Desolation Island (novel)

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Desolation Island
DesolationIsland.jpg
First edition
Author Patrick O'Brian
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Aubrey-Maturin series
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Collins (UK)
Publication date
1978
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette, CD)
Pages pages (first edition, hardback) & pages (paperback edition)
ISBN 978-0-393-30812-9
OCLC 44024595
Preceded by The Mauritius Command
Followed by The Fortune of War

Desolation Island is the fifth historical novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. It was first published in 1978.

Jack Aubrey is in funds from his successful mission to take the islands of Mauritius and Reunion. His house has additions, but he is ready for another voyage. The story includes a voyage to Australia, and occurs prior to the War of 1812,.

Plot summary[edit]

Jack Aubrey is financially well-off. His house is expanded, he paid off his mother-in-law's debts, and his wife is no longer pinching pennies. His household is staffed with seamen; his daughters and his son are thriving. He has been ashore for a while, serving in the Fencibles office and is getting into difficulties both in cards and at business, due to his belief, on land, in the honesty of others. Diana Villiers is back from America, unmarried. Stephen Maturin has seen her, and all his hopes to be with her come alive again. Aubrey chose the old HMS Leopard for a mission to New South Wales to resolve the situation of Captain Bligh. Then Diana and her American friend Louisa Wogan are taken for questioning as spies. Wogan will be sent to New South Wales on the Leopard. Aubrey is furious at carrying prisoners. Sophia Aubrey knows that her husband needs to be at sea, and the Leopard leaves now. Maturin is sent on the voyage by Sir Joseph Blaine to watch Wogan. Diana, innocent of the awkward charges, flees with Mr Johnson, but is deeply in Maturin’s mind, as he pays her bills.

The prisoners kill their superintendent and surgeon during a storm, so their conditions are raised to meet naval standards. They bring gaol fever on board ship, which spreads to the seamen, killing most of the male prisoners and 116 of the ship's crew. Mr Martin, Maturin’s assistant, dies; he is replaced by Michael Herapath, who has stowed away in pursuit of Louisa Wogan. Aubrey rates him a midshipman, despite his American citizenship. Aubrey is forced to leave many recovering crew members at Recife, including Tom Pullings. He is replaced with James Grant as first lieutenant, a challenge for Aubrey. While they are in port, HMS Nymph arrives damaged from its encounter with the Waakzaamheid, a 74-gun Dutch ship-of-the-line crossing the equator.

The Leopard encounters the Waakzaamheid before reaching the Cape of Good Hope. The Waakzaamheid chases the Leopard south into the Roaring Forties for five days. The waves and wind increase, and the ships engage. Abruptly, after a shot from the Leopard destroyed her foremast, the Waakzaamheid is thrown on her beam ends in the trough of a deep wave and sinks with all hands.

Now east of the Cape, the Leopard aims for New South Wales, but soon strikes an iceberg, damaging the rudder and causing a severe leak. All hands pump, and the seamen work to fother a sail[1] to stop the leak. Aubrey was wounded in the battle, but maintains his authority. Grant, who is more comfortable as captain, disagrees that the Leopard will float, and is given permission to take two smaller boats with the men who wish to leave for the Cape, carrying dispatches from Maturin. The Leopard drifts east with the wind, still rudderless, pumping all the time. Aubrey, making adroit use of anchors and sails, directs the ship to safe harbour in a bay of Desolation Island. Despite its name, it is full of fresh food in the rainy Antarctic summer: seals, birds, fish, and cabbages, a true haven.

The crew repair leaks, but cannot leave until the rudder is replaced. Their forge went overboard earlier, so it is a challenge. Maturin is in paradise as he and Herapath collect samples of the local plant and animal life and identify that edible cabbage, which fights scurvy. Maturin uses a small island in the bay for observations in the daylight. The American brig Lafayette, a whaler, arrives at the bay for supplies of the cabbage. They lost their surgeon, but they have a forge. A delicate situation arises immediately, reflecting American – British tensions from the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807, continued British pressing of Americans into the Royal Navy, and awareness that the two nations might be at war already. Maturin uses Herapath as first envoy to Captain Putnam. Maturin follows, providing medical care to all aboard. The Captain offers to pay, but Maturin does not accept payment. The next morning the forge is on the beach for the use of Aubrey. Maturin sees a perfect way to speed his plan to spoil Mrs Wogan's contact as an intelligence source by letting her and Herapath slip away on the whaler with documents he shared with Herapath. She is now pregnant with Herapath’s child. Aubrey must resist any efforts at pressing the British sailors they see on the whaler and he does resist. The rudder is set in place and the forge returned. The Lafayette sails on the tide, as Maturin and Barret Bonden watch the ship pick up Herapath and Mrs Wogan, and then it slips out of the bay.

