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Royal Naval Biography/Otter, Charles

[Post-Captain of 1802.]

This officer entered the naval service as a Midshipman on board the Monarca of 70 guns, commanded by Captain John Gell, in 1780, and bore a part in the battles between Sir Edward Hughes and M. de Suffrein, Feb. 17, April 12, July 6, and Sept. 3, 1782, as also in the action off Cuddalore, June 20, 1783[1]. The Monarca’s total loss on those occasions amounted to 28 men killed and 106 wounded. He subsequently served in the Nautilus sloop of war, and Stately of 64 guns, under the respective commands of Captains Thomas Boulden Thompson and Robert Calder, the former employed on the coast of Africa and at Newfoundland, the latter forming part of the grand fleet during the Spanish armament.

Mr. Otter received his first commission in 1790, and we find him serving as second Lieutenant of the Crescent frigate at the capture of le Reunion of 36 guns, near Cherbourgh, Oct. 20, 1793[2]. He was first Lieutenant of the same ship when she encountered a French squadron off Guernsey, June 8, 1794[3]; and also of the Orion 74, in Lord Bridport’s action off l’Orient, June 23, 1795[4]; on which latter occasion he was advanced to the rank of Commander.

Captain Otter commanded the Morgiana sloop of war during the Egyptian expedition, and brought home the duplicate despatches announcing the fall of Alexandria in 1801. He afterwards accompanied a squadron under Rear-Admiral George Campbell to the West Indies, from whence he returned to Portsmouth, May 17, 1802. His promotion to post rank took place on the 29th of the preceding month.

From this period we lose sight of Captain Otter till the autumn of 1807, when he obtained the command of the Proserpine, mounting 40 guns, with a complement of 250 men, in which ship he shortly after conveyed Lord Leveson Gower, the British Ambassador to the court of St. Petersburgh, from Gottenburgh to England. His capture by a French squadron, off Toulon, is thus described by one of the officers then under his command:

“On the evening of the 27 Feb. 1809, the Proserpine was at her station off Cape Side, and had in the day reconnoitred the French fleet in the roads and inner harbour; two frigates had been making a short excursion, but went in again towards dusk and anchored. Several sail of small coasting vessels were out, and running down alongshore towards Marseilles, which induced Captain Otter to run in and endeavour to cut some of them off; failing, however, in that attempt, and having little wind, we stood off again for the night, and strict orders were given to keep a very sharp look out, and to stand in again in time to catch some of them in the morning. Having the middle watch to keep, I went early to bed; the ship was nearly becalmed, at about 5 or 6 miles from the Cape, and on my relieving the deck, I found her, as near as I could guess, in the very same place, and not a breath of wind; it was as fine a moonlight morning as I ever saw; but the moon being to seaward, prevented us from seeing vessels that then might be running along shore, and our ship being between them and the moon, gave them a decided advantage. Mr. Brown, the Master, who died afterwards in France, was the officer of the watch, and kept a constant good look out. Mr. Carslake, first Lieutenant, had left orders for the men to scrub their hammocks on the main-deck, and that the mate of the watch should occasionally attend to the same; this caused me sometimes to quit the deck for a few minutes. At 4 o’clock, I asked Mr. Brown how I should mark the log; he answered, ‘head round the compass’ I then called Mr. Rigby, second Lieutenant, to relieve Mr. Brown, and on coming up again I heard a man, at the look-out on the larboard gangway, sing out, ‘I think I see a vessel, Sir.’ Mr. Brown took a glass, and on looking, told me he thought she looked like a man of war: he ran down to the Captain, and I went and called all the officers: when I got on deck again I looked through my glass, and plainly discovered two ships, with all sail set, very close to us, yet I could scarce make them out with the naked eye. All hands were immediately called, and we in vain (it being calm) attempted to escape the enemy, who were coming up fast, with a fine land breeze: we made the private night signal, but they returned no answer.

