Boaty Book Review: Hornblower and the ‘Hotspur,’ the third book in the Hornblower saga, by C.S. Forrester

After so much fun listening to the audio book versions of the the first two installments of the Hornblower saga, imagine my disappointment at learning that the third book, Hornblower and the ‘Hotspur,’ also read by Christopher Radeska, was unavailable in audiobook form! Have no fear, gentle reader! Happily, my father had the entire Hornblower collection stowed away in his study, stacked on a shelf behind an even larger stash of Patrick O’Brien novels. The day has been saved!

Our worthy hero!

Reading Hornblower in print is a very different experience to listening to it in the car — in fact, it is so drastically different that I’m ashamed to have ever chosen the audio books over their print version and, even more so, to have ever complained even once about the books dragging or containing too much historical detail. It is clearly impossible to appreciate fully the drama and heroism of the Horatio Hornblower novels while at the helm of one’s own vehicle! Hornblower belongs to stolen, quiet afternoons on the couch or the late hours past one’s bedtime and should not have to compete for the reader’s attention with the agonies of Baton Rouge traffic or horror and indignation at the recklessness of Texas drivers on the Atchafalaya bridge. (Slow down truckers and out of towners! Don’t you know death lies below?)

Our clearly unworthy heroine.

I can begin this review by reporting, to my infinite satisfaction, that I was right about Maria Hornblower, née Mason. From the very first paragraph of the very first chapter: vindication! I knew that Maria wasn’t the girl for our Horatio — and now that the fact has been fully confirmed by Forrester’s evident disdain for her wearisome, saccharine, insipid mediocrity, something awful is sure to happen to her that will set HH free and back on the right track. There’s no way that C.S. Forrester really believes that HH is destined for a “vague future of cloying affection,” and since he’s made that 100% clear, we can be fully certain that at some point our hero will be saved from the suffocation and horror of domestic bliss.

Cruel separation of a married couple.

Now, as regular readers will know, Benn and I have not been enjoying much domestic bliss of late, either. This is not because we are dreading a vague future of cloying affection or one of us is Maria Mason, but rather due to the fact that we have been forced to wait interminably to receive permission to live together in the same country like any normal married couple, which is not something you should really have to do in the civilized world. Summer is here; sailing season has begun; Benn, Fuji, and Pas de Deux wait dutifully at port for their co-captain to return; and the situation is starting to become unbearable. As regular readers might also have noticed, this has put me in the grumpiest of moods and I am therefore not all that inclined to focus on anything positive right now, Horatio Hornblower included. I’d rather look at the dark side, thank you very much, and that’s just what I’m going to do in this review.

We are in luck, as there is plenty of darkness to discuss when it comes to Horatio Hornblower. Although you would never know it from the novels, there was a lot more going on during the Napoleonic Wars besides non-stop glory, celebrations of heroism, and monarchical sentiment. We can find plenty of dreadful, horrible, awful things to focus on during that time period — starting with PRESS GANGS.

Not as fun as it seems.

Hornblower and Bush may be thrilled about the start of the war, but it is questionable as to whether or not the sailors upon their ships would have been even half as enthusiastic. Although life at sea, along with the promise of several years spent without setting foot on solid ground, a diet of hard tack and weevils, strict class hierarchy, and innumerable injustices at the hands of cruel and arrogant superiors, might seem romantic when we see it through Hornblower’s eyes, it probably looked a little different from the perspective of those on the bottom of the pile. This would be particularly true if it was not a life you had chosen for yourself — and it probably wasn’t; at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, over 50% of all of the Royal Navy’s sailors had been forced into service through the practice of impressment.

Not to be tolerated by any self-respecting subject of the British Crown!

During the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy didn’t keep standing armies. While naval officers were kept on the payroll (although, as we see at the beginning of Hotspur, not at full pay), regular seamen were not. That meant that when war broke out, the Navy needed to find people to man their ships very quickly. Of course, there were volunteers, but not as many as you might be led to believe by all the proud patriotism of Hornblower and his men. The pay was very low for volunteers and the work was torturous, which is why most people opted just to stay at home and remain alive rather than go to sea and risk their lives to defeat Boney.

Instead of finding a way to make naval service more attractive, the Navy decided simply to kidnap British citizens and force them into service. While being impressed into a life of slavery by one’s own government was certainly an unpleasant state of affairs for the able-bodied seamen, it was very effective for the Royal Navy: before the Napoleonic Wars, the Navy was comprised of 10,000 men, but, by the War of 1812, their numbers had increased to 140,000.

