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The Greatest Man Afloat
You will remember the famous men
Who had to fall to rise again
Pick yourself up…
Take a deep breath…
Dust yourself off
And start over.
Jerome Kern 1936
When CS Forrester published his first novel about the life and times of Horatio Hornblower in 1937, he essentially created a new genre. ‘The Happy Return’ (‘Beat to Quarters’ in the US) was an instant hit and was later made into a film starring Gregory Peck and James Robertson Justice (1951). Forrester wrote eleven novels and five short stories about Horatio Hornblower RN, charting his career from midshipman and lieutenant to Admiral of the Fleet and Lord. He was a successful author quite apart from the Hornblower series and several of his stories have been made into films. “The Gun,” set in Peninsular War-era Spain and starring an unlikely Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant, and a very likely Sophia Loren. “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. “Brown on Resolution” and “Payment Deferred”.
Forrester’s first brush with Hollywood was in the 1930s when he went there to work on a pirate film called Arthur Hornbow. Unfortunately, before he could finish the script, another studio released ‘Captain Blood’, starring Errol Flynn, and using the same historical incidents it was based on, so the film was abandoned. At the start of World War II, Forrester convinced the British government to let him go to America to write propaganda (news, films, short stories and novels) to help the war effort. For the rest of his working life he lived in Berkeley, California. He became partially disabled in 1943. He wrote a total of thirty-five novels, two plays, five biographies, three children’s books and some history. He died in 1966 at the age of 67.
There is no doubt that what he is most remembered for is the ‘Hornblower’ series. There are now several good writers writing naval stories set in the Napoleonic Wars. Alexander Kent, Dudley Pope and Patrick O’Brian, but Forrester was the first, unless you include Captain Marryat’s “Mr Midshipman Easy,” written in 1836. Marryat served as midshipman under Thomas Cochrane, of which more later.
Forrester gives Hornblower a subtle and complex character. self-doubting and yet outwardly determined, humane and lonely, loyal to power with a progressive outlook. In all the stories the historical references are accurate and the nautical period detail convincing. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the era in which these stories take place, warships had become beautiful, incredibly complex, and deadly floating castles. HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar (commissioned in 1776, is the oldest warship still in service and permanently moored in Portsmouth, Hampshire) was over 200 feet high from the waterline to the top of the main mast and mounted 104 guns on three decks. The upper deck carried 12 pounds, the middle deck 24 pounds, and the massive 32-pounder was mounted on the lower deck. A ship of the line such as this would need a high degree of seamanship and skill from the officers and men and especially the captain.
Unlike the real Horatio Nelson, the exploits of the fictional Horatio Hornblower do not take place in the great naval battles of the era. Hornblower’s success is usually due to the use of a clever trick or an unexpected trick. Forrester sends him on lonely quests and desperate adventures involving finesse and diplomacy as well as courage and seamanship as he deals with island governors and presidents of small South American republics, etc.
Great adventure stories as long as you suspend your disbelief. The kind of devices used in these stories would never work in reality. Captaining a warship, even in those romantic times would be more prosaic than Forrester makes it seem. Anyway, that’s what I thought until I met the source of Forrester’s creation – the real Hornblower.
Thomas Cochrane, son of the 9th Earl of Dundonald, was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland. As a child he was fictitiously recorded as serving on a Royal Navy ship commanded by his uncle, Sir Alexander Cochrane, but actually enlisted in 1793 at the relatively late age of eighteen on HMS Hind. He made rapid progress over the next seven years, despite being court-martialed for disrespecting a superior officer. His impulsive nature and outspokenness would eventually lead him into real trouble with the establishment.
At 1800 he found himself in command of the sloop ‘Speedy’. During his time with this vessel he accounted for more than fifty enemy ships in the Mediterranean. Napoleon called him “le Loup de Mer” (the Sea Wolf). In 1801, with his tiny 14 gun he captured the Spanish 32 gun frigate ‘El Gamo’. “El Gamo” had been sent by the Spanish to capture and destroy Cochrane and “Speedy”. A month earlier, the Spanish frigate had nearly achieved its objective when it swept the Speedy within hailing distance and suddenly opened its gun hatches.
