Frigates, Treasure, Snobbery, and Jane Austen, Guest Post by Antoine Vanner

In October 2016 when Antoine Vanner posted this piece on his Dawlish Chronicles blog, I asked his permission to repost it here. At the time, he asked me to wait for a bit. Well, as they say, one thing led to another. At last, the post has made it over the social media pathways. Be amazed and enjoy! 

Prize Money – Frigates, Treasure and Jane Austen

HMS_Pomone_(retouched)

HMS Pomone, from a colour lithograph by T. G. Dutton, after a painting by G.F. St.John via Wikipedia

 The allocation of prize money followed a fixed formula, and some who benefitted from it might not be directly involved in the capture of the enemy vessel. The total value of the prize was divided into eight parts which were assigned as follows:In naval fiction set in the Age of Fighting Sail, prize money, accruing from the capture of enemy shipping which would subsequently be sold to third parties or bought by the Admiralty, is rightly shown as an important driver for Royal Navy officers and crew alike. For most on the lower deck it represented the only opportunity of their lives to earn a sum substantial enough to set themselves up in some comfort – typically by purchase of a tavern or other small business. For the officers it could mean the difference between an old age spent in respectable near-penury and acquisition of a fortune that would secure significant property for themselves and their families. The navy differed from the army in that an officer did not need to purchase his commission (a practice that continued up to the 1870s). Younger sons from wealthy families, who due to the law of primogeniture were likely to inherit little or nothing, or sons from poor but respectable backgrounds – such as Nelson – could however enter the navy at a young age and hope to rise through competence and luck.

Jack got safe into port with his prize, Robert Sayer

View of how the prize money was often spent!

One part to the admiral or commander-in-chief who signed the ship’s written orders (but if the orders came directly from the Admiralty in London, then this went to the captain);

Two parts (i.e. one quarter) went to the captain or commander;

One part was divided among the lieutenants, sailing master, and captain of marines;

One part was divided among the wardroom warrant officers (surgeon, purser, and chaplain), standing warrant officers (carpenter, boatswain, and gunner), the lieutenant of marines, and the master’s mates;

One part was divided among the junior warrant and petty officers, their mates, sergeants of marines, captain’s clerk, surgeon’s mates, and midshipmen;

Two parts (i.e. one quarter) were divided among the crew, with able and specialist seamen receiving larger shares than ordinary seamen, landsmen, and boys.

Frigate and sloop commands were much sought after for the opportunities they gave for capturing prizes but many crews were to find themselves dogged by bad luck for years. When fortune was favourable however, the rewards could be immense. In one such case, in 1799, the officers and crews of four British frigates were lucky enough to encounter two Spanish warships some 200 miles west of the northern Spanish coast. They were initially sighted on 15th October by HMS Naiad.  Her commander, Captain Pierrepoint, gave chase.  They subsequently proved to be the frigates Santa Brigida and Thetis, which were headed to Spain from Vera Cruz in Mexico.  

Sailor's Return boitard-1

The sailor’s return after Anson’s voyage. Note the wagons in the background carrying the prizes

The fact that the two frigates, which outgunned Naiad by two to one, should decide to run from her rather than to fight was indicative that whatever they carried was of great value. Pierrepoint followed them doggedly through the night and early in the following morning, another ship was seen in the south-west. It proved to be the British frigate HMS Ethalion and soon afterwards two more frigates, HMS Alcmène and HMS Triton, also appeared. In the hope of escape the Spanish vessels parted company and steered away on different courses, each were pursued by two British frigates. The odds had turned decisively against the Spanish. Overhauled, they chose to strike their colours rather than fight it out.

