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In the King's Service
AT THE OUTBREAK OF the war King George's fleet numbered some 115 vessels, including seventy-five ships of the line. France's fleet numbered only seventy-six, but her dockyards were operating at full tilt. Both nations took stock of their naval forces around the globe and rushed to augment them. In the East Indies, the British possessed three frigates, the most powerful of which was the Minerva, and two smaller craft. Among the Royal Navy's new recruits was William Richardson.
After thirteen perilous years in the merchant service, Richardson was picked up by the press gang in Calcutta to face even more hardships in the Royal Navy. In this passage, the Navy turns a batch of raw recruits into a taut crew. Richardson, expecting the war to be short-lived, opts not to desert, and later regrets it.
THE MINERVA WAS a fine large frigate, with a poop lately erected on her for the convenience of the admiral and captain, and mounting 48 guns. I was stationed to do any duty in the maintop; all my clothes were on my back, and with an old silver watch and one rupee, which constituted my all, I had now, as it were, the world to begin again; and a poor prospect I had before me. I had no bed, neither did I care for any, for my bones had got so hardened since I came to sea that I could sleep as comfortable on a chest lid or on the deck as on the best bed in the ship; and having only one shirt, I went without when I had to wash and dry it.
The Bien Aimé was bought into H.M.'s Service, and Lieutenant King (since Sir Richard King) was appointed to her as master and commander; she was officered and manned totally from the Minerva and the Minerva's crew (filled up by pressing out of the East Indiamen as they arrived from Europe), and a great many able seamen we got out of them.
Soon after this Lord Cornwallis came on board, and we got under way; he was brother to our admiral [Sir William Cornwallis, 1744–1819], and we proceeded to Pondicherry. A day or two after we came to anchor off that place, and his lordship went on shore to view the works: it was at one time in contemplation to blow them up, but that was not done. He returned on board again, we got under way, returned to Madras Roads, and landed his lordship again.
One of these evenings, as I was sitting on the coamings of the after-hatchway pondering my hard fate, Mr. Robinson, our first lieutenant, a worthy and good man, observed me, and sent for me to his cabin; and then, taking a sheet from off his bed, gave it to me and told me to get some clothes made from it, and said that when his dabash (a gentoo [a gentile, or non-Mohammedan] agent) came on board he would give me a good rig-out of clothing; but the ship sailed before he came, and so disappointed us. However, I got a light jacket and two pairs of trousers made from the sheet, and was very thankful for his kindness to me, a stranger.
There were no slops at this time on board the Minerva; the purser at stated periods served out to the ship's company so many yards of dungaree as were required to each man for jackets, shirts and trousers, with needles and thread for them; and my messmates, being a set of good fellows and accustomed to the work, soon taught me to cut out and make them, by which means I soon got a good rig-out and a new straw hat, which I made by their instructions; as for shoes and stockings, they were not worn by sailors in this hot country.
Shortly after this Lord Cornwallis embarked on board the Swallow packet for a passage to England, and we, with the Bien Aimé, got under way and convoyed her clear of the Mauritius, where the French had several ships of force lying. We then proceeded to the Island of Diego Garcia, one of the Mauritius Islands, and having been told that a French frigate and brig were lying there, and as it was thought there might be an occasion for landing, 150 of our crew were picked out to be trained to the use of small arms, and I was one of the number. Nothing could be more diverting than to see the blunders we made at the first beginning: we were arranged in two lines along the quarterdeck, with the captain and fugleman in our front, and the booms full of people laughing and grinning at us; some put their muskets on the wrong shoulder, some let the butt fall on their next neighbour's toes, some could not stand with their backs straight up, and were threatened in having a cross-bar lashed to it, and some had their shoulders chalked by the captain that they might know the right from the left, which only bothered them the more; in short, there was nothing but blunders for a week or two, and then we began to mend.
This exercise was performed twice every day, and for our encouragement when over we were marched, with drum and fife playing before us, round the quarterdeck gangway and forecastle, and in the evening had an extra pint of grog each; but the awkward squad had to stand on one side with their muskets presented to us as we marched past them, and not allowed extra grog. We improved so in the course of a few weeks that it was said we fired a better volley than the marines.
