Book Name: Beat To Quarters
Author: C.S. Forester
First Published: 1937
C.S. Forester was a former medical student who wished to become a writer. In 1927, he bought several volumes of The Naval Chronicle, that detailed the professional topics of the Royal Navy during the time of the conflict with Napoleon. Voyaging on a small freighter, he traveled from California to Central America and spent his time reading these books, soaking up all the articles on strategy, gunnery, and seamanship by professional seamen of that time period. By the time that his travels brought him back to England, Forester had plotted his famous novel about the mission of Horatio Hornblower, Beat to Quarters. It would publish in 1937 and would soon be followed by two more books, A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours. In 1939, all three would appear together in one volume as Captain Horatio Hornblower. In 1951, Beat to Quarters would be the source material for the movie Horatio Hornblower starring Gregory Peck.
The novel is about a secret mission to South America by 37 year old Captain Horatio Hornblower. The Admiralty has ordered the thirty-six-gun HMS Lydia and her captain to support a Spanish rebel in order to disrupt the Spanish naval presence in the area. This presence takes the form of a fifty gun ship of the line known as Natividad. Hornblower is ordered “to take, sink, burn or destroy” this vessel that vastly outguns his own ship. The captain soon discovers that the Spanish noble he was sent to support has lost his mind. El Supremo, as he calls himself, believes he is a god and will tolerate nothing but absolute obedience to his will.
Captain Hornblower manages to negate the situation of being allied with a madman and sets out to seek and destroy the Natividad. The Lydia faces this superior ship twice, once in a smartly done night action and a second battle at sea with the two ships exchanging broadsides in a battle to the death.
Weary of battle, Hornblower prepares to return to England. Stopping in Panama for supplies, he is persuaded to take on a passenger for transport, a Lady Barbara Wellesley. Finding the lady to be an excellent whist player and charming companion, the married captain suddenly finds himself engaged in an altogether different kind of battle, one that could sink his heart.
I fell in love years ago with the Horatio Hornblower saga when A&E created its mini-series based on the book series. Strangely, the mini-series did not cover what is considered the defining novel of the saga which is the first book written by Forester, Beat to Quarters. When I set about reading the books, I started with this one and then read A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours. After the main trilogy is read, the books can be consumed in any order. Most of the stories first appeared in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post before becoming novels, which accounts for their stand alone quality. Beat to Quarters is my favorite of the Hornblower saga and should not be missed. It will turn you into a true fan of historical fiction.
You can find Beat to Quarters by C.S. Forester on GoodReads.