The loss of Denmark’s friendship may possibly have been balanced in the eyes of Mr. Canning by the possession of her fleet, but to the Postmaster General and the other officials at Lombard Street, who were responsible for the maintenance of Postal communications it was a very grievous disaster. The device of sending letters under cover to Altona, involving as it did much inconvenience and delay even if the letters were as safe as Mr. Nicholas believed, had been resorted to with much grumbling on the part of the merchants, who only discovered its value when it had become im possible. Gothenburg was now the only port in Northern Europe available for the Packets. The station was inconvenient ; the passage was long and stormy. The Swedish Post-Office in Hamburg had been closed for some months, and it was consequently by no means clear that there was any great advantage in sending the mails out of England at all. A certain number were doubtless forwarded from Gothenburg by various secret and irregular routes, but it was indeed a desperate crisis which made it necessary to entrust valuable letters or remittances, on which the credit of a substantial merchant might rest, to smugglers and the other wild and lawless characters who would alone venture to incur the risks inseparable from the undertaking.
The situation was intolerable. The merchants were clamorous for some assistance, and it was only too evident that unless the trade of the country were to perish, and with it our supremacy, an expedient must be quickly found. At this juncture the capture of Heligoland provided a base from which efforts might be made to reach Hamburg with some chance of success.
No exposition is needed to show how great the value of Heligoland was to this country. The island lies but a few hours’ sail from the mouths of the Elbe, the Weser, and the Ems. British goods might be landed there with perfect confidence, for little need be feared from any naval attack, and could lie there unmolested until the fishermen of the island, or of the Hanover and Holstein coasts, smuggled them into Bremen or Hamburg. A very valuable trade of this description soon sprang up, for the profits were great enough to gild the risks. The goods were, of course, contraband in Hamburg, but the exacting requisitions of clothing for Napoleon’s army made it necessary for the citizens to chance the penalty, and to trade with the smugglers at any hazard for Yorkshire cloth.
Heligoland was captured on September 4th, 1807, and whilst the Government were still debating about the best means of making use of it, news was arriving from the opposite corner of Europe which made the new acquisition seem more and more valuable, for the French designs on Portugal were becoming manifest. The Prince Regent’s friendship for us was receiving shock after shock from Napoleon’s menaces, and it was obvious that the time was at hand when the cordon which had blocked against our shipping every harbour from the Baltic to Dalmatia, except Gibraltar and the coasts of Portugal, would be drawn across the entrance of the Tagus also.
Napoleon demanded three things of the Prince Regent. Two of these demands, of which the whole number were levelled against England, the Prince had courage to refuse, namely, the detention of all Englishmen then in Portugal, and the confiscation of their property. The third demand, which was also the most important of the three, he at last conceded, with a kind of weak belief that he would thereby, while sacrificing the neutrality of his country, promote a general peace ; and accordingly, on October 27th, Mr. Chamberlain, the Post-Office agent at Lisbon, transmitted to his Department a copy of a proclamation issued on the 22nd, which announced that the harbours of Portugal were henceforth closed to British vessels, whether of war or commerce.
“Some private information I have just received” wrote the agent, in commenting on this proclamation, “leads me to apprehend that this government may seize the English who remain here – and certainly they have had strong and sufficient warning to withdraw – in order thereby to appease the wrath of Bonaparte”. And he went on to lament that the moment had been let slip for supporting the Prince Regent with a British fleet. “Every preparation is made to oppose the entry of a fleet, and I much fear that it will now be impossible for any but a very immense force to attempt the Tagus. I have long dreaded this, for I have been aware of the system that was being carried out, and it grieves me beyond expression to see the moment rapidly approaching when the navy and all the Brazilmen, which are just so many men-of-war, the finest vessels in the world for carrying troops, fall into the hands of Bonaparte. There is perhaps yet time to prevent this evil, but it is barely possible…..”
On the following day he wrote again. “We are in hourly expectation of a proclamation ordering his Majesty’s subjects to quit the kingdom. Our stay must be short”. It was, indeed, a hazardous position. Junot at the head of his army was pushing rapidly through Spain.
