He did it or he did it not

The dark side of Mr. Hornblower

Some thoughts by Andreas Mügge

Based on the novel Lieutenant Hornblower, written by Cecil Scott Forester, Penguin Books, reissued edition 2011


Sanford Sternlicht: C.S. Forester and the Hornblower saga. Syracuse University Press, Revised Edition 1999



The story is covering the period from May 1800 through March 1803. We are on board the battle ship Her Majesty’s Ship Renown, a 74-gun line-ship under the command of Captain Sawyer. The first lieutenant is Mr. Buckland. Mr. Bush, the longtime friend and shipmate, is the 3rd lieutenant. Our friend Hornblower is the junior lieutenant. We do not know the mission at the beginning, but later we get informed – the mission is Santo Domingo, or Haiti, or Hispaniola, an island which is held by the Spanish in the West Indies at that time.

Soon, we realize as a reader, that there is a problem with the Captain. We do not know exactly the medical diagnosis – but the Captain’s behavior appears strange, at least he may suffer from a borderline personality or some type of paranoia.  The book Lieutenant Hornblower was first published in the year 1952. In the same year, another famous book has been published, The Caine Mutiny written by the Pulitzer Price winner Herman Wouk. His character, the lieutenant commander Philip Francis Quegg, was in charge of the destroyer minesweeper U.S.S. Caine. In contrast to Commander Quegg, Captain Sawyer did torment his officers, at least he threatened in public his officers.

Already in paragraph 4 – we are on page 36 – some conspiratorial goings on. In the pitch dark below, the officers of the Renown – except lieutenant Smith on watch – hold a mutinous assembly, something very dangerous as our author Forester noted, they could all hang for what they were doing.  Suddenly, the volunteer Wellard appeared, and warned of the captain. Immediately,they all split up, not wasting any time.  Hornblower together with Wellard left this darkness, as Mr. Bush witnessed.

All escaped the hold; Captain Sawyer and his abettors, the acting-gunner Hobbs and his seamen were too late.

Still feeling the hairy touch of a rope around the neck, Mr. Bush suddenly heard a cry “passing the word for the doctor”. The next scene comes from the point of view of Mr. Bush. He noticed that Mr. Wellard was calling for the doctor, and Mr. Wellard answered to the question “Who’s hurt”, “The captain, sir”. Forester wrote that Wellard looked distraught and shaken. And – important for the understanding of the puzzle – Mr. Hornblower made his appearance behind Mr. Wellard, as Mr. Bush observed.

On the question “What’s happened”, Mr. Hornblower made his first statement: “The captain has fallen down the hatchway, sir”.  The eyes of Mr. Hornblower stared straight into Bush’s eyes, but Mr. Bush could read no message in them, as Forester wrote.

The next statement we hear is from a corporal of the guard. In front of the officers Buckland, Roberts, Bush and Hornblower, he made his report. We are told that the captain was going to catch the mutineers, and was holding a pistol in each of his hands. He sent the corporal and two men down the hatchway, whereas the captain remained alone near the opening of the hatch, yelling down the hatchway “Don’t let them escape”.  We get informed that the corporal did not observe the fall of the captain, but he heard a yell and a crash, and as he came back to the hatchway, he saw the captain lying at the foot of the ladder, unconscious. The corporal went up the ladder to give the alarm. It may be of interest that the first men he met were Mr. Hornblower accompanied by the young Wellard, taking over the responsibility.

Based on the testimony of the corporal, the official version for the injury was that the captain was leaning over the ladder of the hatch, and must have leaning when the ship pitched. Probably he catches his foot on the coaming and falls head first down the hold, as Forester summarized.


An Accident?

Already in the night when the Captain’s injury took place, a suspicion is indicated by Mr. Bush. We share his thoughts that Mr. Hornblower might have a secret, and that perhaps he knew more than all other officers did, about how the Captain came to fall down the hold (page 56ff). A few pages later (page 63), Bush asked the question that he had been wanting to ask for hours, the question – we hear from Forester – on which so much depended “How did it happen? How did the captain fall down the hatchway?”. Similar thoughts were made by Mr. Buckland. On three occasions (pages 63, 127 and 234), he also asked Mr. Hornblower this question.  On all occasions, we are told that Mr. Hornblower’ face was expressionless, and there was nothing to be gleaned from that face. Even as Mr. Buckland finally demanded gratitude, unusual behaviour for a gentleman, Mr. Hornblower kept his secret – provided there was a secret.

