Wentworth Makes His Bones: The Battle of St. Domingo: February 4, 1806
In Volume I, Chapter IV of Persuasion, Jane Austen mentions that Captain Wentworth had been “made commander in consequence of the action off St Domingo, and not immediately employed, had come into Somersetshire, in the summer of 1806,” (26) where he met and wooed the lovely young second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot. A tantalizing reference; the contemporary audience for whom Jane was writing would of course know all about that battle, but what about modern Janeites, reading the novel nearly two centuries later and wondering how this obscure action fits in between Trafalgar and Waterloo?
Jane Austen’s legion of biographers have already recorded that her brother Francis Austen participated in the Battle of St. Domingo on 6 February 1806 as captain of HMS Canopus, an 80-gun ship of the line under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth. We have the Canopus’ log book entries, which describe the battle with military terseness; we also have Frank’s letter to his fiancée Mary Gibson, assuring her of his safety and giving a more descriptive account of the action. Austenian scholarship usually stops there, if it makes any mention at all of Frank’s participation in the battle; a frustrating exercise for the Janeite seeking information about the fictional Wentworth’s career. The Battle of St. Domingo is mentioned only in passing in naval histories, while the Battle of Trafalgar, which occurred only a few months before, has entire books written about it and is celebrated to this day. It is understandable that a reader might consider the Battle of St. Domingo relatively unimportant, and return to the story without further elucidation. However, if one considers the battle in the context of the surrounding events of its time, the importance of the action can be better understood, as can the mindset of the confident young Commander Frederick Wentworth in the summer of the Year Six.
A peace treaty between France and England was signed in Amiens on 25 March 1802, but the peace had been uneasy and short-lived, and the British declared war against France and her dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte, on 16 May 1803. Napoleon had planned to invade Britain even before the peace treaty (Parkinson 91), and when he crowned himself Emperor of France in December 1804 and began massing troops in seaside towns along the Channel, the British mobilized their naval forces to prevent the Emperor’s plan from succeeding. They organized companies of “sea fencibles,” sort of a naval militia, and Frank Austen received command of a group protecting the coast near Ramsgate in July, 1803 (Nokes 261).
The Channel fleet and the Mediterranean fleet had the French blockaded, and a few offensive sallies by the North Sea Fleet kept the French under control (Parkinson 93). William Pitt, the Prime Minister, made alliances with Russia, Austria, and Sweden, an alliance called the Third Coalition, while Spain chose to remain neutral, though they resisted pressure to take an active stand against France. According to C. Northcote Parkinson, “Napoleon came to realize that his enemies were gathering against him. The coalition took time to organize but Napoleon recognized his danger and concluded that his invasion of Britain must take place in 1805 if it were to take place at all. He could not count on naval victory but he began to dream of elaborate plans by which the British fleet might be tricked and lured away from its position in goal.” (96) Napoleon’s plan was to have two squadrons escape the blockades and sail for the West Indies; the British, fearful of French disruption of their lucrative trade in the sugar islands, would naturally follow. When the French ships reached Martinique, they would rendezvous and promptly sail back to the Channel, which would now be undefended.
With this plan in mind, Rear-Admiral Villeneuve sailed from Toulon on 30 March 1805 toward the Straits of Gibraltar. “Reaching Cadiz, the French Admiral raised the blockade of Cadiz, added six Spanish and one French ship to his squadron, crossed the Atlantic and presently reported his arrival at Martinique with 18 sail of the line.” (Parkinson 99) Unfortunately Villeneuve’s counterpart, Rear-Admiral Ganteaume, was unable to break the blockade at Brest, having been ordered by Napoleon not to engage the British fleet (Glover 39). However, Villeneuve’s action had induced Admiral Lord Nelson to take 10 sail of the line and chase the French squadron across the Atlantic, only to find when they arrived in the West Indies that the French ships had turned around and sailed back to France. One of the ships under Nelson’s command was Frank Austen’s ship, the Canopus, which Nelson had captured from the French at the Nile (the ship had then been named Le Franklin after Benjamin Franklin) and which carried Nelson’s second-in-command, Admiral Louis. (Honan 216)
Disheartened by his failure to stop Villeneuve, Nelson took a short shore leave upon his return to England, but soon was ordered back to his command. When he reached Cadiz on 28 September 1805, Nelson found the fleet needful of supplies, and dispatched Canopus to Gibraltar for water and stores; Nelson assured Admiral Louis, who did not want to miss the now-inevitable battle, that there was plenty of time for them to go to Gibraltar and return before the combined enemy fleet took action (Nokes 293).
