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 edition (US)
Author Patrick O'Brian
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Aubrey-Maturin series
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Lippincott (US)
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 the first historical novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1969 in the US and 1970 in UK. The story features Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and the naval surgeon Stephen Maturin, and is set in the Napoleonic Wars. The novel proved to be the start of a 20-novel series, written from 1969 until the author's death early in 2000.

The novel follows a brief period in the lives of three men, Jack Aubrey, a young "Master and Commander" who gains his first command the Sophie, Stephen Maturin, a penniless doctor who becomes a naval surgeon after meeting Aubrey at a musical performance in Port Mahon, and the third, James Dillon, the first lieutenant of the ship on which they sail. The novel is set during 1800 and follows Aubrey's naval exploit during a window of time early in Britain's war with Napoleon's France. Aubrey's ship enters several naval battles that draw on the feats of Lord Cochrane, including a battle modeled after Cochrane's famous victory while commanding the brig HMS Speedy over the Xebec-frigate El Gamo. Aubrey observes the Algeciras Campaign as a French prisoner-of-war.

The novel was written by O'Brian at the suggestion of J. B. Lippincott, a US publisher. A UK publisher published the novel in the next year. It was re-issued by another US publisher in 1990, reaching a wider market and better critical reception. Reception for the novel, as well the rest of the series, emphasizes the deeply described characters, accurate description of the nautical culture and technology and the literary style in which O'Brian writes.

Plot summary[edit]

The story starts out on April 1, 1800, in Port Mahon, Minorca, a base of the Royal Navy. A shipless lieutenant wasting away in port, Jack Aubrey, meets Stephen Maturin, a penniless half-Irish and half-Catalan physician and natural philosopher, at an evening concert at the Governor’s Mansion. An offence against honour arises when Jack Aubrey gets elbowed by Maturin to stop beating "a half measure ahead" of the time while the string quartet is playing. Each man is at a low point; they exchange names and locations (so that their seconds might call upon them to arrange a duel).

Later that evening, at his living quarters, Jack Aubrey learns that he has been promoted to the rank of commander and has been given command of the brig HMS Sophie. Meeting Maturin in the street the next day, Aubrey's joy overcomes his animosity and he invites Maturin to dine. Maturin accepts. They discover a shared love of music and a similar level of talent in the other: Aubrey plays the violin and Maturin the cello. Upon learning that Maturin is a physician Aubrey, somewhat impetuously, asks him to sign on and ship with him, the surgeon for Aubrey's new ship having left with the previous captain. Although Maturin is a physician, with training far beyond the naval designation of 'surgeon', he agrees, as he is currently unemployed.

In Sophie‍ '​s crew are master's mates Thomas Pullings, William Mowett, midshipman William Babbington, and James Dillon, the first lieutenant. Dillon and Maturin met earlier as members of the United Irishmen, a secret they keep between them. Three men about the same age, Aubrey, Dillon and Maturin, begin an adventure on Sophie.

Aubrey improves Sophie‍ '​s sailing qualities by adding a longer yard which allows him to spread a larger mainsail. She then is sent to accompany a small convoy of merchant ships. During their journey east, the new captain, Aubrey, takes the opportunity to get to know his sailors and work them into a fighting unit, with the aid of Lieutenant Dillon. As he does this, he and the crew explain many naval matters to Maturin (and to the reader) since the doctor has never served aboard a man-of-war, including the gaining of prize money for capturing enemy vessels. Maturin quickly makes friends aboard the ship for his medical skills and his joy in finding rare birds and fish. The crew treat him as a landsman, but without insult.

After the convoy duties, Lord Keith allows Aubrey to cruise independently, looking for French merchants. After a number of prizes are taken, they meet and defeat the Cacafuego, a Spanish xebec-frigate, losing a number of crew, including Dillon, in the bloody action and gaining the respect of other naval officers. However, Captain Harte, the commandant at Mahon, has a grudge against Aubrey, who has been having an affair with his wife. Harte's malevolence ensures that the victory brings Aubrey and his crew no official recognition, promotion, or significant prize money, although Aubrey gains a reputation among members of the British Navy as one of its great, young fighting captains. The loss of Dillon is great to both Aubrey and Maturin, and felt in the ship, especially when his replacement is nowhere near his match.

