In a biography of Edward Pellew (1757–1833), the legendary British captain, Taylor (Storm and Conquest: The Clash of Empires in the Eastern Seas, 1809, 2008) demonstrates his commanding knowledge of naval history, especially during the late-18th and early-19th centuries, a period of some of the greatest battles on the seas.
The author’s research went far beyond the Admiralty archives to an old barn with a trunk full of notes written by Pellew’s son. This story is all the more remarkable because of Pellew’s meteoric rise to midshipman within four years and his first command by age 25. Rare in a seaman, he could swim and more than once dove into the sea to save a crewmember, and his physical prowess (“tall, broad, keen-eyed, animated and beaming, master of the quarterdeck and athlete of the tops”) was the stuff of legend. Rather than just a long list of Pellew’s achievements, the author provides a detailed picture of life at sea during wars in America, the English Channel, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. His captaincy of the Indefatigable established his position as a master of single-ship command with the expert crew he built of men from his native Cornwall. While Pellew gained fame and considerable fortune, he was derided as a “tarpaulin officer” rather than a gentleman. Still, letters from his colleagues, comrades and notably from defeated enemies testify to his strength of character and sense of responsibility and fairness. During a lull in the Napoleonic War, he stood for Parliament, although he only delivered one speech, assuring the members that, from his experience in the Channel, England’s waters were secure.
Edward Pellew was “the First Seaman of the Age.” Taylor illuminates his extraordinary life, and the book is especially vivid and enlightening to landlubbers who don’t know a hawser from a yardarm.