Stephen Taylor offers insight into the complicated world of the British Royal Navy.
Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers for Barnes & Noble Review
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.")
Pellew was especially given to playing the patron, taking young men under his wing and promoting their careers. Though many of his protégés went on to success, many did not, among them his brother and two sons, and therein lay his great weakness. Intent on establishing his family's position and wealth, he caused scandal by unabashedly pursuing prize money and by elevating his relations and the sons of his friends and influential men to posts whose demands demonstrably exceeded their talents and characters.
Possessed of a gift for friendship, fortunate in his patrons, and capable, charismatic, and lucky aboard his own vessels, Pellew was – in the best tradition of nautical heroes – a dunderhead when it came to navigating the labyrinthine corridors of power ashore. He brought considerable financial damage upon his family by standing for a seat in Parliament and, having won it, proceeded to run afoul of powerful men who had previously smiled upon his career. His humble origins and rapid rise were frequently called upon to denigrate him as "a man of mushroom extraction."
Though Pellew ascended in rank and honors, his time as a frigate captain was his heyday, and his subsequent promotion to the command of a ship of the line, the 74-gun Impetueux, in 1799 was, in fact, a penalty for having crossed a superior. The Impetueux was an unhappy ship, or as Taylor puts it with characteristic flair, "a dangerous hulk, wallowing in drunkenness, indiscipline and factionalism," and it was Pellew's difficult lot to command it until the Peace of Amiens. After that short-lived respite in the war with France, he moved on to promotion as rear admiral on a 74-gun flagship bound for the East Indies, where he took over as commander-in-chief. But what promised to be the making of a vast fortune and embellished fame quickly turned sour. Mercantile greed, political influence in Whitehall, a split command, personal enmity, and a badly maintained ship combined to produce tragedy and lasting damage to Pellew's reputation. Taylor is clarity itself in describing the complexity of this unfortunate affair, one too convoluted to summarize but which goes a long way toward explaining Pellew's historical neglect.
Here and throughout, Taylor shows how the Royal Navy really worked: how not only the seas, the enemy, one's vessel and gear, and the temper of one's men made up the dangerous universe through which a commander made his way, but also how that progress was affected by jealousies within the service and the vicissitudes of power at Whitehall. Often fortuitous or incidental, internecine rivalries and faraway politics helped shape a man's reputation, his "naval character," "that hard-won accretion of dispatches in the naval Chronicle, well-placed gossip and simple folklore." Even Pellew's swan song in 1816 – an astounding assault on the heavily fortified, seemingly impregnable port of Algiers and the subsequent rescue of over a thousand Christians held in slavery – did not assure his renown through the ages.
I cannot say I finished this excellent biography believing that Edward Pellew was "the greatest frigate captain in the age of sail," if only because there is no scale by which that can really be measured. But in "Commander," Stephen Taylor does relieve the great man of his station in Hornblower's universe, restoring his true character, personality, and illustrious place in naval history. In doing so he has also contributed handily to our appreciation of the workings and vagaries of the Royal Navy at the end of the "long eighteenth century." And if he also happens to stimulate a few more arguments among lovers of nautical adventure, so much the better.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.