Duty, Discipline and Leadership in the British Royal Navy

Edward Riou between James Cook and Lord Nelson

by Martin Rütten (Author)
©2017 Thesis 343 Pages


Edward Riou (1762–1801) was a sea officer in the British Royal Navy. As a midshipman, he participated in the third voyage of Captain James Cook. He gained popular acclaim for saving HMS Guardian after she had struck an iceberg. Riou was killed in the Battle of Copenhagen (1801). Lord Nelson lamented Riou’s death as an irreparable loss. Later authors alluded to him as a «perfect naval officer».
This biography sheds new light on Riou’s notions of his duty as a King’s officer and on his methods to enforce cleanliness and discipline aboard the ships he commanded. It introduces dissenting appraisals by men who served under him. As a microhistorical study, this biography analyses Riou’s leadership style and puts him into his social context by comparing him with his fellow officers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Abstract
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Preface
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Methodological Approach
  • 1.2 Structure
  • 1.3 Sources and Literature
  • 1.3.1 Unpublished Material
  • 1.3.2 Published Material
  • 1.3.3 Secondary Literature
  • 2 Biography
  • 3 The Man
  • 3.1 Outward Appearance
  • 3.2 Family and Social Background
  • 3.3 Education
  • 3.4 Friends of Every Sort
  • 3.4.1 Patronage and Interest
  • 3.4.2 Mere Friendship
  • 3.5 Pastimes
  • 3.6 Politics
  • 3.7 Religion and Ethics
  • 3.8 Science and Curiosity
  • 3.9 Riou’s Temper and Humour
  • 3.10 Riou’s Idea of Man
  • 3.11 Self-Perception
  • 4 The Mariner
  • 4.1 Nautical Abilities and Seamanship
  • 4.1.1 Chart Work and Navigation
  • 4.1.2 Ship handling
  • 4.2 Administration and Organisation
  • 4.2.1 Administration
  • 4.2.2 Captain’s Orders
  • 4.2.3 Manning
  • 4.2.4 Practical Improvements on Board
  • 5 The Warrior
  • 5.1 Training for Combat
  • 5.1.1 Ready for War? – Brawls in the South Seas
  • 5.1.2 Combat Experience – HMS Murderator
  • 5.2 Another Star Captain?
  • 5.3 No good to us – Fighting the Danes
  • 5.4 Weapons Drills
  • 6 The King’s Officer
  • 6.1 Duty
  • 6.2 Care
  • 6.3 Discipline
  • 6.3.1 Officers
  • 6.3.2 Petty Officers
  • 6.3.3 Seamen
  • 6.4 Punishment
  • 6.4.1 The Cat
  • 6.4.2 Alternative Methods of Punishment
  • 6.5 Desertion
  • 6.6 Motivation and Incentives
  • 6.7 Leadership
  • 6.8 Popularity
  • 7 Riou Evaluated
  • 7.1 The Perfect Naval Officer?
  • 7.2 Riou Compared
  • 7.3 Riou’s Impact and Relevance for the Royal Navy
  • 8 Conclusion
  • 9 Sources
  • 9.1 Unpublished Sources
  • 9.1.1 The National Archives (TNA), Kew
  • 9.1.2 National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich
  • 9.1.3 National Library of Australia (NLA), Sydney, Nan Kivell Papers
  • 9.1.4 British Library, London
  • 9.1.5 Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale
  • 9.2 Published Sources
  • 9.3 Contemporary Newspapers and Journals
  • 9.4 Secondary Literature
  • 9.5 Internet Sources
  • 10 Index
  • Series index

| 11 →

List of Figures

Figure 1: Riou as a Midshipman, ca. 1776

Figure 2: Riou as a Lieutenant or Captain (undated)

Figure 3: Riou as a Post Captain, 1793

Figure 4: Riou as a Post Captain, ca. 1800

Figure 5: Riou’s Sketch of Christmas Harbour, Kerguelen

Figure 6: Number of Weapons Exercises per Month

Figure 7: Number of Types of Weapons Exercises per Month

Figure 8: Average Number of Weapons Exercises per Month

Figure 9: Severity of the Punishment Regime by Ship and Month

Figure 10: Average of Accumulated Severity by Ship

Figure 11: Overall Average of Accumulated Severity

Figure 12: Severity of the Regimes in Selected Ships Connected to Riou

Figure 13: Number of Punishments per Month and Crew Member in Frigates in the 1790s

