Book Review: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, published by Norton, 1970.

I’m no different than you. My reading list includes books that share my interests, be it travel, politics, history, warfare, medicine, sailing, weather, or astronomy. The book doesn’t have to be entirely about these subjects but must at least touch on some of them as the plot unfolds. And, of course, if the book includes birds and birding, all the better. Author Patrick O’Brian has managed to include everyone of these topics in his saga of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, starting with the first volume, Master and Commander, and continuing for twenty more. I’ve read and savored them all, multiple times.

Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes

As you know, once you become a birder you look for the feathered friends constantly, birding here, there, and everywhere. I’ve known some who identify birds by song during telecasts of golf tournaments. I’ve had many a meal disrupted by a bird flying by the dining room window. We birders don’t always make the best company at mealtime. I perked up when I first ran across Stephen Maturin who demonstrated these same bouts of birding distraction, even while shipwrecked or dodging icebergs in the South Atlantic or French cannonballs in the Bay of Biscay.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

The Master and Commander series is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the naval warfare of the tall sailing ships of the era. The plots take you to the seas around every continent, including Antarctica where the ship and sailors are practically encased in ice. These are not just about naval engagements, but include indepth descriptions of the ships of the period, celestial navigation, weather, geography and the politics of the cultures encountered.

Magellanic Penguins, Spheniscus magellenicus (photo by A. Sternick)

The protagonists are Jack Aubrey, a swashbuckling sailor who over the series rises from midshipman to captain, and eventually admiral, but not without countless scrapes with both the enemy and his commanders, a gambling habit, debt and debtor’s prison, and a fragile family life back on the home turf. His hero is of course, Lord Nelson whom he emulates in many ways.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

The other is his best friend and companion, the complex Stephen Maturin. He is the illegitimate offspring of an Irish officer and Catalan lady, talented physician and the ship’s surgeon, a naturalist and renown collector of specimens of both flora and fauna. His leading avocation, however is birding which he practices all around the globe. Stephen has also been recruited by British intelligence and his espionage adds to the complex story line.

Chimango Caracara Milvago chimango

Maturin’s medical exploits on board, especially after an bloody engagement are remarkable, and include a craniotomy to relieve a subdural hematoma as the aghast crew looked on. Large pox, from indiscretions while in port, and scurvy are the crew’s two most frequent maladies. His ship mates go out of their way to protect their beloved surgeon as he could barely swim, was clumsy, and frequently fell overboard. Stephen battled a long addiction to laudanum and infatuation with the beautiful Diana Villiers, Jack Aubrey’s cousin.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

The unlikely friends first met sitting next to each other at a chamber music performance of Locatelli’s C-major quartet in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon. Large and loud Aubrey, crammed into the formal wear of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, unconsciously beat the time of the musicians, greatly annoying the civilian surgeon Maturin, who finally asked the officer if he must beat the rhythm, at least do it correctly. It almost led to blows, but instead it was just an inauspicious start to a deep friendship that lasted twenty volumes and throughout the entire Napoleonic Wars. Some say it is the greatest friendship in modern literature. Their classical duets, Jack on violin and Stephen on cello, were often heard from the captain’s cabin, at any time and in any ocean.

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis
Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis

For the sailors and naval warfare aficionados in the crowd, O’Brian has at least one battle and an encounter with severe weather in every volume. The primary tactics of naval warfare then were to gain the windward side of your foe and then decide whether to bombard from a distance, or close, board, and fight hand-to-hand on the deck. Aubrey suffers many wounds over the years, and is always patched up by Maturin. The ships encounter typhoons, dead calm in the equatorial heat, and severe cold near the poles, all described in detail by O’Brian.

King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus (photo by A. Sternick)

Stephen Maturin is a 19th century birder par excellence. He trained the crew to rouse him whenever another pelagic bird appeared and was especially enamored by the various species of Albatross. He spent a happy few months shipwrecked and marooned with Aubrey and crew on Desolation Island in the Indian Ocean, happily observing and collecting specimens while the rest planned their escape. His collections usually made it home to England; his intelligence commander was especially fond of beetles. On another voyage Stephen lived several months among the Boobies; his scientific paper describing these birds made him famous in ornithological circles. Once, in Boston, he was given beautiful large paintings of American birds by a then unknown Creole artist by the name of Audubon.

Blue-footed Booby, Sula nebouxii (photo by A. Sternick)

The volume I’m currently reading is The Fortune of War, number six in the series. Aubrey, Maturin, and a few surviving sailors have just been rescued after several days adrift in a lifeboat off the coast of South America. Their ship had just burned down to the waterline and sunk, taking with it all of Stephen’s latest specimens. The rescuing ship was the HMS Java, which soon encountered the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” and lost to that new American frigate in a frightful battle. Jack and Stephen were taken prisoner and shipped to Boston where further drama awaits.

Gentoo Penguin, Pygoscelis papua (photo by A. Sternick)

Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000) is now deceased and regrettably the adventures have ended. I have also read his incomplete twenty-first volume, left on the author’s writing desk when he died. One must ask, how can a person know so much about so many different topics, in such fine detail, and present them to the reader with such style? Just his descriptions of the ships’ rigging bogles the mind. It’s said he rarely sailed and I’m not sure if he even birded. His writing and research are incredible and highly recommended.

Pomarine Jaeger, Stercorarius pomarinus

In the next decade when I reread the series one last time I intend to keep a list, a Stephen Maturin life list of his birds described in these novels. My photos in this post, and those of my colleague Andy Sternick, are some of Maturin’s birds, but most I have yet to see. They are just more items on the list in my overflowing bucket.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

  1. Now this is a book review with a difference – and such a fascinating one too. I have only read the first book in this series and have not come across the rest – yet you inspire to look out for the others! As usual, your writing style and beautiful photographs have made this post worth waiting for.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for that. The last several months I’ve been writing a non-birding book about family history and have unfortunately let my blogging slip. But that same publisher is trying to entice me to write a birding book, similar to the blog posts. I’m not convinced that the world needs another birding book, but it might be fun–I do enjoy writing. In any case, you won’t be disappointed if you probe deeper into the world of Jack and Stephen.

      Liked by 2 people

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