Friday, June 15, 2012

Staff Pick - Nelson's Yankee Captain by Bryan Elson

Myself and three friends recently started a non-fiction bookclub. As with many bookclubs, the difficult part was agreeing on a title.  After much debate, trying to match the interests of our disparate reading tastes, we settled on choosing an historical biography or local history.

As good fortune would have it, a local book fit the bill perfectly. Nelson's Yankee Captain: the life of Boston Loyalist Sir Benjamin Hallowell (M), by Bryan Elson. The author is a former officer of the Royal Canadian Navy, and the current director of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust in Halifax.

I knew nothing of Benjamin Hallowell (1761- 1834) prior to the book. And while I knew a little about Horatio Nelson and his Band of Brothers, I never quite fully understood the significance of the British Royal Navy in shaping the world of the 18th and 19th century. I know much better now.

This book is chock full of historical detail, including epic sea battles, military strategy, political intrigue, social insights and fascinating characters.  The ways and traditions of the Admiralty are front and centre, as are the huge egos and ambitions of the likes of Admiral Nelson, Lord Keith and General John Murray. The book also has a wealth of Nova Scotia history. The Hallowells were major land owners in NS and several family members spent significant time here. 

The book is at times a bit heavy with details, and the necessary exposition into the lives of his parents and early childhood make for a bit of slow read to start. But once Hallowell becomes a captain and has his own ship, the action is incredible. Hallowell was at the Battle of the Nile as well as Trafalgar. He became a noted expert in military amphibious assaults, he experimented with new nautical technology, he mentored the sons of nobility (including the great-great grandfather of Princess Diana!). Clearly he was an exceptional  person.

Author Bryan Elson has done an admiral job in presenting the biography of Benjamin Hallowell.  As a reader I was left with a strong sense of knowing who Hallowell was, both as a military leader and also as a private person. I was also supremely entertained by the story. The sea battles were super exciting, as was the whole situation with Napoleon and his quest for world domination. Hallowell and Napoleon cross paths several times. The winding career path of Hallowell and the idiosyncrasies of the Royal Navy was also a compelling feature of the story.

The insights into the private lives of sailors and their families were equally interesting for me. For example, I didn't know that during peacetime, most officers were forced to live on half pay and that they and their families often wished for a new war to begin, so as to improve their fortunes.

Sir Benjamin Hallowell was a man of exceptional valour and discipline. His devotion to his country and career were beyond reproach - although I did feel for his wife and children who rarely got to spend any time with him.  He was known as a fair and compassionate leader, one who led by example and who would not back down on matters of principal (such as on the price of sailor's shoes!)

His childhood was fraught with difficulty and certainly stacked the cards against him in his aspirations to become an Admiral. His exceptional patience, discipline and high moral standards served him very well in the end, with him receiving the admiration and prestige he so justly deserved. He was a truly inspirational person.

Highly recommended for fans of biography, military history and local history.

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