“At length we got a little breeze, and as Captain Otter knew the ship sailed best by the stern, he ordered the two bow-guns into the cabin, to answer the double purpose, I suppose, of stern-chasers and ballast. At about 20 minutes past 4, one of the ships ranged up on the larboard side, looking very large – her ports all up, lights on the main-deck fore and aft: she had shortened sail, and was perfectly ready for commencing the action; the other ship was coming up on our starboard side, when the wind entirely died away, leaving the poor little Proserpine in a very hopeless situation; as by this time we discovered two 74’s coming down to assist in the unequal combat. Captain Otter hailed one of the ships, and was answered by a single gun. He took the hint and beat to quarters. When the enemy heard our drum they gave us a whole broadside, which salute we returned in as polite a manner as we could: the ship yawed a little, and left her consort in a safe position astern, where she continued raking us all the action, without our being able to fire a shot at her, as the two bow-guns had been left by those who were getting them aft, when we beat to quarters, and were no small nuisance, as on our larboard side two guns were disabled for 20 minutes by them, till they were got to their places: very fortunately they fired high in the ship astern, to prevent our escape by flight, as they had before witnessed that we could sail very fast. At a little after 5 o’clock the ship alongside piped à la bordage! and the cry of Vive l’Empereur! à la bordage! rent the air; a light breeze which sprung up would have favored them in this design, had not Captain Otter called all the officers, and consulted with them; the result of which was, that as the Proserpine was almost a wreck, her rigging, masts, and sails cut to pieces, 41 hands short of complement, with no chance of being able to save the ship, and the two 74’s coming up fast, it was necessary to surrender, to save the lives of the crew. The colours were then ordered to be struck, after which they fired two broadsides at us, then took possession, and carried us into Toulon. The two ships that took us were the Penelope and Pauline, of 44 guns and 360 men each; the Proserpine had one seaman killed outright, one marine mortally, and eleven men slightly wounded. The French officers said they had none killed or wounded, but several of the crew secretly told us that they had several killed, and that many wounded men were sent at night to the hospital[5].”

Captain Otter continued in France as a prisoner till the conclusion of the war. On the 30th May, 1814, he was tried by a court-martial for the loss of the Proserpine, and honorably acquitted of all blame on that occasion, the court agreeing that the ship was defended in the most gallant and determined manner, and that her colours were not struck until resistance was of no avail.

Agents.– Messrs. Cooke, Halford, and Son.

  1. See Vol. I. note † at p. 421, et seq.
  2. See Vol. I. p. 178.
  3. See id. ib.
  4. See id. p. 179 and 246, et seq.
  5. The squadron sent out to cut off the Proserpine, consisted of the following ships: the Suffrein and Ajax 74’s, and Penelope, Pauline, and Pomone frigates, each mounting 44 guns, and carrying from 360 to 330 men. The writer of the above narrative, when below superintending the men scrubbing their hammocks, heard one of them scold another who had twin sons on board, for breaking his own rest to wash for them, as he said they were big enough to do it themselves. The poor fellow replied, “Oh! they will grow up men soon, and then will not forget my doing this for them; and provided that a shot does not take my head off, they will treat me to many a glass for washing for them now.” In less than two hours after he said the words, a shot actually took his head clean off; and the heart-rending scene that ensued, on the boys finding out that it was their father, beggars all description. He was the only man killed outright. The marine who was mortally wounded, knew his end was very fast approaching, and begged to be allowed to die on board the Proserpine; but he was sent on shore to the hospital at Toulon, and although he could scarcely speak from his wounds, when he passed under the stern of the French Admiral’s flag-ship, seeing numbers on her poop looking at the boat, which was the Proserpine’s cutter, he made an effort to raise himself up in his cot, and exclaimed,

    “You Frenchmen, don’t talk of your fighting,
    “Nor boast of this deed you have done:
    “Don’t think that Old England you’ll frighten,
    “So easy as Holland and Spain.”

    He then attempted to sing “God save the King,” but could not, being faint from loss of blood and exertions; this gallant man was firm and collected to his last moments, and afforded a proof of that sterling and truly British heroism for which our seamen and marines have ever been noted.