A Blupete Biography Page

"Rackets and Tea":
The Life and Writings
of William Hazlitt (1778-1830).
[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]

Chapter Four
"The Times -- 1796-97."

"By the end of 1796 further negotiations for peace had signally failed, and the French had required the British plenipotentiary to quit Paris within forty-eight hours. Britain had now reached an almost zero of humiliation and peril. An enormous load of debt, an impaired credit, a series of military defeats, a rising discontent among the people, a dismemberment of all the great monarchical powers formed in 1793 to destroy France, and no visible signs of the war coming to an end -- this was the prospect which Pitt had to face.1 And, further, he was to learn with pain that he had been wrong in ever supposing France would, through lack of funds, be forced to sue for peace. On the contrary, British credit now collapsed."2
In December of 1796, the French sent General Hoche on an expedition consisting of 43 ships together with 15,000 men to Ireland. The hope was to find the people of Ireland ready to assist France in subduing England. Sailing from Brest, the French fleet reached Bantry Bay in Ireland, but unfortunately for the French, and fortunately for the British, a storm blew up: "Before Hoche's expedition could disembark, a gale impelled the fleet from their anchors, sank one ship, dismantled others and drove several ashore. The net result was that the remnant returned to Brest after complete failure."3

Undisturbed by these world events of 1796, and certainly not influenced by them, the young Hazlitt finished up his studies at Hackney, and returned to his family at Wem.4

By 1797, the situation for England was looking bleak, indeed. With Bonaparte having successfully invaded Italy, and Spain coming in on the side of France and the Austrians retiring from the war; France was left without an enemy on the continent, and England without an ally. England, fearing an invasion, withdrew her ships from the Mediterranean, which was thus to become a "French Lake" from January 1797 to May 1798. In the channel, she built her wooden walls thicker and taller; not, however, that the British navy earned her reputation by defensive action. The British navy was always noted for its aggressiveness. A British naval ship or ships would never miss an opportunity to run a French-flagged ship down, no matter her size; and with the winds at her stern or quarters would come up full tilt, to fetch up, gunnel to gunnel, simultaneously, with cannon blazing and well disciplined British crews, sabers and hand pistols at the ready, swinging their grappling hooks high in the air: -- all with the view to going head to head without hesitation. The British navy had earned its reputation of her military superiority upon the world's seas; at even odds it was most certainly going to record a win, and often it did even where the odds were significantly against it. Such a display may be illustrated by pointing to the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. Green wrote: "The Spanish fleet,which had put out to sea with twenty-seven sail of the line, was met on the 14th of February, 1797, by Admiral Jervis off Cape St. Vincent with a force of but fifteen, and [the Spanish fleet] driven back to Cadiz with a loss of four of its finest vessels."5

Notwithstanding the great pride of the men of the British Royal Navy, there was very serious problems in the lower decks.

"Many of the sailors were pressed men, ie prisoners on ship, and not allowed ashore for years on end. All lived cooped up in foul air with endless hard labour, facing the constant threat of disease, drowning and death in battle. All were subject to a permanent reign of terror which ranged from arbitrary blows with a rope end, through flogging with the cat o' nine tails, to keel-hauling and hanging at the yardarm. But the historical context was such that the revolt inevitably had much wider significance."6
The wider significance, according to the author of the article from which this quote comes, was that the rebellion of the crews of the Channel Fleet at Portsmouth in 1797 was part of a wider movement underway in other parts of the world. The United States had just got rid of its aristocratic order in exchange for "democracy" and France, just then, was in the process of doing the very same thing. The Portsmouth Mutiny of 1797 "lasted five weeks and spread all over the world."7 The sailors ran the very great risk of losing their lives but they "held firm and by mid-May the admiralty capitulated. Virtually all the sailors' demands were met, including the royal pardon and the removal of more than 100 officers ..."8 Fortunately, the Dutch or the French did not know of these naval problems. As Lord Rosebery points out9, it was England's darkest hour; two invasions had been attempted and a third was pending. By summer, it would appear, the officers (now different and working under a different set of principles) had command over their crews, once again. This was to be very well demonstrated in October of that year: "In a bloody and obstinate battle off Camperdown the Dutch fleet, once so famous and so formidable, took its leave of history. ... defeated by Admiral Duncan at the head of the fleet which had returned to discipline; and thus this black year ended well."10

At Wem, presumably at his parents' home, we would have found, in 1797, William Hazlitt reading constantly. In his later years, he was to observe:
"My three favourite writers about the time I speak of were Burke, Junius11 and Rousseau. I was never weary of admiring and wondering at the felicities of the style, the turns of expression, their finements of thought and sentiment: I laid the book down to find out the secret of so much strength and beauty, and took it up again to read on and admire. So I passed whole days, months, and I may add years; and I have only this to say now, that as my life began, so I would wish that it may end."12
[Next: Chapter Five -- "Hazlitt Meets Coleridge, 1798."]

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1 A general election in 1796 had refreshed Pitt's majority. [Lord Rosebery, Pitt (London: MacMillan, 1891) at p. 132 (Herein referred to simply as Rosebery.)

2 Chatterton, A Life of William Pitt, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1930) p. 266.

3 Chatterton, op. cit, pp. 269-70.

4 The Life of William Hazlitt (1922) by P. P. Howe (Penguin, 1949) at p. 39. (Herein I refer to this work simply as Howe; he is an acknowledged expert on Hazlitt.)

5 Vol. X, p. 176. With two great naval successes in 1797 -- Battle of Cape St. Vincent (February) and at Camperdown (October) -- Nelson was ordered to enter the Mediterranean and by May of 1798, the British fleet was sailing back and forth in the Mediterranean. In August, Nelson caught up to the French fleet which he destroyed at the Battle of the Nile. Nelson had found the French fleet at Aboukir Bay. On the morning of the 1st of August, leading the way in his flag ship between the shore and the anchored French fleet, ruined it after a hot fight that lasted for twelve hours. "Few victories," Green wrote, "in history have produced more effective results than the battle of the Nile. The French flag was swept from the waters of the Mediterranean. All communications between France and Bonaparte's army [which had just gone ashore at Egypt] was cut off; and his hopes of making Egypt a starting-point for the conquest of India fell at a blow." (Vol. X, p. 183.

6 http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr240/molyneux.htm : May 20th, 2004.

7 Rosebery, p. 134.

8 http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr240/molyneux.htm : May 20th, 2004.

9 P. 135.

10 Rosebery, p. 137.

11 This would be, I suppose, Franciscus Junius, who Chambers describes as "a German-born philologist" who spent a number of years in England, circa, 1660. [In my works I often refer to Chambers Biographical Dictionary (Edinburgh) simply as Chambers.]

12 "Whether Genius is Conscious of Its Powers," 1823, The Plain Speaker.


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Peter Landry