Alexander Howison (b. 1795): War, Memory & Life Writing

Is it peace or war? (p.34)

'The Battle of Trafalgar, and the Victory of Lord Nelson over the Combined French and Spanish Fleets, Oct 21, 1805'  1833 Clarkson Frederick Stanfield
‘The Battle of Trafalgar, and the Victory of Lord Nelson over the Combined French and Spanish Fleets, Oct 21, 1805’
1833 Clarkson Frederick Stanfield

War is prevalent within Alexander’s life, although not always at the forefront of his narrative, he was entering into his working life in 1805 when the War of the Third Coalition broke out and Britain was joined by Russia, Austria and Sweden and the Battle of Trafalgar was to be fought and won over the French and Spanish fleets.

While the Napoleonic Wars were being fought soldiers were volunteering themselves to the services, Alexanders first taste of war was much later in 1812/1813. After various stints upon Merchant Navy vessels Alexander found himself in ‘Halifax Harbour at the King’s Dockyard Wharf.’ (p.16). ‘The Royal Naval Dockyard is Bermuda’s third cruise port. From 1810 to 1950 the dockyard was the “Gibraltar of the West,” providing a heavily fortified anchorage for British warships. The dockyard looks as if it was built to last a thousand years’. ( Cruise Travel p.31)

Before they could make it out of port they were ship wrecked, Alexander recalls them being ‘all ready for sea and bound for England, I was to see a new sight first, a hurricane which lasted two hours, there was not a vessel damaged less or more some went down with all hands and some ashore.(p.16) being lucky enough to escape unscathed the sailors hitched a ride to Portsmouth aboard another ship and arrived back to Deptford from whence they had originally sailed from. This whole trip had lasted a year and brought them back to London in December 1912, ‘the year of the great frost.’ (p.17) The frost posed a new problem entirely and after six weeks of the ships being too frozen to move, Alexander found himself  a job as a boatswain upon The Cicero, a Scottish ship, Scotch Captain, Scotch mate and now Scotch boatswain.’ (p.19)

The Cicero
The Cicero

After a ‘ever-to-be-remembered- jolly night’ (p.20) ashore with his friend ‘Aikman’ they ran into the ‘eternal disgrace to the British Royal Navy, the pressgang. Flight was out of the question as they were just upon [them]’. Alexander here goes back to a recalled memory and notes that himself and Aikman had previously ‘beat off fourteen of them and came off with only some flesh wounds’. This time however they were not to get away so easily, after he sees Aikman ‘go down with a stroke from behind’ Alexander suffers the same and makes him ‘kiss the dust’.
They were then carried to Tower Hill (The Tower of London) as prisoners, however the ever

The British Royal Navy press gang.
The British Royal Navy press gang.

positive mind of Alexander duly notes, ‘There are many ups and downs between the cradle and the grave. Time will convince all of this.’ (p.21) Here they joined another 100 or so press ganged sailors at the Nore (The sandbank at the mouth of the Thames).

The year of 1912 saw the second American War of Independence and thousands of men were rounded up to crew the warships. The criteria was ‘eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 55 years’ (Bustard p.60). They were mainly of a merchant Navy background and had to knowledge of ships and the ocean. it was rare to take a non sea faring individual. Their wage would take a serious cut however, Alexander explains later once he has done his duty that in the Merchant service he would have received ‘5 to 6 pounds a month and in the forced service serving my King and Country [he] got thirty-two and eightpence.’ (p.42) So it was no wonder what happened next.

As the sailors were clearly unhappy about this subtraction of their liberty and ability to pick and choose ships to sail on according to their own satisfaction, so they planned a mutiny ‘ A plan was formed going down the river to take the ship, murder the officers if they could have been disposed of no other way handy, run the ship ashore and take our freedom. (p.21) however the plan was foiled. Narrowly escaping the ‘cat’ he was reprimanded from the ships commander and the subject allegedly dropped.

