I remember studying some famous historical figures and thinking that they must have had brilliant public relations teams. It wasn’t that they hadn’t done some good things, but that others had done things that were just as good.

I don’t have an answer, but consider it one of those weird quirks of history.

It’s also fun to learn about someone who appears to be at least a little famous, but is new to me.

In this case, it’s odd that I haven’t heard of this historical figure because he wrote a gothic novel, The Phantom Ship. In my pre-teen years I read every gothic novel I could find at my local libraries. Ok, the reviews said that book was pretty bad, but still…

Frontispiece to the novel The Phantom Ship by Frederick Marryat. Published by Richard Bentley, London. 1847 edition. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Englishman Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) was one of those people that makes me feel like a bit of a slacker. His father was a businessman and member of Parliament, while his American mother was one of the first women allowed membership to the Royal Horticulture Society. Frederick was the second of 15 children.

Frederick Marryat. Art: Ernst Hader; Photo: Sophus Williams via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m just going to hit the highlights of Marryat’s life, because my brain often thinks in bullet points.

  • He entered the Royal Navy in 1806, at 14 years of age, as a midshipman. He’d already run away from school twice trying to go to sea. For context, this was during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • He took part in military actions and also saved a fellow midshipman who had fallen overboard. Remember, he was still just a teenager at this point.
  • When he was about 17 he contracted malaria and returned to England.
  • After recuperating, he returned to the Mediterranean and saved another shipmate from the sea.
  • In 1811, when he was about 19, he helped save his ship during a storm. Oh yeah, he also saved another shipmate from the sea.
  • He helped capture American ships during the War of 1812.
  • He was promoted to commander in 1815. He was 22.
  • After the war was over, he decided to concentrate on science. He invented a lifeboat and received a gold medal from the Royal Humane Society.
  • He developed Marryat’s Code, a system of maritime flag signaling.

Marryat-Signalcode from the National Maritime Museum. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

  • He married Catherine in 1819 and they had eleven children. Several of his daughters grew up to be writers. Eight of their eleven children survived infancy. It’s possible that marital problems were one of the reasons he went to North America in 1837 as he drew up a formal separation contract in 1838.
  • He sailed to St. Helena for the Royal Navy and sketched Napoleon’s body on his deathbed, which was published as a lithograph.

‘Sketch of Bonaparte. As laid on his Austerlitz Camp Bed, taken by Captn Marryat at RN, 14 hours after his decease, at the request of Sir Hudson Lowe, Governor of St Helena, & with permission of Count Montholan & General Bertrand’. Published 16 July 1821.Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

  • In the early 1820s he worked in the English Channel to prevent smuggling.
  • In 1822 he published a work that dealt with the abolition of the impressment of sailors.
  • His first novel was published in 1829 and was enough of a success that he resigned his commission in 1830, at the age of 38, in order to devote his time to writing.
  • During the 1830s he wrote and he traveled, to Europe and to North America. He happened to be there in 1837, just in time to help the British forces stop a rebellion in Canada. One of the reasons he was there was to protect the copyright on his books because of the widespread availability of pirated copies.
  • In 1839 Marryat’s Diary in America was published, in which he wrote much about his time in Canada and criticized American culture and society.
  • Marryat is best known for writing nautical stories, drawing on his years of experience at sea.

It’s too late for me to join the navy, but I did learn all this new stuff, so maybe I’m not such a slacker . Although I don’t have a blue plaque…

Author: Simon Harriyott from Uckfield, England. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.