Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Online Texts of “Robinson Crusoe”

February 23, 2017

As most of us know, the exploits of Alexander Selkirk form the basis for Robinson Crusoe. For those not acquainted with Selkirk, please peruse these contemporary sources: Richard Steel’s 1713 piece in The Englishman; Edward Cooke’s A Voyage to the South Sea, and around the world, perform’d in the years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711…. (1712); and Rogers Woodes’ A cruising voyage round the world: first to the South-seas, thence to the East-Indies, and homewards by the cape of Good Hope. Begun in 1708, and finish’d in 1711 (1712). A 2005 article from The Smithsonian gives us a modern précis of Selkirk’s adventures.

The telling of Crusoe’s sojourn on the island actually spawned an entire genre of fiction – the robinsonade. Daniel Defoe’s The life and strange surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, mariner… was first published in 1719 and went through several editions; the one here is the third edition. This book was been reprinted/republished many times; here you will find hundreds of renditions in English from 1719 to 1922. Many more in other languages can also be perused. This site –  the Digital Library of the Caribbean – boasts almost 200 volumes of this title; what makes it unique is that it carries full-text versions beyond the copyright date barrier (that would be another essay in itself) of 1922.


Canadian Mariners

September 12, 2016

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography has a special topical section listing mariners. This is not limited to those born in Canada but rather lists those who impacted this country through maritime exploits/endeavors. Hence the inclusion of John Cabot (born in what is now Italy) and Newman Coyles (born in Dartmouth England). Extensive bibliographies are appended to each biography, and appropriate links are also included.

Robert Southey’s “Life of Nelson”

August 22, 2016

Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson (first British edition, 1813; first United States edition, 1813) has been in print since it was first published; it stands as one of his greatest works. If you want to see the correspondence with his publisher and others over this work, then this selection of letters, well over one hundred, should satisfy.

Naval Biographies from the DNB

August 8, 2016

The Sea” is a topical feature of the online Dictionary of National Biography; it contains “The stories of 37 men and women remembered for lives spent on, over, beside, and under the sea.” Among those profiled are the Nore mutineer Richard Parker and naval hero John Crawford. These biographies are well-researched and are based on primary and secondary resources.

Dudley Pope, 1925-1997

May 30, 2016

I do not know if everyone is familiar with Dudley Pope, but he was one of my favorite authors of both naval fiction and non-fiction. His Ramage books rank as one of the best series of British naval fiction taking place during the Napoleonic Wars; I am proud to say I own the entire collection in hardcover. An example of his non-fiction writing is his well-received 1981 book – Life in Nelson’s Navy. Description of his works can be found here. Biographical information is available at: Naval Marine Archive, Kay Pope (his wife), and The New York Times.


Additional Biographies on Royal Navy Officers

February 9, 2016

Contained within the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1966 – ) are dozens of biographies of Royal Navy officers during the Age of Sail. Not content to just list Canadian activities, these articles discuss the entire careers of these worthies. Among those profiled are James Cook (with an interesting note on his writings), Lord Gambier, and Hugh Palliser. All the entries have bibliographies of primary and secondary sources as well as contemporary portraits. In addition, a separate section of this multi-volume work has biographical essays on mariners.

Jane Austen and the Royal Navy

August 24, 2015

Two of Jane’s siblings, Francis William and Charles John, had long careers in the Royal Navy, both ending their careers as admirals, the former as Vice-Admiral of the Red and the latter as Rear-Admiral of the Blue. Their naval exploits are detailed in contemporary biographical sketches: Francis’ are found here (pp.27-8) and here (pp.274-283); Charles’ here (pp.26-27) and here (p.74-77). The venerable Dictionary of National Biography contains a brief biography of Francis (pp.258-59). His descendants (some of them naval officers in their own right) published Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers in 1906 that contained letters to them from Jane.

For such a writer as herself, we are not blessed with many of her missives; the most modern edition of her letters – Jane Austen’s Letters (4th ed., 2011) – contains just over 160 items, We have a limited preview of this book; an older work that does not reflect modern editing procedures but does contain many letters is the Braeburn edition of 1884. A search through this work will find both letters addressed to these brothers as well as letters containing information about them. It is not perfect, but it will give the reader a glimpse into Jane’s view of the Royal Navy as seen through the lives of her brothers.

British Naval Biographies, Part II

August 5, 2015

A previous entry on this topic alluded to other works of importance. So here we go. John Charnock authored the six-volume Biographia navalis; or, Impartial memoirs of the lives and characters of officers of the navy of Great Britain, from the year 1660 to the present time; drawn from the most authentic souces, and disposed in a chronological arrangement between 1794 and 1798. It contains biographies of over two thousand post-captains and admirals who served in the Navy between 1660 and 1793 along with portraits. Much of his work was conducted in the British Museum and the College of Arms; he was also indebted to William Locker, lieutenant governor of Greenwich Hospital, who had amassed a large collection of naval biographies. (vol.1, p.xii) While many of the biographies are accompanied by quotations from other sources, Charnock maddeningly was not consistent in citing them.

