Posted tagged ‘flogging’

Fleet Week – Where are you, Horatio?

May 26, 2010

Fleet Week in New York (See Statue of Liberty in background!)

It’s Fleet Week in New York!   It corresponds, oddly, with my current personal absorption with Horatio Hornblower, the mythical hero of C.S. Forester, who through a series of eleven books makes his way through the ranks and at least some of the depredations of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

It’s an interesting testament to the power of narrative that I had a very hard time tearing myself from the printed page of Forester’s Ship of the Line this morning to watch actual battle ships course down the Hudson, right next to my apartment building.   (So much for living in the moment.)

I just wanted to stick with Hornblower, even though the ships were hugely impressive, and lined with living, breathing human beings.

Much has changed since Hornblower’s time.  The U.S. Navy ships seem inordinately plain compared to Hornblower’s schooners, frigates, ships of the line, with their top gallants, topsails, reefed topsails, mainmasts, mizzen masts, jury masts, rigging,  netting, and long nines.  There are a few small towers of gizmos, presumably related to radar, but for the most part, these new ships are large slightly curved trapezoids of painted grey.

It’s hard  to imagine these huge wedges of steel as the descendants of the beautiful, if gnarly, sailing ships of the British Navy.  Though there they were–men (presumably women too) lined up in rows of white (the sailors) and dark blue (the marines), roughly in the same divisions of rank and service as on Hornblower’s ships.

Other similiarities: decks!  Portholes!  (Wait–are there portholes now?) Starboard, port, stern, bow, lee, tack–vocabulary.

Space constrictions–though I expect modern seamen have more than 18 inches per hammock.

Some monotony of food?  But, hopefully, today’s soldiers  do not have to tap their sea biscuits to scare out weevils.  (They only need to be concerned about trans fat and high fructose corn syrup.)

What else do Forester’s sailors and today’s share?  The sea!  The sky!  The horizon!  Occasional seasickness!

Reading C.S. Forester makes one very conscious that conditions of the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars were almost unimaginably severe, especially with so many sailors press-ganged to begin with.  (Hardly a volunteer force.)

Scurvy, disease, amputation, the requirement of absolute obedience at the threat of flogging, court martial, hanging.  Though, actually, the biggest danger seems to arise from the incompetence and/or greed of supervising officers. (Hornblower, of course, excluded.)  And too, less-than-reliable allies.


Of course, what ultimately makes the books compelling is not the politics, the tacking and heaving of sails, or even the discussions of sea biscuit, but the character of Hornblower himself — outwardly indomitable, inwardly hyper-sensitive, noble (in spirit if not rank), brave, and amazingly quick-witted even when in a near stupor of fatigue and stress.

Did one of his spiritual descendants sail by this morning?

Maybe.   (I, for one, was too busy reading to notice.)

Even Stouter than Hornblower?