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

Sam Willis is enthralled by a biography of Edward Pellew, a naval officer who provided the template for a fictional hero

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Reviewed by: Sam Willis
Author: Stephen Taylor
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Price (RRP): £20

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Admiral Sir Edward Pellew (1757–1833) lived in an extraordinary era, when the Atlantic world was repeatedly torn asunder, and when the tentacles of European sea power began to reach further than ever before.

His career spanned not one but two of history’s most significant revolutions: the American revolution (1774–83) and the French revolution (1789–99). He then fought the ongoing struggle against the bulging military strength of Napoleon’s empire, and he faced the many diplomatic and military problems that arose in the wasteland of Bonaparte’s defeat in 1815.

Pellew witnessed British naval success as well as British naval failure on a massive scale. His early career saw an ill-prepared navy struggle in a war in which Britain was roundly defeated. Indeed, the young Pellew was one of a tiny detachment of British sailors who fought, and were captured, at the battle of Saratoga (1777), the first major turning point of the American war. In the years that followed, however, Pellew fought in a Royal Navy that utterly dominated wars at sea with its skill and professionalism.

To view this period through his eyes is worthwhile simply for what he witnessed, but it is made even more rewarding because of the type of man that Pellew was and because of the shape of his career.

The last major biography of Pellew was written in 1934, nearly a century after the previous attempt, a product of its age and the very definition of hagiography. Thanks to Stephen Taylor’s first foray into the challenging field of naval biography, we finally have a more rounded picture that showcases Pellew both as sailor and man. Taylor has scoured the archives for untouched material, even discovering chests full of notes, stacked in a Devon barn.

Pellew has been immortalised in fiction in CS Forester’s Hornblower, as Hornblower’s captain when he is on HMS Indefatigable, and it is widely believed that Patrick O’Brien used him as a template for his hero, Jack Aubrey. Unsurprisingly, therefore, this biography is full of adventure and chivalry. Pellew does head stands on the topsail yard, he swims to the rescue of drowning sailors, he chases and defeats the French. Blockades, mutiny, treasure ships, privateers, pirates and slaves all feature. But there is also love and loss, anger and partisanship, nepotism and incompetence. There is even, and rather surprisingly, farming.

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The picture Taylor paints is one of a man bursting with energy who was utterly in his element either on, or in, the sea. Many officers, including Nelson, spent much of their time afloat feeling seasick or moaning about the rigours of life at sea. But Pellew was different. His contemporaries knew him to be special: “A favourite of the God of the Sea.” This brilliant biography describes a unique man in greater detail than ever before.