Captain Robert Faulknor

We wrote earlier about the heroism and early death of Captain Robert Faulknor.

Faulknor is an interesting character who demonstrates much of what was right and wrong of the system used by the British Navy to select and promote officers during the Age of Sail.

Faulknor, like many naval officers of the time, came from a navy family. He was born in 1763 and entered the Royal Naval Academy in 1774. His first posting was in 1777 as a midshipman in HMS Isis commanded by Captain William Cornwallis. Cornwallis and Faulknor’s father were of a similar age with Cornwallis slightly more senior and he seems to have served as a patron of Robert Faulknor as he followed Cornwallis as he moved to progressively more prestigious commands in Bristol and Lion. He then moved to the Princess Royal and Brittania where he drew the attention of several senior officers. This patronage gained him nearly continuous employment from the end of the American Revolution until the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars. His promotion to captain is detailed in the story below.

The system successfully identified young Faulknor as a talented officer and kept him employed as the British navy underwent drastic reduction in size after the American Revolution. On the other hand, the system did nothing to require Faulknor to harness his natural recklessness or to master an explosive temper.

Shortly after his successful storming of Fort Louis, a British artillery officer criticized Faulknor’s placement of troops and guns under his command ashore. Faulknor flew into a rage and while brandishing his sword managed to kill a quartermaster from Jervis’s flagship. He was court-martialled for that act and acquitted, probably because Jervis would have been loathe to cashier or hang an officer he’s just made into a national hero.

The event deeply affected him. Whether it was the shame involved of killing an innocent man, the opprobrium of fellow officers and the sailors in the fleet, or maybe the effects of a monumental dressing down by the severe and extremely controlled Admiral John Jervis we don’t know. We are told that he entered into classic symptoms of depression, insomnia and sadness. How much of his heroism against Picque was the sort of reckless courage he’d demonstrated at Fort Louis — or a desperate attempt to restore his reputation — and how much was a death wish we’ll never know.

In the aftermath of his death he was held up as a shining example of the British naval officer.

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Filed under Age of Sail, Naval Biography

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