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Duty, Discipline and Leadership in the British Royal Navy

Edward Riou between James Cook and Lord Nelson

Series:

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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8 Conclusion

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Abstract: This chapter evaluates Edward Riou’s interpretation of his role as a King’s officer and of his overall performance. It retraces his individual development from his first major employment under Captain James Cook to his participation in Lord Nelson’s attack against Copenhagen and compares this with the social developments within the navy.

Far from perfect, Riou was a diligent, zealous and dutiful officer, but not outstandingly successful. His way of managing a ship was clearly influenced by James Cook’s school. In modern eyes, Riou’s case is tainted by his extraordinary use of the lash and corporal violence. However, Greg Dening’s interpretation of physical violence in the hands of an institution like the navy might fit Riou’s case perfectly, as Dening points out that

“In the hands of ‘gentlemen’ it was clean, clinical, ordinary, formal. […] It was impersonal, leaving no indebtedness to leniency, no distracting anger at excess. It was theatre of discipline, not of law. One individual being flogged, alone and without allies, played out the ultimate deference to naked power in the captain on the quarterdeck.”1

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