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Favourite of Fortune (Hardback)

Captain John Quilliam, Trafalgar Hero

Seaforth Nelson & Trafalgar Naval Biographies 19th Century

By Andrew Bond, Frank Cowin, Andrew Lambert
Seaforth Publishing
Pages: 224
ISBN: 9781399012706
Published: 7th May 2021

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Review!

Video review by Dr Alexander Clarke

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The Royal Navy of Nelson’s time was not short of heroes, nor of outstanding achievements, but even in this crowded field the career of Captain John Quilliam stands out – so often the right man in the right place at the right time, he was justly described by a contemporary as ‘the favourite of fortune’.

Born on the Isle of Man 250 years ago, Quilliam has until now evaded detailed study of his extraordinary life. Indeed, while celebrated as a Manx hero, in the wider world beyond the Island one of the most important men on the quarter deck of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar remains largely unrecognised.

Trafalgar, however, was not even the high point of Quilliam’s professional journey. From the lowest rung of the ladder in the dockyard at Portsmouth he climbed to become Victory’s First Lieutenant, having already survived two of the bloodiest sea-battles of the era at Camperdown and Copenhagen. In the process he won a share in undreamed of wealth through the seizure of one of the largest hauls of Spanish gold ever taken by the Georgian navy.

Promoted Post-Captain, Quilliam reached the apogee of his profession, commanding frigates in the Baltic and on the Newfoundland station in the War of 1812. There, in a bizarre twist worthy of a novel by O’Brian or Forester, he defeated an accusation of shirking an engagement with the American super-frigate President in a Court Martial brought by his own First Lieutenant.

This first full biography of a far-from-ordinary naval officer is itself an unusual collaboration between three writers, each interested in different aspects of Quilliam’s career, but united by a belief that it deserves a wider audience.

Fascinating

As ‘one of the most important men on the Quarterdeck of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar’, it might seem odd that we’ve had to wait till now for this fascinating portrait of a hitherto less well-known sailor of the Nelsonian/Napoleonic era.

This is as much a study of the colourful period as its chief subject, thanks to the latter’s presence at three key battles, Camperdown, Copenhagen and Trafalgar, and his experiences of the many aspects/theatres - from China and the Mediterranean, to the Caribbean tropics, the frozen seas of the Baltic, or the iceberg strewn North Atlantic coast of Canada - at a time when the Royal Navy, thanks to men like Quilliam, helped Great Britain achieve global superpower status, via maritime dominance.

The narrative part of the book is just shy of 150 pages, and is augmented by two sections of illustrations, plus several maps (and, always useful for us landlubbers, a glossary!). It’s a quick, easy, gripping and exciting read. And it’s a great credit to the three - yes, three! - authors that it reads very smoothly, like the work of one mind/hand.

Worried that this was possibly a bit too specialist or obscure, I was very pleasantly surprised by this excellent book. If you find the ‘age of sail’ fascinating, as I do, I’d thoroughly recommend Favourite of Fortune.

Read the full review here

A Question of Scale

This is an excellent biography and although the product of three authors it reads seamlessly and is highly recommended.

Peter A. Clayton, The Nelson Society - The Nelson Dispatch, Volume 14, Summer 2021

The book is well produced, the illustrations well-chosen, and the maps splendid, particularly those relating to the Baltic, Newfoundland, and the voyage to China, which assist the reader greatly in following the narrative. The book is evidently a labour of love. Two of the authors claim descent from Quilliam and his wife. The third is the renowned historian Professor Andrew Lambert who having lectured on Quilliam’s service after Trafalgar was approached to write a biography but insisted on it being a tripartite venture. A generous decision which one can only hope is followed by more leading historians. A splendid read with a particularly useful glossary. Highly recommended.

John Morewood, The Waterloo Association

Video review via YouTube

Dr Alexander Clarke

About Andrew Lambert

Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s College, London, is, according to David Cannadine, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton, ‘The outstanding British naval historian of his generation’. He provided the political and strategic context to the detailed biographical research by Andrew Bond, a retired engineering journalist, while Frank Cowin, a prominent Manx antiquarian, dealt with Quilliam’s background and reputation on the Island.

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