boat was sent off to meet the Privateer and to accelerate a surrender of which the seamen themselves speak as dishonourable and  dishonest.

Under these circumstances my Lords the Postmaster General never will consent that Mr. – the acting commander, or Mr. the surgeon, shall again be employed in their service”.

So then, it must be taken as proved that in this one case certain officers of the Falmouth Service sold their honour and betrayed their country. One naturally asks whether any of the other captures mentioned in the previous pages were due to a similar treason. Since the war broke out thirty-two Packets had been captured, and of these twenty-one were taken on the homeward voyage.

It may be said at once that, as far as the now existing records show, no such misconduct as was proved against the officers of the “Duke of York” was ever alleged against any others. Doubts may have been raised in the minds of Lord Auckland or of Mr. Freeling ; but if so, they were allowed to slumber again, and, after the lapse of well nigh a hundred years, it cannot be necessary to reawaken them.

In order to bring out more clearly the nature of these charges, and to show precisely how far they were well-grounded, the proper sequence of events has been somewhat neglected.

During the four years which elapsed between the first rumour of the scandals and the capture of the “Duke of York” considerable progress had been made in limiting the trade. Early in 1800 complaint of the existence of an illegal trade at Falmouth was made to Mr. Pitt by a private individual. Who this person was, on what grounds he objected to the trade, or by what influence he prevailed on the Treasury to issue a prohibition for which successive Postmasters General had appealed in vain,- these are inquiries on which the records throw no light. The fact however is that he did prevail, and an order was issued prohibiting the private trade on the West India Packets, though for the present it was permitted to continue on the Lisbon boats.

In looking back on these events one cannot but suppose that in thus vitally altering the ancient conditions of service on the Falmouth station the Government were actuated by some motive much more potent than the desire to gratify a single individual. It must have been foreseen that the sailors would resent the loss of their large profits ; that the chief attraction of the Service in their eyes was about to be destroyed, and this in the midst of a dangerous and costly war.

The discontent showed itself at once.There was something resembling mutiny at Falmouth. The crews of several vessels refused to proceed to sea, and their captains reported that they could not obtain sailors unless the trade were restored. The Government stood firm. The memorials of the seamen pointed out that their wages, if they must rely on them solely, were not sufficient for their maintenance and for that of their families. The statement was perfectly true, for the trade had been so fully recognized by the authorities that it was always held to be unnecessary to pay any but low wages to men who were earning so much by private speculation. The wages had to be increased, but the increase of course could not be equivalent to the amount of profit lost by the new rule; and a smouldering mass of discontent was left at Falmouth which in years to come broke out again and again into mutiny.

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