When we arrived off Diego Garcia we hoisted French colours, and, though the wind was against us, worked the ship into the harbour and there came to anchor. We saw no frigate, but discovered a brig lying at the upper end of the harbour, and immediately sent our boats manned and armed to take possession of her, which they soon did, as the crew and few inhabitants, who are turtle catchers, fled into the woods for safety.
This is a noted place for catching turtle, and we found a pen with two hundred in it. The island is low and very woody, and the harbour a good-sized one; and, as we were in want of fresh water, we digged holes deep enough for each cask bung deep, and, putting them down in the evening, we found them full in the morning; but it was rather brackish, and only served for cooking. Our people caught several wild pigs here, which were good eating. In the course of their rambles several lascars who were hidden in the woods, hearing our people speak English, came and delivered themselves up to them: they said they had been wrecked here in an English ship belonging to Bombay several months ago, and, being afraid to deliver themselves up to the French for fear they would have sent them to the Mauritius and sold them for slaves, they had hid themselves in the woods and lived on cocoanuts and what else they could find there; so we took them all on board, and, when we arrived at Bombay, discharged them, to their great satisfaction.
Having nothing more to do to draw our attention here, we loaded the brig with turtles, and got near fifty on board the Minerva and the Bien Aimé, being as many as we could conveniently stow on the main deck between the guns; then, setting fire to the poor Frenchmen's huts (which happened to be on Guy Fawkes' day, November 5th, 1793), we got under way, and stood out to sea.
We shaped our course for one day, and each day lived like aldermen on turtle soup: every evening for near six weeks, a turtle was hung up to the skids by its two hind fins and the head cut off to let it bleed; and although each one was large enough to serve a day for our crew of three hundred men, scarcely half a pint of blood came from it. Next morning it was cut up and put into coppers, and when boiled, served out to all hands with two or three bucketsful of eggs into the bargain.
About midway on our passage we parted company one dark night with the Bien Aimé and brig, and when we got on the Malabar coast came to anchor off Tilicherry, where our admiral went on shore, but soon returned again with intelligence of a large frigate and a brig having passed that way, steering to the northward; and as we made sure they must be enemies, we got under way immediately and steered our course after them. On the following night, as we were going along with a fine breeze from the east, and a fore topmast steering sail set, we saw a large frigate and a brig pass us to windward, but on the other tack; and instead of putting our ship about to follow her, Captain Whitby ordered the hammocks to be piped up and the drummer to beat to quarters, and then gave his chief attention to us at the quarterdeck guns, in seeing that we primed them in a proper manner. Although I was a young man-of-war's man, I had my thoughts, and was surprised that he did not put the ship about and stand after the enemy.
At last the old admiral came up in his nightdress, and asked what direction the enemy was in; and I, being nearest to him, said she was going from us on the other tack. He immediately sent for Captain Whitby, who was then on the forecastle, and, when he came, told him to haul down the steering sail, put the ship about, then steer after the enemy, and he would have sufficient time to get the guns ready; so accordingly this was done, or we should not have met each other till we had got to the Antipodes.
We came up with them early in the morning, our people all eager for battle; but when daylight appeared (which was waited for, knowing they could not escape our superior sailing), we were much disappointed in seeing them hoist Portuguese colours; so we sent a boat to board the frigate, and found they were from Goa, and bound to another port in the Portuguese settlements on this coast; so we let them proceed, but could not help laughing to see their seamen going aloft dressed with stuffed clothes, cocked hats, and some with boots on.
The Minerva was under good discipline, and, had we had an experienced captain to carry on the duty, should have been more comfortable; but he was too young—had come out with the admiral on this station a midshipman, and in the course of three or four years had got made a post captain when only nineteen years of age; he could work the ship very well, and that was all. Not a word was to be spoken in wearing or tacking the ship except from the commanding officer; everything was done as silently as possible, and the boatswain's pipe just loud enough to be heard, the admiral not allowing the side to be piped for him or any other officer; they were not to be whistled in like dogs.
Not an oath was allowed to be spoken, but as there were so many new pressed men in the ship it was almost impossible to avoid it, and when any was heard to swear their names were put on a list, and at seven next morning were punished, though not severely, few getting more than seven or eight lashes; yet it was galling, and how I escaped God only knows, for my name had been put on the list several times, and I suppose it must have been through the kindness of my good friend Mr. Robinson, the first lieutenant.
