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The fellowship to abolish slavery - Charles Middleton

In this first part of the fellowship to abolish slavery we describe Charles Middleton, and give you more details than you may have been expecting about his life at sea. We think these details are rather exciting and far more significant to the success of the fellowship than they have yet been seen to be. We hope you'll agree when you meet all the members of the fellowship.

By courting danger, you make yourself safe. . .safe in your heart.

Charles Middleton was born in 1726 in Bo'ness on the Firth of Forth. At the age of fifteen, he left home for the sea, and became a servant to the Captain of the Sandwich. The job had possibilities for advancement, not unlike those in a modern venture capital corporation, which a ship in the Royal Navy resembled in several ways. In other ways, as you might guess, it was quite different. British author Patrick O’Brian sets the scene for a midshipman, which Charles Middleton became in a year or two, in his book The Golden Ocean. Peter Palafox is just boarding the Centurion to join her crew of 400 men:

. . .she lay with her yards across, trim, shining with cleanliness even under the grey sky of the morning, her decks a scene of intense activity; parties of seamen in canvas trousers hurried with buckets and mops; a half-company of red-coated Marines performed their exercise with a rhythmic stamping and crash to the beat of a drum.

‘I say, Palafox,’ said FitzGerald, who was first up the side, ‘do you see that –‘

‘You, sir,’ cried an angry voice behind them; ‘you there! Who the devil are you?’ It was the officer of the watch, who knew very well who they were, but who nevertheless stared down upon them with a fierce and disciplinary eye. ‘What is your business? What do you mean by wandering about his Majesty’s ship like a pack of geese on a common?’

Discipline is not the most ferocious lesson they will learn. It’s expected that the young midshipman has already learned algebra. If not, he will learn it here, in the bracing air, along with nautical navigation and the use of his quadrant, parallel rulers, Gunter’s scale, and Halley’s compass deviations. He will master the complexities of sheet and tack, nurse wounded and ill men, and climb the shrouds and futtock-shrouds as high as the fore-to’garn crosstrees in all weathers on his watch. (When the young midshipmen get out of hand, they are ordered into the shrouds, where they festoon the mastheads, “disconsolate colleagues arranged, like ornaments, high above the sails.”) He will carry messages while the deck of his ship is being raked with gunfire.

By the age of sixteen or younger, a midshipman might have been in action ten times and he would have stared death in the face. He would have cleaned out the squalid ‘tween-decks when men by the score fell sick, because “it is the custom in the Navy for the officers to share in all the very nasty work – the Commodore had carried stretchers. . .when they first unloaded the fetid sick-bay.” If a midshipman was unlucky, he would have seen service under “a slave-driver captain, that horrible, sometimes half-mad figure that stained the naval record for too long, and made some ships a floating hell.” Middleton loathed captains like this.

Middleton will wear the blue-laced coat and white breeches of the officer, and learn to reckon latitude and climb the fore-topsail yard in a storm. It is on the Sandwich that he is supposed to have met the Captain’s niece, Margaret Gambier. It is impossible to learn her age or whether their encounter was memorable, but they would have reason to remember each other later. At the time, Middleton has no money, and his survival is uncertain, since the Navy is efficient at depriving the world of men. They are swept overboard in storms, die of scurvy or fever, or are mangled by guns.

O’Brian describes the daily dangers British seamen face in a scene that begins when Peter Palafox hears the first lieutenant roar above the thunder of the sea and the harping of the mizzen shrouds, "'Mr Palafox, what do you mean by being late on deck? Go below, sir, and do not present yourself again with your hair uncombed. This is a man-of-war, not the Calais packet. I shall expect to see you again in fifteen seconds, properly dressed and brushed.'" Fifteen seconds later, and properly brushed, Peter returns to deck and races up the shrouds, hanging on the yard in the teeth of a storm, grappling

with the sail that bellies out below you while men on deck haul on the buntlines and clew lines to raise the lower part of the sail up toward the yard, thus helping you to wrap the sail close to it, making all fast with the gaskets and so furling it. It sounds fairly simple; . . .but when the sail has an area of three thousand square feet, and when huge quantities of it balloon with enormous violence into your face, nearly knocking you off your perch and quite ripping all the careful folds of canvas from under your hands (which usually means that the men on either side of you have their hard-won sail torn away too, so that they hate your vitals), and when the wind is so strong that every inch of the canvas is frantically alive. . .then it becomes more complicated, particularly when everything is done in a howling fog. . .

