The Commodore (novel)

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This article is about the seventeenth novel in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. For the C.S. Forester Hornblower novel, see The Commodore.
The Commodore
First edition cover
Author Patrick O'Brian
Cover artist Geoff Hunt
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Aubrey-Maturin series
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Harper Collins (UK)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Compact audio cassette, Compact Disc)
Pages 282 paperback edition
ISBN 0-393-03760-6 first edition, hardback
OCLC 31970137
823/.914 20
LC Class PR6029.B55 C66 1995
Preceded by The Wine-Dark Sea
Followed by The Yellow Admiral

The Commodore is the seventeenth historical novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series by British author Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1995. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.

After a long-awaited stay at home in England, Commodore Aubrey is given a squadron to conduct a mission against slave ships in West Africa and then he and Maturin are sent against Napoleon's Navy. Dr Maturin finally meets his young daughter, whom he must protect from a vicious enemy agent out to get him through his family. The story ranges from England to Spain to West Africa and the rocky west coast of Ireland.

Plot summary[edit]

Jack Aubrey wins the Ringle, a Baltimore Clipper, from his friend Captain Dundas, as the Surprise accompanies HMS Berenice back to England, after a stop on Ascension Island for repairs to the Surprise. Maturin first meets with Sir Joseph Blaine, while Aubrey heads home to his family. When Maturin does reach home with Sarah and Emily, he finds his young daughter Brigid in the care of Clarissa Oakes, now widowed. He searches for his wife to correct her misapprehensions, about his judgment of her, and about their daughter. Brigid is not talking yet, though old enough to do so. When Maturin meets Sir Joseph at their club, he learns that the Duke of Habachtsthal, the third conspirator in the Ledward-Wray conspiracy, is aiming back at both of them. The Duke's influence has delayed the pardons of both Clarissa and Padeen. Maturin needs to secure his fortune and his family. Maturin asks Aubrey for the Ringle to move his cash to Corunna and then sends Clarissa, Padeen and Brigid to live at the Benedictine house in Ávila, Spain, for safety. Brigid takes to Padeen, and is speaking in Irish and English aboard the Ringle. Both Blaine and Maturin hire Mr Pratt, to gather information on the Duke and to find Diana.

Aubrey gets orders to command a squadron of ships being assembled, a position which earns him promotion to Commodore. The mission to disrupt the African slave trade, illegal since 1807 by British law, is bruited in the English newspapers to be sure the French know of it. The second, secret mission of the squadron is to intercept a French squadron aimed at Ireland, hoping for better success than in 1796-97. Two of the ships in the squadron have captains not up to Aubrey's standards: Duff in HMS Stately has love affairs with forecastlemen, upsetting discipline, while Thomas of HMS Thames is too much concerned about appearance and not enough about seamanship and fighting the ship. Long time friend Tom Pullings is captain of the flagship HMS Bellona, where Aubrey stays and Maturin is surgeon. The Ringle meets the squadron at the Berlings off Peniche peninsula, and the squadron makes its way to Freetown to begin the first mission. The crews practise hard at lowering down boats and other naval skills. Aubrey is in a bad mood, felt throughout the ships, until Maturin tells him that Pastor Hinksey is to be married and set up in India; jealousy had gnawed at him. Aubrey devises a scheme to surprise each slave port up to the Bight of Benin, not touching Whydah, as news of the squadron emptied the harbour. The squadron successfully disrupts the slave trade, saving over 6,000 slaves. They take eighteen slaving ships as prizes, first taking the Nancy, and using the empty ship for target practice to good effect in Freetown. The success is not without loss of men to disease and attack. Maturin survives a bout of yellow fever contracted while out a few days botanizing on Philip's Island with Mr Square. As he recuperates, they stop at St Thomas island for medical supplies; two officers (one from Stately, one from Thames) step ashore for a duel by guns, each fatally wounded, not resolving the bad feeling over the Stately's fighting qualities. They reach Freetown again, now in the dry season, meeting the British colonial governor and his wife, herself an esteemed naturalist, happy to meet Maturin. Maturin leaves the potto he had aboard in her care.

