The Fortune of War

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For the ancient pub in London, see The Fortune of War Public House.
The Fortune of War
The Fortune of War cover.jpg
First edition
Author Patrick O'Brian
Cover artist Geoff Hunt
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Aubrey-Maturin series
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Collins (UK)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 280 pp
ISBN 0-00-222498-4
OCLC 5658117
LC Class PZ3.O1285 Fo PR6029.B55
Preceded by Desolation Island
Followed by The Surgeon's Mate

The Fortune of War is the sixth historical novel n the Aubrey-Maturin series by British author Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1979. It is set during the War of 1812.

HMS Leopard made its way to Botany Bay, left its prisoners, and sailed to Pulo Batang where the ship was declared unfit. Captain Aubrey and some of his followers are put aboard La Fléche packet to sail home for a new commission. Fire ends the months of sweet sailing and brings them into the new war.

The Fortune of War contains lightly fictionalized accounts of two sea battles in the War of 1812.

Plot summary[edit]

After almost losing the Leopard to the ocean, Aubrey and his much reduced crew limp into harbour in the Dutch East Indies. He reports to the Admiral on station, Admiral Drury, who he has known for twenty years. Aubrey relinquishes the much diminished Leopard, now only suitable as a transport ship, and prepares to return to Portsmouth. He argues vigorously with the Admiral for the privilege of taking the prime officers and men with him - a naval custom that the Admiral himself has followed - and eventually prevails. Meanwhile Maturin meets up with fellow agent of the crown, Mr. Wallis, who apprises Stephen of the news from Britain and the successful progress of the intrigues involving Louisa Wogan. Before leaving, Leopard's crew take on the crew of HMS Cumberland at a game of cricket in which Dr. Maturin unwittingly (and hilariously) reverts to the Irish sport of hurling.

They ship in HMS La Flèche for the voyage back, commanded by Captain Yorke. Travelling with an extensive library in his cabin, Yorke is clearly a well-read man and Maturin warms to him immediately. News reaches La Flèche of war between Britain and America. Aubrey spends his time during the voyage teaching the young midshipmen while Maturin is engrossed in dissections of collection of specimens from Desolation Island and New Holland with McLean, the ship's Scottish surgeon and a brilliant anatomical naturalist. One night a fire breaks out on board and the crew and its Leopard passengers have to abandon ship in the South Atlantic. A few weeks later they are picked up by HMS Java, already laden with passengers headed for Bombay and commanded by Captain Henry Lambert.

They rendezvous with Lambert's prize, the William off the coast of Brazil, and soon the watch aloft hails a ship hull up on the horizon, the USS Constitution, which they immediately pursue. Jack and his Leopards man two guns but the ensuing fight goes badly when the Java's foremast gives way. The American commander makes few mistakes and eventually the Java is forced to strike its colours. Constitution has to return to Boston to refit and during the voyage Maturin strikes up conversation with a French passenger, Pontet-Canet, and Mr. Evans, the amiable ship's surgeon. Hopes are high for the wounded Captain Lambert's survival but he dies of his wounds and grief after arriving ashore. Aubrey, who was shot in one arm, manages against expectations to survive.

Once in Boston, Aubrey convalesces from his wounds in Dr. Choate's hospital for lunatics, waiting for the next prisoner exchange. He is caught unawares when, amidst this type of unhinged patient, a Jahleel Brenton of the Navy Department starts to quiz him about the behaviour of the Leopard and its dealings with the US merchantman, the Alice B. Sawyer. Maturin meanwhile is reacquainted with both Louisa Wogan and Michael Herapath and the latter's father - a wealthy merchant and former Loyalist - who still feels sympathy towards the British. Maturin meets Diana Villiers once again, now the mistress of an American spymaster, Harry Johnson, who, it turns out, has ties to the Frenchman Pontet-Canet. Johnson visits Aubrey who, unawares, makes free with his comments about Maturin, only to realise his folly later in a bedside conversation with Stephen. Stephen begins to suspect that Johnson and Pontet-Canet suspect him.

Aubrey is frustrated by his enforced inactivity whilst Maturin meets trouble at the hands of Pontet-Canet and another Frenchman Dubreuil. During an attempt at abduction, Maturin escapes to Diana Villiers' rooms in the Franchon hotel and kills both Frenchmen when they come searching for him. Stephen also discovers that Johnson had secretly opened a letter from Diana stating her love and regard for him. Now at risk from both the French and Johnson, their need to escape becomes paramount. Enlisting the help of the older Mr. Herapath and a small ugly slab-sided fishing boat from one of his trading vessels, Aubrey, Maturin and Diana escape to sea. They rendezvous with the thirty-eight gun frigate, HMS Shannon, entering the outer harbour on blockade duty and are taken on board. As his water supplies aboard the Shannon are coming to an end, Captain Philip Broke - a cousin and childhood friend of Jack's - writes to Captain Lawrence, the commander of the thirty-eight gun USS Chesapeake lying in harbour, challenging him to come out and fight. The Chesapeake, already in the process of weighing anchor, comes out in apparent pursuit of Aubrey and engages the Shannon. The Shannon's crew has had long years of practice at her great guns, aptly demonstrated to Jack Aubrey in practice, and the resultant clash brings about the Royal Navy's first victory in the war (having already lost three frigates).