Figure 14: Severity in Frigates in the 1790s

| 13 →

List of Tables

Table 1: Losses of Nelson’s Squadron

Table 2: Losses of Riou’s Squadron

Table 3: Losses of the Opponents of Riou’s Squadron

Table 4: Total Numbers of Weapons Drills in Riou’s Frigates

Table 5: Average Numbers of Weapons Drills per Month in Riou’s Frigates

Table 6: Cook and His Pupils – Punishment on the Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope

Table 7: Development of Punishment Patterns of the Ships in Riou’s Career

Table 8: Desertion Rates in Exploration Vessels

Table 9: Deserters in the Amazon

Table 10: Riou’s Prizes

| 15 →

List of Abbreviations

| 17 →


A book about Captain Bligh written by Gavin Kennedy1 acquainted me with Edward Riou. The young lieutenant of whom I had never heard before seemed to have been an outstanding person and officer undeservedly forgotten by naval historians. Further investigation revealed a diligent pupil of James Cook, the unfaltering saviour of the wrecked transport Guardian and the hero of Nelson’s attack on the defences of Copenhagen. The enthusiastic praise from the few authors mentioning him increased my interest in conducting a more detailed research into the man, his life and the way he performed his duties. The results of this research are included in this thesis which in principle is a biography, although it is not structured in strict chronological order but along the lines of the essential features of the man and his professional behaviour and convictions. As could have been expected, this analysis has somewhat tempered my first impression of Riou. The results of my research provide an additional insight into a period of naval history for which a lot of information is lacking, hidden or incomplete in spite of the huge amount of literature covering it.

As I have spent some years in the same profession as Riou, needless to say analysing the life of a naval officer who served 200 years earlier brought about a good deal of self-reflection and a different understanding of why officers act and behave as they do or did. During the rather extended period of my preoccupation with Riou’s life and character, my personal respect for him and his fellow seamen has become more mature and differentiated but still, the man, his character and his answers to the challenges life at sea presented him with engender a measure of appreciation. In spite of this benevolence, I have endeavoured to cast a neutral light on the man and his achievements as well as on his shortcomings.

After George Riou Benson had discovered the family papers that are now preserved by the National Maritime Museum, John Knox Laughton discouraged him from writing Riou’s biography based upon these documents only.2 ← 17 | 18 → Having augmented the “interesting matter”3 by adding further material and connecting Riou’s life with the current state of research concerning the officers of the British Royal Navy during the French Revolutionary Wars, I hope to have provided my humble contribution to our understanding of the life aboard “[t]hose far distant, storm–beaten ships.”4

It has taken me a long time to finish this thesis and there have been several phases when I was on the verge of giving up because there was always something more important to do and I sometimes failed to see the relevance of the biography of an obscure sea officer. It is thanks to the encouragement and support I have received from my family, friends, colleagues and perfect strangers alike that I was able to complete this rewarding challenge. In addition to the friendly and helpful staffs of the archives I have visited, I want to express my gratitude to Susan de Guardiola who transcribed the letters of Joseph Sydney Yorke for me, to Marianne Czisnik, Jörg Wettlaufer and the late Ole Feldbæk who did not hesitate to respond to my unannounced questions and to Sally Clifford, Jenny Hutchinson and Aaron Sisett who volunteered to proofread this thesis. As I have made some final changes after they had finished reading, any remaining mistakes are mine. I also want to thank Professor Dr. Sylvia Schraut for her readiness to act as second examiner and for her encouragement and support during the final stages of this project.

This dissertation has required a lot of patience. I am deeply indebted to Professor Dr. Walter Demel who never lost his faith in me, never despaired of my slow progress and always offered kind advice and benevolent guidance.

Finally, I want to thank my wife and children and apologise for all the Sunday afternoons they had to spend without me. Without your generosity and forbearance I would never have accomplished this task.

1 Kennedy, Gavin, Captain Bligh. The Man and His Mutinies, London 1989.

2 RUSI/NM/235/R/1, Riou Family Papers, John Knox Laughton, probably to George Riou Benson, 9 July 1908.

3 Ibid.

4 Mahan, Alfred Thayer, The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire 1793–1812, Vol. II, Boston 1893, p. 118.

| 19 →

1 Introduction

Abstract: The introduction presents the motivation for choosing Edward Riou as the subject of a biography and provides the basic questions this thesis tries to answer. Furthermore, it explains the methodological approach and the structure of this thesis. Finally, it introduces and appraises the sources and the literature used.

