‘I suppose you will be surprised to hear that I have been for this last month a prisoner, but it was all my own fault’ —Charles Howe Fremantle to his family, May 20, 1812, aged 11
UNPUBLISHED letters written to his family as an 11-year-old prisoner-of-war in the 1812 Anglo-American War reveal a fearless side to Fremantle’s founding father.
Raised in a famous seafaring family, Charles was 10 when his dad first took him out to sea. He does not recoil from the sight of blood and guts and death.
He provides detailed accounts of the battlefield, numbers of troops and ships involved in blockades and marches across rough terrain to engage the enemy Americans.
Charles claims his imprisonment in the 32-month military conflict between the infant United States and the British empire was his fault.
“ … as I asked the Captain to let me go on a Sloop with Mr Claxton fitted out for a tender to take prizes, but we were not in her long before we were (taken) by a privateer”.
The letter is one of several released by the Fremantle family to the Herald for the first time since the port city’s founder penned them 200 years ago.
WA’s first governor and colonial founder James Stirling was 21 and on his first command on HMS Brazen, which seized two prizes in the same war Fremantle writes about.
Fremantle would later sail to the colony, aged 29, and take formal British possession of Western Australia just weeks before the arrival of 38-year-old Stirling.
Back on May 20, 1812, the pre-teen POW writes he was taken to New London (Connecticut), “where I was very comfortable as the British Consul let us live in his house & was very kind to us & it was about a week ago that they let us come back to the ship”.
He adds of the rigours of war: “I don’t like the Yanckies at all as they took my Spy Glass which Lord Buckingham gave me and some of my bedding & behaved very ill to us while we were on Board.”
Fremantle replaces the confiscated spy glass with one, “he got one today from a Schooner that had been taken”.
In another letter, dated July 24, 1813, homesick Fremantle asks: “Tell Tom & Emma I wish I was at home to lend them a hand to drive their little Carriage about it must be fine fun, but I am here driving the Yanckies (sic) about”.
The letters are being compiled by the family, the first of which were released during a visit to London by local history buff John Dowson, who was given permission to publish them.
Mr Dowson is gathering intelligence on Fremantle to boost his historical profile and help make the case for the commissioning of an official statue erected in his honour.
He describes the letters’ contents, as “virgin territory” and wants the letters made available to the public to fill in a largely unknown side to the port city’s founding father—his younger self.
“You sense a strong, dynamic and and energetic individual,” Mr Dowson says, noting a time when Fremantle in his 20s swam into surf to take a line to a sinking ship.
In the 1812-1813 war, Fremantle describes the massive scale of battle, having marched 10 miles without stopping, “I can safely say 200 men fell down with fatigue, I do not know how I happened to keep up (it was hard work)”.
“Then we had an entrenchment to attack of about 13,000 Americans & we had only 4,000 but we managed to drive them out in less than ten minutes it was sharp work for the time the balls were flying about like hail,” Fremantle writes to his mother September 17, 1814.
He tells her he’d received her letter back in June, “I hope by this time that you are quite recovered from your rheumatism”.
On December 22, 1814, naval officer Percy Grace writes to Fremantle’s mother Betsey to say: “I have just received … an excellent account of Charles that I cannot refrain from congratulating you and the Admiral, on the happiness you must experience in the conduct of such a son.
“He was attached to his friends division of the (sic) Naval Brigade, which were in the hottest part of this attack—previous to which he walked, & kept up remarkably well—for ten miles, in a deep sand, on a hot sultry day.
“As there was no doubt, but if they persisted in the intended attack on Baltimore, their loss would have been great”.
Mr Dowson says it is time to rewrite Fremantle history and pay homage to a great man: “He is not the old man sitting down with big feet. He is someone worthy of proper recognition and honour.”
by CARMELLO MALFI