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Horatio Hornblower

Admiral of the Fleet Horatio Hornblower, 1st Baron Hornblower, GCB, is a fictional protagonist of a series of novels by C. S. Forester, and later the subject of films and television programs. Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying, "I recommend Forester to everyone literate I know. and Winston Churchill signalled "I find Hornblower admirable.

The original Hornblower tales began with the appearance of a reserved, even withdrawn, Captain on independent duty on a secret mission to the Pacific coast of South America. The stories struck a chord with the public, and subsequent stories were eagerly serialized. The several short story collections date from this appetite by the pre-television public for more about the heroic captain. As counterpoint to hardcore naval discussions, the novel featured a love interest with Lady Barbara Wellesley, who gradually teases Hornblower into a less stiff and reserved character. Subsequent sequels explore the relationship that they develop. Hornblower ages gracefully and, with a touch of humour now and again, performs acts of human kindness against what duty would dictate, in the end creating a triumphant figure who has risen above and surpasses his early training.


There are many parallels between Hornblower and real naval officers of the period, especially Thomas Cochrane and Horatio Nelson. The name "Horatio" was inspired by the character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and chosen also because of its association with contemporary figures such as Nelson. The name Hornblower was probably derived from the American film producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. with whom C. S. Forester had been working prior to writing the first Hornblower novel.

Forester's original inspiration was an old copy of the Naval Chronicle, which described the effective dates of the Treaty of Ghent. Because of the times required to communicate around the world, it was possible for two countries to still be at war in one part of the world after a peace was obtained months before in another. The burdens that this placed on captains far from home led him to a character struggling with the stresses of a "man alone". At the same time, Forester wrote the body of the works carefully to avoid entanglements with real world history, so Hornblower is always off on another mission when a great naval victory occurs during the Napoleonic Wars.


Hornblower was born in Kent. He is the son of a doctor, and he has no inherited wealth or influential connections who can advance his career. In the first five novels by order of publication, it is implied that Hornblower was born in the early 1770s. However when Forester decided to write about Hornblower's early career in the sixth novel Mr Midshipman Hornblower, he made his hero about five years younger, giving his birthdate as July 4, 1776 (the date of the adoption of the United States Declaration of Independence). This adjustment allows Hornblower to begin his career in wartime. . He was given a classical education, and by the time he joined the Royal Navy at age seventeen, he was well-versed in Greek and Latin. He was tutored in French by a penniless French émigré and had an aptitude for mathematics, which served him well as a navigator.

Hornblower is described as "unhappy and lonely," chiefly characterised by his reserve, introspection, and self-doubt—at least until particularly difficult feats of seamanship, organisation, or navigation are called for under pressing circumstances, things which few others could do, and fewer still in such combination. He belittles such feats by numerous rationalizations, remembering only his fears—and forgetting that he overcame them; diminishing amazing feats of seamanship—apparently unaware of the admiration in which they are regarded by his fellow seamen, while they stand amazed instead — believing that no one could have pulled that off.

He regards himself as cowardly, dishonest, and, at times, disloyal—never crediting his ability to persevere, think rapidly, organize, or cut to the nub of a matter and put such things aside while staying focused on the priority of the moment. His sense of duty, hard work, and a drive to succeed make these imagined negative characteristics undetectable by everyone but him, and being introspective, he blows up petty things beyond reasonable measure to reinforce his poor self image. His introverted nature continually isolates him from the people around him, including his closest friend, William Bush, and his wives never fully understand him. He is guarded with nearly everyone and reticent to the point of giving offense, unless the matter is the business of discharging his duty as a Kings' officer, in which case he is clear, decisive, and almost loquacious while giving orders and instructions, as the needs of the exigency demand. His introspection makes him a very self-conscious and lonely man, a characteristic which is displayed even in the short fiction about his career as a midshipman and lieutenant; through most of the books, the enforced isolation of being "The captain" (and later, as Admiral) in the Royal Navy makes him lonelier still.

He suffers from severe chronic seasickness, especially occurring at the beginning of his voyages and for a time was known derisively as the midshipman who was sick (in the excellent sheltered harbour) at Spithead. He has an immense reading appetite and can discourse on the works of various contemporary figures of literature and the classics, has mastered the difficult art of celestial navigation and its arcane mathematics to the point that in Lydia he made a perfect landfall while voyaging five months out of sight of land or contact with other ships (an interpretation of his orders to maintain secrecy) and furthermore, plays excellent whist, essentially professionally—a talent which he uses to maintain himself financially from time to time, as when a “not confirmed” field promotion to commander was never confirmed. This left him in an unfortunate position of debt to his government, having to pay back the difference in the two salaries; a job he was quite capable of undertaking with the help of his card playing abilities.