The Portuguese Cabinet saw no safety save in acts of hostility towards the English. The crime of Helvoetsluis stood on record as a warning of what might be expected when the French arrived, and the British residents on the Tagus poured out of the country day by day. Mr. Chamberlain’s duty was to maintain the Postal Service until the very last moment ; no order for arresting the English had yet appeared, but it was expected hourly, and the agent, who could not hope to be exempted from its scope, took the precaution of chartering a small armed schooner which was to lie off the coast in readiness for sailing night or day.
The crisis came on on November 11th. All Englishmen, save the Ambassador and his staff, were to be arrested. Mr. Chamberlain concealed about his person a number of despatches for the Foreign Secretary, and, escaping from his lodging,made his way to the coast. To his dismay his schooner was nowhere to be found. A violent storm had blown her out to sea. He hired a boat, and made efforts to reach some of the British vessels in the offing, but the sea ran so high that he was obliged to put back three times, and at last the sailors declined to go out again. Mr. Chamberlain therefore started off on foot, and after a perilous journey reached Cascaes, where, by good luck, he found the “Walsingham” a Falmouth Packet, which, on attempting to enter the Tagus as usual on the previous day, had been fired on from the batteries, and was now standing on and off the coast in the hope of ascertaining the precise situation of affairs.
Mr. Chamberlain’s arrival settled any doubt as to the hostility of the Portuguese, and the “Walsingham” at once set sail for Falmouth.
The only hope of the Post-Office now lay in schemes of smuggling, conducted from Heligoland. Suggestions were pouring in upon them. Plans more or less impracticable emanated from every crazy enthusiast in London, and the general public demonstrated no less clearly than in our own times its conviction that it was qualified to instruct the experts.
There were anxious consultations at the Foreign Office between Mr. Canning, Mr. Freeling, and Mr. Thornton, who was fortunately at hand to give the benefit of his unrivalled local knowledge and of that sagacity which had extorted the admiration of Bourrienne.
The immediate difficulty was to find a means of communicating to the Senate of Hamburg, then, as always, friendly to the English, the fact that mails were lying at Heligoland, and to concert with them some scheme for introducing those mails into the city.
To do this was a matter of great difficulty, since all the approaches to Hamburg were very closely watched. It was also dangerous, for if the messenger were captured, he would certainly have to face a long imprisonment ; and worse than imprisonment might befall him, for he ran an excellent chance of being shot as a spy. A man of courage must therefore be chosen, and one of resource, of undoubted honesty, faithful to his employers, and adroit in action. Such a man was not easily found ; but Mr. Thornton at last put forward his servant, James Giltinan, who had been long with him in Hamburg, and was well acquainted with all the surrounding territory.
Giltinan accepted the dangerous mission very readily. He sailed from Harwich on a Packet bound for Heligoland, and within a few hours of his arrival in that island he left it again on board a schuyt, bound for the mouth of the Elbe. The Heligolanders were confident that he would never succeed in penetrating to Hamburg, and the event proved them right. A furious storm delayed all news for some days, but at last the schuyt returned with the melancholy news that Giltinan had been made prisoner between Neuwerk and Cuxhaven, and sent to Hamburg in close confinement. What befell him there does not appear ever to have become known.
Upon the failure of this gallant venture various plans were considered, but all were laid aside as offering no prospect of success commensurate with the risk involved. The Post-Office declined to make itself responsible for any further efforts, and resolved to confine itself to landing the mails at Heligoland, where they must lie until good fortune provided some means of forwarding them. To such a condition of impotence the policy of Napoleon had reduced the Post-Office in the year 1807.
It is now time to return to the operations of the Falmouth Packets. A new service to Gibraltar and Malta had been opened in the year 1806, in deference to the wishes of the Mediterranean merchants, and still more perhaps to the foresight of the Government which anticipated the closing of the Northern ports. The “Cornwallis”, Captain Anthony, was the first Packet despatched on this voyage, which the hostility of Spain rendered rather dangerous. The passage through the Straits brought the “Cornwallis” into close quarters with the Spanish coast, and six gun-boats sallied out from Tarifa to intercept her.
