The opening pages find Captain Hornblower commanding the H.M.S Lydia, a 32-gun frigate dispatched by the Royal Navy to support the growing rebellion in the Spanish colonies in 1808. His orders are to find and support the rebel general Don Julian, also known as "El Supremo". Hornblower soon discovers that El Supremo's arrogance is the least of his flaws--he is an egotistical sadist. Nevertheless, Hornblower has his orders and as a good servant of the Crown, he follows them to the letter.
Hornblower quickly sets out to capture the Spanish 50-gun two-decker Natividad to support the general's revolutionary efforts. In a bold nighttime maneuver, Hornblower seizes the Natividad and reluctantly hands the Spanish prisoners and ship over the El Supremo.
But this, he finds out, only deepens his problems in Central America. The Lydia attempts to make port in Panama, but finds (not surprisingly) the ship is not welcome. Not only that, England has allied itself with Spain, and Hornblower must know somehow recapture (or sink) the Natividad!
All this would be difficult enough, but his life is further complicated when he is forced to take on a woman passenger--Lady Barbara. Hornblower is happily married, so he thinks, but Lady Barbara turns out to be far more courageous and strong willed than he bargained for. The attraction isn't instant, but it grows, testing Hornblower's commitment to his wife back in England.
Hornblower and Lady Barbara become even closer during a final climatic battle between the Natividad and the Lydia. Neither ship fares well in this duel, but this time the fate of the Natividad is sealed. Hornblower is successful again at sea. Unfortunately, for the hapless Hornblower, his accomplishment creates even more complications with the Spanish colonial government. He is forced to take his crippled ship and wounded crew on the difficult passage back to England around the tip of South America.
As with most of C.S. Forester's work, readers should enjoy the journey as much as (if not more than) the historical accuracy and authenticity of the setting. Captain Hornblower's character may seem a bit out of date for the 21st century, but he is both a man of his times and man ahead of his times in the 19th century. While Hornblower is certainly the quintessential naval commander, Forester has given him enough personality to accept new ideas and keep the story fresh and engaging.
Beat to Quarters is a classic.
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