Book of the month: August – Pellew

(I will catch up with the rest of the months eventually – I hope.)


Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain
Stephen Taylor

I fell across this book while I was on holiday – one of the shops in Tarbert always has a bookcase full of books about the sea – and even without the Hornblower connection, as I’ve said before, I’m interested in different people’s different kinds of lives.

And Pellew does seem to have led quite a different life from most officers*, beginning his career rated as purser’s servant and progressing to able seaman and master’s mate before finally being promoted to midshipman and then to lieutenant.

The book covers his life in three sections, with the first taking him from childhood through service on the Great Lakes and most of his famous exploits – the first naval action of the French war in Nymphe, the destruction of the Droits de l’Homme in Indefatigable, and my favourite story, the evacuation of the Dutton, wrecked off Plymouth.

By the second part, things are starting to fall apart – disagreements with the Admiralty, an attempted mutiny, troubles in parliament, and a posting to the Indian Ocean which sees him on the other side of the world at the time of Trafalgar.

The third part covers his final battle, negotiating with the Barbary States for the release of Christian slaves, and the final successful bombardment of Algiers.

It’s a nice book, written by someone who obviously likes and appreciates Pellew, without being blind to his faults – his inability to leave a job alone if it needs to be done, which can be a good thing, when it leads to a rescue, or to inspiring the men who know that he won’t ask them to do anything he wouldn’t, but can be a problem as well, and particularly his concern for his family, which led to his sons in particular being promoted to positions they were unfit for.

It seems to be obligatory for authors of naval biographies to compare their subjects to Jack Aubrey, and in this case they do seem to have quite a lot in common** – active interest in gunnery and in improving the performance of their ships, the loyal followers, the understanding of the lower decks, and a tendency to save people from the sea. They’re quite different people as well, though, and it does seem to me more the use of a type than of a particular character.

Comparison with Nelson is inevitable in a different sense – at one time Pellew had been the better known of the two, but the business of setting Nelson apart from all others had begun even before his death. For Taylor it’s the wrong comparison in any case, seeing Pellew more in the mould of Collingwood or even St. Vincent, all successful in different ways in their own right.

* Although it did remind me of John Quilliam, with the farm background in a place strongly connected to the sea, and the rise through the ranks.
**Whatever Max Adams may think, Collingwood has more in common with Stephen, or vice versa!

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