James Silk Buckingham (1786 – 1855) was an English author and traveler who went to sea when he was barely ten years old. He spent his early sea-going years aboard the packet ship Lady Harriet, and had as many adventures as any ten year old boy might wish for. One of those adventures included the capture of his packet by a French corvette, and imprisonment of several months’ duration. He describes the experience in his autobiography, excerpted here.
A quick note: Throughout the text, Buckingham states that the year of his capture was 1796, making him ten years old. However, he was writing 60 years after the event. According to the Falmouth Packet Archives, the voyage during which the Lady Harriet was captured took place in 1799, so he was 12 or 13 at the time.
Autobiography of James Silk Buckingham
My third voyage was disastrous, and caused me to become acquainted, rather earlier than I wished, with an entirely new phase of life, namely captivity.
We sailed from Falmouth under the usual circumstances, and for the first few days had favourable weather, but on the third or fourth day we had a contrary wind and dense fog. On the clearing up of this, when we were not very distant from Cape Finisterre, we beheld a large French corvette, of the length and size of our first-class frigates, and filled with men, within gun-shot range on our weather beam. She fired a gun across our bow, the signal for heaving to, and hoisted the tricolour flag.
The corvette running close under our lee, the commander hailed us by the question “D’ou venez vous?” and our commander, Captain Dillon, not knowing a word of French – which was indeed rarely understood in those days of national isolation except by highly educated or travelled individuals – called out to our own ship’s company, “Is there any man aboard that knows French?” to which the gunner, Peter Wakeham, who was stationed at the gangway, answered, “I do, Sir, having been in a French prison for three years.”
“Then tell me,” said the commander, “what does the Frenchman say?” “Say Sir,” replied the gunner, “why he says, ‘Haul down your colours, or I’ll sink ye, by God!’”
“Damn the fellow,” rejoined the Captain (who was nevertheless a professedly pious man, and the brother of the rector of the parish of Mylor, but swearing was universal with gentlemen in those days), “does he say all that in three words?”
“Ay! That he does,” said Peter, “and a great deal more if I had time to translate it, but he is in a hurry for an answer.”
Several of the officers knew that this could not be true, when my brother-in-law, Mr. Steele, the sailing-master of the packet, called out to me, “Here, youngster, you know French better than this, don’t you, – what does the officer say?”
I replied, ” ‘From whence came you?’ only”, to which an immediate answer was given, “From Falmouth,” and I was immediately placed by the Captain’s side to interpret the remainder of the questions asked, till the order was given to lower the colours, ” a’ bas le pavillion,” and consider ourselves a prize.
This little incident raised me considerably in the estimation of our own ship’s company, and exalted me not a little in my own. The truth is, my elder brother, who was educated and brought up in France, had very early instructed me in the elements of that language, so that I could read any book in it as easily as in English, and this greatly facilitated my subsequent acquisition of Spanish and Portuguese.
All hands had been piped to quarters, and it was the captain’s first intention to offer resistance or give battle, so that the crew were stationed at their guns. But a short deliberation among the officers soon led to the decision that it would be madness to make the attempt against such superior odds. Our own force was only 6 guns, short 6 pounders, and a crew of about 30 men.
The enemy mounted 30 guns, long 18-pounders, with a crew of more than 300 men. The first broadside, from her favourable position, just under our lee, would probably have dismasted us, and killed half the crew, and with a second we should have been annihilated: so that reluctant as all appeared to be to submit without a struggle, the order was given to back the main topsail, and lower the mizen peak, at which our flag was displayed. It was a moment of almost breathless sadness along our decks, as nothing but a low and stifled murmur of mingled sorrow and discontent was heard. On the other hand, as the corvette neared us, her crew manned the rigging, and waving their red caps of liberty in the air, shouted, “Vive las Republique,” in sounds that at once mortified and thrilled us, by their offensively triumphant tone.
Boats with the requisite number of officers and men were immediately despatched from the corvette to take possession of the prize; and though the officers behaved with all the courtesy and politeness of gentlemen to their captives, the men, among whom we were shocked to find several English, were under no such restraint, but manifested considerable rudeness and severity.
The officers and crew of the packet were then ordered into the boats that brought our captors to us, and we were all transferred, excepting only the passengers, among whom were several ladies and children , to the corvette, where we were not uncourteously received; the officers having berths allotted to them in the lower deck of the vessel, and the crew being transferred to the hold.
The first painful fact we learnt was, that a very large portion of the crew of this French corvette, which was named the MARS, and which we understood sailed from Nantes, was composed of English mutineers, who had belonged to the English frigate HERMOINE, stationed in the Gulf of Mexico or the West Indies, in which ship they mutinied a few years before, and after murdering the greater number of their officers, by whom there is reason to believe they had been very cruelly tyrannised over and often undeservedly flogged, they took the ship into Vera Cruz, then a Spanish Port, and gave her up as a prize. From hence they had become gradually dispersed; some going into the American, some into the Spanish, and some into the French service, and a few venturing back to England, hoping to escape detection, but several of whom were subsequently identified, and hung at the yard-arm – the mutineer’s usual fate.
I remember well, how much we were all revolted at finding these English mutineers far less kind and civil to us than the French portion of the crew, who on the whole treated us with much kindness as was compatible with their own safety, and often endeavoured to lighten our burdens, by saying it was only “the fortune of was,” and that it might be their turn next to become prisoners of the English.
