As Captain's Clerk aboard the H.M.S. Defiance and Cyane , and as purser aboard the Africaine , John Tapson was witness to several significant naval engagements during the Napoleonic Wars. Boarding the 74 gun frigate, Defiance , in April, 1806, Tapson served uneventfully off the coasts of Brittany, Portugal, and Spain until January, 1808, when he was transferred to the Cyane .
Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar in February, the Cyane took part in patrolling the Spanish and French coasts, intercepting vessels carrying contraband or goods to the enemy and making occasional landings to engage French ground forces. Interactions between the ship and shore, taking place at something of a distance, were not always as fraught with peril as might be supposed, and sometimes descended to the ridiculous. The day after being driven from Calella, Catalonia, on August 14, 1808, for instance, French troops returned to greet the crew of the Cyane with light arms and insults. For Tapson, the most striking insult was delivered by a daring French cavalry officer, who exhibited "a singular display of personal daring, and contempt of danger; for he walked deliberately down to the water's edge with his arms folded over his chest, then turned his Back towards the Ship, and with the utmost 'Sang Froid,' threw the skirt of this Coat over his head, stooped forward & slapped his Hands on a certain part (which is sometimes called the seat of honor) with all the contempt & scorn of our power it was possible by such means to convey" (p. 36). Captain Staines of the Cyane took the insult personally on behalf of all of the sailors, and assuming personal command of a twelve pounder, exchanged shots with the Frenchman. Frightened, but undaunted, the French officer saw fit "to continue his indecent exhibition with redoubled energy" until on the third shot, the Captain's aim proved true. Tapson was repelled by the brutality of the Spanish troops, as much as he was critical of their inefficacy compared to the French. Of a like mind, Captain Staines ordered his men ashore to rally the Spaniards, and to assist in driving off the French rifles. Clearly more comfortable at sea than on land, Staines quickly withdrew, narrowly avoiding capture.
In May, 1809, the Cyane proceeded to the Bay of Naples, landing at Monte Cecilia to capture a pair of ill-equipped, lightly defended martello towers, and remaining in the region for over two months, intercepting shipping and interrupting land operations whenever possible. In one particularly violent clash with Neapolitan ships during the summer, the Cyane lost 3 men, 27 injured. Among the injured was Capt. Staines, whose arm was shattered by grape shot. He withstood the pain well, according to Tapson, even requesting while his arm was being amputated that the ring on the little finger be carefully preserved.
In October, 1809, the Cyane returned to England. Tapson awaited his next appointment until June, 1810, when he was made purser to the H.M.S. Africaine , captained by the sadistic Robert Corbet. Less than three weeks after joining the Africaine , Tapson recorded that "A most violent prejudice has arisen in the minds of the Ships' Company against the appointment of Capt. Corbet" (p. 65) due to his "oppressive & tyrannical" treatment of previous crews. A near mutiny averted by the intervention of Sir George Coburn, Corbet's arrival aboard ship was nevertheless greeted with a sullen response by the crew, who let it be known that they had little intention of submitting easily to Corbet's harsh discipline. Indicative of their state of mind, the sulking crew refused to hold the shellbacks ceremony on crossing the equator, and a short while later, the arrest of a marine for insubordination prompted one anonymous member of the crew to send a death threat to the Captain. As inept in reading his crew as he was harsh, Corbet ordered his officers to arm themselves, confronted the crew and read the letter to all, insisting that "it was his fixed determination to be a great deal more severe than he had ever yet been," sentencing the offending marine to eight dozen lashes as a demonstration of his intentions, taunting the crew in the process (p. 69-70). According to Tapson, Corbet's bullying found its mark: "If the People had before this entertained any doubts of the Nerve & determined character of their Captain, they must now no doubt have been undeceived" (p.71).
Arming the watch to ensure that no mutinous attempts would be tried, the Africaine passed the Cape of Good Hope on August 19th and in September, touched at the Island of Rodriguez before joining in the naval assault of Grand Port, Mauritius. The Africaine parried with French warships of the coast until the 13th, when, against the advice of his Lieut. Tullidge, Corbet ordered his ship to press forward without support. After becoming embroiled in a fierce battle, the Africaine was laid out helpless when the wind died to a calm, and was subjected to a withering fire that disabled or unmanned most of her guns. Tullidge and the remaining officers reluctantly ordered the colors to be stricken, but, enraging the crew, Corbet shouted "For shame, hoist the colors again, fight and go down!" Tullidge pleaded with the Captain, insisting that he damage done had already been too great, and the ship was turned over to the French. Knowing no French, Corbet at last ordered Tapson to interpret in the negotiations, and after some ungentlemanly treatment by a Republican seaman, the crew of the Africaine were taken aboard the French ship, Iphigenie . At dawn, the English frigate, Boadicea, was spotted bearing down under heavy sail, and it was able to retake the unmasted Africaine , though it made no attempt to rescue its crew after seeing how badly mangled they must be. In this, the captain of Boadicea was accurate: the Africaine had suffered a loss of 49 dead and 114 wounded -- more than half the crew.
The officers of the Africaine were placed into a prison ship at Port Louis while the enlisted were billeted ashore. Within a few days, the prisoners were liberated by the British landing force that had captured Grand Port. To the relief of the crew, they learned that Corbet had died of wounds received, having apparently killed himself by removing a tourniquet and bleeding to death, rather than submit to the humiliation of capture. Aboard a captured frigate, Astrée , Tapson returned to England, arriving in April. The officers were subsequently fully exonerated at court martial for their part in the capture of the Africaine .
In August, 1811, Tapson rejoined the Africaine for a tour in the South Seas. Making a circuitous route from Sri Lanka to India and Indonesia, then back to India, the Africaine arrived in Bombay on January 1, 1813, just in time to receive word that war had been declared between the United States and Britain. The Africaine was immediately charged with intercepting a small fleet of American merchantmen (valued at £300,000 each) from Canton and set sail once again for the East Indies. Meeting the Minden in Madras, the Africaine laid in wait for the American ships in the Straits of Malacca, but found nothing. After several months of duty off of Sumatra and Malaysia, they were ordered to the Euphrates River to suppress piracy, but when they again found little to do, they returned to Indonesia, going as far east as the Moluccas (Maluku), the Celebes (Sulawesi), Banda, and Timor before pulling into port in the Philippines just before Christmas, 1814.