These gun-boats carried 24 and 30-pounders, heavy guns for those days, with from fifty to seventy men each, and their plan of attack was a simultaneous onslaught. They were probably Privateers, for they fought under the bloody flag in token of their resolution to give no quarter. Captain Anthony had anticipated some such attack ; and on meeting Collingwood’s fleet on the previous day, had asked for convoy through the straits. Collingwood, however, could not spare a convoy, being in constant hope of meeting the French fleet and bringing it to action.
“Just at first” says a passenger on board the “Cornwallis” “when we saw the enemy coming we wished we had had the convoy ; but we soon forgot that when our blood warmed, for all on board had to turn to and work his best. Everybody on board did not seem to mind at all, down to the little boy who serves us in the cabin, although we could see they more than twice outnumbered all of we, for one Englishman is as good as two frog-eaters, and I am sure as good as any two of those rags of Spaniards. I saw that little David, the cabin lad who carried up the powder from below, sang merry until he had no wind with running up and down so much, and he only cried one bit at first, when a splinter from the boat’s bottom cut his forehead. His face was very black from the smoke, and he looked mighty comick when I wrapped his head up in my large kerchief, which I did when I was recovered from my fright.
“It was at ten o’clock on Monday morning, July 28th, 1806, a very hot day with little wind, that we engaged in coming through the Gutt, and we fought them for getting on for two hours, till nearly noon, about fifteen to twenty miles from Gibraltar… The captain, seeing as how I was quite well again from my sea-sickness, and that I look steady, gave me the charge of all the powder, which gave me plenty to do. To every man on board cutlasses was served out, for we must not trust to our cannon alone, as they mostly try to board a ship, and take it by power of numbers.
“If a light wind, they make use of their oars and sweep along very fast, and board on all quarters at once if they can. Our ship with her stern gun, a long 9-pounder, spoke such language as they could not understand. She fired about sixty shots, and kept them at their proper distance, and was voyage, which the hostility of Spain I suppose we fired two hundred shots on the whole, and did much damage to the gun-boats, one of which we sunk, and many of her men, thank God, was drowned in the sea, though the other boats being near picked up some. Once or twice when we struck them with our grape their shrieks was verry awful and loud.
“Captain Anthony behaved bravely, and much praise is due to him for his spirited conduct. Mr. Mitchell, from Berwick on Tweed, fought with uncommon vigour ; he fired three of the guns. As soon as one was discharged he ran to another and directed the shot in a gallant style. The first shot that the Spaniards fired blew away the bottom of the boat which hung astern of the ship, and broke the cabin windows. A piece of wood from the boat struck me in the back, and I was much alarmed lest I was shot ; but I received no hurt, only a great fright, at which Captain Anthony found time to laugh heartily.
“They fired grapeshot at us, which did much damage to the sails, and broke one of the irons which support the boarding net, and wounded some of our men. Only one was killed in the engagement, a man named Reeves, from Lichfield it is thought, who was a brave and good sailor. He was shot through the thigh and breast, and must have been killed instantaneous, for he did not look agonized. This is the first man I have seen killed. At about twelve o’clock the five gun-boats retired, having had more than they expected ; the breeze was still light, and they returned, but we think not all of them, to Tarifa”.
Now this somewhat rambling account, the narrative of a plain merchant, not much skilled in the use of his pen, telling us exactly what struck him, too manly to be ashamed of owning himself to have been both sea-sick and frightened, yet showing us in his modest way that he was usefully employed in helping those who did the actual fighting, this straightforward, sensible story puts the whole scene before us more clearly than a thousand official reports.
Little David running upstairs “singing merry” not old enough to keep his tears back when the splinter wounded him on the forehead, forms a picture too vivid to be forgotten. Captain Anthony’s hearty laugh when his passenger thought himself shot, helps us to realize the joviality with which our grandfathers went into action, too confident in themselves to trouble their heads about the issue, even when fighting against six enemies at once.
The Postmaster General did not think much of this action, ranking it somewhat low among the achievements of the Packets chiefly because it was a running fight. One might have supposed that the sinking of one of the gun-boats, together with the skill in manoeuvring exhibited by Captain Anthony in repelling the other five, entitled him to a considerable share of credit. He gained more however for his conduct nearly a year later, namely on July 2nd, 1807.
