I’ve stated before that often the only task that writers of historical novels set during the Age of Sail have to undertake is to make minor modifications of actual incidents to generate great plots. We’ve shown how Dudley Pope benefited from history in Ramage’s Diamond, how Alexander Kent downsizes Horatio Nelson’s actions at Cape St. Vincent, and how Patrick O’Brian pinched some of Edward Riou’s life for Desolation Island.
Sometimes real life probably wouldn’t make it past a vigilant editor. For instance, the seizure of Banda, the exploits of HMS Glatton, or the reckless gallantry of Robert Faulknor probably fall into this category.
One of the plot devices in Dewey Lambdin’s Alan Lewrie series is the hero, Royal Navy Captain Alan Lewrie, running afoul of the criminal justice system by accepting Jamaican slaves from the plantation of an enemy into his crew as replacements for sailors who fell victim to yellow jack (Havoc’s Sword). Eventually the planter puts two and two together and has Lewrie tried in absentia for the theft and sentenced to hang (A King’s Trade, which I am now reading). The government needs time to make this issue go away and so Lewrie finds himself bound for Africa and beyond.
On July 19, 1794 the Baltimore built whaler Sarah and Elizabeth, now based out of Hull, was homeward bound after a season in the the Arctic Ocean. Off St. Abb’s Head, Scotland, she was intercepted by the HMS Aurora (28) commanded by Captain William Essington.
Under British law governing the impressing of sailors, outward bound ships were exempt from the press. Homeward bound ships, however, were fair game. While the captain, mates and master were exempt, a Royal Navy warship could take as many men as it desired from her crew so long as she was left with enough men to get her to port.
Captain Essington sent a boarding party headed by Aurora’s master and bosun onto Sarah and Elizabeth with the intent of pressing some of the crew. The crew was in no mood to cooperate. They barricaded themselves in the hold and refused orders to come on deck. A master’s mate was sent back to the Aurora. At this point a larger party — now consisting of the original cutter, the captain’s barge, some of Aurora’s marine detachment as well as more seamen — was assembled and returned to Sarah and Elizabeth.
Essington brought Aurora along side of Sarah and Elizabeth and, in Captain Essington’s words:
I then ordered the cutter manned and armed, likewise the barge with Lieutenant ..ppings on board, and by the time my boats was on board her, she was within hail. I told the master of her, if he had lost the command of his ship I would consider her in a state of piracy, and desired him to come on board the Aurora, and what people were willing to come with him; for if his men would not obey him, I was determined to fire into her.
The men from Aurora set about removing one of the hatches. At this point the stories diverge. The whalers story is:
[T]he boatswain of the Aurora, holding a hand-grenade in one hand, and a lighted match in the other, asked Captain Essington, if he should fire the hand-grenade amongst the people, which the Captain ordered him to do; but on the representation of the matter of the Sarah and Elizabeth, that the ship was full of oil, and if the hand-grenade was fired she would immediately blow up, he desisted; the crew then proceeded then with crow [bars]to break up the hatches, and as the men still refused to come up on deck, one of the officers from on board the Aurora, hailed the Captain and said, ‘will you give us leave to fire,’ to which Captain Essington answered in the affirmative, and the marines, to about sixteen to eighteen in number, fired down the hatchways, by which one man of the Sarah and Elizabeth’s people was killed, and three badly wounded; the boatswain of the Aurora [the boatswains of both ships were wounded in the exchange, which might lead to some confusion] was wounded in the leg.
…I was informed one of my men was wounded; I then told my officers which was on board her I would run the Aurora alongside, which I immediately did; by this I was in hopes of bringing her people into subjection; they were then again asked if they would come up, and the same terms again offered to them; one of the hatches was ordered to be taken off, in doing which Mr. Williamson, the boatswain, was shot through the leg by one of the Sarah and Elizabeth’s people; a fire then commenced from the Greenlandman, and my men who went on board in the boats (without my orders or any ones) the officers of the Aurora on board of her did all in their power to stop the firing,
Eventually Essington got his way, the crew of Sarah and Elizabeth was paraded and 24 men, including three of the wounded, were pressed.
The people of Hull were outraged. A coroner’s jury held an inquest on the death of carpenter’s mate Edward Boggs, the Sarah and Elizabeth crewman killed, and returned a verdict of Willful Murder against Captain Essington and the members of the boarding party.
The Admiralty was in a quandry. Because if it honored the arrest warrant against Essington not only would he undoubtedly be convicted and be hanged but it would have a chilling effect on other captains and it might incite otherwise submissive merchant crews to resist impressment. So Captain Essington was sent far away. The men pressed from Sarah and Elizabeth were released from the Aurora, after some time, and returned home.
There is little written material available on the eventual Rear Admiral Sir William Essington but this much is clear. While Aurora remained in the North Sea, by early 1795 Captain Essington is in command of HMS Sceptre (64) at St. Helena en route to take the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope. He remained in the South Atlantic for some years and I’ve not been able to determine the circumstances that allowed him finally to return home. He fought at Camperdown and was eventually knighted. He seems to have achieved some minor distinction as an explorer having towns, etc. named after him in British Columbia and Canada.
If anyone has more info on his military career I’d be happy to update the post.