The ship’s Commodore, however, is unfazed. “Firmly stayed fore and aft, in the act of shaving himself with a gleaming razor,” he calmly says to Peter, "My compliments to Mr Saunders, if you please, and I will be on deck in three minutes." As he spoke, he deftly timed the stroke of his razor to the pitch of the ship.

In 1745, Charles Middleton was promoted to be lieutenant of the Chesterfield with Captain William Gordon. He was just nineteen. By then he was accustomed to moldy rations and weevily biscuits, the piping of the watch that sent him up on deck, and the complexity of sailing a huge ship. The work in all its fugue-like variations went on constantly. Men were all day at various tasks, from butchering meat to holystoning the deck. They were plotting their position, tacking the sails, conning the ship from behind the wheel, taking orders, applying "seamanlike ingenuity" when it was desperately needed, watching for enemy ships, clearing the decks for action.

Through the repeated thunder of gunnery practice and the conclusive splash of the funeral service, through the din of the man-of-war and the exhaustion and exhilaration of the days and nights, Middleton maintained “tone” with just one lapse. Tone meant perfect manners in the heat of battle. Oaths were abhorrent, “disgusting” and “unmanly.” Broadsides might be rocking the ship, but it was ‘If you please Mr –’ and ‘My compliments to Mr -’ as the commander issued orders. Tone meant “cheerful, indefatigable industry” especially during disaster, swallowing down disappointment “with a sailor’s hard-learnt philosophy”, acting fearlessly, and serving efficiently, tirelessly, and selflessly on a team. Tone meant self-control. Middleton lost his once when he was still a young officer, and the crew was quarreling about rum rations.

He never lost it again. Meanwhile home and Margaret Gambier lay thousands of watery miles away.

The end of the war of the Austrian Succession in 1748 put many ships in dry dock and Charles Middleton on half pay. It was not until 1754 that he was appointed to the Anson, and employed on convoy service, guarding merchant vessels sailing to the West Indies. He was twenty-eight. He had not married. Financially he could not afford to.

Two years later the Seven Years War erupted, drawing in all the European powers and spreading across the Old and New Worlds. The Royal Navy mobilised to protect shipping and to harass the French. In 1758, in May, when he was thirty-two, Middleton was promoted. He became Captain of the Arundel and then Captain of the Emerald.

He had learned how to command. His voice carried “the authentic quarter-deck rasp, unconscious, unemphatic and convincing,” and he genuinely cared for the men on his ship. He became a brilliant strategist and a legendary captain, loved by his men. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in 1761 he “commanded the Emerald frigate in the West Indies, and cruised with success against the enemy’s privateers, many of which he captured or destroyed. For his services in the protection of trade the assembly of Barbados gave him a vote of thanks and a gold-hilted sword.”

It’s here that a venture capital comparison might be made. When Middleton and his men captured a privateer, they owned it and everything on board after a cut had gone to the Admiralty. The prizes were divided to the last shilling with every man earning something depending on a pre-agreed formula. If our information is correct, Middleton's ship had a phenomenal run, capturing at least sixteen privateers. One happy result was that in 1761, when Charles Middleton was 35, he and Margaret Gambier were able to marry.

Lady Middleton is a painter who is known for her love of people and animals. As we will see she will become a vital member of the fellowship to abolish slavery. The third member of that fellowship is a man who, with Middleton’s help, will make the most important contribution to the early history of the anti-slavery movement. The man is James Ramsay. In 1759 he arrived on Middleton’s ship, the Arundel, to serve as his surgeon.

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