Characters[edit]

See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey - Captain of HMS Leopard and recently painted wearing the Order of the Bath but he does not appear to have been awarded the knighthood as he does not use the title in this or subsequent books.
  • Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, physician, friend to Jack and an intelligence officer.
  • Sophia Williams - Jack's wife, mother of their three children, Charlotte, Fanny and young George.
  • Mrs. Williams - Jack Aubrey's mother in law, now financially secure, with tenants in Mapes Court, choosing to live with her daughter and three grandchildren.
  • Diana Villiers - first cousin to Sophia and the love of Stephen Maturin; recently returned from America.
  • Sir Joseph Blaine - a senior figure in the Admiralty's espionage department, Maturin's colleague and a fellow naturalist.
  • Mr. Kimber - the schemer (projector) with a process to recover the lead and silver from “valuable dross” on Aubrey’s land

At Craddock's for cards

  • Andrew Wray - in the Patronage Office and the Treasury, involved with intelligence.
  • Judge Wray - older cousin of Andrew Wray
  • Mr Carroll – another player, friend of the Wrays
  • Mr Jenyns – another player, friend of the Wrays
  • Heneage Dundas – half-pay captain, long time friend of Aubrey, stands up with him at challenge

At Ashgrove Cottage dinner

  • Lieutenant Tom Pullings – Long time friend of Aubrey and Maturin, to be First Lieutenant on Leopard
  • Captain Peter Heywood – as young man was in the crew of the Bounty under Lt. Bligh, then brought back to England by the cruel Captain Edwards on Pandora, spared from hanging due to his youth. Sailed the Leopard a few years back.

On the Leopard

  • Mr. Martin - assistant to Maturin, chosen by him, specialist in anatomy; mainly recovers from gaol fever after treating so many on ship and documenting his own case, then dies from pneumonia.
  • Mrs Louisa Wogan - American prisoner on board HMS Leopard senteced to transportation to New South Wales for spying.
  • Michael Herapath - an American stowaway and lover of Louisa Wogan. Aubrey saved his life when Herapath fell into the sea while trying to reach the royal masts, for which he is most grateful. He becomes Maturin's surgical assistant after the epidemic.
  • Mrs Boswell - prisoner on board HMS Leopard, pregnant, her child Leopardina delivered by surgery during the sea battle; also told fortunes to the crew to bad effect, requiring Maturin's intervention.
  • Barret Bonden - coxswain for Captain Aubrey, who also watches out for Maturin.
  • James Grant - Second Lieutenant on HMS Leopard, whose book about a voyage in 1800 to New South Wales is read on board by the Captain and Dr. Maturin; replaces Pullings when he is left in Recife to recover.
  • Babbington - third lieutenant aboard the Leopard, with his Newfoundland dog, long time on crews with Aubrey. Acting second lieutenant after Recife.
  • George Byron, one of the Midshipmen of HMS Leopard, promoted to acting fourth lieutenant after the epidemic.
  • Moore - Marine Captain on Leopard, good at gunnery, aimed the shot that hit the foremast of the Dutch 74.
  • John C. Howard - Marine Lieutenant of the Leopard who plays the flute so well, killed by Larkin in 41 degrees south latitude.
  • Larkin - the master of the Leopard, drunk, considers himself a Jonah, leaves with Grant.
  • Rev Mr Fisher - chaplain on the Leopard, proves of no help in the epidemic, and proves self-centered as the challenges of the voyage continue.
  • Faster Doudle - one of the prime seamen who traded their lime juice-laced rum for tobacco after the steering oar broke approaching the Crozet Islands, bringing on scurvy, until treated by Maturin.
  • David Allan - acting bosun after Grant parted from Leopard; he is essential in the task of anchoring in the bay at Desolation Island.


on the American whaler, the brig Lafayette of Nantucket, Massachusetts

  • Captain Winthrop Putnam - American captain of whaler, ship with a forge aboard.
  • Mr. Reuben Hyde - first mate who left note at cove about the cabbages.

Ships[edit]

Reviews[edit]

Kirkus Reviews says this story should draw a wider audience than most nautical fare, given O'Brian's literate, clear-eyed realism:

A sequel to The Mauritius Command (1970), which was the opening salvo in the Capt. Jack Aubrey series about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Once again Jack's dear friend Dr. Stephen Maturin is also aboard, so they have the opportunity to indulge themselves in their cello and violin duets. And the romantic intrigue this time is supplied by French agent Mrs. Wogan, who's been captured by the British and is being shipped as a prisoner to Botany Bay aboard Aubrey's new command, the Leopard. Aubrey has been having a hard time ashore, losing a fortune gambling and buying horses while his wife frets silently with the children, and it's much against his will that he accepts the commission to haul convicts to Australia. On the other hand, Dr. Maturin is fighting an addiction to tincture of laudanum, and needs the time at sea. (He is soon masterfully fighting shipboard plague, tooth decay, and scurvy.) A battle with a Dutch ship in Antarctic waters ruins the Leopard's rudder, and the ship lays over at Desolation Island until a passing American vessel can be induced to give them a forge. The usual action ensues--but O'Brian's literate, clear-eyed realism should draw a slightly broader audience than most nautical fare.[2]


The following reviews are collected on the publisher's page for Desolation Island:[3]

"The relationship [between Aubrey and Maturin]...is about the best thing afloat....For Conradian power of description and sheer excitement there is nothing in naval fiction to beat the stern chase as the outgunned Leopard staggers through mountain waves in icy latitudes to escape the Dutch seventy-four."—Stephen Vaughan, Observer

