“We was amazingly fortunate”

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For the next few months, James and his shipmates did blockade duty along the American coast, ranging from Rhode Island to the mouth of the Delaware. Their experiences give a lively glimpse of a little-known part of the Revolution, of days full of chases and captures of ships and of sharp skirmishes with American militia. In October, 1776, they drove an American sloop ashore near Cape May, New Jersey. James was ordered aboard her to see if he could get her off.

“We boarded amidst a heavy fire from [rebels on] the shore. Finding it impossible to get her off, we set her on fire, with orders to quit her without loss of time as we found her cargo consisted of 360 barrels of powder, with some saltpetre and dry goods; but, unfortunately, before we had all left her she blew up, and a mate and six men was blown to pieces in her. The oars of the other boats were all knocked to atoms, and two men had their ribs broke; but considering the whole, we was amazingly fortunate, as the pieces of the vessel was falling all round for some time, and the air was totally darkened with the explosion. As soon as she blew up we gave the rebels three cheers and returned to our ships.”

A few weeks later, the Orpheus took five prizes in quick succession, including a sloop from Martinique carrying claret and a schooner from St. Eustatius with a cargo of rum and gin. To Midshipman James’ delight he was put in charge of this little fleet and ordered to sail it to New York.

“Here commences the most agreeable time I have experienced during my servitude as a midshipman, as I was in possession of almost every luxury of life without one anxious care, one unhappy moment to embitter it. I had a most elegant cabin with a comfortable stove.

“Among the innumerable good things I was in possession of there was on board one of the prizes three cases of the best Bordeaux claret which Captain Hudson had directed to be sent to him and Captain Chinnery of the Daphne. We were keeping as usual Christmas Day, anil were desirous to drink good wine; we therefore drank the three cases out and the following day filled them with claret of a very inferior sort out of the casks, corking them with the same long corks, and sealing them all over with a deal of attention and care; which answered every purpose, as the captains, on drinking the wine, observed, ‘It might be very good claret but for their parts they found very little difference in that and the cask claret.’

“Thus we passed our jovial days till in an evil hour our summons came to join the ship, and I do not remember a greater change than to be transported in a second from those luxurious scenes to a cold, distressed midshipman’s habitation, and to be subject to the variety of causes that make them lead an unpleasing life. It was some days before I could in any way reconcile myself to the uncomfortable change. However, I at last rubbed on as usual, flattering myself the fickle goddess Fortune would soon again favour me.”

James yearned above all else for promotion. He had almost won it in 1773 on his West Indian tour aboard the sloop Falcon when he was made an acting lieutenant. But, as he tells us in his journal, his prize was lost when he decided to “push forward among the Creole ladies” ashore.

“Having been invited among the other officers of the ship to a supper and ball it fell to my lot to dance with a Miss D., who, being an invalid, quitted the company at a very early hour and had a black servant with a gig in waiting to take her to her father’s house which was about a mile out of town. I insisted upon having the honour of seeing her safe to the pen, and drove off in the best style I was capable of, which I soon perceived was, in the lady’s opinion, a very hazardous one, as she very kindly advised me to let the boy lead the horse as the road was both intricate and much out of repair. Vanity, however, construed this apprehension into a desire of being better acquainted with me, and without having the smallest idea of her before, I no sooner quitted the reins than I swore in the handsomest manner that I was deeply in love, and that unless it was reciprocated I should be the most miserable youth existing.

” ‘Dear sir,’ replied the sweet girl, ‘we are nearly at my father’s door. I have no time to answer now but if you will drink tea with me at my aunt’s tomorrow, in the town, at six o’clock, I will be there to receive you. This card will point you out the house.’

“Taking a delicious kiss to seal the contract I sprung from the carriage and gently travelled back to join my friends flattering myself I soon should learn the art of love. On my return to the festive dance I soon engaged another partner, and, without considering once how deeply I had been wounded by Miss D. the hour before, I fell most desperately in love again, and with the same artful tale won again my second partner’s heart. The honour of leading her home some distance through the town gave me an opportunity of requesting permission to pay her my respects on the following day, which I obtained, with an invitation to tea; but recollecting that at six I was engaged with my friend Miss D., I apologized for declining that honour by saying I was obliged to be on board at six, but that I would make my bow to her between the hours of four and five. Begging she would allow me the felicity of a salute as a prelude to our future happiness I proceeded to the inn, and from thence with my messmates returned on board.