As a solid fan of the “Age of Fighting Sail” stories of Patrick O’Brian, CS Forester, Alexander Kent and Julian Stockwin, I have read the names Pellew, Corbet, the Nereide, Indiamen, and the (horrible) Leopard quite often. They are mentioned by these authors in their marvelous sea stories to give historical landmarks and outline to what are mainly fiction writings based on real events in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Author Stephen Taylor brings this historical account of a series of events in 1809 to life with a compelling, well-written book that describes what a succession of huge Indian Ocean storms did to the British East India Company’s convoy of ships known as Indiamen, and recounts a sea battle against the French in the same ocean for the strategic Mauritius Islands, then known as the Ile de France. Thus, the “Storm and Conquest” of the title. Both the French and the British principals are explored in a carefully written and arranged tale. Using excerpts from actual letters, logs and diaries, Taylor weaves a footnoted account that provides an accessible and readable history in a style that puts the reader on the deck through the eyes of those who were there, as well as supplying the underlying explanations of who, what and where. There are sobering descriptions of life aboard on what could be a 6-month trip from India to England, for even the well off “cabin” travelers will make that cramped airline coach ticket look like a feather bed.
There are also major insights to the names I listed above, including a fascinating description and explanation of Captain Robert Corbet, known as competent and zealous to his superiors but brutal to his crew. Using excerpts from the trials, journals and letters, Taylor brings out the official view but does not ignore the forecastle hands and, using their own words, lets the crew describe how they feel about Corbet. This quote, taken from one of the mutiny court-martial trials that Corbet survived: “If he would leave off beating them with the great sticks and take the knots out of the Cats they would go anywhere with him. If not they wished [for] another commander.” Patrick O’Brian relates to us his fictionalized version of Captain Corbet and the battle of the Mauritius Islands in the fourth book of his Aubrey/Maturin series, “The Mauritius Command.”
All in all, Storm and Conquest is a satisfying, entertaining read for both the dedicated non-fiction enthusiast and those fiction devotees interested in the historical background that underlie the stories of those great “fighting sail” writers.
Storm and Conquest by Stephen Taylor (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2008; 280 pages)