Mad for Glory - A Heart of Darkness in the War of 1812, Robert Booth

Mad for Glory - A Heart of Darkness in the War of 1812, Robert Booth

By a curious coincidence this is the second book on this topic that I've read in this week, the first being In Pursuit of the Essex - Heroism and Hubris on the High Seas in the War of 1812 by Ben Hughes. Both look at the battle of Valparaiso, an isolated naval clash on the Pacific coast of Chile. Captain David Porter of the US Navy took his frigate, the USS Essex into the Pacific in pursuit of his own ambition. Captain James Hillyar of the Royal Navy was sent into the Pacific to deal with an American presence on the Pacific North-West coast, but ended up having to deal with Porter.

This book is written more from an American angle than Hughes's volume, although not with an American bias. As a result we get far more on Consul Poinsett, an American diplomat who also ended up in Chile where he attempted to help the Chilean revolutionaries overthrown Spanish rule. Poinsett emerges as well meaning but somewhat naïve, and after the failure of all of his efforts rather lost interest in the affairs of South American. 

Booth shows more understanding of what was going on in Micronesia, where Porter arrived in the middle of a bout of 'ritual warfare', a formal small scale form of conflict in which the boasting and display was more important than the actual conflict (although he does perhaps overplay the harmlessness of it all, as the incident that Porter interrupted was triggered by the killing of a priest). He also follows up on the tragic fate of the island, and the destruction of its civilisation in the years after Porter's departure.

Porter doesn't emerge with much credit from either account. He probably comes off rather worse here, starting with the reasons why he missed his planned rendezvous with other US warships in the South Atlantic - as his journal demonstrated, Porter always had a trip into the Pacific in mind, and used his failure to meet up with his colleagues as an excuse to ignore his orders and head south. Porter emerges as a fascinating but flawed individual, who was capable of short bursts of great success, but ended up failing at most of his ventures. Booth is more willing to follow up some of the controversies of the story - one example being Porter's claim that Hillyar breached Chilean neutrality during the final battle. Here the attitude of his fellow US naval officers is examined, and it becomes clear that they didn’t share Porter's view of the battle.

Hillyer emerges from both accounts as a dutiful naval officer who took his orders far more serious than Porter. His only aim during the long standoff at Valparaiso was to ensure that the Essex didn't escape, and he was entirely unwilling to engage in Porter's 'one on one' duel. His career was far more conventional, and he ended up living in comfortable retirement as Admiral Hillyer.

The two books on this battle actually work rather well in partnership - Hughes has produced a drier account, with perhaps more information from the British side, Booth the more entertaining volume, with more on the American side and the situation in Chile.

1 - Captain Porter
2 - Consul General Poinsett
3 - Against the Gods
4 - Off the Chart
5 - Revolution in Chile
6 - A New America
7 - Americans at War
8 - A-whaling
9 - Opotee in Nooaheevah
10 - Taipi
11 - Rendezvous
12 - Victory
13 - Consequences
14 - Rancagua
15 - Reverberations
16 - Minute Guns

Author: Robert Booth
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 244
Publisher: Tilbury House
Year: 2015

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