Magazine article The Spectator

An Admirable Admiral

Magazine article The Spectator

An Admirable Admiral

Article excerpt

GALE FORCE TEN: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF ADMIRAL BEAUFORT by Nicholas Courtney Review, L14.99, pp. 340, ISBN0747272107

Alan Judd

Nowadays we refer to `storm force 10' rather than 'gale', but otherwise we happily use Admiral Beaufort's famous wind-scale with little thought of its founder. French shipping forecasts acknowledge him more generously, referring to `Beaufort Cinq' or `Beaufort Dix'. But, as this very good, well researched and rather heartening account shows, we owe far more to Francis Beaufort than a scale of numbers.

He was born in 1774 into an energetic and affectionate clerical family, from which he was sent to sea with the East India Company at the age of 14. After overcoming debilitating sea-sickness, he demonstrated a lively intellectual curiosity, with a real passion for mathematics and navigation. `True education begins with the resolution to improve,' he wrote later, as a distinguished Fellow of the Royal Society, exemplifying in himself a seeming paradox of that age of patronage in which so many of the successful were self-taught self-- starters.

Surviving shipwreck and piracy in the Far East, and under the tutelage of a good captain, he added surveying to his passions and joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Courtney's evocation of his subject's life aboard a man o' war over the next 20 or so years is crisp and vivid, evoking the period detail familiar to many from the modern nautical novels of Patrick O'Brian. Indeed, it is almost as if Beaufort had based his career on those of O'Brian's two fictional heroes: the hand-to-hand fighting, the bullet in the lung to be carried for ever more, the enthusiasm for coffee, natural history and antiquity, contacts with Sir Joseph Banks and delicate negotiations with courteous, cut-throat beys. Beaufort was even involved in the capture of the French corvette, La Bonne Citoyenne, which became Cochrane's Speedy, which in turn was O'Brian's model for his hero's sloop, Sophie.

Naval service during the first half of the 19th century seems to have been as much an extension of scientific and historical enquiry as an instrument of war and creator of empire. Beaufort happily combined these roles throughout his career. …

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