The New Maine Times Book Review: The Shining Sea

Posted Tuesday, July 29, 2014 in Culture

The New Maine Times Book Review: The Shining Sea
THE SHINING SEA:  DAVID PORTER AND THE EPIC VOYAGE OF THE U.S.S. ESSEX DURING THE WAR OF 1812
By George C. Daughan.
Basic Books, 2013.
336 pages, $28.99.
ISBN 978-0-465-01962-5.
 
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell
 
    During the War of 1812 the voyage of the U.S.S. Essex in 1812-1813 stands as a remarkable feat of seamanship and naval adventure, “an oceangoing saga unsurpassed in the Age of Sail.”  Unfortunately, it also serves as a stark example of a captain’s unrestrained hubris and desire for personal glory.
 
    THE SHINING SEA is award-winning Portland naval historian George Daughan’s exciting true story of one American frigate (46 guns) and its imperious captain, naval hero David Porter, Jr., as the ship ravaged the British whaling fleet in the Pacific Ocean before finally being outthought and outfought by the much craftier Royal Navy Captain James Hillyar of the HMS Phoebe.
 
    Daughan has already written two acclaimed histories of the early American navy, IF BY SEA:  THE FORGING OF THE AMERICAN NAVY (Basic Books, 2008) and 1812:  THE NAVY’S WAR (Basic Books, 2011).  Here he smartly chooses to focus on one ship, its bold captain and brave crew, and their stunning success against British commerce in the Pacific.  However, this is also “a cautionary tale for any leader who would put personal glory ahead of cause and countrymen.”
 
    Daughan provides excellent background of American naval activity in the Quasi-War with France (1799-1801), and the war with the Barbary pirates (1801-1805), actions which created naval heroes like Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, and John Rogers.  David Porter also fought in those wars as a young naval officer, but when the War of 1812 broke out he sought not only great wealth but personal glory and redemption of his reputation.
 
    Assigned as the captain of the U.S.S. Essex, he was ordered to meet a small squadron in the South Atlantic, to harass British merchant vessels and draw British warships away from their blockage of the American east coast.  However, Porter missed his rendezvous, and decided then that his orders allowed him to cruise to the Pacific Ocean to attack the British whaling fleet there.  He actually took advantage of this opportunity, believing “if they give me any discretion I shall expect to make my fortune” with the prize money awarded for the capture of enemy vessels.
 
    Porter also secretly desired to provoke a British frigate into a single-ship battle, seeking a combat victory that would cement his standing among his peers.  He was a man who eagerly took risks and was emboldened by his earlier successes.
 
    Daughan tells dramatically of the Essex’s harrowing passage around Cape Horn, choosing to go through the Strait of Le Maire instead of the more famous but equally dangerous Strait of Magellan.  Although battered by storms, high seas, bitter cold, and perilous shoals, the Essex made it safely into the Pacific Ocean where she immediately preyed on unsuspecting British whaling ships.
 
    Porter knew the Royal Navy would soon be in pursuit, so after capturing a number of British vessels (and burning some), he headed west to Polynesia and the Marquesas Islands where he established a post and declared the islands as the property of the United States.
 
    Not only did Porter disobey his orders by sailing into the Pacific Ocean, he had no authority to claim lands or subjugate any people.  His presence in the Marquesas was not welcome by the natives, and unrest soon drove him away, back towards the coast of Chile.  Porter now sought out a British frigate, HMS Phoebe, intending to defeat the enemy warship and return home a rich hero.
 
    As Daughan so deftly and colorfully explains, Porter’s ambition and unwise tactical decisions overwhelmed his good sense, and the sought-after encounter resulted in a savage sea battle and humiliating defeat in the waters off Valparaiso, Chile.
 
    Daughan is a superb naval historian and a masterful storyteller, producing a riveting maritime adventure, and fans of rousing naval action will not be disappointed.
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