Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Nelson's Yankee Captain

It has been a while since I have written a book review. The reason that I have not been writing reviews is that my reading habits will often send me into extended periods of reading fiction before I return to reading non fiction. Since Christmas I have been in one of these extended fiction periods. I have mixed in a few non fiction titles in, but these have not been related to the overall theme of this blog. Today's review fits the "somewhat related" category but it is a well written and enjoyable history so I will include it as a review.

I was first attracted to Nelson's Yankee Captain: the Life and Times of Boston Loyalist Sir Benjamin Hallowell (ISBN 978-0887807510) by Brian Elson for a number of personal reasons. Included in these reasons were an interest in the British Navy of Nelson's period, an interest in the role of Nova Scotia in the American Revolution and a family connection to the Hallowell Grant (named for Benjamin's father) in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia. By the end, this book provided me with some new information on each of these subjects.

This is the first book written by retired Canadian Navy Captain Brian Elson. This book could easily be written by someone who has numerous books under their belt. Elson has a clear and well paced writing style which in many ways reads more like a novel than a history. The central figure of this biography is Admiral Sir Benjamin Hallowell who was one of Horatio Nelson's famed "Band of Brothers". Unlike most other British Naval Captians of his time Hallowell was born in the American Colonies. The first part of the book tracks Hallowell's early life from Boston to English boarding schools, to enlistment in the Navy. A fascinating picture of a family who was devestated by the American Revolution evolves. Hallowell's father went from being an affluent British official in pre-revolutionary Boston to almost destitute in London at the end of the war. This destitute status would be taken in context of other members of the upper class as they were able to keep a few paid servants. To defer the cost of his education, and posasibly to give him an outlet for a series of boarding school fights, young Benjamin is sent to join the Navy. The remainder of the book traces Hallowell's career in the Navy.

From the beginning of his career, Hallowell appears to be a very capable, albeit somewhat unlucky, figure. Hallowell joined the Navy near the beginning of a period of peace (for someone in the Navy, this is bad luck). What this meant is that his advancement to the position of Captain was stalled by almost a decade. When he finally reaches the rank of Captain, he has the misfortune of losing a ship to the weather and another to the French. Hallowell also has the habit of quarreling with his superior officers which causes him various kinds of censure from Whitehall. Despite this, Hallowell was a participant in the Battle of the Nile (he was sent to re-provision his ship and missed the Battle of Trafalgar). The book finishes by providing a portrait of an aging Hallowell who has finally achieved financial wealth but who becomes increasingly unhappy since he is no longer at sea.

One of the strenghts of this text is that Elson spends a great deal of time telling the stories of people who were related to or interacted with Hallowell. Placing Hallowell in context of his peers and other world events helps to provide a more complete picture of the man. Many of these asides are very interesting stories.

A problem I have with this book is the way in which quotations are cited. In the introduction he explains that quotations were not cited so that it would not break the flow of the text. There are some notes at the end of the book to generally explain where he has sourced his material. Personally, I found this frustrating as I would read an interesting quote from a personal piece of correspondence and I would wonder what the source was. The source was often available in only a general form.

All for now,
RGS

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