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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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5 The Warrior


Abstract: This chapter assesses Riou’s fighting skills. It discusses what Riou may or may not have learned during his voyage with Captain Cook and appraises his employment during the American War of Independence. Finally, this chapter analyses how Riou conducted operations when he held commands of his own and how he prepared his frigates for battle.

After a captain had succeeded in recruiting a sufficient number of men for taking his ship to sea and settled them down as a ship’s company, his next task was to work his crew up into an efficient fighting team. He had to expect to meet an enemy any time and the only thing that counted was whether and how he would overcome him.

The career of a naval officer very much depended on his success in his core function: fighting the King’s enemies. In a period dominated by warfare, success was predominantly measured in military terms. There were only a few exceptions like the outstanding navigators James Cook or William Bligh or the excellent administrator Charles Middleton, whose careers were based on other feats than their battle record. Another example for the priorities even scholars have set until recently is the Earl St. Vincent whose image has long been dominated by his performance in operational command of the Mediterranean Squadron or the Channel Fleet. The results of his fanatic efforts at reforming the royal dockyards’ administration have only recently received due notice.1

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