It was in January 1984 that my father took up appointment as the 13th Commandant of the Naval & Maritime Academy of the Sri Lanka Navy. He held the rank of Captain and was delighted to be at the helm of this premier seat of learning located within the Naval Dockyard at Trincomalee. In addition [...]


In the heart of Trinco town lies the grave of Jane Austen’s brother

Nishan Fernando recalls how in 1984 he and his father Admiral Clancy Fernando embarked on a graveyard trail to discover a long forgotten monument

Thank you: The letter from Commander Willan

It was in January 1984 that my father took up appointment as the 13th Commandant of the Naval & Maritime Academy of the Sri Lanka Navy. He held the rank of Captain and was delighted to be at the helm of this premier seat of learning located within the Naval Dockyard at Trincomalee. In addition to his naval duties, he was deeply interested in historical matters especially of the Trincomalee Dockyard.

As a 14-year-old I was back in familiar territory, having lived there intermittently from the age of five. The Naval Dockyard is any adventurer’s dream come true -a peninsula of 850 odd acres of thick jungle surrounded by the deep blue sea. Littered within this officially designated wildlife sanctuary are various ruins dating back to the Arabian seafarers who preceded the British who finally completed the Naval Dockyard.

It was around Christmas 1984 that my father received a letter from Commander D.P. Willan of the Royal Navy requesting assistance to locate his great great grandfather’s grave. Trincomalee has quite a few old burial grounds and this was like looking for a needle in a haystack! Nevertheless, this was right up our street.

There was no such grave inside the Naval Dockyard, so we started off with the two smaller burial grounds within Fort Frederick which was under the Sri Lanka Army. The Dutch burial ground was summarily dismissed. The St. Stephen’s Church burial ground came a cropper. That left us with the large burial ground on the Esplanade, Trincomalee which had over a hundred monuments in various shapes and sizes.

Admiral Clancy Fernando

The following day I accompanied my father to his office and once we got there, he tasked me with locating the grave. LTTE terrorism was raising its head and the town was considered unsafe for military personnel and their families.  I still recall my father giving me a 7.62mm Chinese pistol which I tucked into my jacket pocket before heading off with my father’s faithful chauffeur A.L.A. Perera for the burial ground on the Esplanade in the middle of Trincomalee town. This large rectangular burial ground is right opposite the beautiful horseshoe shaped Dutch Bay overlooking the vast Indian Ocean.

The burial ground was overgrown with weeds due to the first rains of the north-east monsoon but fortunately the ground was dry that day. It was a bright sunny morning and we started checking each tombstone working our way from north to south. I was taking more time than I should have because I was fascinated with the inscriptions on the various tombstones and could not help reading most of them. However, most of the monuments were damaged which made me sad.

After checking about 40 odd tombstones we struck gold by noon. A simple rectangular large cement monument had an equally large granite stone inscribed with the following: -

“Sacred to the memory of His Excellency C.J. Austen, Esq.,

Champion of the Most Honorable Military Order of the Bath,

Rear Admiral of the Red and Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s Naval Forces on the East India and China Station,

Rear Admiral Charles Austen CB

Died off Prome, the 7th October 1852, while in command of the Naval Expedition on the river Irrawady against the Burmese Forces, aged 73 years.”

We immediately got back to the Naval Dockyard and reported our find to my father. After lunch we set off with him and he was pleased to see the monument though it needed restoration. We got some photographs for Commander Willan and headed back.

Once at the Dockyard my father drove directly to Navy House, Trincomalee to check the board which carries the names of the Commanders-in-Chief, East Indies Station of the Royal Navy from 1744. We found Rear Admiral Charles Austen, died while on station 1850 inscribed on it. This too was photographed for Commander Willan.

It was only in March 1986 we received a reply from Commander Willan who was extremely grateful that we had been able to find the grave. He was contemplating coming to Sri Lanka to restore it. He also sent me a photograph of the portrait of Rear Admiral Charles Austen that hangs in his dining room together with a synopsis of his life since my father had mentioned to him that I was very keen to have further details.

According to the synopsis Charles John Austen was born on 23rd June 1779. He was the youngest of eight children and Jane Austen, the famous author was his immediate older sister. Jane Austen’s books Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma are classics today. His older brother Sir Francis William Austen was an Admiral of the Fleet of the Royal Navy.

Before :The memorial in Trinco:

Laurel Ann Nattress records that Jane Austen writes to her sister Cassandra on 27th May 1801 that her brother Charles had returned to Portsmouth on board HMS Endymion bearing two topaz crosses for them. These crosses and gold chains had been purchased in Gibraltar by Charles from the prize money for capturing the French privateers Scipio & La Furia in the Mediterranean. This gesture exemplifies the affection Charles had for his two sisters. These two crosses are displayed at the Jane Austen Museum at Chawton House, Alton, United Kingdom even today. Unfortunately, although Charles had regularly communicated
with his sister Jane, none of the letters remain.