On her following escort duty, Sophie is captured by a squadron of four large French warships after a pursuit and a brave but hopeless resistance. The French Captain Christy Pallière is most courteous to Aubrey; he tells Aubrey of his cousins in Bath, and feeds them well. The Battle of Algeciras begins, and after a short period as prisoners of war aboard Desaix, they are exchanged; awaiting their trial, the Sophies miss the fighting but observe it closely from Gibraltar. After the battle, Aubrey undergoes a court-martial over the loss of his ship, and he is cleared of the charges.


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey: Royal Navy lieutenant newly appointed Master and Commander of Sophie; addressed as "Captain".
  • Stephen Maturin: Physician and natural philosopher, musician, stranded when his patient dies, taken on as surgeon when Jack Aubrey begins as captain of Sophie.
  • Harte: Captain and station commandant at Port Mahon, with a strong grudge against Aubrey.
  • Molly Harte: Wife of the station commandant, and lover of Aubrey.
  • Lord Keith: Admiral in the Mediterranean, recently married to Queeney
  • Queeney: Recently wife of Lord Keith, and in earlier days, neighbour and tutor to young Jack Aubrey, and he suspects, the reason for his promotion.
  • Samuel Allen: Erstwhile captain in Sophie, succeeded by Aubrey.
  • Mr Baldick: Lieutenant in Sophie, ill and replaced.
  • Mr Williams: Administrator in Mahon for Aubrey's prize-agent.
  • David Richards: Relative of Mr Williams who serves as clerk in Sophie.
  • William Marshall: Master in Sophie.
  • Tom Pullings: Master's mate in Sophie, who has passed his examination for lieutenant, but awaits promotion.
  • William Mowett: Master's mate in Sophie.
  • Isaac Wilson: Ordinary seaman in Sophie.
  • Watt: Bosun in Sophie.
  • Barret Bonden: Young and highly competent, valued coxswain and captain of the maintop in Sophie.
  • Lamb: Ship's carpenter.
  • Ricketts: Purser and father of young Ricketts.
  • George Day: Gunner.
  • Charles Stephen Ricketts: Son to the purser, rated midshipman.
  • Mr William Babbington: Midshipman in Sophie, young but already quite the ladies man.
  • Mr James Dillon: First lieutenant in Sophie, valued for his skills and letting Aubrey leave day to day issues to him. Known to Maturin from his days in Ireland.
  • Alfred King: Black crew member, also a mute, brought by David Richards.
  • Quinn: Sergeant of marines.
  • Lieutenant Dalziel: Replaces Lieutenant Dillon, despite a nomination of Pullings for promotion.
  • Captain Heneage Dundas: Captain of the sloop Calpe and friend of Aubrey.
  • Captain Christy-Pallière: Captain of the French ship Desaix who takes Sophie, and all her crew as prisoners. He is a good seaman, and a good host to his prisoners.
  • Admiral Sir James Saumarez: Rear Admiral of the squadron that wins out in the Algeciras Campaign, after first losing to the French fleet. He speaks with Aubrey in Gibraltar, where Aubrey is released on his parole, reminding him he cannot wear his returned sword until after the court martial for losing HMS Sophie. He listens to what Aubrey learned as prisoner of war aboard the French Desaix.



