The Wreck of the ‘Abergavenny’ 
by Alethea Hayter.
Macmillan, 223 pp., £14.99, September 2002, 0 333 98917 1
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There has of late been a vogue for what is sometimes called ‘micro-history’: the historian chooses some anecdote, some occurrence remote from the mainstream of historical writing, and from it deduces an entire culture, the conflicts or negotiations of power within a whole historical community. Alethea Hayter deals with a single event, focusing on a particular moment in history, but she is not a new or micro-historian and is innocent of Foucauldian or any other theoretical ambitions. Nevertheless she explores her subject in such depth that she really does illuminate the culture and society of her chosen moment.

Her interest in the wreck of the East-Indiaman Abergavenny arose primarily from the circumstance that its captain was John Wordsworth, brother of the more famous William and Dorothy. His death in 1805 at the outset of what was to have been his last voyage before he retired (at 34) caused convulsions of sorrow at Grasmere, where he had intended to join the family circle. The chief mourner was of course William, whose exceptional sensibility was recognised by all, and who had been hoping to spend his life as a dedicated poet, freed from irksome restrictions by the money John would make on this voyage. William’s welfare was the first concern of everybody. His grief was prolonged, and it was some time before he could assuage it with poems; but he was a specialist in the poetry of loss, and a little over a year after John’s death wrote the fine ‘Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont’.

This poem confronts the reader at the beginning of the present book, and is, very fittingly, quoted in full in its closing pages. It enacts a characteristic Wordsworthian gesture, the claim to have found consolation in tragic loss. Much of Wordsworth’s best poetry is a celebration of ‘something that is gone’. The cruel death of his brother joins all the other evidence of loss and emphasises the need to accept it as somehow humanly necessary, and, finally, as God’s will:

A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanised my Soul.

Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne’er be old;
This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.

Hayter undertakes to describe the sorrows of the family and their friends, among them Lamb and De Quincey and Coleridge; but her purposes are not simply literary or literary-domestic. Much is known and much has been written about the loss of the Abergavenny; salvage work is still going on after almost two centuries. She has used this information and added to it the results of her own research. A foreword expresses mild regret that the book lacks references, but assures the reader that ‘everything . . . presented as fact is taken from letters, diaries and official records, newspapers and pamphlets . . . with no fictional additions or inventions,’ except the ones that figure in the contemporary reports of the wreck. One understands this hint of disappointment at the omission of supporting notes like those that added value to her earlier book, Opium and the Romantic Imagination. No doubt it was a publisher’s commercial decision; yet it is not really credible that anybody wanting to read this book would be so inveterate a ‘general reader’ as to be scared off by a few foot or endnotes.

The facts necessarily include a lot of information about the operations of the East India Company and, less directly, about the economic assumptions of middle-class life in the opening years of the 19th century. Oblivious of new-historical talk about the interaction of literature with other ‘signifying practices’, Hayter does not treat the sinking of the Abergavenny as a marginal anecdote that can be made to disclose the truth about such connections; that there are connections is not to be doubted, but the loss of the Abergavenny, as here described, belongs not to the margins but to the centre of life in what was now a bourgeois empire.

John Wordsworth was born in 1772, went to sea at 16, worked his way up in the service from sixth mate, and had been captain of the Abergavenny since 1801. Like his brother Richard, who became a lawyer, and unlike his brother William, who became a poet, John needed to make a living in a gentlemanly job, and began his sea career immediately after leaving Hawkshead Grammar School. It may have been a peculiarity of the Wordsworth family that whereas the other sons sought employment and preferment in the ordinary way, it was assumed that the poet was owed a living from the outset. In The Prelude Wordsworth celebrates the freedom conferred by a legacy of about £900 from his acquaintance Raisley Calvert, which ‘set him above want’, and which, a polite but insistent legacy-hunter, he did something to solicit. John was expressly committed to the support of his brother and sister: indeed, the principal purpose of this last voyage was to make a large sum of money and devote it to the comforts of William and the family.

