Master and Commander

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Master and Commander
CountryKingdom of Great Britain, Great Britain
Service branchRed Ensign of Great Britain and Red Squadron 1707 to 1800.png, Royal Navy
Formation1670-1794
Next higher rankPost Captain
Next lower rankLieutenant

A Master and Commander was a commissioned officer rank created in 1670 it ranked above a lieutenant but below a post captain. The primary function of an officer with this rank was to take command of a small naval vessel (a sloop) which did not qualify for any of the six rates and therefore did not merit a post-captain. In 1794 the title of this rank was altered to Commander.

History

The rank developed in the late seventeenth century and derives from the fact that, originally, such an officer was required to function as his own master as well as exercising overall command. However, by the late eighteenth century all but the smallest sloops (those with ten or twelve guns and a total crew of 45) carried a warranted master as well as the commander. In recognition of this, the words 'Master and' were officially deleted from the designation of the rank in 1794, although undoubtedly many officers already in the service (such as Jack Aubrey) would have continued to use the old familiar form of words for many years afterwards.

It was not uncommon for a lieutenant who had distinguished himself in action (perhaps by leading a boarding party or commanding a cutting out operation) to be promoted to commander shortly afterwards. This was very far from guaranteeing he would have a ship to command, since the number of commanders was often three or more times as great as the number of suitable vessels.

Somewhat confusingly, a commander who held a current commission - in other words, who was actually in charge of a vessel - was addressed and referred to as 'Captain [surname]' despite the fact that he was not strictly a Post Captain.