Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | January 14, 2012

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 4: The Mauritius Command

Part four of my summaries.  The Mauritius Command brings O’Brian’s series to a grander naval scale and our co-protagonist Aubrey to new levels of rank and responsibility.  In the three preceding books, Aubrey took his first command, fought hard to gain the status of post captain, and gained his most famous ship and sailed it to India.  Now he is saved from his disappointing domestic life by his friend Maturin and given not just a ship but a squadron.  The large action–whole fleets in motion, islands invaded–is matched by large characters.  Aubrey’s chief nemesis is, in fact, not the French Admiral he has been sent to defeat but a captain under his own command:  Lord Clonfert strives for, above all else, status and recognition, and he is driven to beat his old shipmate Aubrey.  Clonfert is also at odds with Captain Corbett, who has a reputation for disciplinary cruelty and is not exactly well loved by his crew.  In short, while Aubrey must manage a campaign to control the south Indian Ocean he must also manage the officers who make up that campaign.  He finds this to be much more of a burden than he expected.

The heart of the series remains Dr. Maturin.  His observations, especially of Aubrey and Clonfert, give emotional depth to a book that might otherwise be little more than Navy reports.  He does not, unfortunately, have much time for natural history, because the mission to control Mauritius and its neighboring islands requires as much political maneuvering as military maneuvering.  Maturin’s abilities as spy and, now, of negotiator and propagandist, make him critical to the campaign.  As a character, Maturin brings to the novel both humanity and complexity.  It kinda needs it; without Maturin, the book would be all militial tension.

O’Brian brings this all together with a huge amount of historical accuracy, or at least historical inspiration.  Aubrey’s earlier exploits were based on the real Thomas Cochrane.  In The Mauritius Command, Aubrey is taking the role of the real of Josias Rowley.  Names of officers, names of ships, and the unfolding of events are all drawn directly from records, climaxing with a telling of the disastrous Battle of Grand Port.  This level of detail also made this book the hardest to summarize so far.  In other words, SPOILER ALERT of the strongest order.

“Portsmouth” by Joseph Mallord William Turner

(1) Captain Jack Aubrey is living with no assignment and on half pay in a small, drafty home called Ashgrove Cottage with his wife Sophie, his daughter Cecilia, twin baby girls, and the always aggressively dominant—and now bereft—Mrs. Williams, his mother-in-law.  It is not the domestic bliss he had always hoped for.  Even as he tries to learn of gardens, livestock, and servants, he spends his time looking out to the fleet of Portsmouth through a telescope in a small observatory, both made by his own hand.  He is ecstatic to be visited by his old friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin.  Over dinner at the nearby Crown, Aubrey admits to Maturin that, however much he may love Sophie, he had the wrong idea of marriage.  The next day, Sophie begs Maturin to get her husband a command.  Maturin secretly reveals to Aubrey that four French ships under Admiral Hamelin, the new heavy frigates Vénus, Manche, Bellone, and Caroline, are making mischief around Mauritius.  Aubrey’s friend has also pulled strings for Aubrey to replace the ailing Captain Loveless aboard the frigate Boadicea, lead a squadron against the French, and install a British governor.  Aubrey can barely contain his excitement at having not only a command but also a Commodore’s broad pennant.  He listens to Maturin’s initial briefing until a Marine arrives with official orders.  Lady Clonfert, the wife of Lord Clonfert—soon to be one of Aubrey’s captains—arrives, having already heard of the mission by rumor, and asks to be transported to the Cape of Good Hope and her husband.  Aubrey, however, is in a happy rush to get to his ship.

