Master and Commander.



All aboard fer yr next sea voyage, me hearties, Patrick O’Brian’s famous Aubrey-Maturin historical novels of naval battles and fortunes of war in the Napoleonic era, oh, and much, much more.

For a voyage with Commander Jack Aubrey in the various ships he commands in the Master and Commander series not only contains all the action and excitement you could hope for in a historical novel, but involvement in a fully realized world aboard a man of war of the period, weapons, food, rituals and manners, conversations, characters and relationships richly observed…You are there.

While Melville’s voyage of The Pequod explored the mysteries of the deep ocean and its largest inhabitants, O’Brian’s voyages traverse its surface. Suspense replaces mystery as Aubrey engages in battles against Britain’s traditional enemies and others. The focus is on the consequences of urgent decisions. At sea, you learn by your mistakes, feed back immediate. If you’re a commander mistakes may incur loss of authority, even mutiny, loss of a ship, court martial. If you’re crew, there’s falling overboard, drunken and other excesses, penalty of flogging according to the navy articles, even young midshipmen may be physically punished for misdemeanors. If you’re a surgeon, there’s loss of patients, multi-shades of individual angst, loss of professional regard by officers and crew.

On land you may get away with fooling yourself or others, at sea feedback will take place. Think Ahab. Character, toughness and courage are needed to survive at sea. Prince of Denmark equivocation won’t work in battles with the elements, waves, wind, currents, or enemy ships.

The friendship of the two central characters in ‘Master and Commander’ begins with onshore in Minorca at a musicale soiree at the house of the Governor, where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin first meet, each biding time, each in impecunious circumstances, depending for relief on the arbitrary decisions of others. Lieutenant Aubrey is waiting orders to command his first ship, physician Maturin is waiting payment due for medical services.

The meeting begins badly when Aubrey, carried away by the music, beats time and is rebuked by the man seated next to him. ‘If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.’

Rather hurt, Aubrey contains his enthusiasm until once more he’s carried away by the music and feels an elbow jab in his ribs … ‘A nudge, a thrust of that kind, so vicious and deliberate, was very like a blow. Neither his personal temper nor his professional code could patiently suffer an affront; and what affront was graver than a blow?’ At the end of the concert, names and contact details are exchanged.

When Aubrey returns to his lodgings an official letter addressed to Captain Aubrey awaits him giving him command of His Majesty’s sloop Sophie. What a difference a day makes. The following day despite the malicious attempts of a particular admiral to foil his promotion, Jack Aubrey has his ship, though short in crew and lacking a ship’s surgeon. In the midst of his errands, he runs in to his enemy of the previous night:

‘Why there you are sir. I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music – are so unused to genteel company – that we grow carried away,’

‘My dear sir,’ cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, ‘you had every right to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life, – such unity, such fire. May I propose a cup of chocolate, or coffee? It would give me great pleasure.’

That evening over dinner at Jack Aubrey’s lodgings, Jack offers Stephen Maturin, physician and naturalist, the position of ship’s surgeon on the Sophie with opportunities to study wild life species on the voyage. Maturin accepts the post, the beginning of a long friendship between the two men and distinguished careers for both.

Anchors Away.

In the global adventures with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin we experience a sense of the times and life on board ship that is quite wonderful. O’Brian has made full use of naval records, maritime museum data, ships logs and letters, to create this world.

There’s the ritual of Aubrey taking command of his first ship, marines presenting arms, naming of the officers, the reading of his commission: ‘By the right Honorable Lord Keith’ … ending with ‘Hereof nor you nor anyone of you may fail as will answer at the contrary at your peril.’ On to the ship yard, conferring with niggardly wheeling and dealing, no problem to Jack, at sea since the age of twelve, he knows what he needs to overhaul the Sophie.

Later, in consultation with the purser, he’s presented with a heap of ship’s books, supplies, expenses, provisions received and returned … all requiring his signature. Noting a certain smoothness in the way the purser presents his balances, Aubrey fixes on a name in the muster book, ‘Rickett,’ the purser’s own name, no age beside the name, rating ‘able seaman,’ then ‘midshipman.’ ‘Yes, sir, my son, sir. Ha ha …’ an everyday fraud, but nevertheless illegal. The purser gets the message, no purser’s tricks with the books or else.

In The Mauritius Command, there’s a nice description of the lubberly part of the Boudicea’s crew becoming accustomed to the unchanging routine of ship life where all hands should be piped just before eight bells in the middle watch and sleepers start from their hammocks. Watch relays and numbers depend on space below deck, since naval regulations allot only fourteen inches width of sleeping space per man. Though this is not possible, with a third or more of the crew on watch at a time, those not on watch gain a few more inches sleeping space.

At eight bells in the forenoon watch all hands are piped to dinner, this dinner to consist of cheese and duff on Monday, two pounds of salt beef on Tuesday, dried peas and duff on Wednesday, one pound of salt pork on Thursday, dried peas and cheese on Friday, two more pounds of salt beef on Saturday, one pound of salt beef on Sunday and some treat such as figgy-dowdy pudding. Meals are accompanied by a daily pound of ship’s biscuit, dinner and supper followed by a pint of grog.

