Desolation Island (novel)
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette, CD)|
|Pages||pages (first edition, hardback) & pages (paperback edition)|
|Preceded by||The Mauritius Command|
|Followed by||The Fortune of War|
Jack Aubrey has been ashore for a while and is getting into difficulties both in cards and at business, mostly due to his naivete and belief in the honesty of others. Stephen Maturin is also in personal trouble over his relationship with Diana Villiers and his increasing use of laudanum to relax. Aubrey is offered either the old HMS Leopard for a mission to Australia to support Captain Bligh against the settlers opposed to his rule, or a newly building 74-gun third rate, HMS Ajax, for sailing in the Mediterranean. Sophie Aubrey, afraid that staying at home will only make the situation worse, asks Maturin for help. She eventually convinces Aubrey to take command of the Leopard, even though he will have to take some transported convicts, so that he can help Maturin get over his disappointment regarding Diana. The actual orders for Jack are to restore Captain Bligh as Governor of the New South Wales colony after an officers' revolt had toppled him. One of the convicts, Louisa Wogan, proves to be an American spy and also a friend of Diana Villiers.
The journey is difficult; the prisoners kill their superintendent and surgeon during a storm. They also bring gaol fever on board ship. As the Leopard sails south they become stuck in the doldrums and the ship experiences a full blown epidemic. Most of the prisoners die as do many of the hands. Mr Martin, Stephen's assistant, dies of the fever and a young man, Michael Herapath, who has stowed away in pursuit of Louisa Wogan, is rated a midshipman and becomes Maturin's new assistant.
The Captain is forced to drop the sick crew members at Recife, Brazil to receive treatment. This leaves Aubrey with James Grant as his new first lieutenant - considered a good seaman but with little experience of warfare and occasionally rebuked by Aubrey for countermanding his orders. While they are in port, a British ship comes into Recife and tells Aubrey of the Waakzaamheid, a 74-gun Dutch ship-of-the-line cruising the South Atlantic.
As the Leopard is sailing to the Cape of Good Hope, the Waakzaamheid is seen steering a course to cut them off from the Cape. Despite many manoeuvres, the Dutch captain seems almost supernatural in his ability to anticipate Aubrey's tactics. The Waakzaamheid chases the Leopard south into the Roaring Forties. After many days of running downwind, as the waves and wind increase, the Waakzaamheid steadily gains on the Leopard and starts firing with her bow chasers. Aubrey returns fire with his two, aft-facing, brass nine pounders and a lucky shot shoots away the Waakzaamheid's foremast; she is thrown on her beam ends in the trough of a deep wave and sinks with all hands.
Being east of the Cape, the Leopard sets sail for Australia. The ship stops near an iceberg to take on ice to replace her jettisoned water but is struck, damaging the rudder and causing a severe leak. After trying for several days to keep it afloat by pumping, Grant finally asks permission to leave the ship in the cutter once the water reaches the orlop deck. He and the hands are given permission to leave the ship heading for Cape Town (with a bundle of dispatches from Stephen), but many of Aubrey's old shipmates and the other officers remain. The Leopard continues drifting east, still rudderless, pumping all the time. Finally Aubrey, making adroit use of anchors and sails, is able to direct the ship to a safe harbour in a bay of Desolation Island.
While there, the crew begins the ship repairs but because they have no forge, cannot mount the rudder to the ship. Maturin on the other hand is in paradise as he and Herapath collect vast quantities of the local animal life for the doctor's collection. The men dine on penguin, seal and albatross eggs, much to Maturin's disgust. He claims a small island in the bay as his own and often separates himself from the crew. An American whaler sets into the bay for supplies. They are suspicious of the British, especially since the Leopard, under a different commander, had attacked the unprepared USS Chesapeake to recover fugitive British hands (see Chesapeake-Leopard Affair). The Americans, however, are suffering from scurvy - and their captain from a septic tooth - so they agree to have Maturin treat them in exchange for the use of their much-needed forge.
Maturin manipulates Herapath into deserting with Louisa Wogan (pregnant with Herapath's baby) to the American ship, having prepared some false intelligence which they carry with them. As the book ends, he and Barrett Bonden watch them from their island as they are taken on board the American whaler. Using the forge the Leopards are able to mount the new rudder to the ship and they are able to sail but they are not able to catch the whaler and retrieve Wogan.
- Jack Aubrey - Captain of HMS Leopard.
- Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, friend to Jack and an intelligence officer.
- Sophie Williams - Jack's wife
- Tom Pullings - First Lieutenant on HMS Leopard
- Louisa Wogan - Prisoner on board HMS Leopard
- James Grant - Second (Later First) Lieutenant on HMS Leopard
- George Byron, one of the Midshipmen of HMS Leopard
- Michael Herapath - a stowaway and lover of Louisa Wogan. He becomes Maturin's surgical assistant.
- Sir Joseph Blaine - a senior figure in the Admiralty's espionage department, Maturin's colleague and a fellow naturalist.
- Andrew Wray - connected with the Patronage Office and the Treasury.
Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science
The real-life Leopard's earlier involvement in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair gets a mention and the book deals with the tension between the English and 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 contains an unflattering portrait of Lieutenant James Grant.
Captain William Bligh's Governorship of New South Wales is mentioned and his deposition. 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.
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 that explicitly states that Kerguelen Island is not Desolation Island.
Literary significance and criticism
Desolation Island marks a turning point in the Aubrey/Maturin novels. The previous four novels had featured self-contained plots (O'Brian wrote Master and Commander as a stand-alone novel and the following three titles merely acted as sequels whose story arcs integrated only loosely with any of the other novels in the saga). In Desolation Island, O'Brian now begins an arc that will continue through the entirety of Fortune of War before concluding in The Surgeon's Mate. Some of the events set in motion in this arc will return to haunt Jack and Stephen as late as The Yellow Admiral, the eighteenth novel in the series.
- Stein & Day; Hardcover edition (1979) (ISBN 081282590X)
- Fontana; Paperback edition (1979) (ISBN 0006166032)
- Day Books; 1st Mass-market Paperback edition (1981) (ISBN 0812870662)
- W. W. Norton & Company; Paperback Reprint edition (1991) (ISBN 039330812X)
- W. W. Norton & Company; Hardcover Reprint edition (1994) (ISBN 0393037053)
- W. W. Norton & Company; E-Book edition (2011) (ISBN 9780393063875)
- Thorndike Press; Hardcover Large-print edition (2001) (ISBN 0786219262)
- Blackstone Audiobooks; Unabridged Audio CD edition (2004) (ISBN 0786183993)
- Recorded Books, LLC; Unabridged Audio edition narrated by Patrick Tull (ISBN 1402591756)