All of this kidnapping was not conducted by the naval officers themselves — fancy the idea! Instead, they enlisted the help of press gangs: groups of ruffians who patrolled harbors and port towns in search of “Roderick Random,” able-bodied seamen whom they could force by violence, entrapment, or trickery into a glorious life of service to the Royal Navy.


I really don’t know what’s going on here.

Although their ends were usually accomplished by brute force and assault, they also used lots of clever tricks to lure men into their clutches. One possibly apocryphal story holds that the press gangs would hang around pubs and secretly slip shillings into the beers of unwitting sailors. Once the sailor finished the glass and found the shilling, his prospective kidnappers would tell him that the coin was payment from the King and, since he’d accepted it, he was now in His Majesty’s service, whether he liked it or not. By this point, the sailor was usually too drunk to resist and was carted off to his ship with no chance of escape.


In reality, most abductions probably happened in the far less charming and subtle manner described in this 1798 account from The Times:

Sunday two young men, mates of West-India ships just arrived, were going with two respectable young women to be married at Rotherhithe Church; when arrived within a little distance of the Church, a press-gang stopped the coach, and dragged out the two young men and a landsman, their friend, and notwithstanding the earnest entreaties of the young girls and their relations, who followed in another coach, hurried them on board the tender. Such is the exigency of the service in the naval department at this time that all the seamen have been taken out of the West-India ships and sent on board the Overissel guardship in the Downs.

Enter a captionImpressment of a sailor on his wedding day!  If only this had been Hornblower before marrying Maria Mason!

Because in theory only experienced sailors could be impressed, those who had worked on merchant ships, like the men in the story above, were at the greatest risk. Sometimes naval officers would simply board West India Company vessels immediately upon reaching port and impress their sailors without giving them a chance to set foot on dry land, rustle up some loose women, or enjoy a good night of carousing at the pub. After spending months, maybe years, at sea, they would not even be allowed to see or contact their families before being forced to set off again in pursuit of the blasted Frogs.


Despite the rules and regulations restricting impressment to sailors, men without seafaring experience were by no means safe, like this innocent little 19-year old librarian:

22 November 1804
Yesterday, about 2 o’clock, a press gang entered the library of Mr.Creighton, of Tavistock-street, Covent-garden, and, upon the sole authority of a false and anonymous letter, which their leader read as his warrant, seized upon Mr. Dowling, a respectable youth of nineteen, who has been sometime employed there as librarian, whom they charged with being a seaman, and deserter from the navy; and notwithstanding his offers to disprove the charge by twenty witnesses, before any magistrate, they forcibly dragged him through the streets to Tower-hill, and hurried him aboard the Enterprize Tender, where he still remains. The youth’s father, who resides in Lincoln’s-inn fields, went in the evening on board the Tender, to require the liberation of his son, and offered every assertion that the lad had never been at sea in his life; that he been for eighteen months past a member of the Royal Westminster Volunteers; and that he never slept from his father’s house at night, or lived a day out of his family from his infancy, save about eight months at an Academy near Birmingham; and never had any engagement, directly or indirectly in the sea service; but the Lieutenant , who behaved with very gentlemanly politeness, declined to liberate the youth until the decision of the Regulating Captain should be known.

The Impressment of American Sailors

Impressed men were also supposed to be British, but it didn’t always work out that way, either. The press gangs tended to have a very loose definition of “Britishness” and couldn’t quite get it into their heads that Americans were no longer British. This wasn’t all that crazy. After all, an American sailor might claim a different nationality, but he was born on British soil, even if its inhabitants had for some reason taken to calling themselves by another name.




Between 1793-1812, 15,000 American sailors were impressed into the service of the Royal Navy. It was a common practice for British ships to stop American vessels under the pretense of searching for Britons who were trying to avoid their duty to the Crown by masquerading as people of other nationalities.  They would then end up taking with them anyone who couldn’t prove their citizenship — as well as some who could. Needless to say, the United States didn’t like this very much, and the impressment of US sailors was one of the causes of the War of 1812.


