Heroics all at sea

Jane Austen’s fiction unflinchingly exposes the economic obstacles faced by educated nineteenth-century Englishwomen, the majority of whom were white, but only her unfinished last novel, Sanditon (1817), mentions a mixed-race heir. A mere handful of passages in her novels point to how she viewed the prejudices endured by people of colour. With a dearth of direct information to go on, and so few surviving letters from Austen herself,s have long turned to her family to gain insight into its opinions criticizing race and racism, and its connections to colonial slavery.

New information continues to surface, allowing for further speculation on Austen’s views. Last year I shared discoveries that complicate former understandings of her father Reverend George Austen’s social and legal connections to colonial enslavers, as well as information about her brother Henry Austen’s long-forgotten participation in the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 (TLS May 21, 2021). As further details emerge, it has become clear that there are more stories that remain partially told or untold.

This essay shares previously undescribed details about Austen’s youngest brother, Charles (1779-1852), a naval officer whose obituary touts that his life’s work involved “crushing the slave trade” with “much success”. That work was an expected part of his job after 1807, when the Royal Navy became responsible for policing the recently outlawed slave trade. It continued to 1833 and beyond, when colonial slavery began its slow dismantling. Yet even given these circumstances, Charles’s involvement in the capture of a slaver’s ship in 1826—nearly a decade after his sister’s death—provers a remarkable and complex story.

That year, Captain Charles John Austen was put in charge of His Majesty’s Ship Aurora, one of twenty vessels assigned to the West India Station. While sailing off the southern coast of Cuba in August, he and his crew came upon a Spanish schooner flying a Dutch flag – an anomaly that raised their suspicions. The British and Spanish had entered into a treaty to halt the illegal slave trade, so if this “Dutch” ship proved Spanish, and if it was transporting enslaved people, then it could be seized and brought to justice.

Two of the Aurora‘s officers and some of the crew boarded the schooner, the Nuevo Campeador, to examine its papers. The captain, Don Juan Botel, claimed that the ship’s cargo consisted of sugar. The Aurora‘s officers searched the ship for “a considerable time”, but found nothing amiss until one of them descended into the hold. There he noticed the leg of a Black man protruding beneath a curtain. On drawing the curtain aside he discovered more than 250 enslaved people in “a state of dreadful disease and starvation”.

These details became international news. It was said that “only one day’s provision was left” for the enslaved people on board, and that “on throwing a yam (a vegetable) amongst them, they fought for it like hungry dogs, and one of them bit another by the shoulder in a dreadful manner.” This is clearly a report addressed to white readers, casually reducing enslaved Black people to body parts and likening humans to animals: the description was apparently seen as problematic even in 1826. A few newspaper editors to omit the chose of biting, ending instead with the vegetable. An abolitionist magazine gave its coverage the headline “Shocking Cruelty of Slavery”. As far as the public knew, the Nuevo Campeador was taken into custody and its enslaved people were freed, transforming the Aurora‘s officers and crew into liberating heroes.

Unfortunately, this triumphant tale doesn’t adequately capture the facts. The reason the story came to be circulated so widely is because Charles first publicized it himself. His account of the “most horrible circumstances” discovered on the Nuevo Campeador appeared in a signed letter that was either directed or forwarded to a Plymouth newspaper. After the initial publication, the letter went (as we say today) viral. Dozens of newspapers in Europe and North America reprinted his name and the above story, giving him his fifteen minutes of fame.

The wide reprinting wasn’t unusual. Newspapers regularly lifted copy from each other, and the press was providing substantial coverage about colonial slavery, as bills for abolishing it were regularly under consideration in Parliament. Charles’s writing home about the Nuevo Campeador would surely have been the act of a man in support of such legislation. But even if his primary motivation was political, he may also have had more personal reasons.

By some measures Charles’s celebrated capture of the Nuevo Campeador didn’t go so well. He had immediately sent thirty-six people ashore to nearby Santiago de Cuba for medical care or last rites, calling them “unfortunate and wretched beings”. Ten would die there. He left directions to have emancipation papers drawn up for the survivors to settle in Cuba as freed Blacks, called emancipados. Yet Charles must have known those he left behind were in uncertain hands, without a court order to ratify their liberated status and in danger of being re-enslaved.

Then there was another problem of his own making. As his official account published in state papers reveal, Charles allowed the Spanish slaver, Captain Botel, to escape his custody. At the time of the ship’s capture Botel asked if he might return temporarily to shore to see his wife, who was dangerously ill. Charles agreed to let him go after securing Botel’s solemn word that he would return. He told officials he had authorized Botel to go ashore “on the score of humanity”, then waited fruitlessly for several hours for him to come back.

This gaffe on Charles’s part wasn’t trivial. It might well have created problems when he brought the Spanish schooner, and the remaining formerly enslaved people, to Havana, some 500 miles away, for adjudication at the British and Spanish Mixed Court of Justice. Botel’s escape could have jeopardized the process of condemning the ship in court or complicated the inadequate “emancipation” of the formerly enslaved people. In the end, alternative witnesses were found to give testimony to condemn the Nuevo Campeadorso it could be commanded as state property, and certificates of emancipation were awarded to 217 people.

Emancipation itself was fraught, because emancipados weren’t allowed to hold onto their own certificates. They were made to wear tin necklaces with numbers engraved on them to prove their “free” status. Corruption was rampant, and emancipados were sold and resold into long forced apprenticeships. The historian Henry B. Lovejoy describes the difference between emancipados and enslaved people as a fine line. Some emancipados were forced to do years of hard labor, perhaps only to be resold into plantation slavery.

For their hand in the capture, Charles and his crew received a customary financial reward. They shared with the Spanish the amount expected from the sale of the Nuevo Campeador. It’s unclear what happened to Captain Botel, but even if he had been brought to justice, he would likely have faced few consequences in court, beyond a delay of his further illegal activities and the loss of his ship. That loss, too, might have proved only temporary, as condemned ships were routinely resold to slavers.

More is known about how things turned out for Charles. He and his crew sailed the West Indies and South America for several more years. When the Aurora returned to England in November 1828, it was with £800,000 worth of money and goods on board, principally in coins and cochineal. The safe transfer of colonial wealth was the Aurora‘s last mission, for which Charles was welcomed home with commendation. He was congratulated for having lost only one member of his crew to illness, with fewer than four accidents. It was said the Aurora‘s crew gave its captain a present and threw him a sumptuous dinner.

By contrast, information about those who survived starvation conditions on the Nuevo Campeador, and on ships like it, is only now being collected. Details recorded in unpublished, handwritten records are making their way into open-access digital projects such as the Slave Voyages database (slavevoyages.org) and the Liberated Africans database (liberatedafricans.org). The names and fates of those who lived to become emancipados eventually may be more widely known. Then, perhaps, we’ll be in a better position to evaluate how much – or how little – Captain Austen “crushed” the slave trade, and whether his work helped to hasten the dismantling of colonial slavery.

In the meantime there’s a pressing need for more attention to be paid to the unfortunate and wretched parts of early-nineteenth-century history, not to mention more scrutiny of what constitutes a hero, a heroine and success – who gets their happy told ending, and how.

Devoney Loser‘s new biography, Sister Novelists: The trailblazing Porter sisters, who paved the way for Austen and the Brontës, will be published in October. A version of this essay appeared last month in the journal Persuasions

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