“I fell in love with his writing straightaway, at first with Master and Commander. It wasn’t primarily the Nelson and Napoleonic period, more the human relationships. …And of course having characters isolated in the middle of the goddamn sea gives more scope. …It’s about friendship, camaraderie. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin always remind me a bit of Mick and me.” — Keith Richards

“I have been enthralled since reading Master and Commander. Now, having just finished Desolation Island, I find myself curiously anxious to slow down. True, nine volumes await me, but what I have read is so rich and splendid that I need to ponder and digest.” — Robert Massie

Allusions/references to history and geography[edit]

The Leopard stopped for water and fresh supplies in Saint Jago, one of the Cape Verde islands, west of Senegal and in Aubrey's time a colony of Portugal. In the nineteenth century, Saint Jago was the name rather than the modern Santiago.[4]

The real-life Leopard's earlier involvement in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair is described in the novel. The appearance of the American whaler reveals the tension between the English and the Americans on the eve of the War of 1812. O'Brian based the account of the near sinking of the Leopard (after striking an iceberg) on an actual event involving HMS Guardian and her commander Edward Riou in 1789.

The novel uses Lieutenant James Grant as the model for fictional second lieutenant Grant, who parts from the Leopard when the situation is most grim. The real Grant was promoted to Commander in 1805, and this story takes place about 1811. The career of the real Grant with early success as captain of sloops was not followed up by anything more than the promotion to Commander, though he was years older than Jack Aubrey, so he provides a good base for the fictional lieutenant who would much rather be the captain.

Captain William Bligh's Governorship of New South Wales is mentioned as the motive for Aubrey's mission, though Aubrey does not reach New South Wales in this novel, nor meet Captain Bligh in any part of the story. Aubrey does tell Maturin how William Bligh is viewed by the Royal Navy, the point of which is that his story-telling foreshadows how Aubrey handles his crew after the Dutch ship sinks and their ship hits the iceberg, and how Aubrey handles Lt Grant, turning a potential mutiny into an officially allowed parting of the ways. In addition, Aubrey and Maturin speak with Captain Peter Heywood who was involved with the mutiny, with Bligh, and with Captain Edwards, sent to fetch the mutineers back.

The reason why Bligh is in trouble in the moment of the novel is also described. In short, Bligh faced another mutiny, but this time by staff under him as Governor of the colony. Captain Heywood offers the explanation that Bligh seemed not to understand the reactions of others to many things he said, and then to react too harshly, which those around him perceived as harsh criticism and a miserable life. The Rum Rebellion, also known as the Rum Puncheon Rebellion, of 1808 was the only successful armed takeover of government in Australia's recorded history. As Governor of New South Wales, William Bligh was deposed by the New South Wales Corps under the command of Major George Johnston, working closely with John Macarthur, on 26 January 1808. Afterwards, acting governors were sworn in until the arrival from Britain of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie at the beginning of 1810.

Allusion to other literature[edit]

Desolation Island is geographically close to and appears to be based on the Kerguelen Islands. However, in a later book, The Thirteen Gun Salute, O'Brian writes some dialogue between Richardson and Aubrey that explicitly states that Kerguelen Island is not Desolation Island: Kerguelen is what some people call Desolation Island, is it not, sir? asked Richardson. So they do. But it is not our Desolation Island, which is smaller, farther south and east. There remain those who disagree with the dialogue in The Thirteen Gun Salute by Jack Aubrey: Captain Tremerac is Kerguelen - Captain Yves de Kerguelen de Trémarec. And contrary to what Jack/POB say, Cook did find it on his final voyage, and mapped part of its coast with the assistance of his sailing master, William Bligh. The harbor where the Leopard sought shelter is almost certainly Captain Cook's Christmas Harbor, in the far NW corner of Kerguelen.[5]

Relation to other novels in the series[edit]

Desolation Island differs from the prior novels in the series in that the main characters are not back in England or safely on the way at the end of the story. This novel leaves them on Desolation Island at the end of the Antarctic summer having just floated the ship and installed the rudder, far from home and from the original intended destination for the mission, with a part of the crew trying to navigate to the Cape in small boats. The reader does not know if the original mission will be completed or how they will get home to England until the next novel, The Fortune of War or a yet later novel. Like the previous novels, characters are introduced who will appear in later novels. Many of the characters appear in the next novel, The Fortune of War, and some will appear in several novels before their story is told (e.g. Andrew Wray).

Editions[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Fother defined". Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. 1989. Retrieved 5 July 2014. 
  2. ^ "Desolation Island" (1 March 1979 ed.). Kirkus Reviews. 4 April 2012. Retrieved 3 July 2014. 
  3. ^ "Desolation Island". W W Norton. Retrieved 3 July 2014. 
  4. ^ Roberts, Edmund (1837). Embassy to the Eastern Courts of Cochin-China, Siam, and Muscat. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 17. 
  5. ^ "Desolation Island - The Patrick O'Brian Mapping Project". select Desolation on right to see legend text. 2008. Retrieved 8 July 2014.