One episode might underline this situation. We read on page 234: “Thank you,” said Buckland; and then, after a pause, he asked his question explosively: “Tell me, Mr. Hornblower – this is the last chance, how did the captain come to fall down the hatchway?” “I am quite unable to tell you, sir”, said Hornblower. There was no hint whatever to be gleaned from his expressionless face or from the words he used.  “Now, Mr. Hornblower,” said Buckland, nervously tapping the reports in his hand. “I am treating you well. You’ll find I’ve given all the praise I could in these reports: I’ve given you full credit for what you did at Santo Domingo, and for boarding the ship when the prisoners rose. Full credit, Mr. Hornblower. Won’t you – won’t you-?” “I really cannot add anything to what you already know, sir”, said Hornblower. “But what am I going to say when they start asking me?”, asked Buckland.  “Just say the truth, sir, that the captain was found under the hatchway and that no inquiry could establish any other indication than that he fell by accident”. “I wish I knew”, said Buckland.


Alternative hypothesis

The alternative hypothesis is that either Mr. Hornblower, or Mr. Wellard, or both were directly involved in this “accident”.

Bernard Cornwell, who wrote the introduction to the novel Lieutenant Hornblower (page viii), surmised that it was Hornblower. He said that such a criminal act (torments of officers) runs against Hornblower’s grain. He argues that Hornblower possesses a personality – deeply decent, dutiful, honourable, combined with some depths of lunacy – that he might have acted for the good of service.

Ok, this is Mr. Cornwell’s view.

Which clues about Hornblower’s personality are given by the author? We start with some thoughts from Bush. At the very beginning of the journey, we read at page 2, something aroused a momentary suspicion in Bush’s mind. A man who could assume an appearance of wrath and abandon it again with so much facility was not to be trusted.  On page 55, we get further glimpse on Hornblower’s personality. We read: Hornblower is level-headed, thinking fast whatever danger menaced him.

Perhaps the longest paragraph regarding the personality of Hornblower we can find on page 70. The key statements are: Hornblower was a man always ready to adopt the bold course, a man who infinitely preferred action to inaction; widely read in his profession and yet a practical seaman. A student yet a man of action; a fiery spirit and yet discreet.

Some more exciting clues we can find in the following paragraph: “And – and what was the truth about that injury to the Captain? Bush darted a more searching glance than ever at Hornblower as he followed up that train of thought. Bush’s mind did not consciously frame the words “motive” and “opportunity” to itself – it was not that type of mind – but he felt its way along an obscure path of reasoning which might well have been signposted with those words. He wanted to ask again the question he had asked once before, but to do so would not merely invite but would merit a rebuff. Hornblower was established in a strong position and Bush could be sure that he never abandon it through indiscretion or impatience”. The last statement on Hornblower’s personality we hear from Buckland. At page 200 he summarizes: “I can’t make that fellow Hornblower out”, he said a little peevishly on one occasion as they rowed back to the anchored Renown. “He’s a good officer, sir” answered Bush.

Much less we know from Wellard.

He is a volunteer on the ship, obviously a young man. For what reasons I do not know, but in my imagination Wellard is tall and thin, of similar stature to Mr. Hornblower. The first scene his name is mentioned is on page 11 as Mr. Bush is the officer of watch, the wind was freshening, and a second reef was necessary. He gave Mr. Wellard the order to inform the captain about a second reef. We all know the end of this story: the innocent Mr. Wellard was punished twice for treachery and conspiracy against his captain.

Regarding the personality, we read on page 126, as Mr. Hornblower was asked to choose a messenger, he wanted Wellard: “He is cool-headed and thinks quickly”, two capabilities which characterize young Hornblower too.

Do Hornblower and Wellard share a secret? Forester gives us only one single, but very important clue: on page 62, Buckland was hesitating to tell the news (captain Sawyer is not still longer able to act as the commander) to the hands. Finally, he agreed to the suggestion of Mr. Hornblower and commanded All Hands. The witness of this scene was Mr. Bush, and he noticed a look that Hornblower threw to Wellard with this command. Mr. Bush, clairvoyant with fatigue and worry, was conscious of a hidden message, that Mr. Wellard was being told that a secret was still safe.

