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Commander

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

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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.

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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.

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