The captain of the Amazon was not convinced when he gave the order to cut the anchor cable and retreat. About two hours earlier,1 Edward Riou had committed his squadron of frigates to battle. Since then, his cruisers had been braving the fire of a massive fort and a couple of powerful blockships. Now, his commander-in-chief had ordered a general retreat. His signal was clearly distinguishable as the flagship, the three-decker London, was far away from the din and smoke of battle. Next astern to Amazon lay Defiance, the flagship of Rear Admiral Graves, third in the hierarchy of command in the British Baltic fleet. Clearly discernible, Defiance repeated Admiral Hyde Parker’s signal to Discontinue the Action.2

Amazon lay at the northern end of the British line of battle. That line was stretched along the King’s Deep,3 hemmed in between the defences of Copenhagen to the west and the Middle Ground Shoal to the east. With the prevailing south-easterly breeze, the only line of retreat for the battleships lay due north. Riou had to move his ship out of their way. The other frigates of his squadron had already obeyed Parker’s order and made sail.

To clear the King’s Deep, the Amazon had to steer a north-easterly course. On this heading, the frigate’s vulnerable stern was turned towards the huge Trekroner Fort and the heavily armed blockships. Amazon’s own broadside guns could not be brought to bear on this course and had ceased firing. When the powder smoke that so far had screened the ship from view had vanished, the Danish gunners were presented with the perfect target. They did not miss their opportunity and wreaked havoc on Amazon’s exposed ← 19 | 20 → quarter deck. Amongst those killed during the ill-timed retreat was her captain who was “severed […] in two”4 by a round shot.

There is a good deal of tragedy in Riou’s death as he was literally torn between his duty to obey his superior officers on the one hand and professional common sense on the other: Admiral Graves, Riou’s next astern, thought Parker’s signal ridiculous.5 Nevertheless, he ordered the signal to be duly repeated in a mock show of compliance with the order. And by design, he had ordered it hoisted in the fore top, where his own rigging hid it from view from the other British battleships6 while in plain view of the London – and of Riou’s squadron to his north. It was this act of deliberate sabotage of orders that prompted Riou to move out of the way. “What will Nelson think of us?”7 a distraught Riou uttered when he finally felt compelled to abandon his station.

Lord Nelson, hero of the Nile and the officer in tactical command of the British squadron attacking Copenhagen’s defences on 2 April 1801 had seen Parker’s signal despite Graves’ subterfuge. Unknown to Riou, Nelson had chosen to ignore the order out of hand. From his hesitation it seems clear that Riou would also have preferred to stay and fight and he must have felt that Nelson would not leave. But in the end, discipline prevailed against Riou’s better judgement. He did not live to see his suspicions confirmed.

This Maundy Thursday had provided Riou with the second of his two opportunities for distinguishing himself from his brother officers. Up to this day, Edward Riou had always managed to keep the delicate balance between complying with strict naval discipline and his own strong convictions. But less than three hours before his death, he had overstretched his orders for the very first time. Later, he returned to complying with his ← 20 | 21 → orders and retreated from the battle. The outcome of this combination proved fatal for him.

Like and unlike more eccentric characters such as Nelson or Cochrane, Riou had acted the way he did not as a consequence of extraordinary zeal or vanity but from a special sense of duty. The statement above that Riou was literally torn between his duty to obey his superior officers on the one hand and professional common sense on the other may have been true for his whole life and his whole career. To what extent the Royal Navy appreciated such a sense of duty constitutes one of the predominant questions of this thesis. In Riou’s own words: What will Nelson think of us? And what did the Royal Navy think of him?

On the evening after the battle, in a letter to his beloved Emma, Nelson lamented the captain whose acquaintance he had made but three days ago:

A couple of years earlier, in 1793, young midshipman William Henry Dillon was sent on board the Rose with a message for her captain. Dillon knew the frigate was commanded by Edward Riou and he was quite excited with the expectation of meeting an idol:

“I was quite delighted at being selected for this duty, as I had heard so much of that officer. I was anxious not only to see but to speak to him.”9

Other officers did not express the same enthusiasm. Riou was neither singled out in John Jervis’ correspondence, under whose orders he took part in the conquest of Martinique in 1794, nor in Hyde Parker’s reports who was his commander-in-chief during the Baltic Expedition of 1801.10 The same puzzling fact prevails today. While in most modern publications about Nelson’s navy, only passing glances are thrown at Riou if he is mentioned at all, Paul M. Kennedy explicitly names him amongst the “brilliant frigate ← 21 | 22 → commanders”11 during the wars between 1793 and 1815. This place of honour is shared only with Henry Blackwood, Nelson’s trusted advisor during the deployment for the Battle of Trafalgar12 and the eccentric and unorthodox Thomas Cochrane.13 Kennedy grants Riou precedence over more successful frigate commanders like John Borlase Warren, Edward Pellew, Thomas Byam Martin, Philip Bowes Vere Broke and many other famous captains. He neither explains his choice nor does he revisit the trio in his work about the rise and fall of British naval mastery.