Aubrey hastens to meet the French squadron, commanded by the wily Commodore Esprit-Tranquille Maistral, south and east of the point the French are expected to meet the Caesar arriving from America. Caesar fails to arrive, so they proceed northeast to Ireland. Aubrey informs his captains of his plan of attack and the Bellona attacks the French pennant-ship, with the Thames and Stately attacking the other French two-decker ship. The first strikes on a rocky shelf and surrenders; the second badly mauls the Stately and flees eastwards. Thames is stuck in a reef. The four French troop carriers and one frigate, which are penned in a cove, are handled by HMS Royal Oak and Warwick, who join the scene of battle, having heard the gunfire. The other French frigate slips away. Bellona is taking water and Aubrey is glad for the help. Ashore, Maturin speaks to the Irishmen who so badly want the guns aboard the foundered ship. He and Father Boyle persuade them this is not the moment, as anyone found with the French guns by the British will be hanged. After tending the wounded, Maturin learns from his friend Roche that the flags are at half-staff on account of the death of a minor royal, the Duke of Habachtsthal. He has committed suicide. Maturin, pleased at the news, proceeds to the home of Colonel Villiers, a relative of Diana's late husband with whom she is now living, where he and Diana are happily reunited.


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey: Appointed Commodore in the Royal Navy.
  • Stephen Maturin: Surgeon of the Bellona, physician, natural philosopher, friend to Jack and an intelligence officer.
  • Heneage Dundas: Captain of HMS Berenice, brother to the first Sea Lord, and friend of Aubrey.
  • Preserved Killick: Aubrey's steward.
  • Barret Bonden: Coxwain for Aubrey.
  • Mr David Adams: Captain's clerk on Surprise, then Secretary for the Commodore on Bellona.
  • Padeen Colman: Irish servant to Maturin.
  • Sarah and Emily Sweeting: Melanesian girls rescued earlier by Maturin (in The Nuutmeg of Consolation), rated as ships boys; set up in The Grapes under Mrs Broad's care.
  • Duke of Habachtsthal: Last British official feeding information to the French and endangering Maturin and Blaine personally. He was a homosexual lover of Ledward and Wray, killed earlier. He is minor royalty in the British line, with property in a German state (now held by the French) and in Ireland. He kills himself at the end of this story, reason not explained; perhaps Mr Pratt's investigations threatened his exposure or his own agents were turning on him.
  • Awkward Davies: Able seaman.
  • Joe Plaice: Able seaman and cousin to Bonden.
  • Fellowes: Captain of HMS Thunderer.
  • Mr Philips: Admiralty officer aboard the Thunderer with a message for Maturin.
  • Sophia Aubrey: Wife of Jack and mother of their three children.
  • Fannie and Charlotte Aubrey: Twin daughters of Jack and Sophia.
  • George Aubrey: Young son of Jack and Sophia.
  • Mrs Williams: Mother of Sophia and aunt to Diana Villiers, a mean and gossiping woman, trying to interfere with Brigid's upbringing.
  • Mrs Selina Morris: Friend and companion to Mrs Williams, of the same character.
  • Mr Briggs: Servant to Mrs Morris and money man for her and Mrs Williams, as the three take bets on horses.
  • Diana Villiers: Stephen's wife and mother of their child.
  • Clarissa Oakes: Young gentlewoman, widow of Lieutenant William Oakes, now part of Maturin's household, introduced in Clarissa Oakes.
  • Brigid Maturin: Young daughter of Stephen and Diana, showing developmental problems, until Padeen enters her life; nickname Brideen.
  • Aunt Petronilla: Aunt to Maturin who heads a Benedictine convent in Avila, where his daughter, Clarissa and Padeen will stay.
  • Mr Hinksey: Priest for the parish including Ashgrove Cottage, helpful to Mrs Aubrey, and about to be married.
  • Sir Joseph Blaine: Head of Intelligence at the Admiralty, naturalist who studies beetles, and friend of Maturin.
  • Mr Pratt: Investigator ("thief taker") introduced in The Reverse of the Medal.
  • Mr Brendan Lawrence: Lawyer for Aubrey, and advisor to Maturin in responding to the Duke, introduced in The Reverse of the Medal.
  • Mnason: Jack's butler at Woolcombe.
  • William Smith: First assistant surgeon on Bellona, with experience in Bridgetown.
  • Alexander Macaulay: Second assistant surgeon on Bellona, fresh from his training.
  • Mr Wetherby: Youngster on Bellona.
  • Mr William Reade: Midshipman, about age 15, on HMS Bellona, who lost an arm in battle; introduced in The Thirteen Gun Salute. He sails the Ringle, Aubrey's personally-owned tender, a fast-sailing Baltimore clipper.
  • Mr Gray: First Lieutenant on the Bellona, who dies from infection after surgery.
  • Mr William Harding: Second Lieutenant on the Bellona, moves up to first on the death of Mr Gray.
  • Mr Whewell: Acting third Lieutenant on the Bellona, promoted from master's mate on the Aurora due to his knowledge relevant to the mission.
  • John Paulton: Friend met in New South Wales who assisted in kinder treatment and escape of Padeen Colman in The Nutmeg of Consolation; his novel is published, and dedicated to Stephen Maturin, as reported by some in the squadron who read it.
  • Mr Willoughby: Marine Lieutenant aboard HMS Stately, who is insulted at dinner by the 2nd Lieutenant of HMS Thames.
  • William Duff: Captain of HMS Stately; he loses a leg in the action against the French squadron in Bantry Bay in Ireland.

