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|L&T: Wentworth the 'Star Captain'
Written by Rae
(10/14/2008 6:01 p.m.)
Further to my post about the significance of the capture of the French frigate, I thought you might be interested in the light thrown on Wentworth’s career by a book'The Star Captains: Frigate Command in the Napoleonic Wars (Tom Wareham,2001). It is an analysis of the careers of men who held command of frigates during the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars.
Frigates were the ships of between 28 and 44 guns, as opposed to the ships of the line (line of battle), which were bigger – much bigger in many cases. Frigates were fast and manoeuverable, and had many roles in the Navy – they acted as ‘ears and eyes’ for the fleet in blockading the French and other ports, they cruised to capture and disrupt coastal trade and privateers, they conveyed non military craft around the oceans. They were the main protagonists of the smaller skirmishes and fights between ships as opposed to the big battles involving whole fleets. The system of prize money meant it was possible for a successful frigate captain to make quite large sums of money, for himself, his crew (and, of course, the relevant Admiral who got a cut!) Francis Austen twice applied to Nelson to be given a frigate instead of a ship of the line, to be refused (politely) on both occasions (Southam Jane Austen and the Navy).
Wentworth got the Laconia as his first ship on being made a post captain, in 1808, and seems to have remained her captain until 1814 - six years, ended by the peace. According to Wareham’s analysis, only 9% of all post captains who commanded frigates did so for six years or more, the average was three and a half years. Frigate command is often seen as a sort of junior level of post command - the first step before being given a larger ship of the line. Wareham argues that while for most captains this was so, there were exceptions. Some captains went straight to ships of the line without ever commanding a frigate. Conversely, this small group remained as frigate captains for extended periods.
Wareham's argument is that those serving six plus years on frigates were an elite band with special qualities which made them particularly suited to the role. The qualities a successful frigate captain needed were the ability to act decisively and autonomously, the ability to inspire and lead his men, and a need/desire for not just wealth but also glory. He uses the term 'Star Captains', (coined by another writer on the period, Henderson) to identify this elite. On the whole, though not always, this group had been promoted to post captain reasonably fast - as Wentworth seems, from his age, to have been.
The significance of social background for promotion increased in the latter half of the wars - Wareham found that of those posted pre 1800 about a third were from titled families. In the post 1800 period (when Wentworth was posted), nearly two thirds were from titled families. However, fewer of the Star Captains could be said to have powerful connections and interests than among frigate captains as a whole – again, making Wentworth a typical member of this elite.
In creating Wentworth, JA demonstrates her familiarity with, and almost uncanny understanding of, the Navy. Wentworth is a typical member of this elite, in background, and in character and abilities.
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