Tag Archives: British Royal Navy

Horatio Hornblower

Battle Of Trafalgar (1805) by William Lionel Wyllie(1851-1931) Image: Public Domain
Battle Of Trafalgar (1805) by William Lionel Wyllie(1851-1931)
Image: Public Domain

Horatio Hornblower is the titular character in a series of novels written by C.S. Forester about an officer in the British Royal Navy set chiefly during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). He first appeared in the 1937 book Beat To Quarters(The Happy Return in UK) as the captain of HMS Lydia on a secret mission to Central America. Spain is allied with France and he is to make contact with a leader who will lead a rebellion. It turns out to be a madman who calls himself “El Supremo.” He captures a Spanish ship, the Natividad and reluctantly must hand it over to him. Later though he learns Spain has switched sides and now is with Britain. So he now has to stop the madman who has command of a formidable Spanish warship. And he also picks up a distinguished passenger: Lady Barbara Wellesley. She is the (fictional) younger sister of Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had gained prominence in India and commands the British troops in Spain and Portugal. The tension between the two would be part of future stories.

The Hornblower books entertained old and young alike with vibrant characters and good storytelling. And of course a far dose of adventures against the enemy both on land and sea. The books were not written in chronological order so Forester went back and wrote books about the younger Hornblower to fill out his career. When put together, they take us from when he was a lowly midshipman all the way up to becoming Admiral of the Fleet. You also get a fair dose of what it was like to run ships back then. And why many, if they could, avoided naval duty due to the harsh conditions, cramped quarters, and often long sea duty. You get fully developed characters in the novels, not just cut-up figures placed in the novels for no better purpose than to fill a gap.

Back then there was no naval academy (nor one for the army either) so aspiring officers signed on as midshipman to be trained. Hornblower, coming from a modest background but decent education, had no wealth or mentor. So he would have to do it all himself. The Royal Navy, unlike the British Army, did not allow the purchase of officer commissions so promotions were either by merit or by family connections. Hornblower was driven to prove himself though he often had doubts about his abilities. He also often withdrew to himself making him incomprehensible to even his closest friends. Yet he was a daring, resourceful, and loyal officer who gained the trust and loyalty of his crew and officers. He also had problems with the draconian punishments he was required to do under regulations. In one case he helped a former steward of his, who assaulted another officer, to escape. Gene Roddenberry drew upon this character to develop Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek.

Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) starring Gregory Peck is an excellent adaptation of Beat To Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours. Forester apparently had a significant role in keeping the script from becoming the ordinary swashbuckling movie. It gets high marks to this day for its action and surprising introspection. There were some radio performances done as well of the books. More recently there was a British television series Hornblower which ran on ITV in the UK and A&E in the U.S from 1998-2003. The high points of these dramatizations were using real ships and an excellent cast. Ioan Gruffudd played the role of Horatio Hornblower. However while it is drawn from the Forester novels, the stories were altered, changed, and in some cases rewritten making them very different from the source material. There is nothing more disappointing than to see a great Forester novel hacked up in this manner. So while the television series has high marks in sets and acting, it gets low marks in adapting the original work. That is why the 1951 movie still stands in my mind as the better screen adaptation.

The Hornblower books, in chronological order:

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
Lieutenant Hornblower
Hornblower and the Hotspur
Hornblower and the Atropos
Beat To Quarters
Ship of the Line
Flying Colors
Commodore Hornblower
Lord Hornblower
Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies

Check your local library for the Hornblower novels. Many booksellers do carry them as many online sellers like Amazon (disclosure-I am an Amazon Associate). Netflix does have the dvd versions of the movie and television series. They can also be purchased from Amazon as well.

If you want to dip your toe into the Hornblower novels, I think Beat To Quarters is still the best one to read first. I really sets the tone that the later novels will follow. The earlier stories fill in much detail about his early career. The Midshipman book is really a collection of short stories, many of which were the basis of the first episodes of the television series

Some Historical Trivia
*The British Army of this period had to recruit. Each regiment sent out recruiting parties to get lads to sign up. All promotions, ranks, and rates were regimental. Any general army rank was brevet, only your regimental rank counted in the end.

*The Royal Navy had severe recruitment problems. The best sailors were on merchant ships. They got paid better and less strict discipline. The Royal Navy had the power to press able bodied men (called impressment) into service. They would await the arrival of merchant ships and then take the crews as soon as they got off. Or they would scour the major port areas–pubs, lodgings, gaming houses etc–of eligible men. They preferred those with sailing experience but would take non-sailors if they had too.

*The practice of impressment also occurred at sea. The Royal Navy could stop a British ship and take some of its crew into naval service. But what got them into trouble was conscripting American citizens on those ships or stopping an American ship and taking some of its crew. That led to the War of 1812. The practice ended in 1815.

*Shanghaiing is the disreputable practice of crimpers and ship owners to kidnap able bodied men to work on merchant ships. They would get them drunk or drug them and them get them aboard ship before they could do anything about it. And then they were stuck.

*The ranks in the British Royal Navy during this period were (lowest to highest)midshipman,lieutenant,commander,captain,commodore,and admirals. The rank of ensign was an army rank (today’s 2nd Lieutenant). There were no official junior ranks such as lieutenant junior grade or lieutenant commander. Today midshipman is now reserved for naval academy cadets and ensign is the lowest naval officer grade. During this period, date of commission was how seniority was determined. The youngest commissioned lieutenant was the junior lieutenant while the oldest commission made him the senior lieutenant. The problem with this system was inflexibility and led to promotion of officers who might otherwise not deserve it.

*Many navy officers during this period would be put on half-pay during the brief periods of peace that occurred. Admirals and lieutenants had to live on half pay. Okay if you were already from a wealthy family but Hornblower found it very difficult. Playing whist, which he was good at, brought extra money. It was worse for the common sailor. They got nothing and had to find a berth, if they could, on a merchant ship.