November 08, 2007

Gratuitous Royal Navy Geekery Posting


Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1723 of Vice Admiral the Hon. John Byron. I swipe the Wiki article lock, stock and barrel:

He was known as Foul-weather Jack because of his frequent bad luck with the weather.

Byron was the second son of the 4th Baron Byron. He joined the navy at a young age, accompanying Baron Anson on his circumnavigation as a midshipman. Byron's ship, HMS Wager, was shipwrecked on the coast of Patagonia, and the survivors decided to split in two teams, one to make its way by boat to Rio de Janeiro, the other, John Byron's, to sail North and meet Spaniards. He wrote of his adventures in The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron, which sold well enough to appear in several editions. These experiences form the basis of the novel The Unknown Shore by Patrick O'Brian, which closely follows Byron's own account.

In 1760 he was in command of a squadron sent to destroy the fortifications at Louisbourg. In July of that year he defeated the French flotilla sent to relieve New France at the Battle of Restigouche.

Between June 1764 and May 1766 Byron completed his own circumnavigation as captain of HMS Dolphin. In 1765 he took possession of the Falkland Islands on the part of Britain on the ground of prior discovery, and his doing so was nearly the cause of a war between Great Britain and Spain, both countries having armed fleets to contest the sovereignty of the barren islands. On this voyage, Byron discovered islands of the Tuamotus, Tokelau and the Gilbert Islands, and visited Tinian in the Northern Marianas Islands.

In 1769 he was appointed governor of Newfoundland. He was made Commander-in-chief of the British fleet in the West Indies in 1778 and 1779 during the American War of Independence. He unsuccessfully attacked a French fleet under the Comte d'Estaing at the Battle of Grenada in July 1779.

He was the father of John "Mad Jack" Byron, who in turn fathered the poet Lord Byron. He was also the grandfather of George Anson Byron, another admiral and explorer.

I have both The Unknown Shore and O'Brian's other novel about Admiral Ansen's 1740 expedition to capture the Manila Galleon, The Golden Ocean (actually O'Brian's first sea novel). It's been a long while since I read either of them. My recollection is that they were pretty good, if not quite up to the standard of the Aubrey/Maturin books. Also, one sees a few parallels: The Golden Ocean features a gigantic, immensely strong Irishman who resembles a kind of intelligent Padeen. The Unknown Shore features as sidekick to the main character a hapless surgeon's mate who could be a proto-Maturin. I must look into Byron's own account of his shipwreck mentioned above and see if it is still available. Mmmmmm.....Primary sources......Mmmmmm......

Oh, and yes indeed, Admiral Byron was the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron. There are a couple of passages in the Aubrey/Maturin books where O'Brian pokes fun at the misunderstanding between Jack, other sailors and Stephen over who is being spoken of, the admiral or the poet. And at one point, Stephen gives a summary of Lord Byron's poetry:

"He is a poet, sir," said Stephen, "one that writes excellent doggerel with flashes of brilliant poetry in it; but whether the poetry would flash quite so bright were it not for the contrast, I cannot tell: I have not read much of him."

I assume this is O'Brian's own opinion, conventiently placed in the mouth of Maturin. From my own encounters with Byron years ago, I would probably agree. However, I was never a fan and consequently did not go very deep into the matter. The man was a first class swine who characterized everything I loathe about the excesses of Romanticism and I never got beyond that.

Posted by Robert at November 8, 2007 10:58 AM | TrackBack