The Surgeon's Mate

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The Surgeon's Mate
1st edition
1st edition
Author Patrick O'Brian
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Aubrey–Maturin series
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Collins (UK)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette, CD)
Pages pages (first edition, hardback) & pages 382 (paperback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-393-03707-X , (first edition, hardback) & ISBN 0-393-30820-0 (paperback edition UK)
OCLC 31728377
Preceded by The Fortune of War
Followed by The Ionian Mission

The Surgeon's Mate is the seventh historical novel in the Aubrey–Maturin series written by Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1980. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars.

Plot summary[edit]

The Surgeon's Mate starts in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, having escaped from the Americans in Boston aboard HMS Shannon, start their return journey to England aboard a packet ship, but not before Aubrey has a dalliance with Amanda Smith, a young woman who will later come to haunt him. Two American schoonersprivateers commissioned by Harry Johnson, an American spymaster — doggedly pursue the packet ship across the Grand Banks until one of them fortuitously hits an iceberg. On their return to England, Stephen receives an invitation to speak at the Institut in Paris on the extinct avifauna of Rodriguez Island, notably the recently extinct Rodrigues Solitaire, and he and Diana visit the city. Stephen arranges for Diana, who is pregnant with Johnson's child, to stay with a friend Adhemar de La Mothe for her lying-in.

The British Admiralty is keen to capture the fortress at fictitious Grimsholm Island (distinct from the Grimsholmen nature reserve) owing to its highly strategic location in the Baltic. Maturin, accompanied by Jack Aubrey and Jagiello, a remarkably talented and handsome young Lithuanian, embarks on a mission to persuade the Catalan garrison of the fortress to defect. Aboard HMS Ariel, Aubrey manages to capture the Minnie, a swift Danish privateer cum merchantman, after a day-long chase. Once Stephen Maturin and British hands are aboard the Minnie, Aubrey, in the Ariel, continues the pretense of giving chase in order to deceive the Spanish garrison. Maturin is eventually landed and, in the absence of any French officers, warmly welcomed by his Catalan godfather, Ramon d'Ullastret. The next morning, the Catalan troops and their colonel are loaded aboard the transport ships and the successful expedition receives a warm welcome back at base from Admiral Sir James Saumarez.

Caught up in a storm in the English Channel, the Ariel spots HMS Jason pursuing a French two-decker, the Meduse. Aubrey decides to help the chase and blasts the Meduse with his carronades without suffering much damage, slowing her pace enough for the Jason to gain. After losing sight of them, the Ariel is caught up in two nights of dark, stormy weather and finds herself fifty miles off course with the wind dead on shore. Aubrey attempts to club-haul her but the Ariel ends up beached on the shore. After a brief period of imprisonment in Brittany, Jack, Stephen and Jagiello are taken to Paris, in the custody of a Monsieur Duhamel. The French are not fully aware of Stephen's involvement in intelligence work. Held captive in the Temple prison, Aubrey attempts to break out down the immense stone privy as Stephen is interrogated by French officers, who represent a different intelligence agency from Duhamel's. In the meantime, Duhamel has approached Stephen with an offer to take peace offerings to the King and British government (presumably a plan hatched up by Talleyrand and some senior officials). Duhamel also gives Stephen some English newspapers to read and Jack's spirits are buoyed to learn from the Naval Chronicle that HMS Ajax defeated the Meduse in the action which beached his ship, the Ariel. Stephen's second interrogation is interrupted by the American, Johnson, who is able to identify Maturin as an intelligence agent and the killer of French spies, Dubreuil and Pontet-Canet. This action places Maturin in great danger.

Behind the scenes, however, Diana Villiers has given her great and much prized diamond, the Blue Peter, to a Minister's wife to help secure the release of Maturin and Aubrey. Just as Jack breaks through the privy, four Frenchmen enter their prison cell — D'Anglars, Duhamel, a foreign ministry official and a cloaked officer. After agreeing terms, the prisoners are taken down to two carriages and spirited out of Paris (accompanied by Diana who has lost her baby) to a waiting cartel at Calais, the Oedipus commanded by William Babbington. Safely away, Stephen proposes to Diana Villiers once again and they are finally married on board by Babbington, with Jack giving her away.


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey - Captain.
  • Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, friend to Jack and intelligence officer.
  • Sophia Aubrey - Jack's wife.
  • Diana Villiers - Stephen's love interest, who becomes his wife.
  • Miss Amanda Smith - Jack's paramour in Nova Scotia.
  • Gedymin Jagiello - a young Lithuanian cavalry officer, seconded to the Admiralty from the Swedish service.
  • Sir Joseph Blaine - senior figure at the Admiralty and Maturin's spymaster.
  • William Babbington - Jack's former lieutenant and captain of the Oedipus.
  • Ramon d'Ullastret i Casademon - a Catalan colonel and Stephen Maturin's godfather.
  • Admiral Sir James Saumarez - Admiral of the Baltic Fleet at Carlscrona.
  • Monsieur Duhamel - a French secret agent.



The book title is a triple entendre in its use of the term "mate", referring to the ship's surgeon's assistant, a chess reference to Maturin's successful espionage efforts (i.e., checkmate), and Diana Villiers becoming Stephen's wife, the surgeon's mate.

Allusion to historical events[edit]

In 1807, the Spanish government, at that time allied with France, had sent 15,000 troops to Denmark to act as a garrison against a possible British landing there. These troops, among the best in Spain, garrisoned offshore islands in small detachments and remained in the dark about political developments in Spain following Napoleon's invasion and occupation of Spain in 1807 (see Peninsular War).

The Duke of Wellington dispatched the Scottish Benedictine monk James Robertson (on the advice of his brother Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley). Robertson, brought up at the Benedictine abbey at Regensburg in Germany, managed to pass through occupied Germany under the guise of "Adam Rohrauer", a dealer in cigars and chocolate. Robertson made contact with the Spanish general, the Marquis de la Romana, on the island of Funen, where the two agreed that the Spanish troops would defect and return to Spain on British ships. Robertson escaped to Helgoland (then a British possession) to inform Admiral Richard Goodwin Keats of the agreement, and a fleet of transports escorted by HMS Superb embarked 9,000 Spanish soldiers.

The imprisonment of Aubrey and Maturin in the Temple prison in Paris may echo the case of Captain Sidney Smith, captured on 19 April 1796 while attempting to cut out a French ship in Le Havre. Instead of exchanging him (as customary), the French took Smith to the Temple prison and charged him with arson for his burning of the fleet at Toulon in 1793. Smith remained held in Paris for two years, despite a number of efforts to exchange him and frequent contacts with both French Royalists and British agents.

In 1798, Royalists pretending to take him to another prison instead helped him to escape. They brought him to Le Havre, where he boarded a fishing boat and then transferred to a British frigate on patrol in the English Channel, arriving in London on 8 May 1798. Some historians have speculated that he allowed the French Republicans to capture him so that he could make contact with the Royalists.

Series chronology[edit]

This novel references actual events as any historical novel ought. In respect to the internal chronology of the series, it is the first of eleven novels that might take five or six years to happen but are all pegged to an extended 1812, or as Patrick O'Brian says it, 1812a and 1812b (introduction to Far Side of the World, the tenth novel in this series). The events of Yellow Admiral again match up with the historical years of the Napoleonic wars in sequence, as the first six novels did.