The Hearts of Oak Trilogy: Book 2
By 1702 Admiral John Benbow was a English naval hero. He had chased pirates from Tunis to Tobago and pickled the heads of those he captured; he had kept his cool in the noise and smoke of England’s humiliation at the Battle of Beachy Head; his fireships had brought terror to the ports of northern France. Here was a fighting sailor of ruthless methods but indomitable courage: in short: a man to be reckoned with. In 1702, however, when Benbow engaged a French squadron off Hispaniola, the other ships in his squadron failed to support him.
His leg shattered by a cannon-ball, Benbow fought on – but to no avail: the French escaped and the stricken Benbow succumbed to his wounds. When the story of his ‘last fight’ reached England, there was an outcry. The two captains who had abandoned him were court-martialled and shot; ‘brave Benbow’ was elevated from national hero to national legend, his valour immortalized in broadsheet and folksong: ships were named after him; Tennyson later feted him in verse; in Treasure Island, the tavern where Jim Hawkins and his mother live is called the ‘Admiral Benbow’.
In The Admiral Benbow Sam Willis traces the extraordinary career of a man who lived in a time of dramatic change – from his birth in an age of Revolution, through years of service under the restored monarchy and the dynastic upheavals of 1688-9, to the final tawdry betrayal that brought a brave man low. As well as examining what his career tells us about British naval technology, strategy, tactics and capability in the late 17th century and early 18th, he explores why (and how) Benbow’s last fight so captured the imagination of the public, and assesses the role played by the episode in forging close links between the British people and the navy that protected them.
The Admiral Benbow covers all aspects of seventeenth century naval life in rich detail, but Benbow also worked in the Royal Dockyards, lived in Samuel Evelyn’s House, knew Peter the Great, helped to found the first naval Hospital, and helped to build the first offshore lighthouse.
With The Fighting Temeraire and The Glorious First of June, The Admiral Benbow forms part of ‘The Hearts of Oak trilogy of scholarly but accessible histories that, between them, encapsulate Britain’s maritime achievement during the age of sail.
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