It is likely that much of the prize money was dissipated in wine, women and brief high-living ashore. Cartoonists of the time depicted seamen squandering money with wild abandon. Many of the officers were more likely however to set themselves up as land-owning country gentry. Although these men were in the front line of the nation’s defence or more than two decades in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, those whom they protected were often not just grossly ungrateful but resentful of such success. The novelist Jane Austen had two brothers in naval service in this period – both rose in their later careers to be admirals – and she makes a Royal Navy captain her hero in her last published novel, Persuasion, as well as portraying other officers sympathetically. With brilliant irony she describes the mean-minded prejudice endured by such officers – as her brothers may have experienced – from stay-at-homes resentful of their hard-earned prize money. The value of prizes was enormous since much of their cargoes proved to be specie – gold and silver coinage. The treasure was landed and Plymouth and loaded on sixty-three artillery wagons. Escorted by soldiers, armed seamen and marines, with bands playing and watched by a huge crowd, it began its journey to the vaults of the Bank of England in London. In the final distribution each British captain was awarded £40,000 (probably worth at least a million today, though such comparisons can only be very approximate). Each lieutenant received £5,000 pounds, each warrant officer more than £2000 pounds. The midshipmen – in many cases young boys the start of their careers, were each given £800. Those who received most of all, by the standards of their own expectations, were the seamen and marines, each being awarded £182 pounds. To put this into context it is worth noting that a domestic servant could be had for £10 per year while a private soldier in the army was paid a shilling a day, some £18 pounds a year, though deductions were to reduce this significantly in practice.

Cruikshank - pid off at Portsmouth

Paid-off seaman celebrating – cartoon by Cruikshank

Here is a snobbish landowner speaking in Persuasion – this passage deserves to be repeated in full:

Quote:

(Referring to the Navy) Sir Walter’s remark was, soon afterwards– “The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it.”

“Indeed!” was the reply, and with a look of surprise.

Sir Walter Elliot.jpg“Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line. One day last spring, in town, I was in company with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of; Lord St. Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St. Ives, and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top. ‘In the name of heaven, who is that old fellow?’ said I to a friend of mine who was standing near, (Sir Basil Morley). ‘Old fellow!’ cried Sir Basil, ‘it is Admiral Baldwin. What do you take his age to be?’ ‘Sixty,’ said I, ‘or perhaps sixty-two.’ ‘Forty,’ replied Sir Basil, ‘forty, and no more.’ Picture to yourselves my amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin’s age.”

So much for gratitude for deliverance from Bonaparte!

img-profile.jpg Meet Antoine Vanner 

Antoine Vanner found himself flattered when nautical novelist Joan Druett described him as the “The Tom Clancy of historic naval fiction”.

He says: “I find the late Victorian era, roughly 1870 to 1900, fascinating because for my baby-boomer generation it’s ‘the day before yesterday’. It’s history that you can almost touch. Our grandparents grew up in that period and you heard a lot from them about it. So much in that time was so similar to what we still have today that you feel you could live easily in it, and then you hit some aspects – especially those associated with social conventions and attitudes – that make it seem wholly alien. It was a time of change on every front – intellectual, scientific, medical, social, political and technological – and yet people seem to have accommodated to these rapid changes very well.”

51O3qD9+aKL.jpg Britannia’s Wolf: The Dawlish Chronicles: September 1877 – February 1878

This is the first volume of the Dawlish Chronicles naval fiction series – action and adventure set in the age of transition from sail to steam in the last decades of the 19th Century.

It’s late 1877 and the Russian and Ottoman-Turkish Empires are locked in a deadly as the war between them is reaching its climax.  A Russian victory will pose a threat to Britain’s strategic interests. To protect them an ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, is assigned to the Ottoman Navy to ravage Russian supply-lines in the Black Sea. In the depths of a savage winter, as Turkish

It’s November 1879 and on a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. It is laden with troops, horses and artillery, and intent on conquest and revenge. Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so. Nicholas Dawlish, on leave of absence from the Royal Navy, is playing a leading role in the expedition and though it could not be much further from the open sea he must face savage naval combat. forces face defeat on all fronts, Dawlish confronts enemy ironclads in naval combat and Cossack lances and merciless Kurdish irregulars in battles ashore. But more than warfare is involved, for Dawlish finds himself a pawn in the rivalry of the Sultan’s half-brothers for control of the collapsing empire. And in the midst of this chaos, unwillingly and unexpectedly, Dawlish finds himself drawn to a woman whom he believes he should not love.

