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Hornblower in the West Indies

(Published in the US as: “Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies”)

C. S. Forester




Rear admiral Lord Hornblower, for all his proud appointment as Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in the West Indies, paid his official visit to New Orleans in HM schooner Crab, only mounting two six-pounders and with a crew of no more than sixteen men, not counting supernumeraries.

His Britannic Majesty’s Consul-General at New Orleans, Mr Cloudesley Sharpe, remarked on the fact.

“I hardly expected to see Your Lordship in so diminutive a craft,” he said, looking round him. He had driven down in his carriage to the pier against which Crab was lying, and had sent his liveried footman to the gangway to announce him, and it had been something of an anticlimax to be received by the trilling of the only two bosun’s calls that Crab could muster, and to find on the quarterdeck to receive him, besides the Admiral and his flag-lieutenant, a mere lieutenant in command.

“The exigencies of the service, sir,” explained Hornblower. “But if I may lead the way below I can offer you whatever hospitality this temporary flagship of mine affords.”

Mr Sharpe — surely there never was a name that accorded so ill with its possessor’s figure, for he was a fat man, a mountain of puffy flesh — squeezed himself into a chair at the table in the pleasant little cabin, and replied to Hornblower’s suggestion of breakfast with the statement that he had already broken his fast. He obviously had the gravest doubts as to the quality of any breakfast that could be served in this little ship. Gerard, the flag-lieutenant, made himself inconspicuous in a corner of the cabin, notebook and pencil on his knee, while Hornblower reopened the conversation.

Phoebe was struck by lightning off Morant Cape,” said Hornblower. “She was the ship I had planned to come in. Clorinda was already in dock, refitting. And Roebuck‘s off Curacao, keeping an eye on the Dutchmen — there’s a brisk trade in arms with Venezuela at present.”

“Well I know that,” said Sharpe.

“Those are my three frigates,” said Hornblower. “With the arrangements all made I judged it better to come in this schooner rather than not to come at all.”

“How are the mighty fallen!” was Mr Sharpe’s comment. “Your Lordship, a commander-in-chief, with no more than three frigates and half a dozen sloops and schooners.”

“Fourteen sloops and schooners, sir,” corrected Hornblower. “They are very desirable craft for the duties I have to perform.”

“No doubt, My Lord,” said Sharpe. “But I can remember the days when the commander-in-chief on the West India Station disposed of a squadron of ships of the line.”

“That was in time of war, sir,” explained Hornblower, recalling the verbal comments of the First Sea Lord in the interview when he had been offered this command. “The House of Commons would sooner allow the Royal Navy to rot at its moorings than reimpose the income tax.”

“At any rate, Your Lordship has arrived,” said Sharpe. “Your Lordship exchanged salutes with Fort St Philip?”

“Gun for gun, as your despatch informed me had been arranged.”

“Excellent!” said Sharpe.

It had been a strange little formality; all hands on board Crab had lined the rail, very properly, during the salute, and the officers had stood at attention on the quarterdeck, but ‘all hands’ amounted to very little with four men manning the saluting gun, and one at the signal halliards and one at the helm. It had poured with rain, too; Hornblower’s glittering uniform had clung damply around him.

“Your Lordship made use of the services of a steam tug?”

“Yes, by George!” exclaimed Hornblower.

“A remarkable experience for Your Lordship, apparently?”

“Indeed, yes,” said Hornblower. “I —”

He held himself back from giving utterance to all his thoughts on that subject; they would lead to too many exciting irrelevancies. But a steam tug had brought Crab against the hundred miles of current from the sea to New Orleans between dawn and dusk, arriving at the very minute the tug captain had predicted. And here was New Orleans, crowded not merely with ocean-going sailing ships, but also with a fleet of long, narrow steamers, manoeuvring out into the stream and against piers with a facility (thanks to their two paddlewheels) that even Crab with her handy fore and aft rig could not attempt to emulate. And with a thresh of those paddlewheels they would go flying upstream with a rapidity almost unbelievable.

“Steam has laid open a continent, My Lord,” said Sharpe, echoing Hornblower’s thoughts. “A veritable empire. Thousands and thousands of miles of navigable waterways. The population of the Mississippi valley will be counted in millions within a few years.”

Hornblower remembered discussions at home, when he was a half-pay officer awaiting his promotion to flag rank, when the ‘steam kettles’ had been mentioned. Even the possibility of ocean-going ships propelled by steam had been suggested, and had been properly laughed to scorn — it would mean the ruin of good seamanship. Hornblower had not been quite so sure on either point, but he had been careful to keep his opinions to himself, having no desire to be regarded as a dangerous crank. He did not want to be drawn into any similar discussions now, not even with a mere civilian.

“What intelligence do you have for me, sir?” he asked.

“A considerable amount, My Lord.”

Mr Sharpe produced a fold of papers from his tail pocket.

“Here are the latest advices from New Granada — more recent I expect than anything you have had. The insurgents —”

Mr Sharpe entered into a rapid exposition of the military and political situation in Central America. The Spanish colonies were entering into the final stage of their struggle for independence.

“It cannot be long before His Majesty’s Government recognises that independence,” said Sharpe. “And our Minister in Washington informs me that the Government of the United States meditates a similar recognition. It remains to be seen what the Holy Alliance will have to say on that score, My Lord.”

Europe under the rule of absolute monarchy would turn a jaundiced eye upon the establishment of a whole new series of republics, no doubt. But it hardly mattered what Europe had to say, as long as the Royal Navy — even the depleted peacetime navy — controlled the seas, and the two English-speaking governments continued in amity.

“Cuba shows small signs of restlessness,” went on Sharpe, “and I have information of the issue of further letters of marque by the Spanish Government to vessels sailing from Havana —”

Letters of marque were one of the principal sources of Hornblower’s troubles. They were being issued by insurgent and nationalist governments alike, to prey upon ships flying the old flags and the new, and the bearers of letters of marque turned pirates in the twinkling of an eye in the absence of legitimate prizes and efficient prize courts. Thirteen of Hornblower’s fourteen small craft were scattered over the Caribbean keeping an eye on the activities of the privateers.

“I have prepared duplicates of my reports for Your Lordship’s information,” concluded Sharpe. “I have them here to give to Your Lordship, along with copies of the complaints of the master-mariners concerned.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Hornblower, while Gerard took the papers into his charge.

“Now for the slave trade, with Your Lordship’s permission,” went on Sharpe, opening a fresh series of papers.

The slave trade was as acute a question as piracy, even more acute in some ways, because the Anti-Slavery Society in England commanded a great deal of powerful and vocal support in both Houses of Parliament, and would raise an even more violent to-do about a cargo of slaves run into Havana or Rio de Janeiro, than a shipping company pestered by privateers.



2011 - 2018