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Charles Austen: Jane Austen’s “own particular little brother”

“Our own particular little brother”

Jane Austen to Cassandra
January 21, 1799

Charles Austen CB (1779 – 7 October 1852) was an officer in the Royal Navy. He served during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and beyond, eventually rising to the rank of rear-admiral.

Charles was born in 1779 as the fifth and youngest son of the Reverend George Austen. His elder brother, Francis Austen also joined the navy and eventually rose to be Admiral of the Fleet. Their sister was the famous novelist Jane Austen. Charles joined the Royal Naval Academy in July 1791, and by September 1794 he had become midshipman aboard HMS Daedalus. He subsequently served aboard HMS Unicorn and HMS Endymion. While serving aboard the Unicorn Austen assisted in the capture of the 18-gun Dutch brig Comet, the 44-gun French frigate Tribune and the French transport ship Ville de l’Orient.

After transferring to the Endymion he helped in the driving into Hellevoetsluis of the Dutch ship of the line Brutus. As a result of the latter action Austen was promoted to lieutenant on 13 December 1797, and appointed to HMS Scorpion. He was aboard the Scorpion long enough to be present at the capture of the Dutch brig Courier, after which he transferred to HMS Tamar. Aboard the Tamar Austen was frequently involved in attacks and engagements with gunboats and privateers out of Algeciras. On one occasion he set off in a small boat in a gale with only four other men, and succeeded in boarding and taking possession of the 18-gun Scipio, with 140 men aboard. He kept control of her until the following day. He returned to the Endymion in April 1803. After continued good service he was promoted to commander by Captain Charles Paget and given command of the sloop HMS Indian on 10 October 1804.

It was while stationed on the Endymion that Charles purchased for his sisters the famous topaz crosses now on display at Chawton Cottage.

Charles […] has received 30£. for his share of the privateer, and expects 10£. more; but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his sisters? He has been buying gold chains and topaze crosses for us. He must be well scolded. The “Endymion” has already received orders for taking troops to Egypt, which I should not like at all if I did not trust to Charles being removed from her somehow or other before she sails. He knows nothing of his own destination, he says, but desires me to write directly, as the “Endymion” will probably sail in three or four days. He will receive my yesterday’s letter, and I shall write again by this post to thank and reproach him. We shall be unbearably fine.
Jane Austen to Cassandra

“Charles has been buying gold chains & Topaze crosses for us…” – Jane Austen

According to Catherine Hubback, during Francis Austen’s commands of the Leopard, Canopus, and St. Allans, covering the eventful years of the Boulogne blockade, and of Trafalgar, and up to 1810, Charles Austen was serving on the North American station (based in Bermuda, but with ports throughout the Caribbean and Canada) in command of the Indian sloop. The work to be done on the coast of the United States was both arduous and thankless. It consisted mainly in the enforcement of the right of search for deserters, and the curtailment of the American carrying trade, so far as it was considered illicit.

British war policy had made it necessary to forbid trading by neutrals between European countries under the sway of Napoleon, and their dependencies in other parts of the world. American ingenuity succeeded in evading this prohibition by arranging for the discharge and reshipment of cargoes at some United States port, en route. The ship would load originally at a West Indian port with goods /or Europe, then sail to a harbour in Massachusetts (for example), where the cargo was warehoused, and the vessel repaired. When ready for sea, the captain got the same cargo on board again, and departed for the designated market on this side of the Atlantic. No wonder that American vessels were so frequently spoken by the Canopus and the St. Albans, for in 1806 and the following years nearly all the carrying trade was done under the Stars and Stripes. American shipmasters were able to pay very high wages, and desertions from British men- of-war were frequent. Our cruisers had to take strong measures in face of this growing evil, and finally an American frigate was boarded, and several of the crew forcibly removed as deserters. Such action was possible only on account of the great strength of the British naval force, a practical blockade of the United States ports being enforced along the whole Atlantic seaboard. This had been done in consequence of decisions of the Admiralty Court against some of the reshipments, which were held by the Judges to be evasions of the actual blockades of hostile ports. The state of tension gradually became acute, but both Governments were so loath to fight that negotiations were on foot for several years before the President of the United States declared war in 1812. In 1809 a settlement seemed to have been reached, and a fleet of six hundred American traders had already got to sea, when it was discovered that the treaty could not be ratified. It was indeed almost impossible for England to alter her policy as regards neutral traders, or to abandon the right of search for deserters, so long as every resource was necessary in the struggle against Napoleon.

In 1808 the Indian, Charles Austen’s ship, captured La Jeune Estelle, a small privateer, but the work on the North-American station was unprofitable as regards prize-money. In 1810 Charles gained post rank as captain of the Swiftsure, flagship to Sir John Warren. The great event of these years for him was his marriage in 1807 with Fanny Palmer, daughter of the Attorney-General of Bermuda.

All in all, Austen spent five years serving on the North American Station, before his promotion to captain on 10 May 1810 when he was given command of the 74-gun HMS Swiftsure, which was then the flagship of Sir John Borlase Warren. Austen moved again the following September, joining HMS Cleopatra. Between November 1811 and September 1814 Austen served as captain of HMS Namur, based at the Nore and flying the flag of Sir Thomas Williams. He was then given command of the 36-gun frigate HMS Phoenix and after the outbreak of hostilities with France Austen was dispatched in command of a squadron with HMS Undaunted and HMS Garland to hunt a Neapolitan squadron suspected to be at large in the Adriatic. After Naples had surrendered Austen was active in the blockade of Brindisi. Lord Exmouth then sent him on to search of a French squadron, but with the end of the war with France in the intervening period he briefly turned his attention to suppressing piracy in the region. He successfully captured two pirate vessels in the port of Pavos, but disaster struck when the Phoenix was wrecked off Smyrna on 20 February, 1816, through the ignorance of her pilots.

It would be another 10 years before Charles was given command of a ship again. In the interim, he struggled with poverty. His wife, Fanny, had died giving birth to their fourth daughter, who also died a few weeks later. In what would be a common move for the Austen brothers, he married again, choosing his wife’s sister as his new bride. Harriet also provided him with four children, though two of these would follow their sister to an early grave.

Austen was appointed to the 46-gun HMS Aurora on 2 June 1826, and was sent to the Jamaica Station as the second in command. He was active in combating the slave trade and had considerable success, intercepting a number of slave ships. He commanded the Aurora for two and a half years, until she was paid off in December 1828. Sir Edward Griffith Colpoys nominated Austen to become his flag captain aboard HMS Winchester on the North American and West Indies Station. Austen remained here until being forced to be invalided home after a severe accident in December 1830 when he fell from a mast. Austen recovered and returned to service, being appointed to HMS Bellerophon on 14 April 1838. He was awarded a pension on 28 August 1840. He sailed with the Bellerophon to the Mediterranean, and was active at the bombardment of Acre on 3 November 1840. As a result of his good service during the bombardment he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath on 18 December 1840. Austen and the Bellerophon returned home, where the latter was paid off in June 1841.

Austen was advanced to rear-admiral on 9 November 1846, and was appointed commander-in-chief in the East Indies on 14 January 1850, hoisting his flag the following day. He commanded the British expedition during the Second Anglo-Burmese War but died of cholera at Prome on 7 October 1852, at the age of 73. On 30 April 1852 Austen had been thanked for his services in Burma by the Governor-General of India, The Marquess of Dalhousie, who subsequently also formally recorded his regret for Austen’s death.

Jane Austen’s sailor brothers: being the adventures of Sir Francis Austen, G … By Edith Charlotte Hubback 1906 – 293 pages