51l5b3cnbGL._SY346_.jpg Brittania’s Reach: The Dawlish Chronicles: November 1879 – April-1880

It’s November 1879 and on a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. It is laden with troops, horses and artillery, and intent on conquest and revenge. Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so. Nicholas Dawlish, on leave of absence from the Royal Navy, is playing a leading role in the expedition and though it could not be much further from the open sea he must face savage naval combat.

51Aap7r-ihL Britannia’s Shark: The Dawlish Chronicles: April – September 1881

It’s 1881 and the British Empire’s power seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten that power’s economic basis. Their weapon is the invention of a naïve genius, their sense of grievance is implacable and their leader is already proven in the crucible of war. Protected by powerful political and business interests, conventional British military or naval power cannot touch them.

51e4mgiAYaL.jpg Britannia’s Spartan: The Dawlish Chronicles: June 1859 and April – August 1882

1859: a terrified 13 year-old boy has survived the shredding of a flotilla by enemy gunfire, the first defeat suffered by the Royal Navy for four decades. Now he cowers in a muddy ditch, waiting for the signal that will launch a suicidal assault on Chinese fortifications. It is Nicholas Dawlish’s blooding in combat and its memory will stay with him throughout his future career as a naval officer.

1882: now a captain, Dawlish is returning to China command of Britain’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas. Her voyage to the Far East is to be a peaceful venture, a test of this innovative vessel’s engines and boilers. It should bear no relation to that nightmare of failure in China that Dawlish remembers since boyhood and so there is no forewarning of the whirlwind of land and naval combat ahead. But soon after arrival in Hong Kong Dawlish is required to undertake a diplomatic mission in Korea. It seems no more than a formality but he finds a country racked by riot, treachery and massacre and the focus of merciless international ambitions.

613TthH9lyL.jpg Britannia’s Amazon: The Dawlish Cronicles: 5 April – August 1882 

1882: Florence Dawlish stands at the quayside in Portsmouth and watches the Royal Navy’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas, departing under command of her husband Captain Nicholas Dawlish. Months of separation lie ahead, quiet months which she plans to fill with charitable works.

Witnessing of the abduction of a young girl shatters that quiet, bringing Florence into brutal contact with the squalid underside of complacent Victorian society. With her personal loyalties challenged to the limit, and conscious that her persistence in seeking justice may damage her ambitious husband’s career, not to mention the possibility of prison for herself, Florence is drawn ever deeper into a maelstrom of corruption and violence. The enemies she faces are merciless and vicious, their identities protected by guile, power and influence.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British currency, British history, British Navy, Victorian era and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Frigates, Treasure, Snobbery, and Jane Austen, Guest Post by Antoine Vanner

  1. katherinelschmitt says:

    Regina, you and your scholarship, as well as your generosity, are truly amazing! I have become increasingly interested in things military and I look forward to all that I can read about the lives of soldiers and sailors during the Regency and Victorian periods. Thank you so much!

  2. Ginna says:

    Very informative; thank you. Especially appreciate the part about how prize money was distributed – I always wondered how that worked.
    Regarding the quote from Sir Walter, we know how vain and nonsensical he was. Do you really think that his opinion of Navy personnel was indicative of the time?

    • Personally, I think Sir Walter’s opinion fit a certain “set” within the “ton,” and Jane was placing him in strong contrast to her own feelings. Making him appear foolish, made his opinions also appear as such.

  3. I’m sorry to say that there is no shortage of Sir Walters today in Britain. There is a certain element of the population which is always ready to sneer at the armed services. It was ever thus.

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