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December 17, 2009

Schooled at Sea

By Spear's

Perhaps now more than ever the public feels that bankers should be sent to the frontline in Afghanistan for a life without bonuses or bailouts. Hedgehog suggests this would be a luxury compared with the child-sailors of a book by former merchant banker D.A.B. Ronald.

PERHAPS NOW MORE than ever the public feels that bankers should be sent to the frontline in Afghanistan for a life without bonuses or bailouts. Hedgehog suggests this would be a luxury compared with the child-sailors of a book by former merchant banker D.A.B. Ronald.

Young Nelsons (buy it in the Spear’s/Amazon store here) tells the narrative of the Napoleonic Wars through the eyes of child-sailors, some as young as nine, in Nelson’s navy. Many chose to join up because ‘this was their opportunity to escape from mediocrity as the second son of a vicar or such,’ says Ronald. ‘Here was an opportunity to find status, glory and money. Youngsters on board got their fair share of prize money.’ Given high mortality rates in England, the sea would have had definite charms. Others were, quite definitely,  not volunteers: often so-called ‘Scape-Gallowses’, some were young criminals given the choice by the courts between the hangman and the mainsail.

(One Young Nelson — although in the French fleet, reflecting how widespread the practice was — has come down in literary culture: the poem which begins ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’ tells of ten-year old Cassa Bianca who refused to leave his father during the Battle of the Nile.)

The book has its origins in a surprising familial anecdote. ‘We were down at Exbury Gardens, one of the Rothschilds’ houses, in Hampshire for a Schroders party. We were chatting to the head gardener about his moles, when a man walked up to us and introduced himself as one of the Rothschilds. My wife said, “Do you realise you’re talking to the descendant of the boy who brought the news back from Waterloo to your family?”’ This was news to Ronald: his father had only recently told his wife this.

‘The boy’ was a 14-year old midshipman commanding a skiff. Despite a massive storm in the Channel, this boy agreed to take Nathan de Rothschild’s courier to England — for a price — bringing first news of victory at Waterloo. Rothschild tried to inform the Foreign Secretary, whose butler refused to disturb his master.

The following morning, Rothschild went down to the Stock Exchange and sold all his government stock, making fellow traders think that Waterloo had been lost and causing the price to plummet. Once it was sufficiently low, Rothschild bought it back, making a profit and repaying the loans he’d made to finance the Peninsular War. (Now that’s insider trading.) It struck Ronald that if there had been one child sailor, there must have been more.

AFTER GRADUATING FROM Edinburgh with an MA (Hons) in history in 1974, Ronald spent a decade as a merchant banker with Kleinwort Benson abroad, before returning to Britain in 1984 and setting up his own boutique M&A consultancy. He retired in 2004 and is now studying for a PhD at Exeter University in maritime history.

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Asked what banking and Nelson’s navy have in common, Ronald has an instant answer which reflects a discreditable sea-change in the former over the past 30 years: ‘Back in the Napoleonic Wars, the navy operated as one gigantic family; admirals and captains were often called “sea-daddies”. They saw themselves as responsible for the whole crew, especially the youngsters. There was a similar sense of responsibility when I first went into banking, there was still the concept of “my word is my bond”. You were part of a club and if you did something wrong, it stood out.

‘All that’s been put into suspension. You went from a trust business to “here’s a document, sign it, if something goes wrong sue me.” Banking is now a transaction business, not a trust business.’ Perhaps a spell on the high seas fighting Somali pirates might be just what today’s bankers need.

D.A.B. Ronald’s book is available in the Spear’s/Amazon store here

Picture: Admiral Myners?

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