  • HMS Audacious - ship of the line and flagship
  • HMS Niobe - frigate
  • HMS Pallas - frigate
  • HM Brig Sophie - brig sloop
  • HMS Burford
  • HMS Généreux - 74-gun third rate. Captured from France in 1800, prize crew led by Lieutenant Aubrey.
  • HMS Tartarus - bomb-ketch
  • HMS Calpe - brig sloop


  • Cacafuego - xebec-type frigate (though named after a ship from the 16th century)


  • Dorothe Engelbretsdotter - Norwegian cat in a convoy that Sophie protects. She is boarded by Algerian corsairs, but recaptured by Sophie


  • Desaix – French ship of the line, 74 gun, that takes Sophie

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

Allusions and references[edit]

Literary allusions[edit]

While in conversation with Dillon, Maturin quotes "non amo te, Sabidi" from the 33rd epigram of Martial: "Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere—quare; Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.[note 1][1]

Historical allusions[edit]

Maturin and Dillon, both Catholics, are revealed in the book to have been members of the Society of United Irishmen, and these activities now compromise them politically in what is the aftermath of the unsuccessful Irish Rebellion of 1798. Maturin was a close friend and relative of Lord Edward FitzGerald, the Irish peer who was one of the leaders of the movement. Both Maturin and Dillon keep their Catholic beliefs and their old political allegiance quiet for fear of exposure, and the continuing official hunt for conspirators in 1801, the year of the novel's setting, is illustrated when Sophie is ordered by Harte to intercept an American ship carrying two fugitive United Irishmen and capture them by force if necessary.

The novel opens at a musical performance of a quartet by a composer called Pietro Locatelli. The composer existed, wrote and performed many pieces for violin, but he is not known to have written any music for a quartet.[2]

The capture of the Spanish xebec-frigate Cacafuego by the greatly inferior Sophie brings Aubrey and his crew great glory (although no great wealth). This episode is based on the capture of the Spanish frigate El Gamo by Cochrane commanding the sloop HMS Speedy.[3][note 2] As part of the opening of the Algeciras Campaign, the capture of HMS Sophie by Christy-Pallière of the Desaix parallels the experience of Cochrane aboard the Speedy, down to the detail of Christy-Pallière refusing to take the Captain's sword after the long fight between the smaller ship and the squadron.

The exploit of setting up a decoy of a large ship at night by attaching lights to a small boat was executed by Cochrane and described in his Autobiography of a Seaman. It is reported to have been used by the French privateer Joseph Potier to escape a British frigate.[4]

Aubrey is a childhood friend of Lord Keith's wife Hester Thrale. In the book she is referred to by her nickname "Queeney".

The book ends with Aubrey and Maturin witnessing the Battles of Algeciras, the first part as prisoners aboard the French ship Desaix, then after they have been paroled, from the Rock of Gibraltar.


In many of the novels, Maturin is fond of identifying and discussing biological finds. Among those discussed in Master and Commander are:


O'Brian in his characteristic detailed precision, makes multiple references to medical practices:

  • When stocking his surgeon's chest Stephen Maturin makes sure he stocks asafetida and castoreum[8]
  • Humorously, when discussing Aubrey's affair with Mrs Harte, Stephen says "there are times when it seems that nothing short of a radical ablation of the membrum virile would answer, in this case".[9]


The novel begins with the famous line: 'The music-room in the governor's house at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli's C major quartet.' Classical music lovers note that Locatelli's pieces in C major were for trios and he did not write music for quartets, but this is a small quibble to a pleasing opening to the book.[10]

Literary significance & criticism[edit]

This book was first printed by J. B. Lippincott & Co., an American publisher who asked O'Brian to try his hand at such a novel.[11] Collins published it in Great Britain and Ireland. Reception was good as noted by the New York Times ("Even for readers not specifically interested in matters nautical,")[12] and Kirkus Reviews ("A welcome treat for sea hounds who care more for belaying pins than ravaged bodices below decks."),[13] but the audience was not large; soon the British publisher Collins issued succeeding novels in what became a long series. In 1988, Starling Lawrence of W. W. Norton read the current novels; they so impressed him that W. W. Norton began issuing the novels in the US, including a re-issue of all novels prior to the twelfth in the series, The Letter of Marque, first publication 1990, jointly with HarperCollins (successor to Collins) in the UK.[11] The series found a new market, receiving widespread critical acclaim and much larger sales.[14] There are fewer reviews of the earlier novels in the series at the time of publication, including Master and Commander. Once the W. W. 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, saying "The best way to think of these novels is as a single 5,000-page book."[15] 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."[16] With such acclaim more than twenty years after its first publication,[17] Master and Commander has been reprinted a number of times. In 2003 the book was listed at No. 149 on the BBC's The Big Read poll of the UK's "best-loved novel."[18]