The second painful discovery was, that as the corvette had already made several captures of English vessels, chiefly merchant traders, before our own, there were already a considerable number of English prisoners on board: and there being no room for them among the crew they were of the necessity sent into the hold, where they were battened down under grating hatchways; Sentries were placed with drawn swords to prevent an escape, and only a few could be permitted to come on deck for half an hour at a time to breathe the free air, and then return to give place to a similar number of their fellow-captives, that all might enjoy this privilege in their turn.
In consequence of this confinement, several had died in the hold for want of air; and this would in all probability have been my own fate, had I remained long in this position; but being the youngest person on board, – not yet quite ten years old, it being in the summer of 1796, in the August of which my tenth year was completed – and being related to the sailing-master of the packet, who was my eldest sister’s husband, I was exempted from this confinement, messed with the younger grade of officers, and had a free range on deck.
There was yet another hardship, however, to which even the most favoured were subject, and this was a deficiency of water. Owing to the very large number of prisoners on board, and a very large crew, the consumption of water was enormous; and it had been progressively reduced, from a gallon per day, which is the usual full allowance for every purpose – cooking, drinking, washing and all – to half a pint per head only for officers and men; for there is this kind of equality on board all ships, that the highest admiral can draw no more biscuit, beef, or water than the humblest seaman, when the ship’s company “goes on allowance,” as it is termed; the similarity in the wants for all, for mere nutrient and sustenance, reducing all to a state of nature in this respect, and making any privilege of extra-quantity to any parties, on the score of more elevated rank, too odious to be permitted.
Ir would have been easy, no doubt, for the ship to run into port, land her prisoners, fill up her water, and return to her cruising ground again; but as this would have involved, perhaps, the loss of a week, and prevented their adding three or four more prizes to the list of their captures during these days, the passion of avarice, which almost invariably increases with the extension of possession, overcame all other considerations, and it was left till the last moment to quit the mine of wealth which these almost daily captures afforded.
The ship was so fast a sailer, that when once she gave chase to any vessel within sight from the mast-head, nothing could escape her; and while everything within range of her vision was sure to fall a prey, if an English frigate hove in sight, her amazing speed enabled her as easily to bid her enemy defiance, and to “run her out of sight,” as sailors say, between sunrise and sunset.
During the last week of our stay on board, therefore, this contrivance was had recourse to, to diminish the consumption of water:- The officers and crew of the ship had their allowance of half a pint each served regularly in the morning at eight o’clock, at the relief of the watch; but for the prisoners, a water-butt was placed before the mainmast, on its bilge, or lying athwart the deck. Into the bung-hole of this cask was inserted a long musket-barrel, with its muzzle at the bottom resting in the muddy deposit, which is sure to accumulate in all ships’ water-casks that are stationary or at rest. The touch-hole of the musket-barrel was about three inches above or outside the bung-hole; and over this was a metal cap, secured by a padlock. The key of the padlock was placed in a small but secure iron box at the maintop mast-head, attached to the cross-trees.
Every prisoner, therefore, who wanted to drink, had first to go to the mast-head to get the key; then, after unlocking the cap over the gun-barrel, to suck as much moisture as he could, the first half-dozen mouthfuls being as much mud as water; and when he had slaked his thirst by the thin thread of water he could suck up through the touch-hole, he had to relock the cap, and take the key to the mast-head, there to be deposited for the next comer; and severe punishment was threatened to any one who passed the key on to another without taking it to the mast-head as ordered.
The result of this ingenious arrangement was, that no one ever went aloft for the key till he was so parched with thirst as to find it unendurable, while the muddiness of the deposit, and the extreme fatigue to the lungs and mouth in drawing water through such a tube as a gun-barrel, soon tired the drinker and obliged him to desist.
At length the welcome order was given to make all sail and shape our course for the port of Corunna in Spain, that being the nearest harbour to our actual position, and Spain being then in friendly alliance with the new Republic of France. The boatswain’s shrill whistle, repeated at each hatchway by the boatswain’s mates, soon brought all hands on deck, and the rigging literally swarmed with men; all reefs were shaken out, studding sails set below and aloft, and with the wind two points abaft the beam, and every stitch of canvass spread, the ship shot through the water like an arrow, giving fourteen knots by the log, then deemed, as it really was, an almost unattainable speed; so that on the second day we made the land, passed by the entrance to the great naval arsenal of Spain, Ferrol, and soon entered the harbour of Corunna, the French band on board playing “The Marseillaise,” then the Republican air, and the batteries of Corunna saluting a ship that had sent in so many prizes for condemnation and sale at its port.
I remember well the mixed feeling of curiosity, sorrow, and shame, with which I was alternately possessed, while being transported with the rest of the crew to the shore in the ship’s boats, for the purpose of being transferred to the building set apart for our confinement. To be a prisoner of war, and, perhaps, for many years before liberty would be regained, was a painful and mortifying event; but such is the elasticity of youthful spirits, that the novelty of all I saw about me soon absorbed my whole attention, and the sorrow and shame of my captivity was drowned in the exciting interest of all the scenes and people by whom I was surrounded.
To Be Continued…
From The Autobiography of James Silk Buckingham, printed in London in 1855 by Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. Courtesy of The Falmouth Packet Archives.