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Commander

Stephen Taylor offers insight into the complicated world of the British Royal Navy.

November 23, 2012

Commander By Stephen Taylor Norton, W. W. & Company

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Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers for Barnes & Noble Review

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There was a time when aficionados of the "wooden world" became dangerously worked up over the historical precedent for Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey. The subject threatened to become as acrimonious as the long-standing dispute, in other quarters, over the real-world origin (if any!) of King Arthur – dividing families, severing friendships, and flooding the letter columns of history journals with vitriol. I marvel when I think of the commotion Stephen Taylor's Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain's Greatest Frigate Captain would have caused had it been published 15 years ago. The captain, so extravagantly described, is Edward Pellew, whose similarities to Jack Aubrey are striking enough that readers, as Taylor puts it diplomatically, "will judge for themselves whether O'Brian was ignorant of his hero's resonance with Pellew." Still, the shocker is not that Pellew has been entered into the lists to vie with the likes of Thomas Cochrane and George Anson as model for Aubrey, but that Pellew himself – or rather, his fictional self – is the captain under whom C. S. Forester's Mr. Midshipman Hornblower served. The mere suggestion that O'Brian might have availed himself of a character, however real, from the Hornblower novels would have found his loyal partisans reaching for billhooks and belaying pins.

In what way Edward Pellew, later Admiral and Viscount Exmouth, "can be fairly described as the greatest frigate captain in the age of sail," as Taylor says, and why he is so little known (outside the pages of "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower") are two parts of the same story, well told in this fine biography. Born in Dover in 1757, our hero was the son of a Cornish packet ship captain who left his wife a widow eight years later. Abandoning school, young Pellew went to sea at the age of thirteen as a lowly hand. His keenness, intelligence, and athleticism – and, not least, a penchant for showing off – impressed his superiors and marked him, menial though he was, for possible advancement.

The definitive step upward came with the outbreak of American Revolution and Pellew's signing on to a ship carrying troops and General Burgoyne to Canada. Unique among naval commanders bound for distinction and celebrity, the young man's first command, as well as the first official notice of his valor and competence, came to him during action on inland waters. Stationed aboard the schooner Carlton at the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, he took charge of the vessel after both the first and second in command were cut down. Demonstrating initiative and leadership, he also showed "the sort of hot courage that swings battles" in climbing out on the bowsprit to heave the jib around, so that the ship might move off from the deadly broadsides and rifle fire raking her decks.

Pellew's fortunes soared during the Revolutionary War with France when he was given command of the Indefatigable, a 44-gun frigate. As captain, his style was notable in several respects: He was a zealous advocate of gunnery, demanding constant practice for accuracy and speed. He was unusually attentive to the welfare of his men, never asking them to do what he would not; indeed, though he became bulky ("running to belly" as he lamented), he remained physically active for most of his career, scrambling up masts and across rigging in the most unfriendly conditions. A strong swimmer, he saved a number of hands who had fallen into the sea. Above all, he was a born leader of men, inspiring in them "a sort of ferocious élan." He developed a loyal and legendary following, including a crew of Cornish tin miners (who "stood out among the seafarers like an alien tribe, and a warlike one at that.... Fearsome-looking subterranean, they were dressed in the mud-stained smocks and trowsers in which they worked underground, all armed with large clubs and speaking an uncouth jargon which none but themselves could understand.")

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