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."[19]

Following the death of author C. S. Forester in 1966, who wrote the Horatio Hornblower series, which was set in the same time period of the Napoleonic Wars, depicting life aboard Royal Navy ships and the career of one officer, it was expected that many reviewers would compare O'Brian's Master and Commander to Forester's work.

"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."—Sunday Mirror.[20]

"Mourning Hornblower fans may prefer to read a good if disappointing new book rather than to reread one of the master's epics."—Library Journal.[21]

"This is probably the best of many good novels about Nelson's navy since the loss of C. S. Forester."—Observer.[22]

"Not, I think, memorable, at least in the Hornblower way." —Irish Press.[23]

The notion of comparison to the Hornblower series is taken up with a different view in the 2013 review by Griffiths, than those expressed when the novel was first issued: "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."[19]

Publication history[edit]

Sixteen paperback editions in the UK and USA have been published, in addition to five hardback editions (excluding the first editions). Twenty-two audio editions are listed for this novel, plus one MP3 version. Two Kindle editions are available as well, Harper in the UK and W.W. Norton in the USA.[24]

This novel was first published by J. B. Lippincott in the USA in 1969. Collins followed with UK edition in 1970. W. W. Norton issued a reprint 21 years after the initial publication, in 1990, as part of its reissue in paperback of all the novels in the series prior to 1991. The process of reissuing the novels initially published prior to 1991 was in full swing in 1991, as the whole series gained a new and wider audience, as Mark Howowitz describes in writing about The Nutmeg of Consolation, the fourteenth novel in the series and initially published in 1991.

Two of my favorite friends are fictitious characters; they live in more than a dozen volumes always near at hand. Their names are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and their creator is a 77-year-old novelist named Patrick O'Brian, whose 14 books about them have been continuously in print in England since the first, "Master and Commander," was published in 1970. O'Brian's British fans include T. J. Binyon, Iris Murdoch, A. S. Byatt, Timothy Mo and the late Mary Renault, but, until recently, this splendid saga of two serving officers in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars was unavailable in this country, apart from the first few installments which went immediately out of print. Last year, however, W. W. Norton decided to reissue the series in its entirety, and so far nine of the 14 have appeared here, including the most recent chapter, The Nutmeg of Consolation.[25]

Film adaptation[edit]

The 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with actors Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, was made using themes and puns—but not the plots—from the book Master and Commander and other books in the series, including The Far Side of the World. Director Weir seemed to alternate between two titles for the movie, as working titles during filming, one being Master and Commander (post on April 16, 2001), the other being The Far Side of the World (post on February 25, 2002). The latter was considered because some of the plot of the film is taken from the scenes in that novel.[26] The two titles were combined (post of December 26, 2002), instead of choosing one or the other.


  1. ^ English: "I don't like you, Sabidius, and I can't say why; all I can say is I don't like you"
  2. ^ The defeat by the British brig-sloop HMS Speedy of the Spanish xebec-frigate El Gamo on 6 May 1801, generally regarded as one of the most remarkable single-ship actions in naval history, founded the legendary reputation of the Speedy's commander, Lord Cochrane, later Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, GCB.