On that date the “Cornwallis” was chased by a lugger about thirty leagues off Brest. The lugger came on under English colours ; but Captain Anthony, finding that she made no answer to the private signal, instantly cleared his decks, called his men to their stations, served out cutlasses and pistols, and waited for the lugger with his guns ready shotted.
It was well that he had sailed the seas long enough to be cautious . for the lugger, having flown her English colours until she came within half pistol shot distance, suddenly hauled them down, and ran up the Spanish flag at the mizzen, and the French ensign, topped with a red flag, the signal of no quarter, at the main. In the same moment, without hail or summoning-gun, a broadside roared out, followed by a rattling volley of small arms, by which her commander doubtless thought to shake the nerve of the Falmouth men, and by one sudden blow to win an opportunity of boarding.
He was mistaken in his men, and he had forgotten the “Cornwallis”, stern guns. Her broadside came crashing into him before the smoke of the first discharges had blown away, and Captain Anthony was perfectly awake to the manoeuvre his enemy was contemplating. He saw the lugger making sail ; he understood full well that she was bearing down to grapple him on the starboard quarter. His couple of 12-pounder carronades were double shotted, and as the lugger sheered up under the stern of the “Cornwallis” she got such a storm of grape and canister along her decks as took the heart out of her for boarding ; while as she fell away in some confusion the Packet’s starboard guns came to bear, and were discharged at short range with terrible effect.
This was the decisive moment of the action, and the event was never afterwards doubtful, though the fight was by no means over. The lugger sheered off to a safer distance, and commenced a heavy cannonade which did much injury to the “Cornwallis” dismounting one of the stern guns which had served her so well, wounding three men seriously, and almost crippling her in sails and rigging. The enemy, however, either suffered more, or did not realize how effective her fire had been ; for she showed no inclination to come to close quarters again, and after about an hour hauled off, and stood away to the southward, leaving the Packetsmen to enjoy their triumph.
Somewhat earlier than this, namely on May 28th, 1807, the “Duke of Marlborough” was in the neighbourhood of Barbados, when the lookout at her mast-head reported a schooner in sight running before the wind a few miles away to the southward. Captain Bull was not on board, and the Packet was in charge of Mr. James, the master, an officer whose growing reputation both as a navigator and in action already marked him as destined for an independent command. Mr. James was well aware of the great probability that any strange vessel encountered in that situation was an enemy; and he made his preparations without loss of time. It was half-past four in the afternoon when the schooner was sighted. By five o’clock the decks were cleared, the boarding nettings triced up, the arms served out, the mail brought on deck, the guns loaded, and the men were at their quarters, cheerful and confident.
Hardly were these arrangements completed when the schooner tacked and made all sail in chase. At 10.15 P.M. she came up astern and fired the first shot, to which the Cornishmen replied with their full broadside. On this the action became general, and the two vessels pounded each other for three- quarters of an hour at close range without serious damage on either side.
Mr. James, confident in the gunnery of his men, felt no apprehension about the result of this cannonade. What he did fear was a boarding assault, for the numbers of the enemy were far superior to his own. At 11 P.M. he perceived that the French were collecting their boarders. The moment was favourable to them. The vessels were nearing each other. The boarders were gathering in numbers sufficient to sweep the little crew of Cornishmen into the sea ; and Mr. James saw with alarm that the situation of the vessels was such that for the moment he could not bring a single gun to bear.
There was not an instant to lose. The Frenchmen were already clambering upon the bulwarks of their ship balancing themselves in the act of springing. In another moment the whole party would have been scrambling over the nettings of the Packet, when Mr. James, seizing the helm, jammed it hard-a-port, and laid the “Duke of Marlborough” right across the enemy’s bows.
By this bold manoeuvre the tables were turned. As the Packet forged across the schooner’s track, every gun in her broadside came to bear successively. Each one in turn raked the French ship from stem to stern with grape-shot and canister, and when Mr. James had leisure once more to look about him, he saw that there was confusion among the enemy, who had evidently sustained a heavy loss. The Frenchmen rallied from this blow surprisingly fast, and in a few minutes secured another opportunity of boarding. The favourable moment had gone by however. The Cornishmen were fully prepared, and not one of the boarders managed to gain the deck of the “Duke of Marlborough”. This second failure seemed to take the heart out of the attack, for shortly afterwards the Privateer sheered off and was seen to heave to with the evident intention of repairing damages.