If you are American, you probably remember this from school. If you are British, you probably have never heard about the War of 1812, since your country was fighting a lot of other wars with more important nations at the time, and you learned about those. It bears noting that at one point in history, Americans didn’t have to go to much as much trouble as I have in order to be allowed to stay in the UK. In fact, the British wanted them there, due to their usefulness as cannon fodder and shark bait.

The theory was that the men who were pressed into service were unemployed vagrants, so the Navy was doing both them and everyone around them a favor by giving them some sort of occupation. (Evidently, in the eyes of the Royal Navy, being an American was just as bad as being a mendicant, but we’ve never been liked much overseas.) The impressed men, however, didn’t agree that their new found employment was an improvement on their former condition, and there was widespread desertion — which meant that the press gangs then had to go out and find more men, and the circle continued.


Sometimes there was also overt resistance:

28 March 1793
Newcastle, March 23
Monday the sailors at Shields, to the amount of 500, assembled in a riotous manner, armed with swords, pistols, and other weapons, and made an attempt to seize the Eleanor tender, in order to rescue the imprest men on board which was rendered abortive by the exertions of the officers at this port. The seamen, next day, endeavoured to come to Newcastle, but hearing that a strong civil and military force was ready to receive them, they wisely abandoned their rash determination, and dispersed, after having treated George Forster, one of the press-gang, with the utmost cruelty, at Howden pans.


Although one can imagine a very exciting aventure story being crafted out of the above incident, it is understandable why Forrester doesn’t quite go into all of the social injustices of the period: it would make for a very dreary action novel. Sticking too closely to historical accuracy would also make for a far less sympathetic hero, as it is unlikely that an actual naval captain of the time would be as sensitive when it comes to the injustices inflicted on junior officers and crew members as is our beloved HH.

Very few of Hornblower’s men would have been on his ship by choice, and, except for the satisfaction of knowing that they were in service to the divine will of His Majesty George III, they received very little in compensation for their efforts. Life aboard the ship was hard and miserable and dangerous and the men generally experienced very little personal freedom. According to The Articles of War, there was also not much they could do to remedy their situation without being hanged. Both desertion and insubordination (as we see in the cases of  — SPOILER ALERT! — Grimes and Doughty) was punishable by death. This was even more stupid when you consider that being a sailor in the Royal Navy was more or less a death sentence already: out of the 250,000 British sailors engaged in naval conflicts during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 92,386 died. (We should not consider these figures as applicable to Hornblower’s men, of course. Almost any sailor can count themselves lucky when Hornblower is in command, as their valiant captain is almost always certain to save the day at relatively low cost of life).

Flogging was better than dying.

Hornblower’s more or less anachronistic distaste for rigid hierarchy arises several times in Hotspur, first with his regret at the suicide of (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN!) Grimes and then later when he aids and abets (SPOILER ALERT) Doughty’s escape. Like everyone who ever worked on the series Downton Abbey, Forrester bestows upon his hero far more democratic sensibilities than were common to his time; but, as he was the author of thrilling and action-packed seafaring novels, not history textbooks, we can’t really blame him for catering to readers who had already witnessed the downfall of the British aristocracy and weren’t all that sad about it.

Who would want to betray this guy?

When Hornblower allows Doughty to escape, he is committing a pretty significant act of treason — particularly when you consider that he’s opened the path for Doughty to join the crew of an American ship of war, a country which was already not on very good standing with the British Crown and with whom, in only 9 years, it was to find itself at war.   To the modern reader, the incident demonstrates that Hornblower’s acknowledgment of the unfairness of Doughty’s situation, the harshness of the conditions of a naval solder, and, along with them, the injustices of the Crown. To a fellow officer in Nelson’s Navy, however, he is committing a pretty traitorous act and doesn’t seem to feel all that sorry about it.

Belay that! Hornblower would never question the right or authority of His Majesty King George!

No, probably not. And neither would Forrester, as that would make for a different, way more boring type of book altogether. Who wants to read a narrative complicated with dreary social commentary when there are battles to be won and blasted Frogs to be defeated?


Reassurance provided by the author’s apparent disdain for the boring and insipid Maria Hornblower: one million stars

Acts of treason against the Crown and violations of The Articles of War: a million stars…shhh!

Picturesque depictions of extraordinary misery and suffering: one million stars

Overall: a thousand billion stars


PS: If you would like to read more hillarious/sad accounts of impressment, you will find quite a few on this very excellent website.


Things aren’t as bad as they used to be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s