Master and Commander

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This article is about the historical naval novel by Patrick O'Brian. For the 2003 film, see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. For the naval rank, see Commander.
Master and Commander
Master & Commander cover.jpg
First US edition (Lippincott, 1969)
Author Patrick O'Brian
Cover artist Harvey
Language English
Series Aubrey-Maturin series
Genre Historical novel, sea novel
Set in 18 April 1800 - mid 1801[1]
Publisher Lippincott (US), Collins (UK)
Publication date
1969 (US), 1970 (UK)
Media type Print (hardback & paperback) & audio book (cassette, CD)
Pages 411 hardback edition
352 paperback edition
ISBN 0-00-221526-8 First edition hardback, Collins
OCLC 31728441
Followed by Post Captain

Master and Commander is a nautical historical novel by the English author Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1969 in the US and 1970 in UK. The book proved to be the start of the 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series, set largely in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, that O'Brian continued working on up until his death in 2000.

The novel is set at the turn of the 19th century, and follows the young Jack Aubrey who has just been promoted to the rank of Master and Commander and given charge of his first vessel, and Stephen Maturin, a destitute physician and naturalist whom Aubrey appoints as his naval surgeon. They sail in HM Sloop Sophie with first lieutenant James Dillon, a wealthy and aristocratic Irishman. The naval action in the Mediterranean is closely based on the real-life exploits of Lord Cochrane, including a battle modelled after Cochrane's spectacular victory in the brig HMS Speedy over the vastly-superior Spanish frigate El Gamo. In the novel, Dillon is killed and Aubrey denied official recognition for his victory, though he gains a reputation within the Royal Navy as one of its great, young fighting captains.

Master and Commander met with mixed early reviews on its first publication. Although UK sales were respectable enough for O'Brian to continue with his series, it was not initially a success in the US. In Britain and Ireland, however, voices of praise gradually became dominant. In 1990, the US publisher W. W. Norton re-issued the book and its sequels; this was an almost immediate success and drew O'Brian a new, large readership.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel opens in April 1800. Jack Aubrey, a shipless lieutenant wasting away in the Royal Navy port of Mahon in Minorca, meets Stephen Maturin, a destitute Irish-Catalan physician and natural philosopher, at a concert at the Governor’s Mansion. During the performance, Maturin elbows Aubrey who is beating the measure "half a beat ahead". The men, both at personal low points, treat the matter as one of honour; they exchange names and anticipate a duel.

Later that evening, Aubrey learns that he has been promoted to the rank of commander and has been given command of the 14-gun HM Sloop Sophie. Meeting Maturin in the street the next day, Aubrey's joy overcomes his animosity and he invites Maturin to dine. The men discover a shared love of music, Aubrey playing the violin and Maturin the cello. On learning Maturin's profession, Aubrey asks him to join his ship. Although as a physician Maturin's expertise goes far beyond that normally expected of a naval surgeon, he agrees.

Sophie is sent to accompany a small convoy of merchant ships in the Mediterranean. Aubrey takes the opportunity to get to know his sailors and work them into a fighting unit with the aid of his new first lieutenant, James Dillon, a wealthy and aristocratic Irishman. Dillon and Maturin had met earlier (a fact they keep to themselves) as members of the United Irishman, a society dedicated to Irish Home Rule and Catholic emancipation. Dillon suffers a crisis of concience when ordered to intercept an American ship thought to be harbouring Irish rebels, and he works to help them avoid capture.

Maturin, who has never been aboard a man-of-war, struggles to understand nautical customs, and O'Brian has the crew explain to him (and to the reader) naval terminology and the official practice whereby prize money can be awarded for captured enemy vessels. Maturin is treated by the crew as a landsman, though without offence. As a natural philosopher he relishes the opportunity to study rare birds and fish.

His convoy duties complete, Aubrey is permitted by Admiral Keith to cruise the Mediterranean independently, looking for enemy French merchants. Sophie meets and defeats the much larger and better-armed Cacafuego, a Spanish 32 gun xebec-frigate, though losing a number of crew, including Dillon, in the bloody action. A victory against such odds would normally bring official recognition, promotion, and significant prize money, but unfortunately for Aubrey his superior at Mahon is Captain Harte, with whose wife Aubrey has been having an affair. Harte ensures that Aubrey receives none of those things, though he cannot prevent Aubrey gaining a reputation within the Royal Navy as one of its great, young fighting captains.

