A Blupete Biography Page

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

Chapter Twelve:-
"Napoleon and Games of Whist -- 1806-10."


On January 23rd, 1806, in Britain, William Pitt died and Charles Fox took over as Prime Minister. In September Fox died in office. William Grenville, the foreign secretary since 1791, formed the government of "All the Talents" which was dissolved in 1807. By a proclamation, dated Berlin, November 21st, 1806, Napoleon declared that the British Isles were in a state of blockade; further, that all letters going to, or coming from England, are not to be forwarded, and all those written in English were to be suppressed; and further, that trade in English goods was to be rigorously prohibited.1 These dramatic political situations did not appear to disturb Hazlitt and his group of friends2 that circled around Charles Lamb. This generation heard about the distant wars (seemingly the same foes3) most all their lives. In November of 1807, the British Royal Navy -- the Danes not committing themselves to throw in with the allies against Napoleon -- promptly sailed over the north sea, paraded into the harbour and bombarded Copenhagen; capturing, in the result, all the Danish fleet. This military action, under the guidance of England's admirals, effectively put the Danes out of the war before they even got into it. At about the same time, however, more European ports were shut to Britain, as for example, Portugal was compelled by Napoleon to confiscate British property and close her ports to England.4

Napoleon's Berlin declaration of November 21st, 1806, viz. the British Isles to be in a state of blockade, was responded to by the British in the new year. On January 7th, a British Order-in-Council prohibited trade.5 This British countermove was a broad brush which effected more than just the shipping interests of France. The new United States of America was drawn into the net set by British war ships, which were very much in charge in all international waters around the world.6 It was becoming common, for a British warship to come along side an American ship, but within a few miles off the coast of New England, barking orders through a large speaking trumpet held up to a British officer's mouth standing squared footed on the quarterdeck of a gun boat with all hands at battle stations. The American vessel was required to reduce sail and come into the wind and prepare to be boarded and inspected to see if deserters of the British Royal Navy and/or contraband was aboard. It mattered not to the British naval captain whether the master of the other ship liked the treatment, or not. One such incident was to be known in history as "The Chesapeake Incident." It was in June 1807, while the U.S.S. Chesapeake was cruising in international waters just outside the three mile limit off of Virginia, the British Warship, Leopard approached and ordered the Chesapeake’s captain to permit a search as they were looking for British deserters. When the captain refused, the Leopard opened fire. George Spater:

"On June 22nd, 1807, the British frigate Leopard had demanded the right to examine the crew of the U.S.S. Chesapeake for the purpose of impressing British deserters alleged to be on board. When this was refused, the Leopard poured three broadsides into the American ship, rendering her helpless. Four sailors were forcibly removed from the Chesapeake. Overnight, talk of war spread across America."7
On December 22nd, 1807, an Embargo Act was passed in Washington. This American act forbade British ships to enter or leave American ports, an act generally taken in anticipation of war. Relations between the United States and Great Britain, however, bumped along for a further four years, during which time the captains of the ships of the British Royal Navy held the view, provided they were on the high seas, that they could do whatever was necessary to enforce English law; -- until, June 18th, 1812, when President Madison and the American Congress declared war on Britain.

We have observed earlier, that Great Britain determined to wage war on the Napoleonic forces, not by sending British troops to the European continent -- indeed, this was a long standing policy of Britain initiated by Pitt -- but rather, to send money to its allies in Europe, such as Austria and Russia, so that they could equip and pay troops to engage the well exercised Napoleonic forces to the north and west of France. It is a safe generalization of the Napoleonic Wars, to say: the French army won on land, the British navy won at sea. In 1808, a change in the British military strategy came about. In support of a Spanish rising, in July, Arthur Wellesley (later to become known as the Duke of Wellington) led the first small British force of 9000 men into the Peninsula of Spain; a gate into the hostile fortress of Napoleonic Europe.8 In August of 1808, Wellesley defeated the French under Junot at Vimeiro. Finally, the people of Great Britain and those of Europe were to understand that the French armies of Napoleon were not invincible. Though, what Wellesley did at Vimeiro occupies considerably less space than that of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar in 1805; Wellesley's victory had as great or some would say greater9 historical impact. A near contemporaneous observation of William Cobbett's, was that, Trafalgar "gave no new turn to the war, excited no great degree of feeling in the nations of Europe, and did not, in the least, arrest the progress of the French arms or diminish their fame or that dread of those arms which universally prevailed."10 For whatever reason, the British did not take full advantage of the victory at Vimeiro, for, almost immediately "a treaty had been signed at Cintra by which the victors agreed to transfer the defeated French army with all its equipment and plunder safely out of Portugal and into France."11

