14 February 1814: A Guernseyman's golden Valentine

Dug from Lima's golden mine, We hail it as our Valentine. HMS Menelaus recaptured a very valuable French prize, the Spanish treasure-ship the St Juan Baptista. The master was a Guernseyman, and Guernsey people are often very careful with money. This one certainly was. The account is from The Life of a Sailor by Frederick Chamier (1796-1870), some of whose tales are probably rather tall.

Plymouth 21 Feb 1814. Sent in the Spanish ship St. Juan Baptiste, from Lima, bound to Cadiz, captured and recaptured on the 2 Feb. between Madeira and the Azores.

A very gentlemanly lieutenant of the French navy, accompanied by two midshipmen, shortly afterwards made their appearance; the former wearing his epaulettes hanging over his breast, instead of on his shoulders. They looked very pale, very disgusted, and very dirty. They belonged to the Atalanta, a large frigate, which had been out on a cruize, and which had made this prize, which, from her great value, they had endeavoured to send into port—stupid boobies! Had they taken the money on board their own ship and burnt the prize, they and their riches would have gone together, had they been captured; whereas, it so happened that the Atalanta, after a long chase from us, got safe into harbour. The French lieutenant was popped down below, and the midshipmen handed over to the larboard berth to sip cocoa, eat hard biscuit, and make their minds up to go to prison.

The prisoners were placed abaft, notwithstanding the drizzling rain. They looked as well clothed as the grave-digger in Hamlet before he disencumbers himself, and kept whispering to each other: some cried. I know I should have cried, had I been in their ill-luck. To be within twenty miles of their port, with a prize having £700,000 sterling on board, besides her cargo, and all the plate and valuable articles of the Duke of Medina Sidonia—he having shipped himself, his wife, his family, his all, in this rich argosie, and he having died, and his household gods and goddesses being prisoners—to be captured—yes, captured, with the port actually in sight; for when the fog cleared up, we saw the French land; and, what was much worse, his majesty's ship the Rippon, then under the command of Sir Christopher Cole—she had heard our guns, and claimed and obtained a share in our prize.

Now, who could, in the situation of these poor devils of Frenchmen, ever mention the word fortune, without a malediction sufficient of itself to send the soul of any heretic into a very uncomfortable situation? They had been chased often; they had eluded pursuit; they had passed a line of frigates, through which it was almost impossible to pass; and when within hail of their port, a thick fog clears up, and they find a large ship close on board of them, which rendered an escape impossible, and which placed them in the hands of their enemies, without a struggle for safety. It was certainly about as much ill-luck as could befall any man in a foggy day.

It was deemed advisable to search the prisoners, and we began with the lieutenant; at first he 'sacré'd' a little, and hectored a good deal; but seeing no remedy, he consented to the degradation. The first operation was to unship his epaulettes, under the bullion of which, instead of finding a stuffing of cotton, we found a stuffing of gold, in the shape of twelve doubloons—which we took the liberty of placing in a midshipman's hat, and ultimately conveyed, when the hat was pretty well filled, to the captain's sofa in the aftercabin. This search was not made in public: a screen was run up the starboard side of the after-part of the main-deck, and the operation was conducted under the directions of the master, in company with the master-at-arms and serjeant of marines; the youngsters being employed to take away the hats, and to empty them on the sofa. The master was a Guernsey man, and seemed to know the stowholes of the Frenchmen. Round the bodies of the common seamen we found lots of doubloons sewed in canvass; the gold coin being in layers of four each, and the doublet going the full round of the back, where it was laced like a pair of ladies' stays. From between, or rather mixed up in the long matted dirty locks of the French sailors, who eschewed combs as a lamb does hemlock, we took some gold coin. At the discovery of every new place of concealment, the victim sighed audibly, and cursed loudly. Some had money secured under the arm-pits: in short, in every place where it could be concealed, there we found it; the Guernsey master making every man open his mouth, and stripping them as bare as ever Adam was drawn in a French print.

On this day I satisfied myself as to a wish I had long entertained, namely, 'to roll in gold;' when we had placed a vast quantity of doubloons on the sofa, I stretched myself at full length, and got one of the youngsters to shower the money all over me. In the midst of this uncommon gratification, in walked the captain;1 fortunately for me, he laughed at the idea, and actually besprinkled me himself. I can give no better notion of the weight these twenty men managed to conceal about their persons, than to mention, that we took from them the amazing amount of twelve thousand pounds sterling. In their chests they had secreted the silver spoons of the dead Duke—watches, ornaments of all kinds, in virgin silver, and every valuable article which came in their power. They seemed to think it very hard that we should take from them what they had taken from the Spaniards. Amongst the valuables found in the lieutenant's box, was a peacock in virgin silver: the eyes, and all the adornments of the tail, (for the proud bird exhibited itself in all its glory) were studded with precious stones; the whole being one of the most beautiful ornaments to a dinnertable ever seen in England. It was made a present to the Prince Regent, by universal consent, and is now in the plate-room of his present Majesty in Windsor Castle.

We left the prisoners just as bare as unfledged birds, as to their ill-got wealth; but we scrupulously returned every sou of French money: to be sure, it did not amount to much; for if I recollect rightly, amongst the whole twenty-two gallant Frenchmen, we only found fifteen francs, which we could bear to return very well; thus setting a laudable example of respecting private property, however large the amount.

The galley of the Menelaus heard many a sailor's anecdote of wealth, of splendid prizes, and of rich galleons; but none rivalled the reality of the St. John the Baptist and her treasures. Such a capture was a great windfall; it excited the poetic genius of the purser's steward, who, laying aside the mess account-books, after due study and much fidget produced the following two lines, which were soon in every sailor's mouth—

Dug from Lima's golden mine,
We hail it as our Valentine.

She was too valuable to be allowed to sail by herself; therefore, after the prisoners were exchanged, and the prize manned, we bore up for Plymouth, and saw the St. John the Baptist safely anchored under the protection of the Salvador del Mundo.

1 The captain of the HMS Menelaus was Sir Peter Parker (1785-1814), who was killed in action in August 1814. Parker was the first cousin of Lord Byron; Frederick Chamier recounts in this book how he watched Lord Byron swim the Hellespont in 1810. The St Juan Baptista had been captured by the British in November 22, 1803, and became the subject of a lawsuit. The Courts found in favour of the Spanish crew, who were judged to have been unaware of the state of war and to have not unreasonably resisted their capture. The crew received damages for their ill-treatment at the hands of their captors.