She had not yet done with the Packet, and about midnight made sail once more in chase, coming within range at 8 A.M., when a heavy fire of great guns were opened on both sides, and maintained very warmly for two hours and a half. At the end of this time, finding she had gained no decisive advantage, and having had enough of close quarters on the previous evening, the Privateer again sheered off and left the “Duke of Marlborough” to pursue her voyage unmolested.
In these two actions six Packetsmen were wounded, one mortally. The amount of loss sustained by the Privateer, which was a large vessel of fourteen guns, well known as having captured many English merchantmen, could not be ascertained, but it was the opinion of some of the officers of the “Duke of Marlborough” that if they had pressed their advantage she could not have escaped. Allowing, however, for very heavy losses, the number of Privateersmen capable of fighting at the close of the action doubtless far exceeded the whole complement of the Packet, and Mr. James, whose first duty was to expose the mails to no unnecessary risk, certainly exercised a wise discretion in refusing to embark in such an adventure.
This, it may be added, was by no means the only case in which the crew of a Packet, flushed with success, were compelled to refrain from pushing their victory to a conclusion, and so to abandon the prize money which was almost in their grasp. It was hard to let a beaten enemy escape, and it is a striking proof of the good feeling existing among the sailors on the Falmouth Packets that they tolerated such an event without a mutinous outbreak.
A few months later there occurred a fight, which, if not more bold and desperate than half a dozen others recorded in this volume, attracted a larger share of public recognition, and won for the officer in command something like that fame which was so often deserved by the Falmouth commanders, but so very seldom bestowed on them. The action of the “Windsor Castle” on October 1st, 1807, is, indeed, one of the three or four fights to which the world outside Falmouth paid some attention. It has found a niche in the naval histories, and is still remembered when almost every other action of the Packets, however glorious, is forgotten.
The “Windsor Castle” was commanded by Captain Sutton, but that officer had remained at home, and the ship was in charge of Mr. William Roger, the master. She sailed from Falmouth at the end of August, 1807, with mails for the Leeward Islands, and after a tedious voyage was nearing Barbados, in those waters which were a veritable cockpit of the Atlantic, when the look-out reported that a strange schooner, which came in sight a few minutes earlier, had altered her course and appeared to be chasing the Packet.
Mr. Rogers at once caused every stitch of canvas to be set; but at the end of an hour there could be no doubt that the enemy had the heels of the “Windsor Castle” and that an action was inevitable. Perhaps Mr. Rogers and his crew, having obeyed their orders by attempting to escape, were not ill-pleased on finding that they could not do so. To the former, especially, who held only a temporary command, the chance of distinguishing himself was doubtless welcome, and he set about his preparations with a cheerful confidence which had an excellent effect upon his men.
About noon the strange schooner came within range, hoisted French colours, and opened fire. The Cornishmen replied by playing on the enemy with their stern-chasers, those long brass guns which in so many other fights had proved serviceable in delaying the advance of an enemy. On this occasion, however, they appear to have done little execution, for the schooner drew on rapidly, and, coming within hail, ordered Mr. Rogers, in what he termed “very opprobrious language” to strike his colours. On finding that he treated this demand as it deserved, the French opened a very heavy fire, both of cannon and musketry, which they maintained without intermission for more than an hour.
