Alaric Bond’s wonderful new book, Cut and Run, the fourth in his Fighting Sail series, steps away from the Royal Navy and takes us onto the decks of a merchantman – a ship of the Honorable East India Company. The ships of the “John Company,” as the HEIC was colloquially known, were the connective tissue of the empire, carrying trade goods and merchants outbound and bringing back the riches of the India and China to England. In a time of war, these ships were also a virtual treasure trove for enemy privateers.
In Cut and Run, Royal Navy Lieutenant Tom King finds himself on the beach, on half pay. The frigate, HMS Pandora, on which he served so valiantly in the Battle of Camperdown (see our review of True Colours) is being refit and her captain has gone ashore to consider a run for parliament. Lacking money and connections, Lt. King decides to take a position as an officer of the Pevensey Castle, a ship of the Honorable East India Company. He is joined by Robert Manning, a surgeon’s mate from the Pandora, and his new wife Kate, who has arranged a position as purser’s assistant on the Indiaman.
While the life on a merchant man proves to be quite different from that of a Royal Navy ship, neither the sea nor the politics of the day have fundamentally changed. Britain is still at war with France and money and influence still hold sway on land and sea. King and the Mannings are unhappy to realize that their new captain, Rogers, also served in the Royal Navy. King served with Rogers on HMS Vigilance where Rogers proved himself to be a dangerous and incompetent buffoon, who nevertheless happened to be from a wealthy and influential family. King is also not pleased to learn that Captain Rogers has given him the lowly rank of Midshipman.
King soon learns that while the Indiaman is about as large as a Royal Navy frigate, the Pevensey Castle sails like a barrel and is woefully under-gunned which will be an issue later in the book when the Indiaman must contend with French privateers.
What makes Cut and Run such an entertaining read is that it is sufficiently different from fiction focusing on the Royal Navy so that it feels fresh. At the same time, the characters and surroundings are similar enough, to make a fan of Georgian naval fiction feel quite at home.
As was the case in Bond’s previous books, the characters are all engaging and well drawn. His books continue to reflect the viewpoints of sailors from all ranks and positions, rather than as the account of a single heroic sailor. In Cut and Run, Tom King is somewhat closer to this role than in Bond’s previous books. Nevertheless, Bond’s ships are still populated with wonderfully vivid and idiosyncratic characters; from an Irish volunteer steward to a Lascar bosun, to a bosun’s mate who proves too enthusiastic in combat for his own health. I am particularly fond of a red haired sailor that we met in a previous book named Johnson or Simpson, depending on which ship he is on, who has a particular knack for deserting and keeps managing to avoid the hangman’s noose.
Cut and Run is a delightfully entertaining read that gives us a look at the often overlooked Georgian merchant marine. Highly recommended