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

Quick, name a his­tor­i­cal British naval of­fi­cer. Now name an­other, this time not Nel­son.

If you rec­og­nize the name “Ed­ward Pellew”, it’s prob­a­bly as a char­ac­ter in fic­tional works such as C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower nov­els rather than as the real-life man. That’s un­for­tu­nate, for if any of Nel­son’s con­tem­po­raries de­serves to be re­mem­bered, it’s Pellew, “the great­est sea­man of his age”.

The book is a well-re­searched bi­og­ra­phy. Tay­lor makes good use of let­ters from the Pellew’s fam­ily, friends, ri­vals, and en­e­mies.

In some of the most in­ter­est­ing sec­tions, the au­thor com­pares and con­trasts Pellew and Nel­son, cast­ing Pellew as the bet­ter fam­ily man, frigate cap­tain, and sea­man, while Nel­son had po­lit­i­cal savvy, con­nec­tions, and the good for­tune to die glo­ri­ously in bat­tle.

Tay­lor makes the case for the death of Pellew’s fa­ther, when Ed­ward was just seven, as be­ing a ma­jor in­flu­ence on his life. To the pos­i­tive, Pellew be­came very fam­ily-ori­ented and was a lov­ing hus­band, fa­ther, and brother. To the neg­a­tive, he pushed his sons into a naval life when they were just chil­dren. He also nepo­tis­ti­cally pushed his brother and sons up through the ranks of the Navy far be­yond their abil­i­ties. His de­sire for wealth was (at least in part) a de­sire to en­sure his chil­dren did­n’t grow up as poor as he had. An ex­am­i­na­tion of Pellew begs the ques­tion: at what point have you gone too far in ad­vanc­ing your fam­ily?

The Age of Sail is one of my fa­vorite his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods, so I was pre­dis­posed to like this book. If the set­ting in­ter­ests you at all, check out Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain.

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