Since Cochrane’s sloop was massively out of guns, he had to think fast to avoid disaster. He had the Danish flag raised and put on a Danish uniform and chatter in “Danish”. When the Spanish sent an officer across to a boat, he was informed that the “Danish” ship had just come from the plague-stricken Barbary Coast of North Africa, and if they wanted to stay sane, they had better keep their distance. And so the two ships parted company. About a month later ‘Speedy’ encountered ‘El Gamo’ again, off Barcelona, and Cochrane decided to take her as a prize.
There was a 45 minute firefight in which ‘Speedy’ lost three men killed and five wounded. Cochrane then ran the two ships together and led a boarding party to the ‘El Gamo’. This was the last thing the Spanish expected since the El Gamo carried a crew of 319 men, compared to the Speedy’s 50. During the battle Cochrane hailed his own ship and ordered another 50 men to be sent . He actually only had 3 men on board, but the Spanish were convinced that British reinforcements were going to overwhelm them and soon surrendered. As a result of this action, Cochrane was promoted to Post Captain. The story of Cochrane and HMS Speedy formed a large part of the plot of Patrick O’Brian’s novel Master and Commander, which was recently made into a film starring Russell Crowe.
After leaving “Speedy” Cochrane served on “HMS Pallas” and later on “HMS Imperieuse”, winning a fortune in prize money for himself and his crew. In 1809 he led the dangerous fireship attack on the French fleet in the Aix roads near Rochefort. The expedition was successful and most of the French ships were driven hard ashore, but Cochrane felt that he could have completely destroyed the fleet and perhaps shortened the war if he had received proper support from the British Commander-in-Chief Lord Gambier. Gambier was court-martialed as a result of Cochrane’s criticism, but was acquitted.
For some years Cochrane had somehow found time to manage a political career alongside his naval activities. He had long been a champion of liberal reform in both the Navy and Parliament, but now things began to go wrong. The very qualities that made this 6’2″ Scotsman, with his shock of red hair and frank opinions, such an excellent commander proved something of a liability in the rarefied atmosphere of Westminster. Lord Gambier was now his enemy, and criticism of Cochran to The conduct of the war and his fight against corruption in the Navy made him powerful enemies of the establishment.
They got their revenge when Cochrane was accused of participating in a sensational stock-market scam based on false rumors of Napoleon Bonaparte’s abdication. No one today believes he had anything to do with the scam. even at that time the general public, with whom he was always popular, believed him to be innocent, but in a mock trial he was convicted and fined £1000. He was also sentenced to be sentenced for a few hours, imprisoned for a year and expelled from Parliament. Cochrane escaped from prison, was re-arrested and fined £1000. Due to public outcry, the government relented and he was granted a Royal pardon.
At this point you have to wonder what exactly it would take to beat this fiery, boisterous Scotsman. He seems to have had an inexhaustible store of energy and self-belief. Still protesting his innocence and officially disgraced, Thomas Cochrane now took his bride, Kitty, (whom he married in 1812, 1818 and 1825) and left for South America, to the relief of Westminster and the Admiralty. He didn’t run far. He had been invited to command the Chilean navy in the war of independence against Spain (1817-1822), and also to help establish the navy of Peru. He later took command of the Brazilian navy in the war of independence against Portugal. As if this were not enough, he spent three years at the head of the Greek navy in yet another war of independence, this time against the Ottoman Empire (1825 – 1828).
He finally returned to England, some eleven years after he had left in disgrace, to find that with a different government and the passage of time, everything had changed. His achievements were now recognized. even by the Admiralty, who called him “The Greatest Man Afloat.” At this time he succeeded his father’s title as 10th Earl of Dundonald. He was reassigned to the Royal Navy and made an admiral.
At the age of 73 he commanded the Royal Naval Station in North America and at 79 he applied for command of the British fleet during the Crimean War. He was rejected because of his age. He died aged 85 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. Two centuries later we can still see in Thomas Cochrane a courageous, liberal man with a unique and inventive mind, who never knew when he was beaten. In Scotland the country’s greatest naval hero is almost forgotten, although the naval base at Rosyth in Fife is named after HMS Cochran. Oh yes, and there is a plaque to his memory in Anstruther.
James Donaldson Collins
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