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John Lang in the British Navy.

There appears to be no official confirmation that John Lang served in the British Navy. In his Obituary written many years later it is claimed that Lang went to sea in HMS Warspite to South America. That there is no official record is not unusual because the Captain's of naval ships often had boys as Captain's servants or as volunteer midshipmen who were not officially on the ship's list of personal and do not appear on musters. However various references and other writings do confirm that Lang did go to sea as a boy, a volunteer, on a British naval ship from Sydney. The Navy did send a naval fleet to the southern hemisphere and it did spend some time in Sydney. The Commander of the Fleet died while the ships of the fleet were in Sydney and the funeral was the spectacle of the day. John Lang would have witnessed this event and one commentator on John Lang suggests that it was seeing the funeral that impelled Lang to 'invent' a naval career. This seems to be a possibility but there is evidence that Lang did actually 'join' the British navy as a volunteer. This would be in character. His father Walter Lang had a seafaring career as a Scottish trader with India before he came to Australia.

There is evidence in favour of Lang being a volunteer on one of the naval ships. In story published in 1863 Lang gives an intriguing account of an accident in the naval vessel that he was serving in. It took place in South American waters when he was in a boat that was accidently overturned. Two men were drowned. The narrator of the story (John Lang) was a strong swimmer kept afloat and he was rescued. Then the naval ship fired a salvo over the spot of the accident and the bodies of the two drowned men came to the surface. They were then given a Christian burial. This was a most unusual happening and it is unlikely to have been written by someone who had not witnessed the happening. Soon after this John Lang gave up his career in the navy and eventually returned home to Sydney. The experience had been too upsetting for him. John Lang repeated this account with slight differences in another story.

The other account of experiences in the navy as a midshipman is in a story called 'Storm Experiences' published earlier in 1859 where he describes a tremendous storm. Lang claimed he had always been afraid of storms and while on the naval vessel he had to go aloft during a storm. It was the job of midshipmen, who were junior officers, although often only boys, to check the knots made by the sailors to secure the sails. The naval ships were of course sailing ships. His description of the storm was awe inspiring with its continuous lightning and rolling thunder. He had no choice but had to go aloft. When he was back on deck he asked a seaman about fear of being aloft in a storm. Interestingly the sailor called the boy midshipman 'sir' indicating Lang's position as an officer. The seaman said that it was all right when there were a number of them aloft but it might be different if he was alone aloft.

Giving boys authority over older ordinary seamen has its difficulties. During the First Fleet there were problems about midshipmen who were boys being put in charge of much older ordinary sailors. In one account by an ordinary sailor Jacob Nagel who left the Sirius in Cape Town because the young midshipman had taken to beating the men. Captain Hunter persuaded the sailor to return to the ship and the midshipman was punished. Orders had been given by Captain Phillip that sailors were not on any account to be beaten. One can feel certain sympathy for the boy midshipman. How can a boy persuade an obstreperous older sailor to do something when his authority as an 'officer', has no effect? He cannot draw on experience and persuasion.

John Lang's life in the navy did not encourage him to make the navy his career. On his return to Sydney he went back to school at Sydney College under Mr. Cape. There he wrote a series of poems about the sea and published them in Sydney newspapers under the pseudonym 'Epsilon'. One poem was called 'A sea burial' about the burial of a seaman. These poems have been published in recent times as Songs of the Sea.

Another indication that Lang had been absent from New South Wales at the time appears in his article entitled Bungaree about the Aboriginal of that name. There Lang records that he had been absent for nearly two years and on his return he found Bungaree, who had been his friend as a young boy very changed in his speech and in his attitudes to him. It was of course Bungaree's habit to imitate the Governor. He was a great mimic and took on the speech and bearing of the current Governor of New South Wales. On Lang's return to Sydney after his absence there was a new Governor in office, Governor Darling and so Bungaree's imitation of the Governor was quite different. This is the way I have noted the period that Lang was absent and so this confirms his life in the Navy as a boy. There are other references in Lang's novels about being a Midshipman or 'Middy'. In his novel Too Clever by Half for example he refers to the hero and a friend going to the fancy dress ball as 'Middies' and commented about being reminded of their past life in the navy.

Lang therefore appears to have been speaking the truth when he claimed he had served in the British navy.

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Title Annotation:John Lang Page
Author:Crittenden, Victor
Publication:M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
Date:Jul 1, 2010
Previous Article:William Dawes: the unknown man of the First Fleet.

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