Robert Townsend Farquhar

(2) Aubrey and Maturin set sail with Mauritius’ potential new governor, Mr. Farquhar, but slyly slip away from Lady Clonfert.  At sea, Aubrey has immediate success:  At the Dry Salvages, he takes the French frigate Hébé, formerly HMS Hyaena, and her prize, the merchant snow Intrepid Fox.  He makes the best of his capture, collecting able crew and sending the rest, including his First Lieutenant, Akers, off to Gibraltar with the ships.  He promotes Mr. Seymour to First Lieutenant and Master’s Mate Johnson to Lieutenant.  Their slow voyage south allows Farquhar to get his sea legs, works the crew into a routine, and gives Aubrey his chance to, as always, improve the gunnery.  Aubrey tells Maturin of his experience serving with Clonfert; a picture emerges of a minor aristocrat not without experience or valor but more concerned with how he is perceived by those around him.

“A View of the Cape of Good Hope” by Hodges
(3) Boadicea reaches the Cape, where Aubrey’s squadron is waiting:  the aged two-decker Raisonable, the frigates Sirius and Néréide, and the sloop Otter.  Aubrey meets with Admiral Bertie, who briefs him on the enemy and tells him that his base of operations will be the island of Rodriguez.  On shore in Simon’s Town, Maturin ends up at a tavern and meets Golovnin of the stranded Russian sloop Diana and Mr. McAdams, the drunken surgeon of the Otter.  Maturin also runs into the inevitable Barret Bonden, anxious to get himself and Preserved Killick back under the friendly command of Aubrey after a horrible experience aboard the Néréide. Aubrey gets off on the wrong foot with Clonfert when he tells him that he did not bring his wife.  Aubrey is given orders to assume command of the Raisonable, pass the Boadicea to Captain Eliot, raise his pennant, and prepare to fight the French for control of islands of La Réunion and Mauritius and the surrounding waters.  Aubrey summons his Captains—the flashy Lord Clonfert of the Otter, the harshly disciplinarian Corbett of the Néréide, and the able but meek Pym of the Sirius.  Personal politics immediately complicate Aubrey’s task, as Corbett and Clonfert are perpetually at odds, and Clonfert wants to outdo Aubrey himself.  Aubrey then tours the fleet:  The Sirius seems competent under its pomp, the Néréide has a sullen crew and is in bad repair, and the Otter is impossibly pretty and cheerful.  He shares all of his observations and opinions with Maturin and puts the initial odds slightly in the favor of the French.
A map of the island of La Réunion
(4) Sailing towards La Réunion, the ships of Aubrey’s squadron, joined by the fast Company schooner Wasp, reveal their strengths and weaknesses and have their gunnery skills honed.  Aubrey sends the Boadicea and Sirius to scout off Mauritius as Maturin prepares to go to La Réunion to gather intelligence on the Wasp; the former uncomfortably entertains the ship’s officers, while the latter enjoys a pleasant meal with the Wasp’s captain.  Maturin returns with his ubiquitous specimens and reports that the French Caroline is in St. Paul’s with two captured merchant ships.  Aubrey plans to free the Indiamen but first heads to Rodriguez, where the eager and able Colonel Keating and his troops are ready for action.  Corbett and Clonfert argue over how to best land for the attack.  Just as Maturin is about to head ashore, he is called to the Otter by McAdams to appraise the fragile health of Clonfert.  Having decided on Corbett’s plan, and with Keating’s troops aboard, the ships rendezvous with the Boadecia and the Sirius, and the heavy Boadecia is sent to bottle up St. Paul’s until the rest arrive.  The squadron runs in, and the soldiers go ashore and take the batteries.  As the Caroline opens fire on the British troops, the same batteries fire upon the port.  The Caroline then batters the old Raisonable.  The Boadicea engages the Caroline until the French strike.  The town is taken, although Clonfert accidentally blows up a warehouse with half a million pounds worth of Company silk.  The captured Caroline is renamed the Bourbonnaise, given to Corbett, and ordered to the Cape, while Clonfert is given the Néréide and his First Lieutenant Tomkinson takes over the Otter.  The victory puts the odds, in Aubrey’s estimation, now at even. 
