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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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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...

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