Something similar applies to John Cawte Beaglehole, the acclaimed publisher of the journals of the voyages of James Cook, who noted:

“Riou […] was thought the perfect naval officer, […] whose loss at Copenhagen was irreparable, said Nelson […].”14

At the beginning of Cook’s third voyage, Riou was a fourteen-year-old midshipman. Beaglehole’s coverage of that voyage alone fills two expansive ← 22 | 23 → volumes, but the perfect naval officer receives no further attention. A total of more than 3000 pages contains merely a couple of charts drawn by Riou and fewer than ten quotes from his journals in which he noted descriptions of the people and islands the ships visited. Riou also remains totally unmentioned in the other officers’ journals that have been included in Beaglehole’s edition. Beaglehole does not provide an explanation why and by whom Riou might have been thought the perfect naval officer.15

A voice from the lower deck tells a disturbingly different story about the perfect naval officer: Jacob Nagle, an able seaman16 serving in the Ganges guard ship17 while Riou was temporarily in charge of her, described him as:

“[…] a rail tarter [real tartar] to a seamen. He made it his studdy to punish every man he could get holt of, and gloried in having the name of a villen and a terror to a seamen.”18

These conflicting observations about Riou and his character form the basis for this thesis which deals with Riou’s role within and his impact on the Royal Navy. Could the strained relationship between Riou and Nagle be symptomatic for the general deterioration of the relationship between ruling class officers and working class seamen that N.A.M. Rodger has identified in the period after the American War of Independence?19 The surviving logbooks of the ships Riou commanded indicate that his crews might have ← 23 | 24 → had ample reason for fearing or disliking him: the frequency and harshness of the punishments he ordered seem to be far above average.20

And still Beaglehole’s praise of Riou as the perfect naval officer lingers. As his career does not provide us with any spectacular military success that has influenced the operational history of the Navy, the assessment perfect can hardly mean that Riou was a fighting officer of the same relevance as Nelson, Cochrane or Pellew. These men with their tactical skills and exploits in battle clearly outshone most of their contemporaries, while nothing of that sort can be related of Riou. On the other hand, unorthodox men like Nelson, Cochrane or Sidney Smith were criticised for their eccentric and risky actions while Pellew’s later nepotism was frowned upon. Riou was not guilty of such deviations from average behaviour that would have set him apart from his professional colleagues. He was also not responsible for outstanding technical or organisational improvements like Home Popham who had so thoroughly improved the Royal Navy’s code of signals. In the absence of such extraordinary contributions to the navy’s success, might perfect simply appreciate the biography of a typical, normal or average naval officer?

This approach, too, would not fit exactly. The rare literature featuring Riou tells the same story as published contemporary opinion in the newspapers,21 theatre,22 and literature23 have done: They introduce us to the highly gifted and intelligent pupil of the great James Cook who by mere force of will successfully saved his ship from the jaws of a merciless ocean infested with icebergs and who later died a hero’s death at the Battle of Copenhagen. M. D. Nash’s edition of documents about the last voyage of the Guardian24 evinces an adventure in which a young commander overcomes the immense dangers of shipwreck in the treacherous and lonely high southern latitudes. However, there is a slight friction in Riou’s journal that passes unnoticed at first sight: After discipline on board the Guardian ← 24 | 25 → had collapsed, Riou at one point was confronted with a drunk, desperate and unruly seaman who, on being challenged, replied “Something about God Almighty O you may hold your Tongue there is no more flogging now.”25 This gross act is quickly passed over by the knowing reader who is familiar with the harsh discipline in use on board a Royal Navy vessel. Nash’s remark suggesting that this seaman “[…] emerges as the villain of the story […]”26 sets the matter straight. Only on second thoughts one might ask why a seaman who faces imminent death rejoices in his deliverance from the lash.

One might wonder whether Riou was a typical member or even a precursor of a more modern generation of naval officers hailing from the middle class who, according to Michael A. Lewis27 or N.A.M. Rodger28, have appeared in the ranks of the Royal Navy during a period of political and social transformation in Britain as well as on the European continent. Riou’s character traits, his career and the influence he exercised over his personal environment may help find traces of an extraordinary personality.

This thesis focuses on three questions:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (June)
Sea Officers HMS Guardian HMS Amazon Battle of Copenhagen (1801) Punishment Care
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 343 pp., 6 coloured ill., 8 b/w ill., 10 b/w tables

Biographical notes

Martin Rütten (Author)

Martin Rütten studied political and social sciences at the Universität der Bundeswehr München (Bundeswehr University, Munich).


Title: Duty, Discipline and Leadership in the British Royal Navy
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
348 pages