Regular port-swillers will recall that by way of a breather in my Lenten reading cycle, I decided to go back to Patrick O’Brian’s earliest sea novels, The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore.  Both books tell the story of the remarkable voyage round the world by Commodore Anson in 1740. 

 The former tells the tale of one Peter Palafox, a (ficticious) midshipman aboard Anson’s flagship HMS Centurion which, after rounding Cape Horn, preyed upon Spanish shipping and shore installations, eventually capturing the Manila galleon which carried better than a million pieces o’ eight.   The latter relates the adventures of Jack Byron, a (very real) midshipman serving aboard HMS Wager, a converted Indiaman that was part of Anson’s squadron.  Upon entering the Pacific, she wound up wrecked upon the rocks of an island in Patagonia.  (It is still called Wager Island and you can find it on Google Earth.  I tried to post the image but don’t know how.  It’s located on the south side of a large, round bay, the first serious bay on the shore of Chile as you go north from the Straits of Magellan.)  Eventually, Byron and a few other survivors made it back to England, but only after a harrowing time of it, indeed.

I believe I have only read The Unknown Shore once before, and that quite some time ago.  Thus, I had totally forgotten not only a good deal of the plot, but also how much more a precursor it is of the Aubrey/Maturin novels than is The Golden Ocean.  Not only is Jack in many ways a young Jack Aubrey, and not only does he have an eccentric young medical friend (Surgeon’s Mate Tobias Barrow) who could be Stephen Maturin’s little brother, but the whole style of the book – its turns of phrase, its humor, its pacing – illustrates the Old Sheep of the Lake District’s gag about the child being the father of the man.

Also, the story of the wreck of the Wager is not fiction (well, neither is the story of Anson and the Centurion, for that matter), but like many most all (as far as I know) of O’Brian’s sea tales, is based on historickal accounts.  Here, he doesn’t even bother changing things very much (except for adding Tobias and some unimportant domestic matters at the beginning and end), but instead lifts most of his tale straight out of Byron’s own account.  And a quick perusal of the devil’s website shewed, much to my delight, that the original is very much available in the form of  The Loss of the Wager: The Narratives of John Bulkeley and the Hon. John Byron, which book even now is winging its way to join the list of Robbo’s nautical library.  (John Bulkeley, by the way, was a member of the crew of the Wager.  After she struck and largely due to the poor command skills of Captain Cheap, he and some of the other survivors mutinied and made off.  Cheap, Byron and the small party of loyalists, aided by local Indians, eventually headed north and into the hands of the Spanish.  Bulkeley and his crew went south.  I don’t yet know the details, but somehow at least some of them got back round the Horn and made it home.)  I shall be very interested to read this book, not only for its own sake but also with an eye to how faithful O’Brian was to his source.  (Pretty faithful, if his later work is anything to go by.)

Oh, and I mentioned that Jack Byron (or more properly, the Hon. John Byron) was a real person?  Indeed.  He went on to have a full naval career, commanding in both the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution, and rose to the rank of Vice Admiral.  And yes, he was the grandfather of that libertine swine, the poet Byron, a footnote not lost in O’Brian’s story.  I suppose that says something about bloodlines petering out or going bad.  (Sorry, but I just can’t stick Lord Byron.)

So now that I’ve finished these stories, I can feel the salt water flowing in my veins again and am looking forward to boarding O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin stories once again after Easter, this time posting about them as I go along.  So stand by to hoist the Blue Peter!

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