Storm and Conquest The Battle for the Indian Ocean, 1808-10

Review :

At the beginning of the 19th Century a significant factor in Britain's prosperity was trade with India, a country effectively ruled by a commercial enterprise, the East India Company. But that trading was a hazardous affair, beset by ferocious weather and the enmity of Napoleon's France. In Storm and Conquest, Stephen Taylor magnificently brings to life the many deprivations and disasters and the occasional ultimate rewards. As much as this is an evocation of ships and the elements, it is also a gallery of vividly drawn portraits of men and women, friend and foe, colleagues and rivals. The author's great triumph is in holding the many strands together so that the reader is always carried forward by the over-arching narrative.

The first two-thirds of the book describe the terrifying challenges faced by the Indiamen as they plied between east and west. For protection they usually - but not always - had vessels of the Royal Navy, not exactly the brotherly alliance that might have been expected. The Navy men drew a distinction between "the art of war and the art of gain" with barely disguised, but unjust, contempt for the latter. Much tension between and within the two camps derived from incompatible personalities. There were also the wives; Taylor spices his pages with some juicy scandals.

The final third deals with conquest. Two small islands in the Indian Ocean - Bourbon and Ile de France - were staging posts for French vessels that were always vigilant for the possibility of taking a passing Indiaman as a bountiful prize. The solution for Britain was to capture the two outposts. Success crowns the story but the manner of its achievement is a tragi-comedy of bloody battles mostly lost and final anti-climactic victory.

Anyone in modern times who has holidayed in the beguiling climes and customs of Mauritius - as we now know the Ile de France - cannot fail to be enthralled by the events of two hundred years ago. And not just events. There are real people here: the tyrannical Captain Robert Corbet; the swashbuckling Nesbit Willoughby; Matthew Flinders, taken prisoner when returning from mapping the coast of Australia and held for more than six years on the island; Commodore Jacques Felix Hamelin, the French commander defeated at the last; not least, Lady Elizabeth Barlow, mother of seventeen children and instigator of a red-blooded relationship with her husband's aide-de-camp.

All human life is in these pages, blown and tossed on an unforgiving sea. A memorable tale memorably told.


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