Met at Freetown

  • John Square: Krooman who assists Maturin during the first mission of the squadron.
  • Houmouzios: Greek money lender in the market at Freetown who takes messages for Maturin.
  • James Wood: Colonial Governor at Freetown in Sierra Leone with experience in the Royal Navy.
  • Mrs Wood: Born Christine Hatherleigh, she is the sister of Edward, who is an eminent naturalist. She shares her brother's interest and knowledge.

Met in West Cork

  • Esprit-Tranquille Maistral: Commodore of the French squadron headed to Bantry Bay in West Cork in Ireland.
  • Mr Frank Geary: Captain of HMS Warwick, posted at Bere Haven, which they left on hearing reports of gunfire.
  • Father Boyle: Ashore in Ireland where the French ship grounded, he aids in bringing the wounded to hospitals on land.
  • Stanislas Roche: Local man in West Cork, old friend to Maturin, who explains why the flags are at half-mast, and takes him where Diana Villiers is staying, at the home of a relative of her late husband.
Squadron leaders
  • Captain Tom Pullings: Bellona
  • Captain William Duff: Stately
  • Captain Thomas (nicknamed the Purple Emperor): Thames
  • Captain Francis Howard: Aurora
  • Captain Michael Fitton: Nimble
  • Captain Smith: Camilla
  • Dick Richardson (introduced in The Mauritius Command): Laurel


  • HM Hired Vessel Surprise – Twenty-eight gun frigate
  • HMS Berenice – Sixty-four gun two decker
  • HMS Thunderer – Seventy-four gun two decker

Jack Aubrey's squadron:

  • HMS Bellona – Seventy-four gun; broadside weight of 926 pounds; crew of 590
  • HMS Stately – Sixty-four; broadside weight of 792 pounds
  • HMS Thames – Thirty-two gun, 12 pounder; broadside weight of 300 pounds
  • HMS Aurora – A twenty-four gun, 9 pounder; crew of 196
  • HMS Nimble – A cutter
  • HMS Camilla – Twenty-gun ship
  • HMS Laurel - twenty-two guns, new sixth rate
  • HMS Orestes– Brig-rigged sloop
  • Ringle – Baltimore clipper, tender to Dundage on Berenice then to Aubrey on Bellona

