The golden age of sailing ships was that half-century which straddled the year 1800. The late 18th Century, was an era of great naval heroics. That most famous of navigators, Captain Cook, explores the southern reaches of the globe and then Horatio Nelson vanquishes the French. We see the rise of Britain as the dominant colonial power.
A new biography written by Nicholas Courtney covers the life of a pivotal figure from this era. Admiral Francis Beaufort (1774-1857) is best known for having his name given to the universal scale that measures the strength of wind. Reading Gale Force 10 will show you how Beaufort played a critical role in making travel by sea much safer. Among the many contributions made by Beaufort in his 26-year role as Hydrographer to the British Navy was to bring new standards to the field of hydrographic mapping. Accurate charts of coastlines around the world gave Britain a huge strategic advantage as both a naval and mercantile power.
Courtney's writing is based on an impressive level of research. He has accessed Beaufort's original letters and journals, as well as the official naval and hydrographic records. The most important revelation in the book is that Beaufort was almost entirely self-educated. Despite this, he became recognized as one of the great scientific minds of the era. Courtney demonstrates that in the early 1800s the British Navy was at the forefront of scientific inquiry. Francis Beaufort had a central role in these advances.
The average reader may expect a book covering this subject matter to be very dry and unexciting. However, Courtney is a skilled biographer who manages to both excite and inform the reader. He combines elements of a "ripping yarn" worthy of a Hornblower tale, together with subtle - but very revealing -observations of his subject's private and political life.
Despite living at a time when Britannia was "ruling the waves" Beaufort didn't approve of one chauvinistic habit of his countrymen. This was to go around the globe renaming locations with English place names. A fascinating quote shows Beaufort instructing one of his officers who was charting the west coast of North America. "You place San Francisco in New Albion. Is it not a Spanish settlement? Have not the Spaniards a right to call their colonies what name they please: do not they call it Nueva California?"
The names of the great Victorian era scientists and explorers with whom Beaufort corresponded are impressive. The list includes Darwin, Hooker, Huxley and Franklin. This book gives fresh insights into that time when so much of the natural world was being investigated for the first time. Despite Beaufort being a very practical man, he realised the value of science in its own right. To contemporary bureaucrats who are always trying to commercialise science perhaps they should be reminded of Sir Francis' words " science is not a trade."
This book will appeal to readers who have a love of naval, scientific or social histories. Nicholas Courtney has come a long way as a writer since he wrote the biographies of the Queen Mother and Princess Anne in the late 1980s. With Gale Force 10, he will earn a reputation as an author who can write credibly and informatively on subjects far removed from that English obsession of "royal watching." Despite that, there is a lingering connection between the House of Windsor and Sir Francis Beaufort. Arguably, they both put the Great into Britain.
If a wind-scale could be applied to rating books, Courtney's brisk and breezy Gale Force 10 will blow you away.