As in most walks of life, advancement in the employment of the East India Company depended on patronage. Another Captain John Wordsworth, a cousin of this one’s father, had originally got the young man into the Company service. A cousin, Joseph Wordsworth, was third mate on the Abergavenny, following his cousin the captain on the way to the top. One did not become a captain in the Company’s service simply by individual merit; this was not exactly a career open to the talents. John had also benefited from the support of William Wilberforce, the great opponent of slavery, who had an interest in the Company. Hayter explains that it was quite usual to buy shares precisely in order to acquire the power of patronage. So there was a great deal of what she calls ‘reticulation’, a word she has employed before as an elegant euphemism for the old boy network. John, though apparently far from brilliant, cannot have been bad at his job, but he would probably not have had it, nor would those other Wordsworths have found berths in the Company’s ships, without reticular assistance.

Hayter’s account of the operations of the East India Company is beautifully done and full of interest. As befitted a successful joint-stock business, it encouraged competitiveness in its captains. A voyage to China and back might earn the captain as much as £30,000, a huge sum to be had only by beating the other vessels in the convoy, and acquiring, by influence, the much sought after right to go to China via Bengal. The captain was permitted to do some trading on his own account, and John was prepared for this, having collected some capital and even got Dorothy and William to make an investment. The main source of this illicit private profit was the opium trade. The best opium came from Bengal, and the best market was China.

The opium trade was against both British and Chinese law, but nobody seemed bothered about that. This was a time when opium in one form or another was widely used to alleviate the illnesses of the British – even Wilberforce was a user, though not addicted on a Coleridgean or De Quinceyan scale. John seems to have had no objection to making money by selling it to the Chinese, or to bringing home hashish for the use of friends. This is an interesting sidelight on the business ethics of the virtuous Clapham Sect, to which Wilberforce belonged. No doubt the rewards could be represented as reasonable, for the voyage was long and arduous. It is hard for us to imagine what it felt like to live for months on shipboard while arranging for the wind alone to blow you all the way to China and back. Also there was a war on; the big East-Indiamen travelled in convoy and carried almost as many guns as a warship. John Wordsworth had already been in a minor scuffle with some French ships, and won a reward of 500 guineas for his part in the action. Honour was firmly associated with profit, and even military valour was paid for in cash, which is why Captain Wordsworth could say that ‘the longer this war continues the better it will be for me.’

It is doubtful whether his crew felt the same way, or that their exertions were proportionately recognised. Without giving the matter much serious consideration the officer class seems to have assumed that they had sole claim to any money that was going. The ‘men’ were treated to the stick, not the carrot. Discipline was severe and enforced by brutal flogging, a punishment Wordsworth often awarded. Hayter believes he was ‘firm but just’ and ‘not a sadist’, and when he says he would like to give ‘a tight flogging’ to the man who cut down some trees in Grasmere she observes that modern ecological campaigners ‘may find themselves in sympathy’ with this ‘idea of a suitable punishment’. Others may have difficulty deciding whether this form of discipline was not at least equally disgusting. The Navy has managed without it for a long time, though I suppose it may be argued that life on the lower deck is less likely now to drive men to mutiny or to ‘improper contradiction’, which Wordsworth particularly disliked.

Hayter likes the Captain within reason, though she wonders why, even allowing for the fact that the era of sentiment was not over and it was virtuous in men to weep freely, this morose man, formerly thought the dunce of the family, should have been so extravagantly mourned. Summing up his character, she says:

Modern readers may find it difficult to see heroic status in a Merchant Navy captain who got his job by nepotism, was not averse to smuggling, and hoped to make a fortune by opium trading. But that would be hindsight; by the standards of his day, John Wordsworth was a man of integrity, an upright honourable citizen, respected and admired by everyone who knew him.

This is an argument that might be stretched to excuse all manner of infamous behaviour as long as it happened some time ago. It would doubtless be naive to ask how these happened to be the standards of the day: how it had come about that reticulation, and what is here called ‘a relaxed attitude to smuggling’, were acceptable as correct gentlemanly conduct. The answer is that financial security was an index of virtue; and that the gentlemen concerned saw no reason to question the convenient assumption that their honourable status constituted an unchallengeable claim to as much spoil, whether legal or just across the border of legality, as they could get away with.

