Authors: Richard Testrake
the King’s Sea Service
All rights reserved.
Dedicated to my wife Peggy, my daughter Lisa and my son Charles.
Table of Contents
The ship-sloop HMS Athena, a French built 18 gun former corvette, now in British service, was beating against a brisk breeze out of the south east off the east coast of America, just off Virginia. She was on the starboard tack, thrashing right along when the lookout in the maintop reported a sail hull down on the larboard bow.
Captain Evans, his ship on a westerly course, immediately ordered it put onto the larboard tack. Evans was on his first cruise since he had attained the rank of commander and the position of captain of his own ship. The war seemed to be winding down now after the defeat of Cornwallis the year before and many ship owners were jumping the gun, trying to get their ships and cargos to sea early, in order to get the best prices for their merchandise.
The brig Emily Jane, was such a ship. She had been tied up in a Georgia creek for most of the war, the owners losing money every year and the brig deteriorating hand over fist.
With many ships of the Royal Navy being diverted to European waters and other parts of the world, the owners felt they now had a good opportunity to get a cargo to sea and hopefully delivered safely. They gave her hull and rigging a lick and a promise, filled her with tobacco and whiskey and she set sail for Philadelphia.
Captain Evans had been fortunate with his cruise so far. He had made three captures, giving each prize a crew and sending them to his base at English Harbor, in Antigua. Now he had a problem. He had already sent away most of his officers. There were few men left aboard HMS Athena who were capable of navigating, let alone bringing a strange ship safely into port.
The Emily Jane, heavily laden, low in the water and slow, had no chance against the rapacious ship-sloop. As soon as the Athena came booming alongside and fired a six pound shot across her bows, the slatternly brig let fly the sheets to her sails and wallowed to a stop, her crew running below to scuttle a whiskey keg to fortify themselves against their new ordeal, before the British prize crew came aboard.
Looking for a man he could spare to captain the prize, his eyes fell on Midshipman John Phillips. Phillips has served at sea for some half dozen years and had recently passed his board for lieutenant’s rank, but had not been commissioned. Phillips was a capable enough petty officer, but in no way outstanding. Evans thought he would never be promoted to the glory of lieutenant’s rank. He did his tasks correctly but had no important patron behind him to push him along.
As it happened, Captain Evans had a young nephew serving as his servant, who was available for a midshipman’s appointment. The lad was his elder sister’s son.
She was married to a family member of Mr. Townsend of the House of Commons. If he sent Phillips off commanding the prize, he might well never see him again.
This would give him an opportunity to rate his nephew as a midshipman in Phillips place. Rating the otherwise rather useless boy would please his sister and her husband and could well have important benefits in the future. To advance further in the Royal Navy, it would be necessary for him to first be posted to the rank of captain. A benevolent Member of Parliament might well be an influencing factor.
At present, with the rank of commander, he was only called captain by courtesy. As a post captain, he would be one in fact.
Making up his mind, he ordered the word passed for Mister Phillips to report to the quarterdeck.
Phillips was standing by the section of guns he commanded, looking at the brig that had just come to heel. Since the death of his father the year before, the quarterly remittances from home had dried up. Because midshipmen were paid so little, his finances were in a terrible turmoil. His uniform, much patched and repaired, was now also too small.
He suspected the reason he had not been promoted after he had passed his board, was that his superiors felt he would not be able to afford a gentlemanly appearance in the wardroom. When the distribution of the prize money from the captured ships occurred, he would have cash in his pockets again. At the call from the quarterdeck, he turned the six pounder guns in his charge over to one of the gun captains and ran aft.
“Phillips” Captain Evans decreed, “since you have passed your board, I am going to give you’re an acting commission as lieutenant and send you to the prize to command her. You can take a few men and a couple of Marines with you. The ship’s crew you will secure; send the officers here. Make your way to Antigua and report to the commodore there, or the admiral, if he hasn’t left yet. Get over to the brig now. I’ll have your chest sent over with a few more men.”
Phillips had been in the Royal Navy long enough to know the acting commission was a sop to the captain’s conscious. If he were able to see the brig safely to port, the chances were some other captain, needing a seasoned midshipman, might very well snap him up out of whatever receiving ship he was aboard. The opportunity of returning to the Athena could be slim. It might be weeks before Athena made her way back to English Harbor.
The promotion to acting lieutenant was just a few words on paper. They actually meant nothing until an admiral or the Admiralty actually gave him a commission. Any Royal Navy captain that needed an experienced petty officer could well tell him to forget about that acting lieutenant’s commission and to take a party of men to slush down the standing rigging of the foremast.
Until someone of necessary importance came along and noticed him, he would just go back to being a passed midshipman. Perhaps if he was lucky, he might be advanced to master’s mate.
The jolly boat took Phillips over to the brig. He had taken the gun crews from his section with him, as well as a few Marines. The ship’s launch came over soon after with more Marines and a few more seamen. Midshipman Horton, all of fifteen years old, was left also to help him with watch keeping.
The Marines helped get the captive crew below and under guard in the forecastle. Two of that number, were professional merchant seamen of American persuasion, who had also served on shipping from various nations of Europe. Learning they would probably go to the prison hulks as prisoners of war, the seamen decided they would like to volunteer to crew the brig.
The new acting lieutenant omitted to tell these crewmen that having volunteered, they were now members of the Royal Navy and would remain so, until the Navy no longer needed them. Sooner or later, they would get ‘Read In’ properly and learn the bitter truth. The merchant captain of the brig and his officers were transported to HMS Athena. Some of them needed a little help, since most had been helping themselves liberally to the ship’s cargo of whiskey.
