Napoleon's escort

June 26, 1998

COCKBURN AND THE BRITISH NAVY IN TRANSITION. Admiral Sir George Cockburn, 1772-1853. By Roger Morriss. 338pp. University of Exeter Press. Pounds 35. - 0 85989 526 2.

Sir George Cockburn is remembered today, if he is remembered at all, as the man who burnt the White House in 1814, and the same image of a tough, ruthless opponent has been carried over to his post-war work as a member, and for many years professional head of Conservative Admiralty Boards. He has never had a scholarly Life, and his generation of senior officers who passed much of their careers in peacetime politics and administration have tended to be neglected. For the naval historians they lacked glamour, and for the political historians they were marginal figures, if not (for those of Whig sympathies) pantomime villains. Cockburn himself has often been caricatured as a reactionary opponent of all technical progress.

Basing himself solidly on the admiral's scattered papers and those of his contemporaries, Roger Morriss has no difficulty in dispelling this crude picture. Certainly bold and aggressive when risks were justified, Cockburn was a thoughtful officer always careful of his men's lives and considerate of their welfare. His precise and retentive mind, his administrative ability and legal knowledge, his diplomatic skills and linguistic fluency, early marked him for the sort of responsibility for which many excellent fighting admirals lacked the wisdom and judgment. He was the obvious choice for the delicate mission of escorting Napoleon to St Helena, where his courtesy and firmness of character were equally tested. At the Admiralty, his long experience, his unequalled professional knowledge combined with administrative flair and precision, gave him an authority matched by few admirals and not many politicians. When the erratic Duke of Clarence (the future William IV) was made Lord High Admiral in 18 on conditions designed to keep him firmly under professional and political control, it was Cockburn (supported by George IV and Wellington) who bore the strain of the resulting clashes. Dr Morriss is able to document his considerable achievements in guiding the Navy successfully through the difficult technical and social developments of the 1820s, 30s and 40s. Always open to new technology, he was genuinely conservative in his politics, a sincere defender of the old constitution against the Whigs, and in particular of the old constitution of naval administration. In this last he was clearly right, for the ill-considered abolition of the Navy Board in 1832 had as disastrous an effect on the Navy as Cockburn had predicted.

Roger Morriss's life is thorough, scholarly and closely based on the documents. Some readers may feel the focus is too close, during the post-war years especially. This is very much an official Life, for not much survives to illuminate the private man, and he seems, perhaps unavoidably, somewhat colourless - but it is nevertheless a life full of interest and importance, not only for the "British Navy in transition", but for the political and social life of the era.

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