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Beuraws, Sailor, 1811

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
Beuraws’ baptismal record, 1813

At the Inn


An Inn

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
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 in.

Docks
Docks

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 orders.

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 for it.

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 about it.

Ship’s cannon
Ship’s cannon

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 ships prisoner.

Battle at sea 1811
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
Celebration of a victory

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