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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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7 Riou Evaluated


Abstract: This chapter evaluates Riou’s overall performance and value as a naval officer. The three sections each provide an answer to one of the three basic questions from the introduction: Was Riou in fact the perfect naval officer? How did he compare with his fellow sea officers? What was his impact on and his relevance for the British Royal Navy?

7.1 The Perfect Naval Officer?

For a short time after 1790 and again after his death at Copenhagen, Riou had become a popular hero. Both these events were not linked to any spectacular naval victories and Riou cannot be called a naval hero. His participation in the American War of Independence had been too short for him to earn specific distinction in battle and no-one could have thought that his appointment to an unrated transport would provide him with his claim to fame. But for saving the Guardian, Riou was promoted to commander and to onward to post captain in a single step. This extraordinary hero’s promotion is as remarkable as it has been unusual. To begin with, Riou had failed to fulfil his mission to resupply the colony at Botany Bay. Secondly, he had lost his ship. Yet in spite of these failures, Riou was not only promoted but even jumped a rank. In times of war, a master and commander could expect his promotion to post captain and a ship’s first lieutenant to be commander after a successful battle or a single-ship...

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