(5) Back at the Cape, Admiral Bertie is pleased with Aubrey’s success and his own profit.  While Aubrey is celebrated, Maturin works with Farquhar on propaganda to convince the people of La Réunion of the benefits of British rule.  In his diary, Maturin reflects on Lord Clonfert’s desire to be a man of stature only because he feels he should, and on how marriage and responsibility have all but killed his friend Aubrey’s youthful enthusiasm.  Aubrey argues that now is the time to take La Réunion but is rebuffed.  The Admiral says that more ships are coming:  Iphigenia, Magicienne, and Leopard.  Time passes until news comes that the French have taken more ships, including the British sloop Victor and the Portuguese frigate Minerva.  Shifting his pendant to the more durable Boadecia, Aubrey quickly sets sail and finds the Magicienne, under Captain Curtis, has saved the Windham while the French Vénus has escaped in bad weather.  Aubrey, back aboard a smaller and familiar vessel, is far more comfortable.  Aubrey’s squadron begins the routine of blockading Port-Louis, Mauritius.  Aboard the Grappler, a brig that had been retaken at St. Paul’s, Maturin ventures to La Réunion; he finds the island a hard nut to crack but gains good intelligence on Mauritius.  Maturin then goes to Clonfert’s Néréide, which he finds sadly artificial.  A hurricane batters the squadron, and they are forced to return to the Cape to refit.
Rivière des Pluies, La Réunion
(6) As the British repair, the French are free to make trouble again.  It is an anxious time, Aubrey feeling the weight of his responsibility to the Admiral, his fleet, and his own ship.  Maturin is ashore; back at the tavern, McAdams reveals to him that Clonfert is bent on outdoing Aubrey.  Letters arrive from home but are all awash.  Finally, there is good news:  The Iphigenia under Captain Lambert arrives after bringing reinforcements to Rodriguez, and the time to invade La Réunion has come.  Aubrey gathers his captains and sends the Iphigenia and Magicienne immediately back to blockade Port-Louis.  Presiding over a court-martial, Aubrey finds himself again in a disagreement with Clonfert over whether duty to the service is more important than human life.  The Néréide leaves quickly for the blockade.  With Farquhar aboard, the remaining squadron then makes hard speed for the rendezvous.  They find that the French have gained another frigate, the Astrée. They then find that Rodriguez is full of troops ready to go.  Old friend Pullings is in command of a transport, the Groper.  The invasion fleet sails for La Réunion with a three-pronged strategy.  The first noise is made at Sainte-Marie.  At the second location, Rivière des Pluies, growing surf makes the landing more difficult until Pullings grounds the Groper as a breakwater.  At the last, Grande-Chaloupe, Colonel Fraser lands artillery.  Here, Keating’s troops are ready to charge…until Maturin disappoints all the soldiers by swiftly negotiating surrender.
“Combat De La L’Ile De La Passe (Ile de France)” by Morel-Fatio
(7) Farquhar, now Governor of La Réunion, agrees with Aubrey and Keating that now is the time to move on Mauritius.  Aubrey’s plan is to attack Port South-East, also known as Grand Port, the French’s next best harbour after Port-Louis, which will provide a base for landing troops.  This will involve taking the heavily fortified Ile de la Passe and then navigating ships through the shallow, difficult channel.  The task is given to Pym’s Sirius, Clonfert’s Néréide, and the newly arrived brig Staunch.  Maturin is to travel on the Néréide with his propaganda, but he falls and is wounded while trying to board.  He is attended by Clonfert and the increasingly tiresome McAdams.  By the time they reach Ile de la Passe, Pym has already captured the fort.  Sirius and Staunch depart, leaving the Néréide alone to guard the port.  There is a pleasant interval of both political and military progress, although the success makes Clonfert insufferable again.  Suddenly five French ships come in:  Victor, Minerve, Bellone, Ceylon, and the recaptured Windham.  