The publication of a biography of one of the heroes of the Napoleonic-era Royal Navy, Edward Pellew, (Reviews: Telegraph and Sunday Times [behind the paywall £]) is timely. Pellew was indeed a great Captain, though like all Heroes, somewhat flawed. He undoubtedly deserves being dusted off and re-presented to a Grateful Nation which is woefully bereft these days of genuine Heroes.
He has, of course, had a bit of a run out in recent years with the Hornblower TV series where Pellew was played by the excellent Robert Lindsay. (Napoleonic stuff normally does not appeal to the Ladies, but if this series, or Mutiny on The Bounty – Marlon Brando as Flethcher Christian and a suitably irascible Trevor Howard as Bligh – or the Gregory Peck Hornblower hoves into sight on the flat screen, they seem to have a fit of the vapours. All those tight white trousers, I dare say). There he was a sort of mentor to the up-and-coming Ioan Gruffudd.
But there is another infinitely better candidate for the title of Britain’s greatest Frigate Captain ad that is this blog’s icon: Thomas Cochrane.
As well as being the greatest exponent of aggressive frigate tactics, he ended up as founderof the Chilean Navy, being stitched up by the Establishment in a classic financial sting, serving in Parliament as a Radical politician, taking part in at least one incident involving in the siege of a house in Piccadilly and some gunpowder (I somehow cannot envisage, say, Chukka Umanna MP or Diane Abbott MP rolling a barrel of gunpowder around the streets of Westminster in defence of a colleague…..), before being fully exonerated and reinstated in the Royal Navy in which he rose to very high rank. He was, in the Napoleonic Wars, a veritable sea-wolf who fought his ship with consummate skill and accounted for a serious amount of enemy shipping.
Thus one is grateful for an excellent letter in the Daily Telegraph:
SIR – I read with interest the review (August 25) of Stephen Taylor’s biography of Edward Pellew. However, I am unconvinced that Pellew was “the greatest frigate captain in the age of sail” and “the likely model for Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s novels”. Surely these accolades belong to Thomas Cochrane.
It could be argued that most of Cochrane’s astonishing achievements were accomplished while he was captaining the brig Speedy. But he later had charge of the frigate Pallas, in which he sailed around the Azores and French coast capturing several Spanish and French ships.
So it is surely Cochrane rather than Pellew who was the greatest frigate captain and the model not only for O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey but also for C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower.
The Royal Museums at Greenwich are also agreed:
Peter Weir’s 2003 film Master and Commander is based on the fictional naval hero, Captain Jack Aubrey, created by the writer Patrick O’Brian. O’Brian’s books have received literary and historical acclaim and have sold in their thousands all over the world. However, O’Brian based his character on the real life exploits of Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald.
There you have it.
Hattip: The Sailing Master of England Expects (who else?)