On escort duty, Sophie is captured by a squadron of four large French warships. The French Captain Christy Pallière is courteous; he tells Aubrey of his cousins in Bath, and feeds him well. Aubrey and his crew miss the Battle of Algeciras but are able to observe the fighting from Gibraltar, having been paroled by the French. Aubrey faces a court-martial for the loss of his ship, and is acquitted.

Principal characters[edit]

See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey: Royal Navy lieutenant, newly appointed Master and Commander of Sophie.
  • Stephen Maturin: Irish-Catalan physician, natural philosopher and musician, taken on as surgeon of Sophie.
  • Captain Harte: Station commandant at Port Mahon.
  • Molly Harte: Wife of the station commandant, lover of Aubrey.
  • Lord Keith: Admiral in the Mediterranean, recently married to Queeney.
  • Queeney: Wife of Lord Keith, in earlier days neighbour and tutor to the young Jack Aubrey.
  • William Marshall: Master in Sophie.
  • Tom Pullings: Master's mate in Sophie.
  • William Mowett: Master's mate in Sophie.
  • Barret Bonden: Coxswain and captain of the maintop in Sophie.
  • Preserved Killick: Aubrey's personal steward
  • Mr William Babbington: Midshipman in Sophie.
  • Mr James Dillon: First lieutenant in Sophie.
  • Captain Heneage Dundas: Captain of the sloop Calpe and friend of Aubrey.
  • Captain Christy-Pallière: Captain of the French ship Desaix.
  • Admiral Sir James Saumarez: Rear Admiral of the squadron that succeeds in the Algeciras Campaign.






In addition, O'Brian names all of the British, French and Spanish ships present at the Battle of Algeciras Bay.

O'Brian's sources[edit]


In an introductory Author’s Note to the novel, O'Brian sets out his approach to historical accuracy, noting that historic records of naval battles are filled with "actions that few men could invent”. He goes on to say, “That is why I have gone straight to the source for the fighting in this book ... and so when I describe a fight I have log-books, official letters, contemporary accounts or the participants' own memoirs to vouch for every exchange ... Yet, on the other hand, I have not felt slavishly bound to precise chronological sequence; ... within a context of general historical accuracy I have changed names, places and minor events”. He considers that "authenticity is a jewel”, and that “the admirable men of these times ... are best celebrated in their own splendid actions rather than in imaginary contests”.[4]

The novel opens on 18 April 1800 and covers the period until mid 1801,[1] the action being portrayed within the historical setting of War of the Second Coalition, one phase in England's long and continuing war against the French following Nelson's victories in the Mediterranean, including the British victory at the 1798 Battle of the Nile. Ireland was at the time a country governed by England, and political dissent there had been increasing for some time. Irish Protestants bemoaned the lack of an effective political voice and the fact that much of the best agricultural land was held by absentee English landlords. The majority Catholic population was excluded from full participation in politics and the professions. The United Irishmen had been formed in the late 18th century to tackle these grievances, leading to the unsuccessful Irish Rebellion of 1798. In the the aftermath of the rebellion, many disaffected Irishmen (such as Maturin in the novel) had left the island to seek their fortunes elsewhere.[1]

The naval actions in the novel are closely based on the exploits of Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860), 10th Earl of Dundonald, a notoriously fiery naval captain and later admiral.[1][5] Cochrane's own ship, the HMS Speedy, forms the basis for Aubrey's Sophie in the novel.[2]

Although Aubrey's exploits are historically-sourced, his personality as it appears in the book differs significantly from that of the real Cochrane, and is of O'Brian's own invention.[6] The character of Maturin is likewise of O'Brian's own devising,[1] though it has been said that O’Brian’s own personality, attitudes, interests and even appearance are closely reflected in his character's persona.[7].

Specific events[edit]

The capture in the novel of the Spanish Cacafuego by the vastly inferior Sophie is based on the real-life capture on 6 May 1801 of the Spanish frigate El Gamo by the British brig-sloop HMS Speedy.[8][3] One of the most spectacular single-ship victories in British Naval history,[9] the El Gamo incident captured the public imagination and founded the reputation of the Speedy's commander, Thomas Cochrane.[10] Like Aubrey in the book, however, Cochrane did not receive from the Admiralty the promotion and prize money he might have expected from so spectacular a victory.[9]

The capture of Sophie by Christy-Pallière of the Desaix parallels the experience of Cochrane aboard the Speedy, down to the detail of the real Christy-Pallière refusing to accept the vanquished captain's sword: "I will not accept the sword of an officer who has for so many hours struggled against impossibility".[11]

