Thrilling history of seafarers

2008-12-10 00:00

Storm and Conquest, subtitled The Battle for the Indian Ocean, 1809, brings to vivid life an episode in the Napoleonic Wars usually relegated to a footnote, expanding it into a compelling narrative combining romance, tragedy and adventure.

Post-Trafalgar Britain ruled the ocean waves, or most of them at least. One ocean where Britons still feared to float was the Indian. From bases on Mauritius and Reunion (then known as Ile de France and Bourbon) French ships plagued the trade routes from India plied by the fast-sailing Indiamen of the East India Company and thus threatened Britain’s hold on the Indian sub-continent.

Stephen Taylor, author of Shaka’s Children and The Caliban Shore, makes brilliant use of logbooks, contempary accounts, letters and diaries to foreground the personalities involved, in the process making them palpably real — and what a wonderful bunch they are: the Madras Governor Sir George Barlow and his unfaithful wife, Lady Elizabeth; Admiral Sir Edward Pellew and his sons, Fleetwood and Pownoll; the pompous General MacDowall; the delightful Matthew Flinders sitting out a six-year parole on Mauritius; and “the enterprising Captain Corbet” whose bravery and tactical skills were shadowed by his sadistic liking for the lash.

Storm and Conquest boasts all the staples of seagoing life from mutiny to shipwreck with storm and battle in-between, and through it all Taylor never allows the reader to lose sight of the people — the sailors, soldiers, and passengers of all ages — who endured these experiences. Many did not survive them. Taylor’s recreation of the typhoons that saw seven fully laden Indiamen disappear for ever is grippingly handled (justly drawing praise from Sebastian Unger, author of The Perfect Storm). This is history that reads like thrilling fiction. Riveting.

Stephen Coan

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