He is tone-deaf and finds music an incomprehensible irritant (in a scene in Hotspur he is unable to tell the British and French national anthems from each other). Lady Barbara played guitar when long balmy Pacific airs had Lydia becalmed, but he kept away from the gaggle of off-duty officers despite longing to mix in. He is philosophically opposed to flogging and capital punishment, in many cases when called for by the Articles of War, yet as Captain and Lieutenant had to call men to account knowing that such harshness would be the result. Hornblower possesses a superb sense of duty—one might say hyper-developed—yet on occasion he is able to set it aside for his more human and humane component parts underlying the facade of the strict officer—to the extent that, in Hornblower and the Hotspur, he contrives an escape for his personal steward who would otherwise have been hanged for striking a superior.

Early career

Hornblower's early exploits are many and varied. Joining the Royal Navy as a midshipman, he fends off fire ships which interrupt his first (disastrous) examination for promotion to lieutenant. Still only an acting lieutenant, he is given command of the sloop Le Rêve, which blunders into a Spanish fleet in the fog, resulting in Hornblower's capture and imprisonment in Ferrol He is finally confirmed as a commissioned lieutenant while still a prisoner of war, a state he will endure again later in his career at the end of Ship of the Line and detailed in Flying Colours—along with his daring escape from the heart of France, which earns him a sentence of death from a trial held in absentia from Napoleon—and a rather flattering reward offer for his capture. In the first captivity, his self-sacrificing, difficult and daring rescue of surviving sailors from a shipwreck hanging on a harbour entrance and rocky breakwater under extremely hazardous storm conditions, and his honourable adherence to the parole he had given, is rewarded by his Spanish captors by his release. His captivity leaves him with a fluent knowledge of Spanish, which proves highly useful in several further adventures.

As a junior lieutenant, he serves under Captain Sawyer, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia on a trip to the Caribbean, during which he begins his long friendship with William Bush. Returning to England, Hornblower is demobilised after the peace of Amiens, causing him great financial distress — he resorts to making a living as a professional gambler, playing whist with admirals and other senior figures for a modest income.

In 1803, he is reactivated and confirmed as commander of HMS Hotspur when hostilities resume against Napoleon. After gruelling service during the blockade of Brest, he finally is promoted to captain and recalled to England. Once there, he meets the secretary of the Admiralty and post rank is conferred immediately when Hornblower agrees to take part in a clandestine operation that eventually leads to the resounding British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar that costs Nelson his life.

Hornblower then organises Nelson's funeral procession along the River Thames and has to deal with the near-sinking of the barge conveying the hero's coffin. Later, he secretly recovers sunken gold and silver from a sunken ship on the bottom of Marmorice Bay within the Ottoman Empire with the aid of pearl divers from Ceylon, narrowly escaping a Turkish warship at the end. Upon unloading the treasure and refitting, his ship, HMS Atropos, is taken away from him to be given to the King of the Two Sicilies for diplomatic reasons. On his return to England, he finds his two young children dying of smallpox.

He later (in the time line, but presented in first novel written) makes a long, difficult voyage in command of the frigate HMS Lydia, round the Horn to the Pacific, where he supports a madman, El Supremo, in his rebellion against the Spanish. He captures the Natividad, a much more powerful Spanish ship of the line, then has to reluctantly cede it to El Supremo to placate him. When he finds that the Spanish have switched sides in the interim, he is forced to find and sink the ship he had captured—adding injury to insult, as he'd given up a fortune in prize money to maintain an uneasy alliance with the insane revolutionary. On his return voyage, he and his well-connected passenger, Lady Barbara Wellesley, the fictional younger sister of Arthur Wellesley (later to become the Duke of Wellington) become dangerously attracted to each other, resulting in a kiss that is interrupted by Lady Barbara's maid Hebe—when she is sent away, Hornblower is reluctant to re-enter the moment, and perceiving herself rejected, Barbara's temper flares. She leaves the Lydia two days later, and Hornblower fears the worst for his career having offended the daughter of an earl and sister of a Marquis.