Arrive upon hearing the gunfire in Bere Haven, Ireland

  • HMS Royal Oak – Seventy-four gun
  • HMS Warwick – Seventy-four gun
  • Frigate in company

Slave ship

  • Nancy
  • Two ships of the line with seventy-four guns
  • Caesar, seventy-four guns, missed her rendezvous
  • Two frigates, one with thirty six guns, the other with thirty-two guns, all eighteen pounder
  • Four troop carriers
  • Marie-Paule, privateer that threatens Ringle before the landing in Corunna

Series chronology[edit]

This novel references actual events with accurate historical detail, like all in this series. In respect to the internal chronology of the series, it is the last of eleven novels (beginning with The Surgeon's Mate) 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 The Far Side of the World, the tenth novel in this series). The events of The Yellow Admiral again match up with the historical years of the Napoleonic wars in sequence, as the first six novels did.


Kirkus Reviews has strong words of praise for a mesmerizing performance on many levels, with direct links to Jane Austen:

O'Brian enjoys a sparkling success while playing with distinctly modern themes -- in this 17th installment of the lives of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, best friends and seafaring warriors of the Napoleonic Wars. Following on the botched South American adventures of The Wine-Dark Sea (1993), Aubrey and Maturin find themselves battling the perils of domesticity in an England recognizable from the pages of Jane Austen's Persuasion. In episodes of Aubrey at home with his wife and children and a mother-in-law-turned-bookie, the author expands Austen's portrait of landlocked, rather female concerns -- relations among in-laws, etiquette and ambition among the gentry -- to show how slavery, the spoils of war, and financial trickery formed the underpinnings of that romanticized and "genteel" society. Maturin's problems are more dramatic: His previously unseen daughter Brigid is autistic, his wife Diana has fled in despair, his addiction to coca leaves has replaced his former appetite for liquid opium. Worse, a homosexual lord is being blackmailed by French agents to denounce Maturin for harboring two transported persons, the penalty for which, given Maturin's French-Irish background, could be the gallows. These themes mix powerfully when Aubrey is ordered to take a squadron and suppress the slave trade on Africa's West Coast, with secret orders to double back and intercept a French invasion of Ireland. One of Aubrey's captains is homosexual, a capable man flawed by his inability to keep his hands off his more comely crewmen. Meanwhile, Maturin's enlightened 18th-century speculations on love, sex, and politics endow the action with rich, often comic, ironies, expressed as always in O'Brian's hyperbolic, nearly Joycean flights of rhetoric. A mesmerizing performance on many levels -- as history, as story, as literature -- this novel transcends two genres in one stroke, the domestic romance and the seafaring hero's tale. In doing so, O'Brian bids to be considered the rightful heir not just of C.S. Forester, but of Jane Austen herself.[1]

Publishers Weekly notes the amount of domestic life in this novel, told with great historical and nautical accuracy:

Having spent 16 previous volumes so wonderfully delineating his pair of 18th-century heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and physician/secret agent Stephen Maturin, and the world in which they live, O'Brian apparently feels that series fans will be delighted to share any aspect of their lives. He's probably right. In this 17th seagoing adventure (after The Wine-Dark Sea), O'Brian successfully manages the trick of devoting much of the book to matters more domestic than naval. Stephen's words to Jack's wife, Sophie, hardly smell of gunpowder and brine: ...that was a sumptuous feast you gave us.... I returned to the venison pasty not once but three times. Jack is greeted with an unexpected promotion to full Commodore when he arrives back in England. Meanwhile, Stephen finds that his wife, Diane, has run away because of her guilt over the apparent autism of their young daughter, whom Stephen meets for the first time, and with whom he is painfully unable to communicate. When next they head out to sea, both men depart under clouds: a jealousy-induced disagreement with Sophie weighs on Jack's mind, while plotting by Stephen's enemies has put his fortune and friends in jeopardy. Re-engaging in the Napoleonic Wars, the new Commodore takes his motley and often fractious squadron on a foray to disrupt slave traders in the Gulf of Guinea and then to the seas off Ireland to engage the French. As always, O'Brian tells his tale with great historical and nautical accuracy. Those who have sailed these seas before will happily go along on this latest voyage.[2]

