The James Cheape letters contain 62 letters from or concerning James Cheape, a naval student at the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth, England, and midshipman on board the Caldonia, Warspite, Tigris, Express, and Belette during the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, and in the Algerian conflict. The bulk of the collection consists of 57 letters written by James Cheape with the remaining 5 letters written by fellow sailors, reporting on Cheape’s naval career. The letters are all addressed to his parents at Wellfield, near Kinross, Scotland.
Cheape was at the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth, England, from 1808 until the spring of 1811. From 1811 to 1818, he wrote from various naval vessels, but sent a few letters from London, while on leave. He was on the ship Caldonia, May 19-June 15, 1811; on the Warspite, June 2, 1812-April 1, 1814; on the Tigris, May 14-July 7, 1814; on the Express, June-July 1816; and on the Belette, August 22, 1818.
Cheape's letters include lively accounts of life at the naval academy and as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. He discussed news of other ships and fellow officers and wrote about food, the quality of the ships (how well they sailed and how they were equipped), and the characteristics of the captain, crew, and naval officers. He described Captain Blackwood, for example, as a disciplinarian who seemed to order lashings almost daily. Particularly in the early days, Cheape was in perpetual need of new clothes and money. He enjoyed his time at school, calling it the "best place emaginable," in part because he got to eat muffins, crumpets, and eggs (November 26, 1809). He often seemed less concerned with his studies than with impressing high ranking officials and with "holyday" travel; he spent time in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, and with his uncle Charles Cheape in London. Cheape's family had connections to Admiral Philip Patton, who often loaned him money (September 17, 1808). The letters reveal the curriculum of the academy: "I study the 1 book of Euclid and learnd Latin French English Grammar Writing & Drawing...Our Yacht is in the Bason for us to practice to rig her" (September 17, 1808). In the October 15, 1808 letter, he relayed to his mother an exciting episode when the Prince of Wales (George Augustus Frederick, later King George IV) arrived at the dock with his regiment, in preparation for a voyage to Spain, "but I could hardly see him their was such a crowd."
Once out at sea, Cheape wrote interesting details about nautical life and the workings of the British Navy. Cheape's first assignment was on the ship Caldonia, which convoyed with the Druid and the Revenge. Of the Caldonia, he wrote, "she is not only the longest but the finest ship in the world[.] she carries a 138 Guns and about 900 men" (May 19, 1811). Cheape next served as a midshipman on board the HMS Warspite, which started off from Chatham to patrol the waters between England and France. They spent time off Vlissingen, Netherlands; Douarnenez, France; Basque Roads, France; and at Cawsand, Cornwall.
On June 5, 1812, Cheape reported to his father the news of a valuable prize they had captured while patrolling for American ships trading with France:
"We had the good fortune to take the richest American Schooner that has sailed from France this war. We captured her only 14 hours out of Nantz [Nantes]...we took her with Gun Boats. They fired a few rounds of Grapes at us but fortunately nobody was hurt...the Capt. Values this schooner at ₤50,000 she is laden entirely with silks and lotions and so much did her owner depend on her sailing that they made another ship take her quantity of brandy, which Bonaparte obliges them to take as part of their cargo."
He later wrote of heading off to search for the American Frigate the John Adams, and that catching it would mean promotions for many on board (July 7, 1814). In a fascinating letter from November 13, 1813, Cheape described the favoritism and political maneuvering involved in organizing the fleet. He wrote that Lord Melville ordered a line of battleships to the "Western Islands" and wanted the Warspite to be among them. Lord Keith, however, told Captain Blackwood (of the Warspite), "that he could not possibly send him as he had orders to send another ship" and sent his friend Captain West's ship instead. Captain Blackwood then sent a "private letter to Lord Keith -- saying he wished the Warspite to have the preference before any other ship -- when showed the letter to Lord Keith he would not read it -- so I suppose they don't speak now." In another particularly interesting letter, Cheape discussed the role patronage played in granting naval appointments. After attempting unsuccessfully to be transferred to a war ship, Cheape lamented that naval appointments were becoming more competitive and more expensive: "they are paying the Lines of Battle Ships off so fast now that every body is trying to get their sons in frigates" (April 28, 1814).
Cheape mentioned conflicts with America several times, often relaying his own brief impressions of the War of 1812; he asked about his father's views of the war. In a letter from London dated June 18, 1812, he asked, "Do you think that there is any likely hood of an American war [with Britain] I am afraid there is not[.] we would have a chance of making some prize money perhaps." Later he wrote "Do you think it is true the Americans are going to make War with France[?] if so they will have no where to trade to at all...I hope we won't make peace with them before we give them a good drubbing" (February 9, 1814).
Cheape also gives personal accounts of his experiences at sea, including details on the many dangers of sea life. In one instance, a marlinspike "tumbled out of the main tops and fell on my head but fortunately not on the crown of the head or the Doctor said it would have killed me" (June 28, 1816). Cheape typically inquired about the health of his mother, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and commented on news he read in his father's letters.
The 5 letters not written by Cheape are from instructors and superior officers informing Cheape’s father about his son's progress. They are generally optimistic. For instance, George Cheape's friend, J. Somerville, commented that James has a good disposition for a young man (August 7, 1808). Sir John Hay reported that his son was well "after the glorious Victory at Algiers" and that he planned to recommend him for promotion (April 27, 1816).
The collection also contains a few non-correspondence items of note. A letter from London, dated December 24, 1810, contains two recipes of mixtures of salt, sugar, and vinegar, likely for medicinal use. The letter from March 20, 1811, includes an inventory of a midshipman's clothes, instruments, and books.