  1. ^ Patrick O'Brian (2003). Master and Commander. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 193. ISBN 0-393-32517-2. 
  2. ^ "Pietro Locatelli (Composer)". Bach Cantatas Website. November 26, 2008. Retrieved 25 April 2014. 
  3. ^ David Cordingly (2007). Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander. New York: Bloomsbury. pp. 3–4. ISBN 978-1-58234-534-5. 
  4. ^ Cunat, Charles (1857). Saint-Malo illustré par ses marins (in French). Imprimerie de F. Péalat. p. 418. 
  5. ^ Patrick O'Brian (2003). Master and Commander. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 205. ISBN 0-393-32517-2. 
  6. ^ Amandine Péquignot & Michel Van Praët. "The collection of the "Cabinet du Roy" (1729-1793), an example of preservation and historical investigations" (PDF). Retrieved 5 March 2014. 
  7. ^ Patrick O'Brian (2003). Master and Commander. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 206. ISBN 0-393-32517-2. 
  8. ^ Patrick O'Brian (2003). Master and Commander. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 390. ISBN 0-393-32517-2. 
  9. ^ Patrick O'Brian (2003). Master and Commander. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 385. ISBN 0-393-32517-2. 
  10. ^ Zech, John (13 November 2003). "Music in Patrick O'Brian's novels". Minnesota Public Radio - Music. Retrieved 16 June 2015. 
  11. ^ a b Anthony Gary Brown (2014). "Patrick and Mary O’Brian". The Patrick O'Brian Muster Book: Persons, Animals, Ships and Cannon in the Aubrey-Maturin Sea Novels. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  12. ^ Martin Levin (14 December 1969). "Master and Commander". New York Times Book Review (registration required). New York Times. Retrieved 13 February 2014. 
  13. ^ A. E. Cunningham, ed. (1994). Patrick O'Brian: A Bibliography and Critical Appreciation. British Library Publishing Division. ISBN 0-7123-1071-1. 
  14. ^ Mark Horowitz (May 16, 1993). "Patrick O'Brian's Ship Comes In". Book Reviews. New York Times. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  15. ^ Patrick T. Reardon (13 December 1993). "The Wine-Dark Sea By Patrick O'Brian". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  16. ^ Dick Adler (12 June 1992). "Original Insights Into The World`s Mysteries". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  17. ^ "Master and Commander: Endorsements & Reviews". Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  18. ^ "BBC - The Big Read" (Archives ed.). BBC. April 2003. Retrieved 31 October 2012. 
  19. ^ a b Griffith, Nicola (1 December 2013). "A Skeptic Is Swept Away By The Bromance-At-Sea In 'Master'". Retrieved 13 July 2015. 
  20. ^ "Master and Commander". Sunday Mirror. 18 Jan. 1970. 
  21. ^ David C. Taylor (1969). "Master and Commander". Literary Journal. 15 Dec. 
  22. ^ Benedict Nightingale (1970). "Master and Commander". Observer. 18 Jan. 
  23. ^ H.J. Poole (1970). "Master and Commander". Irish Press. 21 Jan. 
  24. ^ "Master and Commander". Fantastic Fiction. Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  25. ^ Mark Horowitz (8 September 1991). "Down to the Sea in Ships". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  26. ^ "The Films of Peter Weir". 


  • A. E. Cunningham, ed. (1994). Patrick O'Brian: A Bibliography and Critical Appreciation. British Library Publishing Division. ISBN 0-7123-1071-1. 
  • Anne Chotzinoff Grossman, Lisa Grossman Thomas (2000). Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which Is a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels. W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-32094-4. 
  • Dean King (2001). A Sea of Words: Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales. Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-6615-2. 
  • Dean King (2001). Harbors and High Seas: Map Book and Geographical Guide to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O'Brian. Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-6614-4. 
  • Brian Lavery (2003). Jack Aubrey Commands: An Historical Companion to the Naval World of Patrick O'Brian. Conway Maritime. ISBN 0-85177-946-8. 
  • David Miller (2003). The World of Jack Aubrey: Twelve-Pounders, Frigates, Cutlasses, and Insignia of His Majesty's Royal Navy. Running Press Book Publishers. ISBN 0-7624-1652-1. 
  • Richard O'Neill (2003). Patrick O'Brian's Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey's World. Running Press. ISBN 0-7624-1540-1. 

External links[edit]