‘with ships and sailors she felt herself at home’
by A Latter-day Bluestocking
It is, perhaps, not known Jane Austen’s personal connection to the Battle of Trafalgar.
Those at home always await patiently for word from their loved ones at sea and this was especially true 206 years ago when Jane Austen eagerly awaited the letters of her brother Capt. Francis W. Austen on board Canopus in the Mediterranean. Canopus was a prize ship (formerly L’Admiral) captured by Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile; Nelson subsequently was responsible for Frank taking command of this ship.
“You may rely upon all attention in my power to Capt. Austin [sic]. I hope to see him alongside a French 80 gun ship and he cannot be better placed than in the Canopus, who was once a French adl.’s ship and struck to me. Capt. A. I knew a little of before; he is an excellent young man.
I am, &c
Nelson and Bronte”
The French fleet had been alluding the British for months and the situation had become precarious. On board was Admiral Louis, Nelson’s second in command. Frank and the Admiral would be shocked when on September 28 Nelson arrived off Cadiz and gave orders for Canopus to sail to Gibraltar to fetch urgently needed water and stores. Louis complained of being sent away with hostilities promising to escalate. Nelson, assuring Canopus of its role as his right hand, promised that they would be back before the French dared to come out. Frank wrote home of his disappointment.
“Having borne our share in a tedious chase and anxious blockade, it would be mortifying indeed to find ourselves at last thrown out of any credit and emolument which would result from such an action. Such, I hope will not be our lot. ….if there has been an action with the combined fleets I shall ever consider the day on which I sailed from the squadron as the most inauspicious of my life.”
On October 19 the French and Spanish fleets left Cadiz, led by Admiral Villeneuve, making their way along the coast to Cape Trafalgar. On the morning of October 21 Nelson, glorious in his military honors hoisted the signal, “England expects every man to do his duty”. By the end of the day the British were victorious and Nelson was dead.
Frank could not help but lament his regret at having missed the battle which was only intensified by the news of Nelson’s death.
“To lose all share in the glory of a day which surpasses all which ever went before, is what I cannot think of with any degree of patience. ….A melancholy situation, great and important as must be the victory, it is alas! dearly purchased at the price paid for it.”
And as the female members of his family enhanced their needlework with the ‘Trafalgar stitch’ Frank Austen wrote of Nelson: “His memory will long be embalmed in the hearts of a grateful Nation, May those he left behind in the service strive to imitate so bright an example.”