In 1808, William Nicholson (1753-1815), the waterworks engineer from Portsmouth, wrote a Dictionary of Practical and Theoretical Chemistry. Nicholson, in addition, to inventing the hydrometer, and other things, constructed, with others, the first voltaic battery; and, in the process, discovered how through electrolysis, water could be broken down into its constituent parts, a most marvelous event.12 These discoveries were a hint of things yet to come. Transportation, even in the heart of London was still very primitive. The artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon, who was part of the Hazlitt/Lamb circle and about whom we shall read more as we go along in this work, remembered the delays on one of his journeys through the streets of London, "first a coal-cart with eight horses stopped us as it struggled up one of the lanes of the Strand; then a flock of sheep blocked us up ..."13 During July of 1810, the Bank of England at London failed "followed by another in Exeter and a third in Salisbury."14 Merchants started to refuse bank notes in payment and the want of confidence was spreading rapidly. "In August another London bank failed, this time one of the old-established houses, bringing down a number of country banks in its train. ... The war, the commercial embargoes, the heavy taxes, the new machinery, and the paper money were all blamed for the distress of the people."15

On the legislative front: On March 25th, 1807, a bill, the Abolition of the Slave Trade, received Royal assent in Great Britain. "This Act, be it remembered, did not abolish Slavery, but only prohibited the Traffic in Slaves; so that no ship should clear out from any port within the British dominions after May 1st, 1807, with slaves on board, and that no slave should be landed in the Colonies after March 1, 1808."16

In 1807, Hazlitt moved into rooms of his own at 34 Southampton Buildings.17 Hazlitt, during this time, was one of Lamb's circle: Captain Burney18, Martin, his son; Wm. Ayrton19, musician; James White20, treasurer at Christ's Hospital; John Rickman21, clerk to the speaker; Edward "Ned" Phillips22, another clerk and Rickman's successor; Geo. Dyer23; Joseph Hume24; et al. One could have seen them at the residence of Charles and Mary Lamb where they met once a week for discussion, cribbage and whist.25

"I used to be invited to the Captain's whist parties of which dear Lamb was the chief ornament. The Captain was himself a character -- a fine noble creature, gentle with a rough exterior as became the associate of Captain Cook on his voyage around the world, and the literary historian of all those acts of navigation. Here used to be Hazlitt (till he affronted the Captain by severe criticism on his sister, Madame D'Arblay's works).26

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1 John Ashton's The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 5th ed., 1906), pp. 130-1.

2 On December 10th, 1806, with Lamb, Mary (Lamb's sister) and Crabb Robinson, Hazlitt went to the theatre at Drury Lane to watch a play written by Lamb, "Mr. H."

3 By 1807, too, Britain and the new United States were getting quarrelsome with one another mainly because the British navy was boarding American ships at sea to look for deserters and contraband; after a twenty year lull it looked there would be a renewal of hostilities.

4 Ashton, op. cit., p. 135. Ashton notes (fn p. 137) that the King of Portugal and his family fled "to the Brazils" protected by a British squadron in November of 1808.

5 See Navy Records Society (NRS): British Naval Documents 1204-1960 (Navy Records Society, 1993).

6 In writing of the relative strengths of the British and French navies, John Ashton commented on the phenomenal growth of the British navy between the years, 1804 and 1806: "In October, 1804, there were in commission 103 ships of the line, 24 fifty-gun vessels, 135 frigates, and 398 sloops -- total 660. In March, 1806, there were 721 ships in commission, of which 128 were of the line. On January 1, 1808, there were 795 in commission, 144 being ships of the line. Many of these were taken from the French ..." (Op. cit., p. 405.)

7 William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend (Cambridge University Press, 1982) at vol.#1, p.208. Three Americans were killed and 18 wounded.

8 For some insight into Wellington, see John Keegan's The Mask of Command for a splendid little write up.

9 See Spater, William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend, op. cit., at vol.#1, p. 212.

10 As quoted by Spater, Ibid.

11 Ibid.; see, Ashton, op. cit., at pp. 144-5, where the articles of this treaty (it is referred to as the Convention of Cintra) are set forth.

