Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander

Appended to the front of my edition of Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander, the first in his celebrated Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels taking place during the Napoleonic Wars, is a diagram of a “square-rigged ship,” characteristic of the era, with all 21 of its sails (from the “flying jib” to the “spanker”) labeled below it. After giving it a cursory glance, I proceeded to the first chapter, not knowing how often I would be referring back to this diagram merely to orient myself on the ship. These aren’t just historical novels, you see, but sailing novels, following the exploits of the newly promoted Captain Jack Aubrey – loosely based on the real-life Thomas Cochrane – and Stephen Maturin, a brilliant naturalist who has fallen into financial difficulties. O’Brian plays off the contrast between the personalities of his two protagonists – the headstrong Jack, out for plunder and promotion, and the cerebral Stephen, fluent in Latin and Spanish, a master cellist and enthusiastic student of nature – as they’re thrust into one of Europe’s deadliest power struggles.

Writers of historical fiction have a duty to the past, to faithfully recreate the world of yesterday, and so much of the allure of this book lies in how successfully O’Brian manages to conjure, in his reader’s mind, the very specific conditions of early 19th century naval life. Through the eyes of Stephen Maturin, who has scarcely ever set food aboard a sailing vessel, and certainly never as part of the crew, we get an introduction to life on ship: the basics of steering and navigating; the hierarchy of command; the punishment for insubordination, drunkenness (a common offence) or dereliction of duty; and the living conditions of the sailors, from the cramped sleeping quarters – which can only accommodate half the crew at any one time, for the other half are supposed to be on duty – to the daily food rations, to the paltry pay they receive. One of the questions raised by O’Brian – through Maturin – at repeated intervals, and certainly one worth the reader’s thoughtful attention, is why a crew of sailors will risk life and limb on the high seas for paltry pay and desperate living conditions. Part of the answer, to my surprise, comes from the generous alcohol ration, no doubt designed to reconcile the crew to the miseries of a prolonged life at sea. Consider this exchange, between Maturin – who has just lost a patient to an alcohol-induced coma – and a crewman:

‘Tell me, Mr. Day,’ he said, when the sailmakers had gone, ‘just how much did he drink? I have asked his friends, but they give evasive answers – indeed, they lie.’
‘Of course they do, sir: for it is against the law. How much did he drink? Why, now, Tom was a popular young chap, so I dare say he had the whole allowance, bating maybe a sip or two just to moisten their victuals. That would make it close on a quart.’
‘A quart. Well, it is a great deal: but I am surprised it should kill a man. At an admixture of three to one, that amounts to six ounces or so – inebriating, but scarcely lethal.’
‘Lord, Doctor,’ said the gunner, looking at him with affectionate pity, ‘that ain’t the mixture. That’s rum.’
‘A quart of rum? Of neat rum?’ cried Stephen.
‘That’s right, sir. Each man has his half-pint a day, at twice, so that makes a quart for each mess for dinner and for supper: and that is what the water is added to. Oh dear me,’ he said, laughing gently and patting the poor corpse on the deck between them, ‘if they was only to get half a pint of three-water grog we should soon have a bloody mutiny on our hands. And quite right, too.’

Consider everything being conveyed in this short exchange: we learn of the daily quota of rum, in precise terms, and that it is used as both punishment and reward. But we also learn that it is one of the factors that helps prevent a mutiny – “and quite right, too.” Another deterrent is the prospect of plunder, which can greatly increase the average sailor’s income: a ship, lawfully taken, belongs to the crew, with its cargo divided based on rank: the captain gets the largest share, his officers the next, and the crew split the rest. “Even Aristotle would have been moved by prize-money,” Aubrey tells Stephen. The income gained from plunder, we are told, would suffice to establish anyone in a new life, were it saved, but it is far more likely to be spent in the various ports, on more alcohol and prostitutes – yo ho, yo ho, a sailor’s life for me.

O’Brian also gives us an insightful look into the culture of the early 19th century, and the lingering divide between Catholics and Protestants. James Dillon, Jack Aubrey’s second-in-command, is an Irish aristocrat and a closeted Catholic, who must endure with a smile the casual and frequent assaults on “damned Papists,” and who will suffer from his divided loyalties – an Irish Catholic aboard a Protestant, English ship. Of course, if the historical setting fails to interest readers, or the interplay between the characters, O’Brian can fall back upon the large-scale naval battles, when two or more ships vie for control of the wind and the better angle of attack to unleash a broadside of wood-splintering cannon shot at one another, or when the distance is finally closed, and cutlasses and muskets are unleashed in close quarters combat.