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Duty, Discipline and Leadership in the British Royal Navy

Edward Riou between James Cook and Lord Nelson


Martin Rütten

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.

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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...

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