With the ship under control, Phillips ordered the flag raised over that of the Rebel ensign, dipped both and proceeded south. The Athena turned north to do a little more hunting, but Phillips had no idea how another prize would be manned. As they passed the Georgia colony, an American privateer came out to question them. Phillips had long since lowered both flags and declined to identify his brig’s nationality.
When the privateer showed its teeth, Phillips showed his. He had four real six pounder guns aboard, a little powder and a few shot. But he also had ten gun ports cut in the ship’s sides, five on each beam. He had two real guns on each side. The other ports being filled with ‘quakers’, wooden logs painted black and posing as real guns.
His ‘weapons’ looked real enough to pose a question to the enemy captain; when the irritable privateer fired one of its guns ahead of the brig, Phillips ordered one of the brig’s guns fired right back at the privateer. The shot missed, but struck close enough to the enemy’s quarter to splash water over the privateer’s quarterdeck. With that, the rebel captain decided to look for easier prey elsewhere.
Phillips found he had little time for relaxation on the voyage. He had Mister Horton to assist him, but soon found that he was of little use on deck. The lad’s navigational abilities were almost nil and his calculations could as easily find them in the middle of Africa or North America as their actual location. He found though, a bosun’s mate he had aboard, had once served as mate on a merchant vessel and knew the rudiments of navigation.
For days, he napped on the quarterdeck in a collapsible canvas chair he had one of the hands construct. After a week on the prize though, he became comfortable leaving the quarterdeck to the midshipman and the bosun’s mate together and went below to inspect his new kingdom. Most of the brig, of course, was crammed tightly with cargo, with barely enough space for a rat to wriggle through, but there were some tiny cabins he could search. He found one he thought had been the domicile of the supercargo, by the amount of paperwork scattered around the cabin.
Thinking to increase the purchase price of the prize by improving the appearance of the brig and thus to increase the amount of his own share, he began to straighten the litter in the cabin. The bunk, instead of being a ship’s hammock, was actually a box built into the side of the ship. He found the mattress fitted into a framework on top and that framework lifted out. Underneath, he found some folded clothing and at the bottom, a small, iron framed oaken chest. In the chest were a hundred Spanish dollars and a few foreign gold coins.
The proper course to take, of course, would be to have Horton called to the cabin to witness the find, then write up a description and turn it over when he reached Antigua.
However, even at his young age, Phillips was well aware of the corruption that often ran rampant in shore installations. Should he turn that money in, he well knew it would invariably find itself in some clerk’s pocket. He took the money and put it into the bottom of his own chest.
Upon reaching English Harbor, Phillips reported to Captain Edwards, of the frigate HMS Diana. Edwards told Phillips the major portion of the fleet, including all the larger ships had deployed to Halifax for the hurricane season. He further advised the first item on his agenda should be to report to the Governor and get his orders concerning his next actions.
Normally, he would be seen by the Admiral Sir Hyde Parker commanding the station, but with that official’s absence, he should report to the Governor instead. He was told, most likely he would be sent to the receiving ship that was providing quarters for the various members of incoming prize crews.
With the uncertainty of his immediate future, Phillips decided he must make the best use of his own resources. He decided to use his new-found money to fund a new uniform for himself. He felt he was at a major crossroad of his life. With a scheduled meeting with the Governor of Antigua tomorrow, he didn’t relish going to the interview wearing his tattered midshipman’s gear.
Since, he was indeed a temporary, acting lieutenant, it might be wise to purchase the proper uniform for that office. The expense might be wasted should he never be confirmed in that rank, but sometimes one had to gamble. A master’s mate he met on the frigate’s deck informed him of a tailor on shore who specialized in naval and military officer’s garb.
Finding it the next morning, he went in the shop and inspected their used offerings. He found a used lieutenant’s coat that had been taken in trade. More searching uncovered breeches that could be made to fit his body. He was forced to buy new stockings. He thought ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’
A senior official, seeing him in the glory of a lieutenant’s uniform, just might be tempted to make him the real thing. After being measured, he was told the clothing could be altered and in his possession in a few hours. Giving them a few dollars to get them working, he walked down the street a bit until he found a pawn shop. There he discovered a utilitarian sword. Nothing ornate, but in excellent condition, perfectly suited to a brand new lieutenant.
As a midshipman of course, he was required to be armed with a dirk, a short bladed weapon not very different from a meat carving knife.
As an acting lieutenant, a sword would be the proper weapon to wear, although when the hoped-for commission did not appear, he would be forced to put it away and belt on the dirk again.
He donned the new uniform in the tailor’s shop and with the sword, left to visit the governor. While his new attire certainly was not glorious, it did look professional and no one could say he did not look like an officer. He found the Governor enjoying a cigar and brandy after a good meal and in good spirits.
General Mathew, Governor of Antigua, told Phillips he had important dispatches that needed to be transmitted both to the Admiral in Halifax and to the Admiralty in London. “Could the Lieutenant handle delivering them?”
Nonplussed, not at all expecting such a task, Phillips answered that, while he himself would be happy to do so, he was unsure whether the Emily Jane was the right vehicle. He reminded the governor that she was slow and fat and multitudes of American and French privateers were swarming, looking for prizes. He was unsure whether he could deliver the dispatches safely.
General Mathew waved his misgivings away. “No young man. We won’t be able to send your prize. She will need to go through prize court proceedings and the Admiral would never buy an old merchant brig into the service at this stage in the war. I do have a craft though. She is, I am told, a ‘topsail cutter’, very speedy, a King’s ship, of course.”