Another multi-volume endeavor – Royal naval biography : or, Memoirs of the services of all the flag-officers, superannuated rear-admirals, retired-captains, post-captains, and commanders, whose names appeared on the Admiralty list of sea officers at the commencement of the present year, or who have since been promoted, illustrated by a series of historical and explanatory notes – was written by John Marshall, himself a naval officer. These volumes, four tomes published in eight parts,  were published between 1823 and 1835 and concentrate on officers appointed from 1760 to the “present.” ( A four-volume supplementary series also accompanies the main work; supplement two is here. There is also a marvelous index to the entire work.) The biographies are presented by rank/seniority. The author, Captain Frederick Marryat has a laudatory memoir included. Many of the lives are buttressed by recourse to original sources; i.e., letters or dispatches as well as the contributions of the subjects themselves. Marshall acknowledges that much of what he wrote was based on previous compilations but argues his work has value because of all the added information he provided. (vol.1, pt.1, p.xi) As with the above work, citations are frustratingly sparse.

Other works of similar scope include: A naval biographical dictionary: comprising the life and services of every living officer in Her Majesty’s navy, from the rank of admiral of the fleet to that of lieutenant, inclusive. Compiled from authentic and family documents (1849, a compilation of 5,000 biographies of those on the 1845 Navy List; references to the London Gazette are so noted); British naval biography : comprising the lives of the most distinguished admirals from Howard to Codrington : with an outline of the naval history of England from the Earliest period to the present time (4th ed., 1853, with a very informative appendix introducing the non-sailor to terminology and ranks); Lives of the British admirals, with an introductory view of the naval history of England (5 vols., 1833-1840, from Roman times to the 17th century. Of course, since there was not an England in Roman times, it kind of begs the question, doesn’t it?); The naval biography of Great Britain: consisting of historical memoirs of those officers of the British navy who distinguished themselves during the reign of His Majesty George III (4 vols., 1828, references Charnock and other contemporary sources); and Naval history of Great Britain, including the history and lives of the British admirals. By Dr. John Campbell. With a continuation to the close of the year 1812; comprising biographical sketches of the admirals omitted by Dr. Campbell: likewise of naval captains and other officers who have distinguised themselves in their country’s cause (8 vols., 1813).

Captain Frederick Marryat, RN – Father of British Naval Fiction

May 5, 2015

No, contrary to what you may have heard, Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Ransom is NOT the originating point for modern naval fiction, nor is Homer’s Odyssey, nor Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. These works, while having a maritime background, are not informed by naval matters; in most cases, the naval aspects are more of a conveyance rather than an integral part of the narrative. Shipboard life and concerns do not loom large in any of these works. Again, the maritime acts as a backdrop to the main activities of the story; it is not the story itself. They are written by landsmen looking out to the sea.

Primacy of position as to the “Father of Naval Fiction” goes undoubtedly to James Fenimore Cooper (yes, he of the Leatherstocking Tales featuring the intrepid Natty Bumppo) who published The Pilot in 1823 (at least one source lists the date as 1824); he was followed by Marryat (portrait here; brief but informative biography here) with the first of his many nautical works – The naval officer; or Scenes and adventures in the life of Frank Mildmay (usually referred to as “Frank Mildmay”; 3 vols., 1829). (N.B. Many British novels of the 19th century were written in three volumes; come here for an explanantion.) His novels have the ring of authenticity because he spent decades in the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of captain.  You can find individual volumes and his collected works online.

In the span of a decade, he wrote many “classics of naval fiction”, many of which reside on my shelves in various editions and bindings. However, nowadays he is unfortunately remembered more for his children’s stories, starting with Children of the New Forest. So infatuated was he with America that he travelled the country in 1836 and 1837; the result was his two-series, six-volume (again the three-volume model) Diary in America (this 1960 edited version contains much valuable information on the person and this diary).

Other noteworthy facts: When Napoleon died on St Helena’s on May 5, 1821, Marryat was there and produced a sketch of Napoleon 14 hours after he died. His A code of signals for the use of vessels employed in the merchant service; including a cypher for secret correspondence (4th ed., 1826; later editions entitled The universal code of signals for the mercantile marine of all nations, by the late Captain Marryat, R.N., with a selection of sentences adapted for convoys) was employed by the Royal Navy for fifty years.

His daughter, Florence Marryat, a prolific author in her own right, had published in 1872 the two-volume Life and letters of Captain Marryat. Most of his papers were destroyed after his death so this work provides some primary source material on his life.

As we leave Captain Marryat, I would be remiss in not mentioning three other Royal Navy officers, contemporaries of Marryat, who also wrote naval fiction: Frederick Chamier (bio here, writings here, notice the 3-part novel again); William Nugent Glascock (bio here, writings here); and Basil Hall (bio here, writings here).


Autobiography of Alfred T Mahan

March 9, 2015

One of the most influential writers on seapower, Alfred T Mahan, wrote voluminously (here is a bibliography of his work; access to many of his writings online are available as well), expressing his opinions and research over a vast panoply of naval topics. However, finding more intimate knowledge of the man himself is a bit more elusive. That can be solved by having recourse to his From sail to steam; recollections of naval life that was published in 1907. It is an anecdotal telling of his life from his first sea service until his presidency of the Naval War College.