12 Hazlitt, as he disclosed in his essay, "On Living to One's Self (1821)" had at one time a discussion with Nicholson.

13 Autobiography of Benjamin Robert Haydon (Oxford University Press, nd) at p. 87.

14 Spater's William Cobbett, vol.2, p.312.

15 Spater, vol.2, p.313.

16 Ashton, op. cit., p. 132.

17 Incidently, a few years back, I popped around to the Southampton Buildings and took this picture.

18 Captain Burney: this would be James Burney (1750-1821). There is an entry in The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea (Peter Kempt, ed.; Oxford University Press, 1976) that James Burney was with James Cook in his explorations in the Pacific: on the 2nd voyage (1772-5), as a crewman aboard the Resolution; and on the 3rd voyage aboard the Discovery, as a lieutenant. James Burney kept a journal as a lieutenant and once ashore wrote extensively about his travels in the Pacific. His A Chronological History of the North-Eastern Voyages of Discovery ... runs to five volumes which were published between 1803-1817. His History of the Buccaneers of America was published in 1816. And finally, his A Chronological History of the North-Eastern Voyages of Discovery -- which would be of particular interest to west coast Canadians -- was published in 1819.

19 I know little of William Ayrton beyond the years of his birth and death, 1777 and 1858.

20 I know nothing of White, other that there was a "Mr. White" in the room when Hazlitt died in 1830.

21 As for John Rickman (1771-1840): Well, we know that he was "clerk to the speaker." In my limited research I was unable to turn anything else up. "Speaker"? -- Speaker of the House of Parliament?

22 Edward "Ned" Phillips: I have not been able to determine who this man is.

23 George Dyer (1755-1841): I know nothing, other than the years of his birth and death.

24 There is an entry in Chambers on Joseph Hume (1777-1855). He is described as a "Radical politician." He studied medicine in Edinburgh and became a surgeon. While on medical service for the East India Company (this is the likely connection between Hume and Charles Lamb, as Lamb was also employed in London by the East India Company). Hume acquired, while in India, several native languages, and in the Mahratta war (1802-07) filled important offices. At the making of a temporary peace, Hume returned to England in 1808, his fortune made. Hume in his political philosophy (he sat in parliament -- 1812, 1819-55) was along the lines of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Joseph Hume proved to be one of the more active political persons who brought in the great reforms just before the middle of the 19th century. Hume, it seems married a Burnley, "In 1818, soon after his marriage with Miss Burnley, the daughter of an East India director." (http://82.1911encyclopedia.org/H/HU/HUME_JOSEPH.htm : June 16th, 2004.)

25 See Hazlitt's recollections, years later, in his essay, "On the Conversations of Authors." "Where we used to have many lively skirmishes at their Thursday evening parties." Lamb writes in a letter to Coleridge, dated June 7th, 1809, that he has "been turned out of my Chambers in the Temple by a Landlord who wanted them for himself, but I have got other at No. 4 Inner Temple Lane, far more commodious and roomy. I have two rooms on the third floor and five rooms above, with an inner staircase to myself, and all new painted etc. and all for £30 a year. I came into them on Saturday week ... The rooms are delicious and the best look backwards into Hare Court where there is a Pump always going. Just now it is dry. Hare Court Trees come in at the window, [so] that it's like living in a Garden. I try to persuade myself it is much pleasanter than Mitre Court -- but alas! the Household Gods are slow to come in a new Mansion, They are in their infancy to me, I do not feel them yet -- no hearth has blazed to them yet--. How I hate and dread new places!."

26 Crabb Robinson, The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson, Edith Morley (London: Dent, 1935) p. 16. Fanny Burney (Madame D'Arblay, 1752-1840): I am not sure why Hazlitt was so much against Madame D'Arblay, maybe it was just her writing. She saw to the publication of her letters and diaries, and her two novels through in the years 1796 and 1814. Though in proper chronilogical context we may refer to this once again, it was in 1815 that Robinson in his April 23rd entry, wrote appraisng Hazlitt's essay which had just then been published in the Edinburgh Review where Hazlitt dealt with certain past and present novelists. Hazlitt, as far as Robinson was concerned, was mostly on the money but took exception to Hazlitt's criticism of Miss Burney: "He is ... severe and almost contemptuous towards Miss Burney ..." (Ibid.)


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Peter Landry