The experience of Napoleon’s downfall in 1813 for Alexander and his shipmates was a ‘flag truce from France to England’ (p.22). Then Alexander was drafted from the ‘Gracious to the Newcastle’. ‘This ship was intended as a match for any of the large American frigates.’ It was a heavily  armed ship with 66 guns aboard. ‘Government was anxious to get the Newcastle dispatched early to America and our first proceedings was to take Louis XVIII from England to France and then return to Portsmouth’. (p.22)

Once they set sail to America, back to Halifax it took them ‘Seventeen weeks and three days, but in that time [they] lay two weeks wind bound in Bantry Bay, Ireland’. (p.24) Those that tried to escape their impressment here were able to make a good escape, as even though Ireland at the time was ‘the very picture of want and poverty, and many and high were the rewards offered these poor people if they would give information to the captain of any of these deserters – not one was ever captured or at least a hint received of their whereabouts – All honour to Old Ireland’ (p.26) As the wind finally permitted them to sail once more.
This is when they found that ‘the American War was settled but [their] object was to convoy a fleet of transports mostly merchant vessels with troops to England.’ (p.41)

An 1800's Schooner
An 1800’s Schooner

After setting sail the unfortunate predicament of beaching the Newcastle on a sandbank occured and the Commodore decided to embark the men on a reconnaissance mission, thus engaging in battle with the enemy while trying to fetch supplies. This embarkation caused Alexander to ‘make out [his] last will and testament and put on [his] best dress.’ (p.29) There being a flotilla to take them to shore and causing them to be ‘night robbers and well prepared for murder’ (p.30) they needed to take another vessel to rescue those still aboard their broken up ship before the sea claimed all the souls. They were a few hours from shore and had to row themselves till darkness had fallen.  As they made their way to the harbour they came across a schooner, boarded and began to give ‘what our guns contained which must have done a good deal of damage’, they made off with the schooner and two smaller vessels. However due to poor visibility with it ‘being so dark and but a very imperfect knowledge of the proper channel, the schrooner ran aground as she drew more water than the other two vessels.’ (p.31)

They stayed aground until the morning and as the morning dawned soldiers were forming along the bank to shoot them down, picking mainly the Marines among them ‘their red coats made them more conspicuous’ (p.32) they were soon shot down but no advance had been made towards getting the schooner free and away. They began to move the killed and wounded to the smaller vessels to take them back to the Newcastle, The boat that Alexander found himself in a commander in charge of a boat crewed by eight, trying to make it back to the ship, they had ‘no stock of either meat or water on board’ (p.32) As they made back to the ship they men were so tired the boat began to drift inshore, the  waves over took the boat they found themselves fearful for their lives but ‘as British sailors [they] should face this danger even though it should be a watery grave.’ (p.33) they were then swamped by a wave an found themselfves washed up upon the shore. Alexander how we embraced one another when [they] saw we were all drenched to the skin, hungry and cold. -The snow lay one and a half feet deep and hard frost’ (p.34)

They ran into farmers who were passing them and they conversed over their intention of being in this part of enemy territory.  ‘Men what is it you want here. ‘Is it peace or war?’ Alexander explains that ‘The state we are in makes war out of the question. Stress of weather brings us here’. By the good grace of the ‘Christian men’ the farmers took all eight men in to his house, fed them, dried their clothes, let them sleep and made breakfast. Even though a Christian man himself Alexander contemplates the question of if he would have done the same for an enemy if the ‘case had been reversed’ and before this unfortunate incident of being washed ashore they had been ‘destroying both life and property’ (p.35) he claims ‘I am afraid not’ however the farmers take, luckily for the crew, had been ‘I am bound to help the distressed wherever I find them, let them be friends or foes.’ (p.34) They were told a path to take to avoid running into the American soldiers that would intercept them. As a thank you to the farmers that had surely saved their lives Alexander gave over a ‘fine woolen Shetland made frock worth about three dollars belonging to [him] which
[he] had on and could want, which they accepted with some reluctance’ (p.36) After a few days they managed to make to a rum house where they found their commander and found they had ‘floated the Newcastle off the sandbank out of Boston Harbour and away to sea’. (p.37)

In his time at sea and war Alexander traveled the world extensively, from the Island of Merida, Canaries, Cape Verd Islands, St Iago. India, they ‘then made sail for the West Indies past Barbadoes (sp?), Martinico, Dominico, Bermuda, then to Quebec’. (p.41) The fact they ran aground gave Alexander his only real battle, he managed to survive the ordeal with the Newcastle and managed to not engage in any other battles that were raged and thus survived the war. After the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 (of which they had no knowledge of until they arrived back to England), Alexander was discharged from service after making it back to Portsmouth from Quebec.

Works Cited:

Bustard, Ned. Squalls Before War Comprehension Guide. Veritas Press.  2004

Cruise Travel. Vol. 21, No. 5. Lakeside Publishing Co. 2000

Howison. Alexander. (n.d) Autobiography of Alexander Howison ‘Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library. 1:354

‘The Impress service’: Press Gangs and the Royal Navy. Web. 2011. Accessed 18 December 2014




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