These are the riveting recollections of an officer of the Royal Navy—Nelson's navy—in the first years of the nineteenth century, through the long wars with Britain's ancient enemy Spain and the France of the Revolution, Consulate and of the newly crowned Emperor Napoleon. Hoffman was a seaman who could inspire aspects of the Hornblower character. Hoffman's was a naval career full of incident and action. Joining the navy in 1793 he served in HMS Blonde and HMS Hannibal in action off Martinique and in the Channel. He was engaged in eighteen fierce boat actions before being promoted to lieutenant of HMS Volage where he saw further action against privateers off Cuba. After serving on the Monitor he was posted to the famous HMS Tonnant and it was aboard her that fought at Trafalgar—the greatest sea battle of the age. This remarkable sailor's career continued on many ships voyages and actions too numerous to recount here. It is enough to remark that everyone interested in the Royal Navy during the great days of sail will find much pleasure within these pages.
We were now destined to make one of the Channel fleet, which we joined off the Island of Ushant, consisting of thirty-six sail of the line and seven frigates. <br>
At daylight on the 6th of October, 1794, our signal was made to chase three suspicious vessels in the S.W. On nearing them we made the private signal, which they did not answer. We beat to quarters, and as they were under the same sail as when we first saw them, we neared them fast, and when within gunshot the nearest yawed and gave us a broadside, running up a French ensign, as did the other two. The shot fell short of us; we opened our main-deck guns and brought down her mizzen topmast. The other two fired from time to time at us with little effect. They did not support their companion as they ought to have done. In a short time we were nearly alongside the one we had engaged, and gave her another broadside which she returned, and struck her colours. She proved the Gentille, of forty-four guns and three hundred and eighty men. The other two, also French frigates of the same size, made all sail to the southwards. The enemy had eight men killed and fifteen wounded; we had four men wounded. We soon exchanged the prisoners; put the second lieutenant, a master’s mate, three midshipmen and fifty men on board her, and sent her to Portsmouth. We immediately made sail in chase of the others, but as they had gained a considerable distance from us during the time we were exchanging the prisoners, there was little chance, without a change of wind, of overtaking them. In the middle watch we lost sight of them, and the day after rejoined the fleet. In five days afterwards we were again in chase of a ship, and after a severe tug of fourteen hours we captured her. She proved a French twenty-four-gun ship, with one hundred and sixty-five men. We also sent her into Portsmouth. After having cruised off and on near Ushant for about eight weeks, we were ordered to Portsmouth, where we arrived shortly afterwards and completed our stores for six months. Before sailing we received some prize-money, which produced, from stem to stern, little wisdom, much fun, and more folly. We were again ready for sea, and received orders to repair off Plymouth and join part of the Channel fleet and a convoy consisting of more than two hundred sail, bound to different parts of the world. In a few days we joined the rest of the fleet off Cape Finisterre, where some of the convoy parted company. The day following a most tremendous gale sprung up from the S.W., and in the night a transport with two hundred Hessian troops on board went down on our weather beam. The shrieks of the poor fellows were distinctly heard. As it was impossible to render them any assistance, every soul on board her perished. In the morning the convoy were much dispersed; the gale continuing, they were ordered to leave the fleet for their destinations. After the gale abated the signal was made for our captain. An hour afterwards he came back looking as black as a thundercloud. As soon as he reached the quarter-deck he stamped with rage, and when it had nearly subsided he informed the officers that we were to proceed to the West Indies without delay. This was an unexpected shock to many of the officers as well as himself, as they had left some of their clothes behind; however, there was no remedy for this mishap. As for myself, I anticipated a merry meeting with the many copper-coloured dignity ladies I formerly knew, provided the land-crabs had not feasted on their delicate persons.<br>
In the afternoon we gave a long, lingering look at the fleet, and parted company with two other seventy-fours who were in the same scrape. Our noble captain did not get rid of his angry looks for some days, and actually wept at what he termed the treacherous conduct of the Admiralty. We understood afterwards that he was under an engagement of marriage to the sister of a nobleman, which was to have taken place in three months. Nothing worth notice occurred during the passage, except the visit from Neptune and his wife, and the shaving and ducking all his new acquaintances, who were rather numerous. We saw several tropical birds, which the sailors call boatswains, in consequence of their having one long feather for a tail, which they term a marlin-spike—an iron instrument sharp at one end and knobbed at the other, used in splicing ropes, etc.<br>
The captain of marines also shot an albatross or man-of-war bird, so called from its manner of skimming through the air after other birds, which the seamen compare to sailing. It measured seven feet from pinion to pinion. On the fifth week of our separation from the fleet we made the Island of San Domingo, and on the day after anchored with the squadron in Cape St. Nicholas mole. We found here the Sampson, of sixty-four guns, the Magicienne and the Thorn, and some transports. This mole, or harbour, is formed by the high land of the island on the right hand going in, and on the left by a peninsula, joined by a narrow sandy isthmus to the island at the head of the mole. It is strongly fortified. The harbour is a fine one, and would contain the whole British fleet. The town has a common appearance and has nothing remarkable in it. We remained here three weeks, at the end of which period we ran down to Jamaica, and anchored off Port Royal. This town is built on a small peninsula, joined to the island by a long, narrow neck of sand called the Palisades. Here all unfortunate whites who depart this life become feasts for crabs of all descriptions, as it is the place of burial for the town and men-of-war. This isthmus is the dam which secures the harbour of Kingston from the inroads of the sea. The houses of this town are generally not more than a single storey high, constructed of wood with overhanging shingled roofs, and verandas in front, which prevent the sun entering the rooms.