Later career

After these exploits, he is given command of HMS Sutherland, a seventy four gun ship of the line. While waiting at his Mediterranean rendezvous point for the rest of his squadron - and its commander - to arrive, he carries out a series of raids against the French along the south coast of Spain. He learns that a French squadron of four ships of the line is loose, having slipped the blockade. He decides that his duty requires that he fight at one-to-four odds to prevent them from entering a well-protected harbour. In the process, his ship is crippled and, with two-thirds of the crew incapacitated, he surrenders to the French.

He is sent with his coxswain, Brown, and his injured first lieutenant, Bush, to Paris for a show trial and execution. During the journey, Hornblower and his companions escape, and after a winter sojourn at the chateau of the Comte de Graçay, navigate down the Loire river to the coastal city of Nantes. There, he recaptures a Royal Navy cutter, the Witch of Endor, mans the vessel with a gang of slave labourers and escapes to the Channel Fleet.

Hornblower faces a mandatory court-martial for the loss of the Sutherland, but is "most honourably acquitted." A national hero in the eyes of the public, he is awarded a knighthood and made a Colonel of Marines. When he arrives home, he discovers that his first wife Maria had died in childbirth and that his infant son has been adopted and cared for by Lady Barbara. As she has been widowed by the death of her husband, Hornblower's former commander, Admiral Leighton, they are free (after a decent interval) to marry. Barbara is more beautiful, cleverer and far richer than the poor Maria (whom Hornblower had more pitied than loved). Thereafter, he lives (uncomfortably) as a country squire in Kent.

Freedom from this purgatory comes when he is promoted to commodore and sent on a mission to the Baltic Sea, where he must be a diplomat as much as an officer. He foils an assassination attempt on the Russian Czar and is influential in the ruler's decision to resist the French invasion of his vast country. He provides invaluable assistance in the defence of Riga against the French army, where he meets Carl von Clausewitz.

He returns ill with typhus to England, yet soon after his recovery goes off to deal with mutineers off the coast of France. After taking the mutinous ship by trickery, he sets up the return of the Bourbons to France, and is created a peer as Baron Hornblower, of Smallbridge in the County of Kent

When Napoleon returns from exile at the start of the Hundred Days, Hornblower is staying at the estate of the Comte de Graçay. He leads a Royalist Guerrilla movement; after capture by the French, he is about to be shot under an earlier warrant for his execution when he is saved by news of Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

After several years ashore, he is promoted to Rear Admiral and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the West Indies. He foils an attempt by veterans of Napoleon's Imperial Guard to free Napoleon from his captivity on Saint Helena, captures a slave ship, and encounters Simón Bolívar's army. He retires to Kent and eventually becomes Admiral of the Fleet.

His final, improbable achievement occurs at his home, when he assists a seemingly-mad man claiming to be Napoleon to travel to France. That person turns out to be Napoleon III, the nephew of Hornblower's great nemesis and the future president (and later emperor in his own right) of France. For his assistance, Lord Hornblower is created a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. At the end of his long and heroic career, he is wealthy, famous, and contented; a loving and indulgent husband and father; and finally free of the insecurities and self-loathing that had driven him throughout his life.Forester, C. S. "The Last Encounter" in Hornblower and the Crisis.

Forester provides two different brief summaries of Hornblower's career. The first was in the first chapter of The Happy Return, which was the first Hornblower novel written. The second occurs mid-way through The Commodore, when Czar Alexander asks him to describe his career. The two accounts are incompatible. The first account would have made Hornblower about five years older than the second. The second account is more nearly compatible with the rest of Hornblower's career, but it omits the time he spent as a commander in Hornblower and the Hotspur. There are other discrepancies as well; in one account of his defeat of a Spanish frigate in the Mediterranean, he distinguished himself as lieutenant and in another he is a post-captain with less than three years seniority. It appears that these discrepancies arose as the series matured and accounts needed to be modified to coincide with his age and career.


C. Northcote Parkinson, more famous for his invention of Parkinson's Law, has written a very fine biography of Hornblower, detailing his career as well as personal information. The biography sheds light upon what really happened to Captain Sawyer on the H.M.S. Renown (arguing that Hornblower and Wellard were the only ones in a position to have given Captain Sawyer a push down the hatchway), as well as subsequent careers of Lord Hornblower's descendants, ending with the present Lord Hornblower's emigration to Apartheid South Africa in the late 1960's.