However, Nelson miscalculated; on 14 September, Napoleon had sent orders to Villeneuve “to break out of Cadiz, pass Gibraltar, pick up the Cartagena squadron and transport French troops to Naples.” (Glover 101) While Canopus was on its way back to Cadiz on 19 October, the Combined Fleet (French and Spanish), led by Admiral Villeneuve, left Cadiz and sailed toward Cape Trafalgar with a fleet consisting of 33 sail of the line, 5 frigates, and 2 corvettes. Two days later, Nelson gave orders for the famous signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” and the British fleet, at a slight disadvantage with 27 sail of the line, four frigates, a schooner and a cutter, sailed toward the enemy, led by Nelson’s flagship Victory. By the end of the action, the Combined Fleet had only 11 sail of the line remaining. The rest were either captured by the British or destroyed, and Admiral Villeneuve had been taken prisoner. However, the British had lost Nelson, cut down by a French sniper’s musket ball.
Four French sail of the line, commanded by Rear-Admiral Dumanoir, escaped south. They were unable to sail for Toulon because of the presence ofCanopus and the other British ships returning from Gibraltar, so they sailed north and encountered the frigate Phoenix. They chased the frigate, which led them back to the British squadron blockading Ferrol under the command of Captain Sir Richard Strachan, which engaged and eventually captured the four French ships. The French had 730 killed or wounded in the action while the British had only 135 casualties. (Parkinson 114)
The decimation of the fleet meant that Napoleon was forced to abandon his plan of invading England for the time being, so he decided to try to disrupt British trade in the West Indies, trade that helped finance the British war effort. Two French squadrons, commanded by Rear-Admiral Willaumez and Vice-Admiral Leissegues, were able to break the blockade at Brest and sailed for the West Indies. “When news of Leissegues’ operations reached Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth, who, with six sail of the line and two frigates, was blockading Cadiz, he sailed with six sail of the line for Madeira. He finally caught up with the French squadron off Santo Domingo in the West Indies. Here the five French ships were all captured or driven on shore, only the smaller vessels escaping. There were heavy losses again, over 1,500 men in all, over 500 of them aboard the three-decked flagship Imperial.” (Parkinson 114)
The Battle of St. Domingo.
On fire are the French ships Diomede and Imperial.
Frank’s official description of the action is reported by Nokes: “‘Five minutes before seven,’ Frank wrote in his log, ‘Enemy’s ships are of the line.’ At a quarter past ten, he noted, ‘the Superb commenced to fire on the enemy’s van’. By half past ten, he was in action himself; ‘opened our fire on the first ship in the enemy’s line…with one broadside brought her masts by the board…ten minutes to eleven, the dismasted ship struck…Engaged with the three-decker…ten minutes to twelve, gave her a raking broadside which brought down her mizzen mast…'” (299) Frank’s letter to Mary Gibson was a little more descriptive: “(H)is first broadside from the Canopus ‘brought our opponent’s three masts down at once, and towards the close of the business we also had the satisfaction of giving the three-decker a tickling which knocked all his sticks away.'” (Tucker 173-174)
Canopus returned to Plymouth in early May, whereupon “Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund presented (Frank) with a silver vase valued at 100 pounds as a memento of St. Domingo, and he also received a gold medal as he left theCanopus. This accession of honours and prize-money evidently encouraged him to think that he could now afford to marry Mary Gibson, and so the date of 24 July was chosen.” (Austen-Leigh 137) It was not uncommon for first lieutenants of ships involved in a successful action to receive promotion, and a few years later, when Jane Austen created her fictional naval officer, she drew upon her brother’s experiences. Commander Frederick Wentworth, who had been promoted but had not yet received a command, made his way to Somerset to spend the summer of the Year Six and pursue a romance of his own.
Between Trafalgar, the capture of the four escaped ships by Strachan, and the Battle of St. Domingo, the French navy was severely crippled. Only 32 ships of the line remained, although the French were busily building 21 more, and could capture or ally themselves with other countries and make use of their navies. But the lessening of French naval power meant that the fear of imminent invasion of England was past, as well as establishing the prominence of the Royal Navy; it is easy to see why Captain Francis Austen received medals and prizes as a result of his participation in the action, and why an able young lieutenant who took part in the action was promoted to commander rank.
Minature portrait of Capt. Francis Austen, by kind permission of owner. All other reproduction prohibited.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Ed. by R.W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923.
Austen-Leigh, William and Richard Arthur. Jane Austen, A Family History. Revised and enlarged by Deirdre LeFaye. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989.
Glover, Michael. The Napoleonic Wars: an illustrated history 1792-1815. New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1979.
Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Parkinson, C. Northcote. Brittania Rules: The Classic Age of Naval History, 1793-1815. Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1994.
Tucker, George Holbert. A History of Jane Austen’s Family. Sutton Publishing, 1998.
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