Though the punishment was light, it displeased the men very much, who had not had time to divest themselves of this new crime they had been so long accustomed to, and was nearly attended with serious consequence. Every evening, weather permitting, it was customary for the people to have a dance, and one of these evenings the lanthorns were lighted as usual, and hung on each side of the launch, which was stowed in those days on the main deck under the booms, and the fiddler on the topsail sheet bits began to play away on his violin; but nobody came to dance.
By-and-by the gunners' wads began to fly about in all directions, the lights were extinguished, the lanthorns knocked to pieces, and a wad rolled into the admiral's cabin as he walked there. The old boy soon saw that something was the matter and sent for Captain Whitby; but when Captain Whitby came he pretended that he knew nothing was the matter with the ship's company. The admiral's steward came into the cabin at the time, and being asked if he knew what was the matter with the people, replied that he heard the men say that there was too much dancing at the gangway in the morning to keep them dancing in the evening; so the admiral, seeing through it immediately, instead of using severe means (as many a tyrant would have done, and perhaps caused a real mutiny), adopted a better way, and that was in cautioning Captain Whitby not to use the cat on such light occasions, and never to flog a man again without his permission.
When the people heard of this they were greatly satisfied, and did their duty more cheerfully and better, and not a man was flogged after this but one, and he richly deserved it—it was for striking an officer when on shore on duty. But in all my experience at sea I have found seamen grateful for good usage, and yet they like to see subordination kept up, as they know the duty could not be carried on without it; but whenever I hear of a mutiny in a ship, I am much of the opinion of Admiral Lord Collingwood, who said it must assuredly be the fault of the captain or his officers.
Our ship being leaky, we went to Bombay and there docked her, and during this time the Bien Aimé and prize arrived; but the turtle had all lately died from the cold weather at nights. The prize was immediately sold, and I received three rupees and a quarter for my share.
My little prize money was soon expended, together with my watch, which I sold to pay my part of the expenses of the mess; and the most of it went for gin, though I was averse to ardent spirits. But some of them were as wild as March hares, and among them a little Welshman named Emmet, whom we had sometimes to lay on a chest and tie his hands and feet to the handles till he was sober. One day when he was on shore on liberty, and of course tipsy, in passing a shop in Bombay he saw a large glass globe hanging in it, with gold fish swimming and live birds in it; he stopped and stared at it with astonishment, and muttered to himself, "What, birds swimming and fish flying!—impossible"; and in order to be satisfied, he threw a stone which hit the globe and knocked it all to pieces about the shop.
He was soon arrested and sent to jail, and a report was sent on board next morning that one of our people was there. An officer was sent to see who it was and there found poor Tom Emmet very much cast-down in the mouth. He was released and brought on board, but the globe was to be paid for; therefore the ship's company subscribed eight hundred rupees (a great sum for the value of the globe) and paid the owner for it!
One day a Gentoo, who spoke a little English, came on board, and said he was from Dongaree and sent by one of our men for his leg, as he could not return on board without it. This demand seemed so strange that they took no notice of it at first, but the Gentoo in his bad English insisted that he was right, and, after a deal of puzzling, one of the people recollected that Bandy (the ship's cook) was on shore, and inquiring among his messmates, found that one of them who had been on shore with Bandy, and slept in the same house, had brought away Bandy's wooden leg by way of frolic—and no wonder the man could not return without his leg, which was soon sent to him, and he returned on board.
The Minerva, having got her leak stopped, and new coppered, was brought out of dock, and the Bien Aimé went in; but she was found so rotten that they broke her up, after being only a few months in the service (she mounted 20 guns). We then began to rig the Minerva with all speed; and I could easily have deserted here, but we had such accounts from England that the war could not last six months, as almost all Europe were at war against the French Republic, that I fixed my mind on returning to England in the Minerva, in order, when paid off, to visit my remaining friends and relations, then bid them a long farewell, return to Calcutta, and there remain until I could do something to better my situation.
Excerpted from Every Man Will Do His Duty by Dean King, John B. Hattendorf. Copyright © 1997 Dean King. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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