At the end of the story, the reader gets unexpectedly informed that Mr. Wellard died. We read on page 286 a note in the Naval Chronicle: Last night the jolly boat of His Majesty’s cutter Rapid, in the Revenue service, while returning in the fog from delivering a message on shore, was swept by the ebb tide athwart the hawse of a merchantman anchored off Fisher’s Nose, and capsized. Two seamen and Mr. Wellard, Midshipman, were drowned. Mr. Wellard was a most promising young man recently appointed to the Rapid, having served as a volunteer in His Majesty’s ship Renown.

Flared up by this message, Mr. Bush undertook a last attempt (page 288): “That was hard luck on young Wellard”, he said tentatively. “Yes”, said Hornblower. “D’you think,” went on Bush, plunging desperately, “he had anything to do with the Captain’s falling down the hatchway?” “I couldn’t give an opinion”, answered Hornblower, “I didn’t know enough about it”. “But- “began Bush, and checked himself again; he knew by the look on Hornblower’s face that it was no use asking further questions


Some clues from Forester’s life

Forester created Hornblower in the year 1937, and this association continued until his death in 1966. He called Hornblower “one of my closet friends”, and “We are Siamese twins and the surgical operation has not yet been devised which can separate us” (reference Sanford Sternlicht).

Forester painted a gloomy picture of his youth (cited by Sanford Sternlicht, page 154). At the age of 16, Forester was enrolled in a new school, Dulwich College, where he was appalled by a degree of physical violence.  “Everyone seemed to be beaten at some time or other;… Small boys beat each other, big boys beat small boys, and big boys beat each other as well; … What I found hardest to understand about it was the casual way in which it was regarded… I used to believe in those days that if ever I had been deemed liable to punishment in that way I would never had endured it, and would have fought to my last breath against it… There always used to run in my  mind when witnessing an execution the famous words no less a man than Wellington used to a Royal Commission to the effect that he doubted any soldier in the British army could be made to do his duty save by the fear of immediate corporal punishment.  Wellington was wrong; it is at least possible that the advocates of corporal punishment in our public schools are just as wrong, and that a hundred years hence small boys will remain ignorant of the appearance and the sensation of a bleeding posterior, and big boys will not vie with each other for the reputation of inflicting the most pain per unit of six strokes. “

What is the key message? Forester = Hornblower abhors physical violence, and questions the role of fear of immediate punishment at school, or at other situations.

In my opinion, we have here the clue we are looking for. It was not an accident. Forester = Hornblower would fight against unfair punishment, in particular violence, “to their last breath”. And – Hornblower had all capabilities, cool-headed, fast grasping, and any time ready to seize the opportunity, to act by himself, or at least to cover the spontaneous acting of his companion Wellard.

Captain Sawyer was seriously injured, and later he died. Someone had to pay the bill, never could our hero Hornblower live with this stigma, and the culprit finds his fair punishment. The unexpected drowning of Mr. Wellard, almost offstage at the end of the novel, is a further clue by Forester. This message is associated with a taste of guilt and expiation. Wellard had to die, he had finally paid his open bill, and justice will always win.

Mr. Wellard did it – and Mr. Hornblower knew it.


Lüdinghausen, July15th 2017

7 responses to “He did it or he did it not

  1. I absolutely agree that Wellard did it and Hornblower knew about it. Thanks, Andreas, for the learned discourse.

    Hornblower knew but did not report Welland. He kept quiet and let Welland go free. I think a similar situation comes up in Hornblower And the Hotspur.

    “By the way, Doughty, can you swim?” But there Hornblower paid a price. “Hornblower mourned over his lost integrity like Niobe over her dead children.”

    Chak Wong


  2. Many thanks, Herr Muegge, I much enjoyed your thesis.
    I wonder whether you have read C. Northcote Parkinson’s “The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower” (published in 1970). Clearly it’s a fictional biography, but well worth a read . Parkinson has a different solution to the vexed question of who killed Captain Sawyer. An appendix purports to be a letter form Hornblower to be opened a hundred years after his death, which he thought would mean around 1960.
    In the letter Hornblower confesses to the “accident” which crippled Sawyer. “I ran straight up to him and kicked him fairly in the back at about waist level. He went over the coaming and head first down into the hold.” Wellard was the only other who knew. “So far as I am aware he said nothing to anyone.”
    Parkinson concludes that Hornblower’s only criterion was the good of the service.
    My copy of Parkinson’s book is a little dog-eared, but I shall bring it along to the September AGM and happy for anyone to judge whether Wellard or Hornblower was the guilty party – though, without doubt, they were partners in crime whichever one perpetrated the act!
    Gordon Rankin


    • A dog-eared copy of The Life And Times Of Horatio Hornblwer? To each his own! I find C. Northcote Parkinson (and Patrick O’Brian), when compared to C S Forester, utterly unreadable. 😉


  3. Sorry, of course Welland


  4. Oh dear, confusing myself – Wellard it is!


  5. I somewhat disagree with this conclusion. I have been an avid reader of all of the Hornblower series for more than 20 years and there are elements from many books which to me point to Hornblower as the doer.

