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Book Review, NRJ 59.2

May 15, 2014 12:00 PM | David Eddy

Hunting the Essex: A Journal of the Voyage of HMS Phoebe 1813-1814

Midshipman Allen Gardiner

Primary accounts of voyages or seagoing careers are indispensable resources for maritime historians and archaeologists, and so new publications of this type are always welcome. Hunting the Essex is a modest but worthy addition to the genre. The handy little duodecimo-sized volume, a product of Seaforth Publishing, presents the journal kept by Royal Navy Midshipman Allen Gardiner during the voyage of His Majesty’s frigate Phoebe to the Pacific Ocean in 1813-1814. Phoebe’s crushing defeat of the United States frigate Essex is one of the more famous naval encounters of the Anglo-American War of 1812, and inspired parts of the novel The Far Side of the World by the celebrated writer Patrick O’Brian.

Gardiner’s journal serves as a breezy counterpoint to United States Navy Captain David Porter’s well-known and somewhat controversial Journal of a Cruise, the two-volume narrative of Essex’s famous voyage published shortly after the War of 1812. In the latter work Porter exhaustively relates the details of his campaign against British whaling ships in the Pacific, provides insights into his strategic and tactical decisions, and accuses Phoebe’s captain of dishonorable conduct in battle. Gardiner’s journal, on the other hand, gives us the perspective of a nineteen-year-old junior lieutenant on a long voyage far from home. He had a keen eye for geography, foreign cultures, ancient ruins, and attractive ladies, and accordingly devotes considerable ink to his adventures on land. Life at sea and the cruise of Phoebe are part of the narrative, but a relatively small part, and his eyewitness description of the battle between Phoebe and Essex at Valparaiso, Chile is disappointingly brief. Despite its limitations Gardiner’s account has a refreshing candidness that captures the spirit of its youthful writer: Phoebe may be engaged in a dramatic hunt for a marauding frigate, but Gardiner seemingly finds it just as interesting to be dancing until the wee hours of the morning with the senoritas of Lima, Peru.

The original Gardiner journal was purchased, transcribed, and edited by Ohio State University Professor Emeritus John S. Reiske, who unfortunately died before its publication. The book’s introduction, by renowned naval historian Andrew Lambert of King’s College, London, provides readers with a useful historical context for Lieutenant Gardiner, the war, and the cruise of Phoebe. Lambert has strong opinions about the conflict, and clearly has scant patience for Captain Porter’s lamentations or American claims of victory in the War of 1812. Both the introduction and the journal narrative are thoroughly cited, and the book includes a map at the front and eight plates with contemporary portraits and prints.

Hunting the Essex is recommended for scholars and laymen with an interest in the War of 1812 in particular and early nineteenth-century naval history in general. 

  • Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2013
  • 4-3/4” x 7”, hardcover, viii + 152 pages
  • Illustrations, map, appendix, notes,bibliography. $29.95
  • ISBN: 9781848321748 

Reviewed by Kevin J. Crisman, Texas A&M University

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