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series


  • Jack Aubrey - Former Captain of HMS Leopard.
  • Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, friend to Jack and an intelligence officer.
  • Sophia Aubrey - Jack's wife and mother of their three children.
  • Diana Villiers - love interest of Stephen and cousin of Sophia, living in Boston with Johnson.
  • Barret Bonden - the captain's coxswain.
  • Preserved Killick - Aubrey's ever loyal servant.
  • Babbington - 1st lieutenant in the Leopard.
  • Captain Moore - commands the Marines in the Leopard.
  • Mr Foreshaw - young midshipman on the Leopard, killed in the battle aboard the Java.
  • George Byron, originally a Midshipmen on HMS Leopard, acting fourth lieutenant after the epidemic.
  • Faster Doudle - prime seamen on Leopard, played as wicket keeper in the cricket match cut short by arrival of La Flèche
  • Admiral Drury - admiral on station at Pulo Batang in the Dutch East Indies.
  • Wallis - British intelligence at Pulo Batang, Maturin meets with him.
  • Captain Yorke - captain of HMS La Flèche.
  • Warner - 1st lieutenant in La Flèche.
  • McLean - ship's surgeon in La Flèche.
  • Captain Henry Lambert - captain of HMS Java.
  • Chads - 1st lieutenant in Java.
  • General Hislop - Governor-designate of Bombay.
  • Captain Philip Broke - captain of the Shannon.
  • Watt - 1st lieutenant in the Shannon.


  • Michael Herapath - Once Maturin's assistant on the Leopard, he ran from Desolation Island with Mrs Wogan aboard an American whaler; now living in Boston.
  • Mrs Louisa Wogan - an attractive young woman, American spy arrested in England, living with Herapath and their daughter in Boston.
  • George Herapath - father of Michael and grandfather of little Christine, a loyalist in the US Revolutionary War, reconciled to the new country, successful Boston merchant especially in trade with China.
  • Otis P. Choate - Doctor in Boston who runs the Asciepia, a small private hospital where Aubrey recuperates.
  • Henry (Harry) Johnson - Wealthy American of Maryland travelling with Diana, keeps slaves; much involved with US policy and spying. Last seen by Maturin leaving Diana’s house in Alipur (India)
  • Evans - surgeon in the USS Constitution.
  • Commodore Bainbridge - commander of the USS Constitution.
  • Jahleel Brenton - of the American Navy Department.
  • Captain Lawrence - captain of the US Chesapeake.


  • Pontet-Canet - Frenchman travelling to America from San Salvador on the USS Constitution; Maturin met him years before near Toulon, during the Peace of Amiens.
  • Jean Dubreuil - French spy in Boston, first seen by Maturin in European capitals.


Allusions/references to history, geography and current science[edit]

The two frigate actions, HMS Java against the USS Constitution, and HMS Shannon against the USS Chesapeake (details), that form the basis of the narrative are real events although transformed for storytelling effect by O'Brian. The capture of the USS Chesapeake is discussed in an 1866 source mentioned in the Author's Note for The Fortune of War.[1]


Jack doesn’t command a ship in this book, how about that! This is a book with a wrecked ship, a long distance open boat voyage with thirst and cannibalism, two naval battles, lots of exciting spy stuff, and a desperate escape. But it’s utterly different from the previous volumes, which have all been genre sea stories in a way this just isn’t. We were comparing this series with Hornblower earlier—it’s impossible to imagine a Hornblower volume like this. ... I very much like the whole intrigue with Johnson and the French and Stephen—it’s as exciting as the sea chases, but in a very different way. There’s a lot of very good Stephen in this volume—and some wonderful Jack malopropisms.[2]

Publication details[edit]

  • 1979, UK, Collins (ISBN 0-00-222498-4), pub date ? ? 1979, hardback (First edition)
  • 1980, UK, Fontana (ISBN 0006159931), pub date 29 May 1980, paperback
  • 1980, UK, Collins (ISBN 002224984), pub date ? ? 1989, hardback
  • 1991, W. W. Norton & Company; Paperback reprint edition (ISBN 0393308138)
  • 1992, William A. Thomas Braille Bookstore; Hardcover edition
  • 1992, Books on Tape; Audio edition (ISBN 5555358717) (ISBN 1569564183)
  • 1994, W. W. Norton & Company; Hardcover edition (ISBN 0393037061)
  • 2001, Thorndike Press; Hardcover Large-print edition (ISBN 0754015882)
  • 2001, Thorndike Press; Paperback Large-print edition (ISBN 0754024490)
  • Recorded Books, LLC; Unabridged Audio edition narrated by Patrick Tull (ISBN 1402591772)
  • 2011, W. W. Norton & Company; e-book edition (978-0-393-08849-6)


  1. ^ Sir P B V Broke (1866). Memoir of Admiral Sir P. B. V. Broke, Bart., KCB, etc. London. 
  2. ^ Jo Walton (November 8, 2010). "The American navy was the staple diet of conversation: Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War". Retrieved 11 July 2014.