Philip Broke

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[[Category: Historical people|Broke, Philip]]
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[[Category: Royal Naval officer (non-fictional)|Broke, Philip]]
[[Category: Royal Naval officer (non-fictional)|Broke, Philip]]
[[Category: Flag Officer|Broke, Philip]]
[[Category: Flag officers|Broke, Philip]]

Revision as of 15:48, 11 April 2009

Philip Bowes Vere Broke KCB (9 September 1776 – 2 January 1841) was a captain in the British Royal Navy, notable for his victory commanding HMS Shannon over the US frigate Chesapeake in the war of 1812.

Broke was born at Broke Hall at Nacton, Suffolk, England. As the eldest son of a landed gentry family he would have naturally sought a position in the navy or army. His younger brother, Charles Broke entered the army and served with Wellington.

Unusually, Broke chose to attended the newly established Royal Navy Academy at Portsmouth Dockyard. He entered it at age twelve. In 1792, he began active service as a midshipman at an age when the majority of his peers had had several years sea experience. In July 1795 he was commissioned as Third Lieutenant in the Southampton and was present at the battle of Cape St. Vincent in February 1797. Broke achieved the rank of commander in 1799 and made post in 1801.

In August 1806 Broke was given command of the 38 gun frigate Shannon. In 1811 he was assigned to the North American Station in Halifax. Broke highly valued the importance of gunnery and efficiency to naval success. As a result the Shannon was one of the finest gunnery ships in the Royal Navy.

With the war of 1812, Broke led a British squadron to blockade American ports and to eliminate naval opposition. In 1813 Broke was blockading Boston, as the Chesapeake was preparing for sea under the command of James Lawrence. The opportunity for a decisive frigate action was compelling to each side; for Broke to re-establish British superiority after a string of humiliating British defeats, and for Lawrence to reinforce American prestige and power.

On 1 June 1813 the Chesapeake sailed out to meet the Shannon. The Shannon’s decisive victory was achieved by Broke's leadership and disciplined preparations which brought superior gunnery to bear while the Chesapeake’s defeat reflected its preparation and Lawrence’s ill timed decision making.

Broke received a head injury while leading the boarding party from which he only partially recovered. On his return to England, Broke was rewarded with a Baronet and Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB). He was also awarded a Naval Gold Medal, one of only eight awarded for single ship actions between 1794 and 1816. His injury prevented further active sea service but he continued to serve as an adviser to the navy on gunnery. In 1830 he advanced up the navy list to Rear Admiral.

SPOILER WARNING:  Plot or ending details for "The Surgeon's Mate"  follow.

In the canon

Broke appears in The Fortune of War and The Surgeon's Mate in his historical role as Captain of the Shannon. As such he is instrumental in the escape of Aubrey, Maturin and Villiers from Boston. Their presence on the Shannon makes them witness to its’ action with the Chesapeake and subsequent victorious arrival in Halifax. Broke however is more than a mere historical reference but also developed as a character.

O’Brian provides Broke with an extensive back-story. Aubrey states to Maturin that “ man and boy, I have known Philip Broke these twenty years and more.” He explains that he and Broke “are kind of cousins, and when my mother died I was packed off to stay at Broke hall for a while”. In a passage that echoes Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, Aubrey reminisces about summers spent on the banks of the river Orwell with “a misshapen sort of punt of our own, with a lugsail we were hardly strong enough to hoist: it was the most crossgrained brute that ever swam,” They undertook to run away to sea “but old Mr Broke came after us in the dog cart, took us back, and whipped us till we cried like puppies”. [1]

In providing Broke with a character beyond his historical record, it serves as a foil to Jack Aubrey and to advance the novel’s themes.

Broke’s emphasis on gunnery and its critical role in the victory over the Chesapeake provides a real world validation for Aubrey’s passion for gunnery. Within the world of the novel, both share a commitment to achieving overwhelming victory, often to the point of self abnegation. Like Aubrey, Broke personally funds his gunnery practice and has had to sell off part of his estate for funds. That Broke has chosen to burn captured prizes and forgo the benefits of prize money rather than risk diminishing his fighting capacity from absent prize crews points to his zeal and sacrifice. Jack notes with approval that the Shannon’s crew share this common purpose. “Jack admired the way he had formed his officers and men, so that they followed his opinion and shared his views...”[2]

Broke also serves to develop the theme of marriage which is present throughout TFOW. In describing Broke to Maturin, Aubrey comments how Broke’s marriage had effected him. “ He had married by that time, not very well, I am afraid....I am afraid it weighs upon him. ...a woman that takes herself seriously, and cannot laugh - Lord, it must weigh upon him.” [3] Broke’s marriage foreshadows Maturin’s subsequent marriage with Diana Villiers.

Broke’s moral rectitude, “there was a touch of the Puritan: no women aboard, the youngsters’ grog cut on the first occasion, and no bawdy at his table” [4] contrasts with Aubrey’s moral pragmatism, and presages the difficulties Aubrey will encounter in Halifax without a firm moral compass.

Broke also represents the dawning modern age of Imperial industrial Britain. In observing Broke for the first time with Aubrey, Maturin notes the paradox of their different styles, “ Jack belonging more to the heartier, more flamboyant, hard-drinking eighteenth, Broke in the more discreet modern age that was spreading so fast...” [5] As the Shannon prepares for action, its officers dress reflect this difference; “some like Broke... in the modern style of round hats and Hessian boots, some, like Jack in the traditional gold lace, white breeches, and silk stockings...” [6] The change in habits and attitudes foreshadows Aubrey’s incipient concerns with age and mortality. At the moment when he is best able to savour the joy of their escape, Aubrey reflects “ He considered old age and its mutilations and wondered what it would do for him:...” [7]

Having developed Broke as a character, he is returned to his narrow historical context in The Surgeon's Mate. Broke's illness delays the writing of his report of the victory and the departure of the packet vessel to carry the news to England.


Admiral Sir P B V Broke, A Memoir. by John George Brighton. 1866

Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

  1. FOW, omnibus HC edition, Norton, page 2089
  2. FOW, omnibus HC edition, Norton, page 2158
  3. FOW, omnibus HC edition, Norton, page 2091
  4. FOW, omnibus HC edition, Norton, page 2092
  5. FOW, omnibus HC edition, Norton, page 2145
  6. FOW, omnibus HC edition, Norton, page 2180
  7. FOW, omnibus HC edition, Norton, page 2158

External Links Brighton's memoir of Broke. Photo of Broke Hall. A family of the landed gentry.

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