Reviews: Books


Fiddlers and Whores: the Candid Memoirs of a Surgeon in Nelson’s Fleet

Lowry, James. Fiddlers and Whores: the Candid Memoirs of a Surgeon in Nelson’s Fleet. John Millyard (editor). London: Chatham, 2006. 192 pages. ISBN# 1861762682. Hardcover. $24.95.

Fiddlers and Whores: the Candid Memoirs of a Surgeon in Nelson’s Fleet

In 1798, James Lowry received an appointment as an assistant surgeon in the British Royal Navy.  He would spend the next seven years in the Mediterranean, where he would have many adventures and misadventures while aboard several ships, including the Swiftsure, the Pigmy, and the Weazle.  During the time he would participate in several naval battles, in the amphibious landing in Egypt in 1801, be taken a prisoner-of-war, and be shipwrecked off the coast of Spain.  Fiddlers and Whores is based on the diaries he kept during the seven years.  Unfortunately, these diaries were lost when he was shipwrecked in 1804, so these memoirs are his attempt to reconstruct the diaries. They first came to light in 1990, when the editor was given the manuscript by James Lowry’s great-great-great-great niece.

Fiddlers and Whores provides a very candid view of naval life both afloat and ashore during the early 19th Century.  Like many of the memoirs written by soldiers, much of the book deals with the day-to-day existence of the author rather than the great events that he witnessed.  Surprisingly, much of the book covers the author’s escapades ashore rather than shipboard life. .  Lowry took every opportunity to see the local sites and often was invited to many social events.  He met many of the leading personages of the period, including the Neapolitan Royals and Lady Emma Hamilton, Admiral Nelson’s mistress. He was in Naples in 1798 and witnessed the execution of Prince Caracciolo, a Neapolitan naval officer who sided with the rebels against the King of Naples.   Caracciolo was hung from the yardarm of the Minerva and tossed into the sea.  According to Lowry, on the following day:

“The when walking the deck one morning was (and no wonder) astonished to see a late baronet (that he had ordered, and was, hanged until dead) standing with his head and shoulders above the sea. His Majesty was very much frightened. This singular incident caused great consternation through the ship. Upon inquiry they discovered it to be as follows: the rebels, friends to the baronet, did this as a prank, merely to timidate the king. By the means of corks, planks, weights etc. etc. they caused the dead baronet to stand that way in the sea.”

Lowry’s memoirs is one the few that covers the amphibious landing in Egypt, which makes it particularly valuable.  He had was directly involved in the assault, for he was in the first of boats that landed.  He stayed ashore for three months, attached to the battalion of marines.  He provided medical assistance during the battle of Alexandria and was eventually evacuated back to his ship due to poor health.

What makes Fiddlers and Whores stand out from other memoirs is that they were never meant to be published.  These memoirs were written for Lowry’s brother and they contain more detail on the writer’s life than most other memoirs from the Napoleonic Era.  Specifically Lowry discusses his own sex life and the sexual mores of those around him.  Fiddlers and Whores pulls no punches.  He was young and, like many of his fellow officers, believed that it was quite common for the upper class Italian women to have lovers or to be in the active pursuit of acquiring one.  Lowry writes of his conquests and those by others quite openly. There was a down side to this, because as a medical officer, he often commented about how many of the women had venereal diseases.  (He even claims that Princess of Butero died from it in 1802.)  He also mentions the high-class brothels in Portsmouth that were patronized by Royal Naval officers, who would pay them a visit prior to going home to their wives, after long voyages.

The editor, John Millyard, does a superb job of providing background information on the people, events, and places that Lowry describes.  Fiddlers and Whores is a gem of a book that is quite readable and highly entertaining.  It has a broad appeal, not only to both those who specialize in the naval aspects of the Napoleonic Era but to those who have a general interest in the times.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS


Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2006

 

 

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