On 1st May 1807 Charles married Frances Fitzwilliam Palmer, daughter of the Attorney General of Bermuda and they had four daughters. But sadly on 6th September 1814, his wife passed away.  He was married again on 7th August 1820, to his late wife’s sister Harriet Palmer and they had three sons and a daughter.

As Commander in Chief East Indies & China Station, Charles was headquartered at Trincomalee and he would have occupied Admiralty House as Navy House was known during the Royal Navy. days With the outbreak of the second Anglo-Burmese War in April 1852, Rear Admiral Charles Austen had transferred his flag to a steam sloop around June and led the British Expedition up the Irrawady, where he had died of cholera on board HMS Flute at Prome, in Upper Burma.

After restoration

Although no record is found of the last rites of Rear Admiral Charles Austen it could be safely assumed that he would have been given a sea burial with full naval honours following the traditions of the Royal Navy. It would have been impractical to transfer the mortal remains back to Trincomalee, leave alone the United Kingdom.

Therefore, it is presumed that the monument at the burial ground at the Esplanade, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka is merely a cenotaph as stated by J. Penry Lewis who published the ‘List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon’ in 1913.

Another memorial is to be found at St. Anne’s Church at Portsmouth, United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, the monument at Trincomalee, Sri Lanka is important as it was erected in memory of a Flag Rank Officer of the Royal Navy who served at the height of its naval power seeing action in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, North American Station, Mediterranean Front in the Egyptian-Ottoman Wars, Anglo Burmese War and combating slave trade in the West Indies. Further he died while in command of the East Indies and China Station, headquartered at Trincomalee.

It is known that Charles Austen had maintained daily journals and diaries throughout his life. There are preserved at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich, England.

Ironically, Captain Clancy Fernando later Admiral who facilitated the rediscovery of this monument was assassinated by LTTE terrorists on 16th November 1992 whilst in command of the Sri Lanka Navy.

This record is dedicated to both Admirals.

Post Script: An appeal was made to another historian, Rear Admiral Y. N. Jayaratne, Commander Eastern Naval Area to kindly restore this monument for posterity. I was lost for words when he gave me a positive response. Finally, a restored memorial for the 242nd birth anniversary of Rear Admiral Charles Austen which fell on 23rd June 2021.

Distinguished career with the Royal Navy
Charles Austen had a long and distinguished career with the Royal Navy.

Joining the Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth in July 1791 at the tender age of 12, in September 1794 at just 15 years he had been a Midshipman on board HMS Daedalus. Later he served on board HMS Unicorn and HMS Endymion.

On 8th June 1796 he had seen action whilst on board HMS Unicorn against the 44-gun French frigate La Tribune. Additionally, he had assisted in the capture of the 18-gun Dutch brig Comet and French transport ship Ville de Orient.

Promoted to Lieutenant on December 13, 1797, he served on board HMS Scorpion where he had been involved in the capture of the Dutch brig Courier. Thereafter he had served on HMS Tumar and HMS Endymion.

On 10th October 1804, Charles had been promoted to the rank of Commander and given command of the sloop HMS Indian which he had commanded until 1810. In 1808 he had captured the privateer La Jeune Estelle.

Charles had been promoted as a Captain on May 10th 1810 and given command of the 74-gun HMS Swiftsure. Then in September he had taken command of HMS Cleopatra.

In November 1811 Charles was given command of HMS Namur as Flag Captain to Commander-in-Chief Nore. Then again in 1814 he was given command of the 36-gun HMS Phoenix which was lost off Smyrna due to the ignorance of her Pilots on 20th February 1816. Thereafter, he had been unemployed for ten years until 1826.

On 2nd June 1826 Charles was assigned to serve on the 46-gun HMS Aurora and had been made the second-in-command of the Jamaican station, where he had combated the slave trade,  successfully intercepting many slave ships bound for the United States, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

In 1829 he had been made Flag Captain to Commander-in-Chief of the North American & West Indies Station on board HMS Winchester. But misfortune struck when he had a severe accident in December 1830 which saw him invalided and unemployed for almost seven years.

On 14th April 1838 he had been given command of HMS Bellerophon and had been actively engaged in the Siege of Acre in the Mediterranean which earned him the Companion of the Order of the Bath on 18th December 1840.

Promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral on 9th November 1846, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief East Indies & China Station on 14th January 1850.

Interestingly, the Royal Navy was divided into three squadrons of Red, White, and Blue in order of seniority and Charles was a Rear Admiral of the Red Squadron  – the most senior squadron in the Royal Navy at the time.



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