‘A ship is a bit of terra firma cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.’
This was the view of Herman Melville, one of the all-time greats, whose classic novels of the sea include Moby Dick and my personal favourite, Billy Budd.
Melville is right – but to quote another writer – ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ – and none more so than the captain of a ship at sea. Mutiny was an ever-present danger, particularly at the time of the French Revolution.
My first naval story was a play for BBC Radio 4 called The Floating Republic about the 1797 mutiny among sailors of the British North Sea fleet at the Nore. While I was doing the research, I was struck by the strength of republican, even revolutionary feeling on the lower deck at the time. Captains were kings – right – but they knew what could happen if a king became tyrant. And they weren’t ruling a crew of owls and pussy cats.
Another writer, for whom I have a great respect is Christopher Hitchens who writes in his book on Thomas Paine: “As Patrick O’Brian’s remarkable seafaring novels remind us, the crews of the Royal Navy were full of nonconformist enthusiasts, who may have fought for the Crown at sea but were Levellers and Republicans on land.”
And to some extent Nathan shares their political opinions. He is half American and his mother’s family – his uncles and aunts and cousins - were deeply implicated in the American Revolution. Nathan shares at least some of his mother’s radical and feminist ideas and is drawn toward the philosophies of men like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. But his father is a traditionalist and a conservative – a retired admiral and a Tory gentleman farmer. And in many ways, Nathan is torn between his two parents and their conflicting beliefs. The excesses, the violence – the terrorism – of the French Revolution horrify him and bring out his pessimism about human nature – and how far it can be trusted. He feels a compulsion to retreat into the trenches of his father’s innate conservatism.
That is why he fights for King and Country. But he is never entirely at his ease with this. Like most Americans – and even many English subjects – then and now, he has a natural distrust of authority – tyranny – politicians. Everything in him rejects the barbarity of conditions in the Navy – and in society as a whole. But France in the Terror is worse… What is he to do? This sets up a huge internal conflict in him – because his very nature craves freedom. He never quite comes to terms with this contradiction and, hopefully, this is what makes him different from other heroes of naval fiction.
Nathan is not so much a king as the head of a family. A nautical family. The members of that family become his primary concern – far more than the fate of kingdoms and republics. As he travels from England to France, to the West Indies, to the Middle East and India, he also makes a spiritual journey – a search for some kind of harmony or order in the world. Or sense. And everywhere there is madness. Fanaticism. ‘Dark forces’. Chaos… And naked ambition represented by men like Gilbert Imlay – the American agent - who is his alter ego and nemesis; the French agent Gillet; and the figures who strut the high stage of history: Robespierre and Danton, Napoleon, Pitt, Jefferson and Monroe, Wellington and Nelson…
Like Ulysses he confronts many obstacles in the bid to complete his journey – to find his way home, back to his family. And like Ulysses he finds his family in those who travel with him. And in the end, the family is the only thing that makes any sense of it all.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to try and make sense of it all here. There are whole libraries of books that attempt to do that – though if I recommend just one to you, it is actually a novel – A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. That will tell you more about the French Revolution than many a scholarly history and although it is a work of fiction, you won’t fault her on her facts.
So this is the very briefest of guides.
The Nathan Peake adventures begin with one great historical event – the French Revolution. How did it happen? What was the spark that lit the fuse?
Well, like most great events in history there are many answers to that. You could say it began in Boston, in 1773, when a gang of Yankee malcontents dressed up as Indians and threw a cargo of tea into the harbour as a protest against taxes, levied by the British colonial government. The British mishandled the affair and this led, three years later, to the American War of Independence. The French joined in on the side of the rebels – more to embarrass their old enemies, the British, than from any innate sympathy for the Americans. They helped the rebels win, but the cost of the war led to a collapse of the French economy. There were food riots in Paris. And a young lawyer with a bad stutter called Camille Desmoulins jumped on a table outside a cafe and said, To the B-b-b...’ And before he could spit it out – he might have meant the bank or the bakery - the mob attacked the Bastille and started the French Revolution.
Whatever its origins, the French Revolution brought an end to ‘the ancient regime’ – the rule of kings and emperors that had dominated Europe since the time of the Greeks and the Romans – and gave birth to the modern era of liberal democracy. But not without considerable pain.
The French Revolution was a much more violent affair than the one in America. And I mean in the sense of street violence, not battles between regular armies, though there were enough of them, too. It became a class war. Priests and nobles on the one side; the new middle class of lawyers, journalists, playwrights, bankers and accountants on the other. As usual, the bankers and lawyers did the best out of it, though even some of them lost their heads. And as usual, the lower classes provided the mob - and the cannon fodder.
The men of science played their part, too. They provided a new killing machine – the Humane and Scientific Execution Machine, they called it, though most people called it the guillotine, after the doctor who’d first tested it – using dead bodies in the Paris School of Medicine. Day after day the death carts, or tumbrels as they were called, rolled down the streets of Paris from the Palais de Justice to the Place de la Revolution where the death machine was waiting.
‘Let Terror be the order of the day,’ said the Revolutionaries, thus coining a new class of legislator – the terrorist.
This upset people. In France and outside it. Though in fact, they had been trying to undermine the Revolution from the start and some reckoned this was what provoked the Terror in the first place. The armies of the Emperor of Austria and the King of Prussia marched on Paris in support of the King of France. They threatened to level the city to the ground and put the entire population to the sword. This created a degree of tension. Even paranoia. People suspected of supporting the kings and emperors were massacred in the streets and prisons on Paris - or given a more humane send off by the machine in the Place de la Revolution. Tribunes of the people emerged, vying with each other to promise death to the enemies of liberty. Robespierre and Danton – both lawyers. Desmoulins, half lawyer, half journalist. Marat, a doctor. Hebert, another journalist. Once they had got rid of the enemies of liberty they turned on each other. Most went to the guillotine. Marat died in the bath. The Revolution was devouring its own children.
The British watched all this with mounting apprehension and distaste. To begin with many Brits had supported the Revolution. They thought it would lead to something along the lines of the British system – a king ruling with the consent of his people, represented in Parliament. They were wrong. The message finally sank home when the French cut off the king’s head. The British indulged in the national pastime of saying rude things about their Gallic neighbours. Some might even have tut-tutted a bit. The French declared war.
And the war lasted, with one short break, for twenty-two years.
Britain fought mainly at sea, where it was strongest. The two sides had about the same number of ships (about 100 ships of the line mounting between 50 and 120 guns and 150 or so frigates and sloops mounting between 16 and 44 guns) but the British were better at gunnery and, because they spent more time at sea, they probably had the edge in seamanship. As the conflict wore on, they won a series of great battles and a great many lesser engagements. And they were able to land British troops more or less anywhere in the world.
So this is the canvas, as it were, for the adventures of Nathan Peake.
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