Joel White, writing in the New York Times says: One fears that The Commodore, the 17th novel by Patrick O'Brian in the Aubrey-Maturin series, will not quite come up to the standard. Fear not. . . . Those who live vicariously for thundering guns and the clash of cutlasses will find The Commodore relatively peaceful compared with the usual Patrick O'Brian offering. . . . There is a great deal to be said for reading O'Brian's novels in proper order, . . . They're worth the trip.[3]

Patrick Reardon writing in the Chicago Tribune says: . . . In other words, "The Commodore" is a worthy successor to the 16 earlier Aubrey-Maturin novels that O'Brian, now in his 80s, has written over the past two decades. The book is not so much about battle, although there are some battles. It is not so much about history, although it is filled with the real stuff of the past. It is not even, in the end, about sailing, although it captures with unique clarity the terrible beauty and wondrous excitement, the deep awe and hard work, that are so much the experience of keeping a ship afloat and on its voyage. . . . The Commodore, like its predecessors, is about people, seen deep within the context of the exotic and mundane events of their lives.[4]

Publication history[edit]

References to actual history[edit]

The book makes reference to the West African slave trade and the Slave Trade Act of 1807. The Act made smugglers of slave traders, putting them at risk of seizure by the Royal Navy. As described in the novel, the slaves removed from the slave ships were not returned to their birthplace or place of seizure, but brought to Freetown in Sierra Leone, where they were not subject to re-capture. Aubrey's first sight of slaves aboard a ship designed for that trade deeply affected him, though he did not share Maturin's fierce abolitionist views, a way to depict the long struggle to end slavery in the UK and its colonies and territories. The ship Nancy as described in the novel is quite similar to the British ship Brookes as to the space allotted for the human cargo.

Aubrey is promoted to Commodore, the first flag officer rank. He has a captain under him, so he wears the uniform of a Rear Admiral. This rank came into formal existence in the Royal Navy in 1805, before the setting of this novel, about 1812 or 1813.[5]

How the Baltimore clipper came to O'Brian's attention[edit]

Ken Ringle of The Washington Post interviewed Patrick O'Brian and kept up correspondence with him. Ringle learned that O'Brian did not know about the fast sailing type of vessel called the Baltimore clipper, a vessel used by the Americans in the War of 1812. He writes that after December 1992, "when I happened on a new book on Baltimore clippers, I picked up a copy to send him."[6] Thus the vessel is named Ringle, and its amazing sailing properties well-described, and used for critical parts of the plot, like saving Maturin's family and fortune.


  1. ^ "The Commodore" (15 February 1995 ed.). Kirkus Reviews. 20 May 2010. Retrieved 20 January 2015. 
  2. ^ "The Commodore". Publishers Weekly. April 1995. Retrieved 30 January 2015. 
  3. ^ Joel White (30 April 1995). "17-Gun Salute". New York Times. Retrieved 30 January 2015. 
  4. ^ Patrick T Reardon (10 April 1995). "Characters Steer Deft `Commodore'". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 30 January 2015. 
  5. ^ "Officer Ranks in the Royal Navy". Research, Information Sheet #96. National Museum of the Royal Navy. 2000. Retrieved 30 January 2015. 
  6. ^ Ken Ringle (8 January 2000). "Appreciation". Washington Post. Retrieved 1 February 2015.