Hayter’s account of the very brief last voyage of the Abergavenny is a remarkable piece of writing, cool and vivid. The ship sailed from Gravesend to Portsmouth, carrying not only an extremely valuable cargo – there was a huge consignment of silver coins – but troops of soldiers and a number of more rewarding passengers: officers bound for India, women who brought along harps and pianos. Passage in such a ship, partly a warship, partly a freighter and partly a passenger vessel, was quite unlike anything that could now be experienced. Cabins were jury-rigged of canvas, so that they could be rapidly dismantled if the guns needed to be run out. Livestock shared the decks, and throughout the long voyage people were tormented by foul smells, incessant noise and seasickness. Yet among the gentry standards were kept up: formality ruled. They dressed for dinner and the forty places at the captain’s table were taken in accordance with the rules of precedence. The captain provided the food out of the passage money. The women were permitted two glasses of wine before withdrawing to their canvas cabins, but the men stayed to drink port until dismissed by the captain. The food was plentiful and mostly meat. There was a drum and fife band to provide entertainment. Theatricals were organised – perhaps an old custom, for we know of a 17th-century performance of Hamlet in a ship off the African coast. On a very long voyage there would be time for such amusements.

Wordsworth’s ship led the convoy out, and for that reason was the last to turn and seek shelter from the storm that sank her when all the others escaped. The wreck happened off Portland on 5 February 1805. The convoy sought shelter from the weather in Portland Roads, and the Abergavenny was trying to do the same when she ran onto the shoal known as the Shambles. Wordsworth was heard to blame the pilot for this disastrous mistake: ‘Oh pilot! pilot! you have ruined me.’ He probably meant financial ruin, for the ship, though damaged, did not at that moment seem likely to sink, and he need not yet have in mind the danger to the hundreds of lives in his charge, as well as to his own.

The smashing up of the Abergavenny, the efforts at rescue and the loss of perhaps three hundred lives are here described with extraordinary and admirable command of nautical detail. Hayter then turns with equal attentiveness to the sequel: official inquiries, questions of compensation, finally the exoneration of Captain Wordsworth from blame for the disaster.

What interests her most is the public response, the newspapers and pamphlets that devoted so much space to the sinking and to the behaviour of the Captain. She is surprised that the papers should have devoted so much space to a civilian shipwreck at a critical moment in the war, with Napoleon’s Army encamped at Boulogne, but explains their interest as a consequence of the heavy loss of life and the value of the cargo, which they duly exaggerated. Their reports of the nightmare events on the Shambles were detailed and sometimes correct, but they made fanciful mistakes, saying, for instance, that Wordsworth had a wife and five children, that he was drunk (highly unlikely) or in a state of depression, that he made little attempt to save himself. These rumours proved particularly disturbing to the family at Grasmere. It is not difficult to guess that some might call this sad, quiet man, so ready to withdraw from company, depressed, and he was not likely to be in a spritely mood when he was helplessly watching the destruction of his command. But it seems that in fact he behaved well. When his body was washed ashore it was buried with the others, not, as would have been proper for an officer, in a separate grave; another piloting error.

It isn’t easy for journalists ‘to get catastrophe reporting right’, Hayter concludes, glancing at some modern instances such as the Mozambique floods and Kosovo. ‘No calamity is ever described with perfect truth.’ But this fine book must come very close to it. It makes the subject important, not just as a type of catastrophe but as a sensitive exploration of the way it can implicate those who do not directly suffer. Charles and Mary Lamb selflessly, patiently, served the Wordsworths by interviewing survivors for news of the Captain. Wilberforce wept. Coleridge, on hearing the news in Malta, had to be helped to his room. William Wordsworth, experienced in the business of finding some kind of happiness in sorrow, eventually wrote a very good poem, which, in a way, makes the Abergavenny a luckier ship than hundreds of others lost no less calamitously.

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