The Privateer carried three guns in her broadside, as did the “Windsor Castle” also, but they were 9-pounders, whereas the Packet’s broadside guns were only 4-pounders, and her chasers 6-pounders. Moreover the Privateer had a long 18-pounder fixed on a swivel in the centre of the main-deck, and traversing on a circle, so that it could be brought to bear on any point with ease. The fire of this powerful gun could not fail to exercise a large effect on the action, and in fact great damage was done by it to the spars and rigging of the Packet. At last the French, believing the moment favourable, seized an opportunity of boarding, and grappled the “Windsor Castle”, on the starboard quarter. A strong party leaped into the nettings of the Packet, slashing at them with swords, and hacking at the ridge-ropes with long poles armed with hooks of sharpened steel. But the nettings were lofty and well-secured, the Falmouth men understood the use of pikes and cutlasses, and in a few minutes several of the boarders were wounded and thrust into the sea, while the remainder leaped back to their own ship. On the failure of this attack, the French cut the grapplings, and would have sheered off, probably to resume their cannonade, but the mainyard of the Packet had locked itself in the rigging of the Privateer, and the wind having almost completely died away, the two vessels could not possibly separate.
“Thereupon” says the account, written by a passenger on the “Windsor Castle”, “our pikemen again flew to their muskets, pistols and blunderbusses, our gallant captain all the while giving his orders with the most admirable coolness, and encouraging his crew by his speeches and example in such a way that there was no thought of yielding, although many of our heroes now lay stretched upon our deck in their blood. But then we saw the enemy’s decks completely covered with their dead and wounded, and the fire from our great guns doing dreadful execution”.
For more than two hours the Packet and the Privateer lay locked together, and during all that time the cannonade was furious, while the losses on both sides were very heavy. The French gunnery seems to have been defective, and though men were falling fast on the “Windsor Castle” – out of eight-and-twenty men and boys three were killed and – they were dropping infinitely faster on the Privateer. At every discharge,” says the account already quoted, “we began to hear them scream, which so inspired our gallant crew that many of the wounded returned to their quarters”, a vivid touch of description, which helps one to realize the desperate character of this long day’s fighting off the shore of Barbados.
At three o’clock this stage of the action terminated. The French, seeming to feel the necessity for some great effort, formed a second boarding party, mustering every available man for the attack. Happily Mr. Rogers detected their design, and bringing to bear on them one of his 6-pounders, “crammed with double grape, canister, and one hundred musket balls” let fly this murderous charge into their midst at the very moment when they were grouped together for the assault. A great number fell, the rest made dash under cover. They were becoming demoralized, and Mr. Rogers saw that the moment for which he was waiting was at hand. His men saw it too, and were growing eager, but there were only fifteen of them unwounded, and the French were still at the smallest computation, two to one. And So Mr. Rogers held his men back, and let the gunners have their way a little longer. At last, about a quarter-past three, he leapt upon the bulwarks, and, followed by five or six of his best men, sprang down, sword in hand, on the decks of the Privateer. There ensued a fierce scuffle, but it lasted only a few minutes. The French captain led his men on bravely, but he fell dead, and his men, dismayed at the loss of their commander, wavered, lost heart, and were driven below decks. A Packetsman exultingly hauled the French colours down, and the day was won.
Thus ended this long and memorable fight, a striking instance of the degree in which courage and skill could, in the old days, overcome a superiority of force and armament. Praises and rewards were unsparingly bestowed on Mr. Rogers and his brave crew. The former received, almost immediately, his commission as commander of a regular Packet, together with a complimentary letter from My Lords the Postmaster General, and a gratuity of a hundred guineas ; the inhabitants of Tortola presented him with a sword of honour and an illuminated address, and the city of London, on his return to England, conferred its freedom on him. Moreover, the value of the prize was paid over to the General Post-Office and divided among the officers and crew, for though the Packets were not licensed to take prizes, it was obvious to everybody on this occasion that the “Windsor Castle” had no alternative but to capture or be captured.
It appears that at the time of this action the “Windsor Castle” had no surgeon on board, a most unfortunate occurrence, which probably resulted in the unnecessary sacrifice of several lives. Many other Packets were in the same plight, for the Falmouth captains found it difficult to induce surgeons to offer themselves for the pay authorized, and it does not seem to have occurred to them to supplement that pay out of their own resources.
The navy offered better terms than the Post-Office, and so secured almost all the young surgeons who were willing to go to sea. In former times the difficulty had been met by stifling all curiosity about the qualifications of candidates for employment, but such an accommodating attitude naturally resulted in bringing into the service men of no qualifications at all, and a stricter rule was reluctantly adopted. It was not, however, until the year 1810 that the pay of surgeons in the Packet Service was increased to a point which attracted a sufficient supply of competent men. The chief duty of the surgeon at ordinary times was, it may be added, to read prayers to the crew, he being regarded by My Lords as the most suitable person to perform that office ; but the opportunity of officiating as chaplain does not seem to have added materially to the attractions of the post.
