Book Review: Admiral Lord Howe: A Biography

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by David Syrett

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006. Pp. xvi, 176. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN:1-59114-006-4

Admiral Lord Howe is the final work of the late Prof. David Syrett (1939-2005). A highly-regarded historian who was the Doktorvater to many an aspiring military historian, including this reviewer, Syrett was Distinguished Professor of History of Queens College, City University of New York. He overcame severe dyslexia to establish himself as one of the most notable naval historians of recent decades. Although his interests ranged across all of modern military and naval history, Syrett was notably partial to the Royal Navy and the eighteenth century. Fittingly, in this work he returned to both, and in the process chose a subject that was particularly in need of attention, and one for which he was uniquely qualified.

Surprisingly, Lord Howe, despite his vital role in the Revolutionary War, had never been the subject of a proper biography. The admiral’s penchant for destroying his papers, plus an impressively dense writing style, left little material for anyone interested in attempting to tell the story of his life. Nevertheless, in the course of many years of working in eighteenth century British history, Prof. Syrett managed to identify a great many documents dealing with Howe’s life and career, scattered in archives in Britain of course, but also in the U.S. Using these and, when they failed, his extensive knowledge of life and service in the eighteenth century, Syrett produced what will certainly be the standard biography of the admiral for a long time to come.

Syrett wraps the story of Howe’ life around that of the Royal Navy in his times. The book looks not only at operations, of which Howe took part in many, and commanded in a lot, but also takes in the administrative mechanism of the Royal Navy, the workings of corruption, family, and “interest” in building an officer’s career, policy and strategy, the art of command, the workings of a ship, and more. A work well worth reading for anyone interested in the period, the American Revolution, or the Royal Navy, and a fitting capstone to Prof. Syrett’s body of work.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


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