Chronicles of the Frigate Macedonian 1809-1922


by James Tertius de Kay.
Norton, 336 pages, $25.00.
“Ships,” Mr. de Kay observes, “are rarely very interesting in themselves.” He has concentrated on the people who sailed in the Macedonian, the things they did, and the sometimes un-naval reasons for their actions, to make an unusual variation on nineteenth-century history. The Macedonian was launched in 1810, to light Napoleon. Her first captain was Lord William FitzRoy, who was soon cashiered for swindling the treasury—although, being the son of a duke, he was later quietly reinstated, and died an admiral. Money played a considerable part in the ship’s history. A subsequent American captain made a neat profit from his command and got away with it. because although his activities were illegal, they did not cost the government a penny. In the interim the Macedonian, after an embarrassing British-organized financial fiasco in the United States, was assigned to hunt French and American prizes around Madeira. Prize money was important to underpaid captains. The Macedonian found an American ship, thought to be the Essex and no great problem. She was in fact the United States. Stephen Decatur, captain. Outgunned, dismasted, blood-sodden, and as helpless as a log in the water, the Macedonian could only strike. Her colors were presented to a surprised Dolley Madison in the midst of a Washington ball, for our Navy had panache in those days. It was also practical, and a captured Royal Navy frigate was too useful as a showpiece of diplomacy, gunboat or otherwise, to be risked in actual battle. The Macedonian became a Kilroy: whatever went on, usually for civilian commercial reasons, from intimidating the Bey of Tunis to opening Japan, she was there. Her least likely adventure was the transport of relief supplies to famine-stricken Ireland, a humanitarian action organized by the author’s great-grandfather. George Colman De Kay. One would like to have a hit more detail about Commodore De Kay. He stands up well alongside Decatur, Matthew Perry, and the unjustly forgotten Uriah Levy. The Macedonian eventually came to scrap and land-based indignity, but her remains did get what may be considered a Viking funeral. Mr. de Kay has written a thoroughly delightful and informative book from an unexpected point of view.