The Hornblower novels

The novels, in the order they were written:

  1. The Happy Return (1937, called Beat to Quarters in the US)
  2. A Ship of the Line (1938, called simply Ship of the Line in the US)
  3. Flying Colours (1938, spelled Flying Colors in some US editions)
  4. The Commodore (1945, called Commodore Hornblower in the US)
  5. Lord Hornblower (1946)
  6. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950)
  7. Lieutenant Hornblower (1952)
  8. Hornblower and the Atropos (1953)
  9. Hornblower in the West Indies (1958, Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies in some US editions)
  10. Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962)
  11. Hornblower and the Crisis (1967, unfinished novel and short stories, Hornblower During the Crisis in some US editions)

In chronological order:

  1. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
  2. Lieutenant Hornblower
  3. Hornblower and the Hotspur
  4. Hornblower and the Crisis
  5. Hornblower and the Atropos
  6. The Happy Return
  7. A Ship of the Line
  8. Flying Colours
  9. The Commodore
  10. Lord Hornblower
  11. Hornblower in the West Indies

Omnibus releases

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower and Hornblower and the Atropos were compiled in one book, variously titled Hornblower's Early Years, Horatio Hornblower Goes to Sea, or The Young Hornblower. Hornblower and the Atropos was replaced by Hornblower and the Hotspur in later UK editions of The Young Hornblower.

Hornblower and the Atropos, The Happy Return and A Ship of the Line were compiled into one omnibus edition, called Captain Hornblower.

In the US Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours were compiled into one book, called Captain Horatio Hornblower.

Flying Colours, The Commodore, Lord Hornblower, and Hornblower in the West Indies were presented as a third omnibus edition called Admiral Hornblower to fill out the series.

Commodore Hornblower, Lord Hornblower, and Admiral Hornblower In The West Indies were also compiled into one book, called The Indomitable Hornblower.

The Hornblower short stories

Three short stories by C. S. Forester about Hornblower were published in 1940 and 1941. The stories are:

  • Hornblower's Charitable Offering (aka The Bad Samaritan), published in Argosy, May 1941, and was originally intended as a chapter for A Ship of the Line.
  • Hornblower and His Majesty, in Collier's, March 1940, and in Argosy, March 1941.
  • The Hand of Destiny, in Collier's, November 1940.

Another short story The Point And The Edge is included as an outline only in Forester's The Hornblower Companion (1964).

Two final stories Hornblower and the Widow McCool (aka Hornblower's Temptation) (1967) and The Last Encounter (1967), are often included with the unfinished novel Hornblower and the Crisis.

Historical figures portrayed in the books

Royal Navy figures

Other historical figures

Hornblower's ships

Hornblower in other media

Screen adaptations

Literary appearances

Influence on other fiction

Napoleonic War series

  • The popular Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell were inspired by C. S. Forester's Hornblower series.
  • Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels are also inspired by Hornblower, and retell some of the same episodes of naval history.
  • Douglas Reeman's Richard Bolitho series was inspired by Hornblower and was described in publicity as 'the best of Hornblower's successors'.
  • Dudley Pope was encouraged by C. S. Forester to create his Lord Ramage series of novels set around the same period.

Science fiction series

  • Gene Roddenberry was influenced by the Hornblower character while creating the Star Trek characters James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard. Nicholas Meyer, director of some of the Star Trek films, frequently cites Horatio Hornblower as one of his primary influences.
  • The science fiction characters of John Grimes, created by A. Bertram Chandler and Nicholas Seafort of David Feintuch are heavily inspired by the Hornblower series.
  • David Weber's character Honor Harrington closely parallels Hornblower and he deliberately gave her the same initials. In one of the novels the character is described reading a Hornblower novel. The first Honor novel is dedicated to C. S. Forester.
  • In the Twilight Zone episode "Sounds and Silences," the main character's wife calls him "Horatio" while confronting him on his naval obsession, although this is most probably a reference to Horatio Nelson.

Other references

  • Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N. is a short story parody written by the science fiction author Harry Harrison. While Hornblower is tone-deaf, Harpplayer is one of the rare people who are completely colour-blind, with the result that he cannot recognize a little green man as an alien from outer space. Harpplayer reflects on the "imaginary colors" that other people claim to see, and refers to the alien as "Mr. Greene".
  • The British comedy film Carry On Jack featured a character named Midshipman Poopdecker, played by Bernard Cribbins, who was intended as a parody of Hornblower.
  • At the 1980 Democratic National Convention, President Jimmy Carter was in the midst of his accepting the party's nomination for a second term, when he invoked the full name of the late Vice-President Humphrey. In doing so, he gaffed the name, referring to "Hubert Horatio Hornblower...Humphrey!"


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