There were no other actions in 1807, but the following year was marked by two or three which deserve to be recorded. The fact is, however, that at this period the conduct of the Packets was so invariably distinguished by the highest courage and the most zealous sense of duty, that the narrative of events is perhaps open to the charge of monotony, and the inclination of the chronicler is to pass somewhat lightly over the details of many a fight which, if the balance of account were not already so much in favour of the Packets, would shine with considerable lustre. Yet it would be manifestly unjust to omit the mention of any considerable action, and such certainly was that in which the “Prince Ernest”, Captain James Petre, was engaged in March, 1808.
Captain Petre had been a master in the navy. He bore an excellent reputation, and kept his men at such a point of training in the use of their arms as might have been anticipated from an officer of long experience in war. On March 19th, 1808, the “Prince Ernest” outward bound, had entered the belt of ocean patrolled by the Privateers of Guadeloupe, and a most careful look-out was being maintained. At 8 A.M. a hail from the mast-head informed Captain Petre that a schooner of suspicious appearance had been sighted to the north ward, and somewhat later a second schooner came in view some miles to the east. Both these strange vessels altered their course, and bearing down towards the Packet chased her all the morning.
Captain Petre, as he watched the two enemies crawling up, may well have felt doubtful of success Most fortunately, however, in the coming fight one of the schooners abandoned the chase early in the afternoon, and by half-past two o’clock only one was in sight. That one was almost within range of shot, and Captain Petre, recognizing that there was no longer room for effort to avoid an action, shortened sail and waited for the enemy.
There was no long delay. At 3 P.M. the Privateer was within pistol shot, and opened a tremendous fire. She carried ten guns of which four were of very large calibre, together with over a hundred men, and in the first half-hour the “Prince Ernest” received so much damage in her sails and rigging that it was very difficult to handle her. Accordingly about 3.30 P.M. the French secured an opportunity of boarding. They were repulsed, however, with some loss, and the cannonade recommenced, continuing unabated for another hour. At 5 o’clock the enemy prepared themselves for a great effort. The great guns roared out with redoubled fury, the musketeers planted in the tops of the Privateer sent a storm of balls on the deck of the Packet, and at the same moment the French captain laying his ship alongside the “Prince Ernest” hove his boarders into her in great numbers.
“My choice little crew” as Captain Petre called them, were perfectly prepared to receive their enemies, and harassed them with pikes and cutlasses as they struggled up the boarding nettings. The numbers of the French were so great, however, that they would doubtless have overpowered the Cornishmen in the end, had not Captain Petre, noticing that the enemy had omitted to cast out grapplings, so that nothing but the direction of the Privateer’s helm kept the ships together, ordered his best marksman to shoot the steersman.
As the man fell, and the tiller swung round, another ran forward and jammed it into the necessary position, but he had hardly done so when he too fell across his comrade’s body. There was a moment’s hesitation before another man sprang to seize the helm, and in that moment the vessels parted. It was then an easy matter to dispose of the few Frenchmen who had made good their footing on the Packet. As the Privateer sheered off, the Falmouth men clutched at the colours flying from her maingaff, and tore away the greater part of them. “I regret” said Captain Petre, with pardonable triumph, when on his return to England he forwarded this trophy to the Postmaster General, “I regret that they had hold of nothing stronger”. Perhaps he did, but looking at the relative force of the two vessels it can scarcely be supposed that My Lords with their higher responsibility shared his regret.
In September, Captain Anthony, whose successful actions in the “Cornwallis” have been described above, fought the Privateer “La Duquesne” of twelve guns for over two hours at close quarters, and beat her off at last with the loss of two men killed and two wounded ; while in November, Captain John Bull had the misfortune to be captured, after a very gallant resistance, by “La Josephine” a French brigantine carrying fourteen 24-pounders and sixty-eight men.