    When faced with a near certainty of disaster, Hornblower will take even marginally better odds if the opportunity presents itself, or even work to create the opportunity that allows him to do so. We see this in Mr Midshipman Hornblower, the Duel, which had already been written and was preceding in Hornblower’s life up to this point. If he was willing to die might have not be better to face at least a chance that Simpson might die instead? I believe this is specifically relevant, as the meeting in the hold was a hanging offense. At the time of the captain’s alert Hornblower knew that him and his fellow officers were in immediate deadly peril. Even if they all escape the hold cleanly, they would not escape the fact that Captain Sawyer knew about the meeting. Hornblower was facing imminent death, and would have applied the same logic, as well as the rapidity of action and the bold initiative. Might it not be better for a chance that Captain Sawyer might die instead? If nothing else, he might take the responsibility upon himself and save his fellow officers, for the good of the service. I believe the striking of Hayles in the jolly boat during the cutting out expedition further points to Hornblower’s willingness to strike quickly for the good of the service, for the good of others.

    As for Wellard, I do not believe that Forester provided us with enough knowledge of Wellard’s personality to support the conclusion that Wellard did it. However in contrast Hornblower was very adept at directing others with what you might call verbal sleight of hand. We see this with the incident regarding Doughty’s escape, we see it when dealing with McCool’s chest, and others.

    I believe that Hornblower used Wellard as a lookout or distraction, even if momentarily, even if just to prevent Wellard from being a direct witness. Hornblower then pushed Captain Sawyer, or otherwise caused him to fall.

    Wellard had an even stronger suspicion of Hornblower’s guilt due to proximity, but still not certainty. Wellard would be one who would look up to Hornblower however, in addition to the fact that Hornblower is immensely his superior. Speaking up with his suspicions, would only have led to more harm.

    As far as reconciling himself over the Justice involved in the act, I believe Hornblower’s attempt to revoke all personal responsibility in the subsequent events of the book, and his reluctance to share the news of his promotion to Commander, point to his attempt at that Justice. The same way of concealment of the source of the fire on board the privateer. I do not believe Hornblower would feel any guilt about the death of Captain Sawyer, I do not believe he would accept any responsibility for his death, only his injury. Perhaps his guilt would have been higher if Captain Sawyer had died during the fall? But he did not. Hornblower consistently recognized the importance of the compound effect, where he takes responsibility at a key moment and then later enjoys the benefits when all has played out. Numerous times across the books Hornblower takes responsibility for the decisive action, but not the subsequent events. He will take responsibility for navigating the ship, but not responsibility that he has made a perfect landfall. Or choosing where to search for the Natividad, but not for successfully sighting it. It is much more consistent that he would take responsibility for the push, and for Captain Sawyer’s injury, but not for the confinement of Captain Sawyer, or his later death.

    I believe that Forester wrote in the death of Wellard more to preserve the secret, as well as the consistency across Hornblower’s future with the books that have already been written.

    Just my thoughts, I would have very much like to have met CS Forester and discussed all of this with him.


  6. Matt Gallagher

    That it was the only book from someone else’s point of view shows that Forrester’s intention is that we never truly know if he did or didn’t and that’s baked into the cake. The argument against it is that it’s not really in his character to murder, and that Hornblower never thinks back on it, even in books that were written after.

    However I truly believe he did it. For one, Hornblower can’t abide bullies and was willing to kill one, which he showed in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. Second, I do actually think it’s in his nature. Hornblower believes himself to be a coward and a failure, and that kind of self talk can create self fufilling prophecies. Whether he did it or not, he certainly believes he’s capable of it.

    Third, he’s just terribly cunning. I can’t remember if this was from the book or the movie but it struck me that whenever he was asked about it he almost always just said “I think he must have missed his footing.” Hornblower is cunning enough to know that bad liars will give too much detail. Good liars will keep it simple. But that’s why it’s suspicious. He’s almost too consistent at it. Even when pressed he never gives other details or recounts the events or anything.

    In the end though I just think he’s a more compelling character having done it then not.


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