Maturin is surprised to hear how much rum is consumed by the crew. When he learns from a gunner that an expired young crew member consumed a quart of grog at one sitting, Maturin proposes a watering down of the ration. ‘Oh dear me ‘says the gunner, ‘if they was to get a half a pint of three-water grog, we should soon have a bloody mutiny on our hands. And quite right too.’

Battle Stations.

Life on board a Royal Navy brig in the period involved many battles. The battles Patrick O’Brian describes so dramatically are actual battles, carefully researched as to location, comparative advantages of rival ships and strategies adopted but in the novels O’Brian’s characters are slipped into the leading roles. ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey wins most of the battles, even his 14 4 pounders and 54 men against the superior force of the Spanish Cacafuego’s 32 guns and 319 men which establishes his reputation.. Luck plays only a small part in it. No sooner does Aubrey take on a new crew but he’s into daily gunnery practice, stop watch in hand. ‘Two minutes five … a not discreditable exercise.’

Here’s Captain Aubrey bound for New South Wales with an unexpected consignment of convicts on board in ‘Desolation Island,’ a tale of treachery, encounter with ice bergs entailing an enforced stay at Desolation Island, its wild life explored by Steven Maturin, and in the wild seas of the Roaring Forties the murderous pursuit of Aubrey’s 52 gun brig, Leopard, by Dutch 74 gun man of war, the Waakzaamheid.

That pursuit, it’ll make your hair stand on end. News of an enemy man of war’s presence in the vicinity prompts Aubrey to step up gunnery practice and set up his own deck cabin as an adaptable gunning station in case of a meeting. In the doldrums, despite heroic efforts by Maturin, Aubrey has lost one hundred and sixty crew members as well as most of the convicts to an outbreak of goal fever. When the two ships meet, short on man and fire power, Aubrey does his best to elude capture. Light winds that favour his smaller ship help at first. When the wind drops and the Waakzaamheid gains and attempts a moonlight boarding, the Leopards prompt response, firing grape shot at the boarding boats giving Aubrey time to escape.

Aubrey realizes this is a temporary respite. The Waakzaamheid’s captain knows where they are bound and the stormy waters of the Roaring Forties will be an advantage for the larger ship. At the next stage of the pursuit, a shock for Aubrey. There in his glass he sees the Dutch Captain, dressed in a black coat this time, looking straight at Aubrey. Aubrey wonders if the Dutchman lost a relative in their recent encounter, ‘His boy, perhaps, dear God forbid.’

No time to waste with the seventy-four only a few miles away, and now sailing in the wild Roaring Forties, Aubrey decides to strengthen Leonard’s masts with hawsers, bouse the massive cordage so that it could stand a most uncommon force – a mast lost in these seas was sure destruction. Taking all the crew to erect the hawsers and raise the top and main sails, the Leopard begins to outpace the Waakzaamheid, racing furiously over the heaving sea, both ships driven very hard. The first to lose an important spar or sail that night would lose the race. At eight bells, Jack set the inner jib. It might be the last chance to do so, ‘the ship was tearing through the sea at a rate he would never have believed possible, a rate that would have been impossible without those hawsers to the mastheads’

‘And now the extreme danger of sailing in a heavy swell became more and more apparent: in the troughs, the valleys between the waves the Leopard was almost becalmed, while the crest struck her, threatening to tear her sails from their bolt-ropes to carry away her masts, even worse, she lost some of her way at the bottom, whereas she needed all her speed to outrun the following seas, for if they were to overtake her she would be pooped, smothered in a mass of breaking water.’

Here the Waakzaamheid, with her higher masts had an advantage and was now within a thousand yards and soon she began firing at the Leopard. Aubrey had never expected that the Dutchman would fire in this weather. Certainly the aim of warfare was the destruction of the enemy but in single-ship actions the idea of capture usually predominated. Aubrey had expected the seventy-four-pounder to hunt him down and take the Leopard when the weather moderated. In this sea there was no possibility of capture and any engagement and loss of a sail must mean the loss of all souls on board ship, ‘the Dutch Captain’s intent could only be to kill.’

In the switch back of enormous seas, in troughs before the green hill of water parts them, dead astern, the Waakzaamheid fires and Leonard returns fire. Aubrey operating the cabin nine-pounder is injured by a flying spar, then hears cheering. Through the shattered leadlights, as the Leopard reaches the crest of a wave, ‘he sees the vast breaking wave with the Waakzaamheid broadside on its curl, on her beam-ends, broached too. An enormous, momentary turmoil of black hull and white water, flying spars, rigging that streamed wild for a second, and then nothing at all but the great hill of green-grey with foam racing upon it.’

‘My God, oh my God,’ Aubrey said,. ‘Six hundred men.’

