The Three Commanders by WHG Kingston is the third book in his series The Three Officers set between 1840 and 1860, and written shortly after events in the books occur. Kingston is a wonderfully unashamed author who would be condemned today by cultural Marxists as a racist and a jingoist. But his happy nationalism and his untroubled conscience are refreshing in this age of cringing apology by whites who are not willing to defend their record for the good they have done in the world, including the only group that has ever sent navies and soldiers to end slavery.
Unfortunately there is little distinction between Kingston’s characters whose three officers, one English, one Irish and one Scottish, are virtually indistinguishable from each other except for their accents. Their three younger relatives who join them in the second book of the series are also very similar to each other. All six are equally brave, honourable, loyal, trustworthy, enthusiastic, diligent and compassionate towards deserving persons, but ruthless towards villains. They are all resourceful in dire situations though it is surprising how frequently they are lost at sea after wrecking various vessels; but no less surprising how often they are rediscovered in the middle of vast oceans and seas by either their relatives or close friends. They also have close encounters with vicious sharks but the sharks are more likely to be eaten than the officers or their midshipmen relatives. All six get on very well, and there is never a moment’s jealousy or rancour that threatens their bonhomie. All the crews that follow the three commanders are loyal to a man, always enthusiastic when going into battle for a good cause, and always cheerfully stoic in hardship. There is never a mutinous or resentful thought.
Nor is there any rebelliousness that smacks of anomie save when the English midshipmen Jack Rogers thinks of jumping ship to elope with a Russian girl, Feodorowna, who won his heart during a raid in the Crimean War, in the second part of the book. Because Feodorowna is half English, she, like her family has no ill-will towards the depredations of the Royal Navy’s Mosquito Fleet. Kingston’s treatment of the naval activities is fairly unusual in historical fiction and probably something of a specialist area. The author is at pains, however, to point out that the Royal Navy did not destroy private property; that its destructive efforts were always against the Tsar and government stores. However he avoids making any obvious connection between the impact of such a campaign on the population that depends on government expenditure for its own livelihood.
The first half of the book is set off the West Coast of Africa as the three commanders strive to thwart the Arab dhows engaged in the slave trade. Contemporary writers would rarely dare to condemn Arabs as the main actors in the slave trade or to depict their brutality, including readily throwing blacks overboard to save themselves in a storm or from arrest by the Royal Navy. Commander Tom Rogers, speaking of Arab traders about to die in the desert, says, Their fate will be as terrible as that of those who have just lost their lives. They deserve it richly.” But on the other hand, Kingston is not embarrassed to exemplify the poor behaviour of the blacks that the Royal Navy rescues, speaking in respect of their extreme selfishness and lack of charity for each other: “It was difficult, however, to help them, as the first who seized the mug would not pass it on, in spite of all the seamen could do, until he had drained it to the bottom.” Other descriptions are even more frank.
Kingston is similarly candid in his description of Kanakas and other Pacific Islanders the RN rescues from blackbirders, most of whom are either of hybrid parentage or the dregs of society. But he has no compunction pointing out the Islanders predilection for cannibalism and easy disposition to treachery, and general untrustworthiness.
Despite the lack of individuation in the characters, the novel is morally uplifting and has a confidence in British rectitude. There are interesting historical insights, especially into naval tactics in the period of transition from the age of sail into the age of steam. There are also geographical descriptions of seascapes, islands, volcanoes and jungles that are engaging and didactic. Though the lack of conflict among the characters, and their constant good conduct is unrealistic, Kingston offers a standard of behaviour and social ideal to which his readers can happily aspire.