The exploit of deceiving a ship at night by attaching lights to a decoy was executed by Cochrane and was described in his Autobiography of a Seaman.[12] A similar exploit was reported to have been used by the French privateer Joseph-Marie Potier to escape a British frigate near Quiberon Bay in January 1809.[13]

Publication history[edit]

Geoff Hunt cover used on reissues

First US and UK publications 1969 / 70[edit]

In the 1960s two of O'Brian's seafaring books for children, The Golden Ocean (1956) and The Unknown Shore (1959), caught the attention of a US publisher, J. B. Lippincott, who were seeking an author to follow in the footsteps of C. S. Forester, creator of the Hornblower series of novels. Forester died in 1966 and a year later, at the age of 53, O’Brian started work on Master and Commander.[1][14] The novel was first published in the US by Lippincott in 1969.[1] It was rejected by O'Brian's then UK publisher, Macmillan, as too full of jargon, but was taken up and published Collins in 1970.[14]

The novel did respectably in Britain ("selling a most surprising number" according to O'Brian),[15] but was not initially successful in the US.[14] O'Brian later commented, "I am sorry to say that the Americans did not like it much at its first appearance (they have changed their minds since, bless them)."[15]

Lippincott perservered in the US with publication of the next two novels in the series, Post Captain (1972) and HMS Surprise (1973), though sales remained slow. A change of US publisher to Stein and Day for The Mauritius Command did not help, and US publications ceased with Desolation Island in 1978.[14][16]

Norton US reissue 1990[edit]

In 1989 Starling Lawrence, an editor with the US publisher W. W. Norton, borrowed a copy of The Reverse of the Medal from O'Brian's London literary agent to read on his flight home to New York. Lawrence persuaded Norton that in spite of the failed attempts of two previous US publishers Master and Commander and the subequent novels were worth re-publishing.[17] Norton's re-issued series (from 1990) was an almost immediate success and drew a new, large readership.[14]

Literary significance & criticism[edit]

This section concentrates on reviews of this specific novel. For more general reviews of the series as a whole, see Aubrey–Maturin series literary significance and criticism

First US and UK publications 1969 / 70[edit]

C. S. Forester having died just a few years earlier, some critics were left bewildered and disappointed by the complexity of O'Brian's creation after the predicability of the Hornblower series.[18] "Not, I think, memorable, at least in the Hornblower way" wrote the Irish Press,[19] while according to the Library Journal, "Mourning Hornblower fans may prefer to read a good if disappointing new book rather than to reread one of the master's epics."[20]

The reception of other critics was more positive. In the US, The New York Times Book Review noted the author's "delightful subtlety", and his "easy command of the philosophical, political, sensual and social temper of the times [that] flavors a rich entertainment",[21] while Kirkus Reviews said that the book was "A welcome treat for sea hounds who care more for belaying pins than ravaged bodices below decks.".[22]

Several UK press reviewers were also impressed. The Sunday Mirror said "Nothing is glamourised. The press gangings, the squalor are all here....The battle scenes are tremendous...This is not secondhand Forester, but a really fine piece of writing",[23] while Benedict Nightingale writing in The Observer called the book "Dashing, well-timbered, pickled in the period, and with strong human tensions and cross-currents."[24] According to The Evening Standard "It is as though, under Mr O'Brian's touch, those great sea-paintings at Greenwich had stirred and come alive."[25]


Master and Commander and its immediate sequels continued to receive a somewhat muted reception in the US. In Britain and Ireland, however, voices of praise gradually became dominant.[26] Following the 1990 Norton re-issue in the US, the book became widely acclaimed.

Once the Norton re-issues were printed, many reviewers of the novels in 1990 to 1995 tended to review the series as a whole, up to the currently printed novel that was the topic of their review, for example Patrick Reardon's review of The Wine Dark Sea, "The best way to think of these novels is as a single 5,000-page book."[27]and Dick Adler's review of The Truelove / Clarissa Oakes including the remark that "His books add up to a portrait of an entire world, containing every single aspect of human life."[28] With such acclaim more than twenty years after its first publication,[29] Master and Commander has been reprinted a number of times.