Hair raising engagements with the enemy like the above make the Master and Commander novels the suspenseful reading that they are, but it is O’Brian’s skill in depicting character and human relationships that create the complex foundation on which the action is based. There’s the love interest, Aubrey in falls in love with the beautiful and gentle Sophie Williams, Maturin with her equally beautiful, witty but reckless cousin, Diane Villiers, but the books’ main focus is on the character realization and developing friendship of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

The Commander and the Surgeon.

The two men are very different. Jack, a large man physically, is optimistic, open hearted, too trusting onshore but a superb commander afloat, with an instinct for getting the best out of his crew and ships. Stephen, part Irish, part Catalan, is subtle and brilliant, a gifted physician who becomes the finest surgeon afloat. He’s a natural scientist who identifies new species, writing up his notes in a code he’s invented, but has to be helped aboard ship to avoid falling into the sea.

But there are characteristics that Aubrey and Maturin share. As well as their deep love of music, there’s the humour and enjoyment of word play, though Jack’s inordinate enjoyment of his own simple jokes, as someone remarked, is incommensurate to their wit. Stephen’s humour is more sardonic. There’s an amusing scene in ‘H.M.S.Surprise’ for example, where he walks into the captain’s cabin and finds his precious sloth sitting on Jacks lap, wearing a bemused expression and smelling of strong drink. Stephen exclaims; ‘Jack, you have debauched my sloth.’

Other characteristics; Aubrey and Maturin both have courage and something of that enthusiast, non-petty quality characteristic of Ishmael. Maturin’s joy in the natural world, concern for his patients, Aubrey’s enthusiasm for everything naval and care of his officers and crew. Several times Aubrey dives into the sea to rescue a ship member and rescues Maturin in a daring raid ashore when Maturin is captured by the enemy. Later Maturin also rescues Aubrey. Lord Keith of the Admiralty recruits Maturin as a spy for his Catalan contacts and ability to speak the language. Refusing payment, Maturin becomes a spy because he hates Napoleon and tyranny. In Master and Commander he says to Jack Aubrey:

‘I have had such a sickening of men in masses, and of causes, that I would not cross the road to reform parliament or prevent the union or to bring about the millennium. I speak only for myself, mind – it is my own truth alone –but man as part of a movement is indifferent to me. He is inhuman. And I have nothing to do with nations or nationalism. The only feeling I have – for what they are – are for men as individuals; my loyalties, such as they may be, are to private persons alone.’

The Friendship.

Their friendship: In ‘Post Captain,’ in an impecunious period between voyages, Aubrey and Maturin are holed up in a small cottage and practicing rigid economies:

‘They were looking after themselves and there was no greater proof of their friendship than the way their harmony withstood their very great differences in domestic behavior. In Jack’s opinion Stephen was little better than a slut: his papers, odd bits of dry, garlic’d bread, his razors and small-clothes lay on and about his private table in a miserable squalor; and from the appearance of the grizzled wig that was now acting as a tea-cosy for his milk-saucepan, it was clear that he had breakfasted on marmalade.

Jack took off his coat, covered his waistcoat and breeches with an apron and carried the dishes into the scullery. ‘My plate and saucer will serve again,’ said Stephen. ‘I have blown upon them. I do wish, Jack, that you would leave that milk-saucepan alone. It is perfectly clean. What more sanitary, what more wholesome, than scalded milk.’

The subtlety of their relationship is revealed in scenes like this from ‘The Letter of Marque’ where they sit talking and Stephen picks out some notes on his cello. An astonished Aubrey asks him if it is the ‘Marseillaise.’ ‘It is not,’ he said. ‘It is, or rather it is meant to be, the Mozart piece that was no doubt lurking somewhere in the Frenchman’s mind when he wrote it. Yet something eludes me…’

‘Stephen, ‘cried Jack. ‘Not another note, I beg. I have it exactly, if only it don’t fly away. He whipped the cloth off his violin-case, turned roughly, and swept straight into the true line. After a while Stephen joined him, and when they were thoroughly satisfied they stopped, tuned very exactly, passed the rosin to each other and so returned to the direct statement, to variations upon it, inversions, embroideries, first one setting out on a flight of improvisation while the other filled in and then the other doing the same, playing on and on.’

And I could read on and on … Happy I am that I am only halfway through the journey and several more of Patrick O’Brian’s master series still await me. I could almost wish that this particular voyage might never end.


  1. Well, if I ever get round to reading one of those long things called novels I might have to try this O’Brian. And I do like this idea of skipping the washing-up. Seems I didn’t invent that.

  2. This post is literary free heroin:
    Your excellent analysis and description of the series I have heard so much about has me addicted.
    Now I shall have to read the series.
    Certainly I am not the first to note the influence of this series on Star Trek?
    Many thanks to you, Beththeserf.

  3. Hunterson,

    You are just the one to read Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful series, a feast awaits you, from Book 1 to the 22nd, human nature and action in all its variety. … Get back to me when you have read the first one. )

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