Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies
by C.S. Forester
This is not so much a novel as a series of five almost novelette-length short stories. They're interconnected, of course, but they could practically stand alone. Rear Admiral Hornblower spends three years, in the 1820s, as the commander-in-chief of the West Indies squadron, based at Kingston, Jamaica. He interacts with a variety of people, but the main ones are his flag lieutenant (personal aide), Gerard, son of his second lieutenant on the old Lydia
, and his private secretary, Erasmus Spendlove. These two rather young men (mid-twenties I would think) are best friends and very devoted to their admiral, over whom they are very protective as one must be for a very great man who can't be trusted to eat and sleep for days at a time unless someone urges him to do so. There's also a certain Capt. Sir Thomas Fell under Hornblower, whom the admiral doesn't like, and a very hot-tempered Governor who, as an army general, outranks Hornblower and doesn't hesitate to pull rank.
In the first story, Hornblower is called upon to head off an apparent attempt by Bonapartists to rescue Napoleon from his exile on the isle of St. Helena and restore the empire again. The complicating factor is that the ship they're on is vastly larger and better armed than his own, and it sails under an American flag. As a result the only way to save the peace of the world is to risk his honor in a desperate and unforgettable ploy.
In the second story, the concept of "head money" spurs the impoverished Capt. Fell to pursue a much faster and more "weatherly" ship transporting hundreds of African slaves to the Havana slave market. It's a glimpse into the twilight days of the Atlantic slave trade, when only Spain and its territories still allowed it, and when other navies (the British, for example) offered cash prizes to the captain and crew (and admiral) of a ship that captured a slaver and freed the slaves. Something like five pounds a head, which would really help out Captain Fell. Success will help him pay some debts; failure will hurt his naval career. And yet to manage the capture, Fell needs the help of a bright idea from Hornblower (does he ever have any other kind?) which puts Hornblower in an awkward position: first, he must make his suggestion in such a way that Fell believes it was his idea in the first place, and second, for the sake of Fell's pride he must not let on that he's doing this out of compassion for Fell's financial and professional plight...even though he personally dislikes the man!
In the third story, Hornblower and Spendlove are kidnapped by pirates from a high-society dinner party and are taken to a remote hideout, where the hunted pirates (whose ship Hornblower shot out from under them) demand that Hornblower go to the governor and arrange an official pardon for them. They propose to keep Spendlove as their hostage while Hornblower goes on what he knows to be a futile mission, for the governor won't even seriously listen to a request like that. This puts Hornblower in a painful position, since he feels bound by honor (not to mention affection for Spendlove) to return to save his secretary (i.e. voluntarily go back to being their prisoner), but his duty and the chain of command require him to help the governor plan an all-out attack on the pirates' lair. Fortunately Spendlove turns out to be not merely an efficient secretary but a remarkably spirited and brave young man on his own account....
In the fourth story, Hornblower meets a kindred spirit in a very young, charming millionaire with a name even more unfortunate than his own: Ramsbottom. This fellow inherited a fortune in industry and through immense energy, competence, and charm made quite a splash in polite society. Now he's cruising around in the tropics in an overhauled brig of war, which he has turned into a yacht maintained to exact naval standards and manned mostly by former British sailors and officers. Ramsbottom displays a firm grasp of upper-crust etiquette, proves an exemplary host, plays a good game of whist, talks intelligently about naval matters, basically shows himself to be a man after Hornblower's own heart... then, while Hornblower's back is turned doing exercises with his squadron, Ramsbottom starts blockading a Venezuelan port on behalf of the Spanish-American rebels fighting for freedom from Spain (his mother was a Venezuelan lady, by the way) and most atrociously of all, he does it while flying British colors on his ship and publishing a notice of blockade over Hornblower's forged signature. This impostor threatens to embarrass England and is in danger of being hanged as a pirate, when Hornblower catches up to him at a fateful moment in South America's fight for independence.
The fifth story really touched my heart, I guess because I'm a musician. Hornblower doesn't care much for music, being tone-deaf after all. But at the very end of his term as commander-in-chief, he finds himself having to deal with the unusual case of a courtmartial of a marine bandsman, a brilliant, sensitive, 19-year-old cornet player, whose crime officially is refusal to follow a direct order (punishable by either hanging or being flogged to death) but the circumstances are that (because of his own sense of musical rightness) he insisted on playing a B-natural when his commanding officer ordered him to play a B-flat. With the evidence stacked against him and the fleet's discipline on the line, and other factors too numerous to mention, Hornblower realizes that, sadly, the boy has to die and there's no way around it.
The pain is made even more acute by the arrival of his wife Barbara, who has sailed from England in order to accompany him home once he's turned over the station to his successor--a very starchy Admiral Ransome with whom the cornet-player has even less chance of getting away with his life. Barbara takes pity on the boy and simply does not understand the point of law or military discipline at issue, and gives Hornblower a hard time about it. Things get worse when the boy breaks out of jail and escapes, evidently, into the interior of the island, where there is seemingly no chance that he will survive without being captured and now without any hope whatsoever of his life being spared (now that he's a deserter on top of everything else).
At the same time this fifth and last story concerns a crisis in Hornblower's marriage, which has to do with his insane jealousy whenever he's reminded that Barbara was married to another man before him (though he was already in love with her at the time), and a huge hurricane that strikes them at sea and all but destroys the ship they're on. The storm, the cornet player, and the marital crisis all come together in a remarkable and satisfying conclusion, but as always you're left with the feeling that you want more... I guess that's in C.S. Forester's favor!
Recommended Age: 14+
If you would like to contact Robbie, you may do so here.