All we know
of Beuraws comes from his baptismal entry in
the parish register of St Matthew’s Bethnal
Green, dated 1813. The entry tells us that he
was a sailor on the ship Volontaire and was
the son of an African man.
Beuraws’ baptismal record, 1813
My name is Beuraws – but
it’s hard for English people to say, so the
sailors call me Panfield. I am 24 years old, I am
a free man - a sailor on His Majesty’s Ship
Volontaire, a thirty eight gun frigate, - and yesterday
12 April 1811, I fought in my first sea battle!
I joined the navy three years
ago. I was in a tavern in Bethnal Green, and a group
of men were celebrating and bought me an ale.
At the Inn
They said they were sailors and
that this month they were rich with prize money they
had won by capturing a Spanish ship. Then they bought
me another tankard-full and asked if I didn’t
want to go and get rich fighting His Majesty’s
enemies, and I said, ‘Oh no, I had a job as
footman lined up thank you, but I was most obliged
to them for the ale’ – I was a little
drunk by then already, not being well used to drinking.
And then when I picked up the tankard to take a sup,
they burst out laughing. I looked inside and lying
at the bottom was a shilling.
They weren’t seamen, they
were recruiting officers looking for sailors. And
when I’d picked up the tankard, I’d picked
up the ‘King’s shilling’, the payment
given to new recruits and I was obliged to go with
them then, and be a sailor whether I would or no.
First off, they told me I’d
get two months pay in advance, and that seemed a lot
to me and I was well pleased. But then I learned that
I wasn’t to see that money, it was given to
the purser and I was given ‘slops’ that
is some warm clothes, a blanket and a hammock to sleep
My first voyage was the hardest.
The purser, in charge of buying the provisions, pocketed
most of the money himself, and half the salt meat
on board was rotten before we set sail, and the biscuits
so hard we could hardly get them down. The Boatswain
was a very devil, and beat me for something whenever
he saw me – not being tidy enough with the cables,
or quick enough with the anchor. I learned to dread
the sound of his silver whistle which he used to give
He’d blow the order, and
then the bosun’s mates would repeat it down
the ship till your ears rang. Anyways, I learned my
job from him, and learned it quick to save myself
the feel of his cane.
But the purser and Bosun under
Sir Charles Bullen, present Captain of the Volontaire
are as fair as will be found, and proved themselves
brave and capable men yesterday against the French.
We’d been drilled a hundred times on what to
do in such a case, but nothing can make you ready
At about 8 in the morning the
flagship ahead of us spied a suspicious ship. My heart
was going as fast as a drum and I have never heard
the men so quiet as they worked, no one spoke or sang
as they ordinarily do. It only took a few minutes
and all the berths and lower decks were cleared away
of furniture and crockery. The covers were taken off
the ends of the canons ready for firing; guns and
pistols got ready; the sails were doused with water
to prevent their burning; sand was sprinkled over
the deck so we could run without slipping; the surgeon
in the cockpit prepared a number of tourniquets which
were placed about the ship to bandage injuries with
as quickly as possible; then marines took up their
guard at the hatches so that no sailor could try and
escape the battle by going below.
Only the nippers, the boys are
allowed to come and go as someone must keep fetching
the gunpowder up.
I stood next to my cannon with
Jack on the cannon on my left, and we promised each
other if the other one died we would say a prayer
for him. And then it seemed like no time and we were
And the noise …I had to
tie my handkerchief around my ears. From time to time
there was the sound of a man hit, and his screaming
as they took him down to the surgeon, and with one
man it looked too bad and they just threw him straight
overboard and finished him quickly. And when I looked
around, every ship in our fleet and in theirs was
covered in black smoke with cannons flashing, and
men running and screaming like something out of a
picture of hell.
I saw a man named Aldrich have
one of his hands cut off by a shot, and next I saw
Jack carried past me his shirt soaked with blood.
Many a serious thought ran through
my mind… I thought a great deal of the other
world… but being without any particular knowledge
of religious truth I satisfied myself by repeating
again and again the Lord’s Prayer. And I swore
to myself that if I got back to England I would go
get myself baptised. As Jack says it is the only way
to save my soul, which I never took too much care
of up till now. And then it was over and the French
gave themselves up and our fleet took all eighteen
Battle at sea 1811
And then there was the task of
cleaning up the Volontaire. A great supply of vinegar
was heated to wash the ship and drive away the smell
of blood from the decks. We were lucky with the number
of injuries, not near so many as the French. Jack
is well enough and will recover. He says that for
every man killed in a sea battle he knows of forty
that die at sea from disease or through accident.
But all the men work with light hearts, and we have
been planning ever since how we will spend our share
of the prize money.
Celebration of a victory