The Happy Return

The Happy Return (Beat to Quarters in the US) was the first of the Horatio Hornblower novels published by C. S. Forester. It appeared in 1937. The American name is derived from the expression "beat to quarters", which was the signal to prepare for combat. This book is sixth by internal chronology of the series (including the unfinished Hornblower and the Crisis). Hornblower's past history as narrated in the book does not entirely accord with his history as revealed in the books of the series written later, but Forester never revised the book.

The Happy Return
First edition cover
AuthorC. S. Forester
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesHoratio Hornblower
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherMichael Joseph, London
Publication date
4 February 1937[1]
Media typeHardcover & paperback
Pages287 pp
LC ClassPZ3.F75956 Hap PR6011.O56
Preceded byHornblower and the Atropos (1953) 
Followed byA Ship of the Line

It is one of three Hornblower novels adapted into the 1951 British-American film Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N..

Plot summary

In June 1808, Hornblower is in command of the 36-gun frigate HMS Lydia, with orders to sail to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua (near modern Choluteca, Choluteca) and supply a local landowner, Don Julian Alvarado ("descendant" of Pedro de Alvarado by a fictional marriage to a daughter of Moctezuma), with muskets and powder. Don Julian is ready to revolt against the Spanish (at this point allied with Napoleon). Upon meeting Don Julian, however, Hornblower discovers he is an insane megalomaniac calling himself El Supremo ("the Almighty") who views himself as a deity, and who has been killing (by tying to a stake and leaving until death by thirst) all those who are "unenlightened" (that is to say, all those who do not recognise El Supremo's "godhead"). El Supremo claims to be a descendant of Moctezuma, the holy god-made-man of the Aztecs, and also of the Alvarado who invaded Mexico.

While Hornblower replenishes his supplies, the 50-gun Spanish ship Natividad is sighted off the coast heading his way. Unwilling to risk fighting the much more powerful ship in a sea battle, Hornblower hides nearby until it anchors and then captures it in a daring, surprise nighttime boarding. El Supremo demands that it be turned over to him so that he may have a navy. After hiding the captured Spanish officers to save them from being murdered by El Supremo, Hornblower, needing his ally's cooperation, has no choice but to accede.

After offloading the war supplies for El Supremo, Hornblower sails south. Off the coast of Panama, he encounters a Spanish lugger; an envoy, taking passage on the lugger, informs him of a new alliance between Spain and England against Napoleon.

Another passenger on the lugger, the young Englishwoman Lady Barbara Wellesley, the (fictional) sister of Marquess Wellesley and Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), comes aboard. The packet ship she was on in the Caribbean had been captured some time ago. Freed by Spain's changing sides and fleeing a yellow fever epidemic ashore, she requests passage back to England. Hornblower reluctantly agrees, and takes Lady Barbara and her maid Hebe aboard, warning her that he must first hunt and destroy the Natividad before El Supremo can ravage the entire coast of Central America.

In the subsequent battle, Hornblower uses masterful tactics to sink the Natividad, though the Lydia herself is heavily damaged. Limping back to Panama to effect repairs, Hornblower (now that there is no further threat from the Natividad) is curtly informed that he is not welcome in any Spanish-American port. He manages to find a natural harbour on the island of Coiba, where he refits.

After completing repairs, Hornblower encounters the haughty Spanish official once more, on the same lugger. He is invited aboard the lugger for some interesting news. There he finds El Supremo, a wretched, and still insane, captive chained to the deck, on his way to his execution.

Hornblower sets sail for England. On the long voyage home, he and Lady Barbara become strongly attracted to each other. Nearing the end of their trip, she makes the first overt advances, and they embrace passionately. Although he is also strongly attracted to her and initially responds strongly, Barbara's maid Hebe walking in on them brings Hornblower to the realisation that he as captain is about to indulge in sexual dalliance with a passenger. He uses as an excuse to Barbara the fact that he is married to withdraw from the situation. Also, as a man of humble social standing, he is horribly aware that he cannot afford to risk offending the influential Wellesley clan by dallying with her. After her rejection, the embarrassed Lady Barbara avoids him as best she can. An English convoy is sighted soon afterwards and she transfers to a more spacious ship. They make stilted, formal good-byes.


  1. The Observer, 27 January 1937, "This Week's Diary", London, p 6
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