A review of Master and Commander aired on NPR in 2013 agrees with the view of the novels as a continuous story, adding comparisons to modern authors: "I began Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander knowing I would hate it. . . . I love these books, all 20 volumes. Each is a chapter in a single, flowing narrative. The first 13 are, in my opinion, without parallel: the same sense of lived experience as Hilary Mantel, the just-a-hair-off-center reality of a Michael Gruber adventure and the same rootedness in, and love for, the land- and seascape as Robert McFarlane or Annie Proulx."[30]

"Lots of reviewers have compared O'Brian to his fellow naval novelist C.S. Forester, but that's nonsense. This is Jane Austen on a ship of war, with the humanity, joy and pathos of Shakespeare — and brilliantly written."[30]

Film adaptation[edit]

The 2003 Peter Weir film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, uses some of the characters, dialogue and events from the Aubrey-Maturin series, but follows a plot not found in the novels themselves.[31]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Brown 2006, p. 10.
  2. ^ a b Brown 2006, p. 335, 336.
  3. ^ a b Brown 2006, p. 85.
  4. ^ O'Brian, Patrick (1970). Master and Commander. London: HarperCollins. Author's Note. ISBN 978-0-00-649915-2. 
  5. ^ Brown 2006, p. 103.
  6. ^ Brown 2006, p. 9.
  7. ^ Brown 2006, pp. 9, 274.
  8. ^ Cordingly, David (2007). Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander. New York: Bloomsbury. pp. 3–4. ISBN 978-1-58234-534-5. 
  9. ^ a b Harvey 2000, p. 51.
  10. ^ Harvey 2000, p. 49.
  11. ^ Harvey 2000, p. 59.
  12. ^ [Cochrane] Earl of Dundonald, Thomas (1860). The Autobiography of a Seaman. I. London: Richard Bentley. p. 107. 
  13. ^ Cunat, Charles (1857). Saint-Malo illustré par ses marins [Saint Malo illustrated by its sailors] (in French). Imprimerie de F. Péalat. p. 418. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Brown 2006, p. 273.
  15. ^ a b O'Brian, Patrick (1994). "Black, Choleric & Married?". In Cunningham, A. E. Patrick O'Brian: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography. Boston Spa: The British Library. p. 20. ISBN 0-7123-1070-3. 
  16. ^ Bennett 1994, p. 150.
  17. ^ Mark Horowitz (May 16, 1993). "Patrick O'Brian's Ship Comes In". Book Reviews. New York Times. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  18. ^ Bennett 1994, p. 159.
  19. ^ Poole, H. J. Irish Press, 21 January 1970, quoted in Bennett 1994, p. 161
  20. ^ Taylor, David C., Library Journal, 15 December 1969, quoted in Bennett 1994, p. 160
  21. ^ Levin, Martin (14 December 1969). "Master and Commander"Free registration required. New York Times Book Review. New York Times. Retrieved 13 February 2014. 
  22. ^ Kirkus Reviews, 1 October 1969, quoted in Bennett 1994, p. 160
  23. ^ Sunday Mirror, 18 January 1970, quoted in Bennett 1994, p. 160
  24. ^ Nightingale, Benedict, Observer ,18 January 1970, quoted in Bennett 1994, p. 161
  25. ^ Pocock, Tom, Evening Standard, 20 January 1970, quoted in Bennett 1994, p. 161
  26. ^ Bennett 1994, pp. 159-160.
  27. ^ Reardon, Patrick T. (13 December 1993). "The Wine-Dark Sea By Patrick O'Brian". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  28. ^ Adler, Dick (12 June 1992). "Original Insights Into The World`s Mysteries". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  29. ^ "Master and Commander: Endorsements & Reviews". W. W. Norton. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  30. ^ a b Griffith, Nicola (1 December 2013). "A Skeptic Is Swept Away By The Bromance-At-Sea In 'Master'". NPR. Retrieved 13 July 2015. 
  31. ^ Brown, Anthony Gary (2014). "Patrick and Mary O'Brian". The Gunroom of HMS Surprise. Retrieved 18 February 2017. 


  • Brown, Anthony Gary (2006). The Patrick O'Brian Muster Book (2nd ed.). Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-9385-2. 
  • Bennett, Stuart (1994). "Four Decades of Reviews". In Cunningham, A. E. Patrick O'Brian: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography. Boston Spa: The British Library. pp. 149–171. ISBN 0-7123-1070-3. 
  • Harvey, Robert (2000). Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain. London: Robinson. ISBN 1-84119-398-4. 

Further reading[edit]

For further reading relating to the series as a whole, see Aubrey–Maturin series further reading.

External links[edit]

For external links relating to the series as a whole, see Aubrey–Maturin series external links.