That Curious Fellow: Captain Basil Hall, RN
Capt Basil Hall RN, appears to have been the Zelig of his generation. He seems to have been everywhere, done everything and knew everyone of scientific and literary importance in the early 19th Century.
Being a second son of a Scottish aristocrat he couldn’t inherit the family lands and income and so, at 13, in 1802, chose to join the Royal Navy. Being well connected with a father interested in science he seems to have had a character that made full use of these. To augment his naval salary he wrote about his world-wide naval travels and adventures and also other travels.
His first naval engagements in America and Spain during the Peninsular War are described, as are his travels in India and the Far East. Particularly interesting is his renowned interview with Napoleon, while still a prisoner on St. Helena. He was a confidante of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens and many other distinguished authors of his day. Subsequent travels in Europe introduce personalities such as Lord Byron and the eccentric Countess Purgstall. Although the tale of his journey in the United States, where he expressed disapproval of the slave trade, earned him the dislike of Americans, his support in Edinburgh of the great American bird painter, John James Audubon, resulted in Audubon’s fawmous bird book.
As an amateur scientist, Hall made important contributions to nautical astronomy, geology and naval technology, being a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Among his scientific friends were Sir John Herschel, Mary Somerville, and Sir Humphrey Davy. He was in the privileged position of moving among the upper echelons of British society's distinguished writers, scientists and politicians thus providing a fascinating insight into the manners of high society in Edinburgh and London. An early portrait shows a sweet natured good looking young man. James McCarthy's research shows him to have been a devoted family man – not just with his own wife and children, but also with his wider family of brothers, sisters, parents.
With such a hero and such adventures, this should be a fascinating book. And indeed it is. However, in his enthusiasm for historical accuracy and desire to prove that his subject was not too good to be true, the author has tended to sacrifice the excitement of the adventures for a more scholarly approach. However, if you persevere with the 19th century prose, you are left with a vivid picture of the daily life and times of seafarers and their families at a time of tremendous development in our maritime history.
Reviewed by Jenny Jones and Deborah Wheeler