They line up to enter the port as the crew of the Néréide and the gunners ashore make ready.  Even as the Victor strikes, an accident at the fort creates a total disaster on the island.  The powerful Bellone opens on both the shore batteries and the Néréide.  The Victor hoists French colors again.  Although now trapped, Clonfert, in a ridiculous euphoria, believes his victory is certain.  After two days of waiting for further combat, the Sirius arrives but runs aground on the coral of the channel.  The Magicienne comes next but also runs aground, while the Iphigenia engages the MinerveNéréide goes broadside-to-broadside with the massive Bellone until she’s loose and raked by her foe, while the other French ships reach the safety of the harbour.  McAdams in an alcoholic coma, Maturin tends to the many wounded of the Néréide and finally Clonfert himself.  The dying Néréide is further battered.  Maturin escapes to the Sirius, but he finds that Pym has no real sense of command.  The Magicienne, hard aground and holed, is abandoned and blown up.  The Iphigenia is trying to warp out to safety.  Then the French Vénus, Manche and Astrée are sighted.  Maturin flees before the channel is completely closed and sails to the Boadicea to tell Aubrey of the horrible defeat.
“Battle of Grand Port:  HMS Nereide” by Pierre-Julien Gilbert
(8) Boadicea looks in on Port South-East, finding the French in control and repairing.  The Vénus—wearing Hamelin’s pendant—and the Manche however, are just out of port, and chase the Boadicea as she flees back to La Réunion.  Aubrey reaches the island well before the French and sends the transport Emma, now under Pullings, off to Rodriguez before sailing back out to face Hamelin, who has turned back for Mauritius.  As the French continue to refit at Port South-East, the Otter and the again-British Windham are fixed up as well as possible for action.  Meanwhile, Corbett returns, now commanding the Africaine, but he is being chased by two French ships.  Boadicea, Otter, and Staunch head out to face the French frigates, which turn out to be the Astreé and the captured Iphigenia, renamed Iphigénie by the French.  In hard winds and cross seas, the Otter and Staunch fall behind while the Africaine pulls ahead and engages the French.  When Aubrey reaches the scene, he finds the Africaine damaged and striking.  Boadicea fires on Iphigénie with a vengeance while receiving fire from the Astreé.  As the Otter and Staunch finally catch up, Aubrey sets his goal at retaking the Africaine.  Yet the French flee and abandon their prize.  The crew is happily rescued, but no one will utter a word of the fate of Corbett.
(9) As the Africaine is towed, it is revealed that the power-mad Corbett was tossed overboard by his own men.  Back at La Réunion, Maturin and Farquhar consider the next strategy for taking Mauritius, one given new strength by the news that Napoleon has been excommunicated by the Pope.  Maturin goes on a mission to Mauritius to dissuade the Catholic troops among the French from fighting.  Aubrey knows that he is outnumbered but feels that his force has the strength of conviction.  After quickly refitting, the Boadicea, Otter, and Staunch sail again.  Maturin returns to the Boadicea aboard an aviso but is again hurt during the transfer.  In spite of his wounds, Maturin makes his report:  The Bellone, Iphigénie, and Minerve are all out of commission under heavy repairs, and he witnessed the Vénus and the Victor engaging what at first appeared to be an Indiaman but was in fact a converted man-of-war, the Bombay.  Aubrey finds the Bombay taken and in tow.  The Boadicea clears for action.  The Vénus comes in one-on-one, but the Boadicea sweeps her with grapeshot.  The Vénus is taken…and Hamelin is found dead.  Aubrey’s victory, and Maturin’s machinations ashore, turn the odds entirely in British favor.
Port Louis, Mauritius, about 1840
(10) After much hard work, a full invasion force sets sail to conquer Mauritius.  Out of nowhere they spot a great British armada.  At Rodriguez, both Aubrey and Keating are betrayed:  All of the Commodore’s successes are now being claimed by Admiral Bertie, and the Colonel has been usurped by General Abercrombie.  Yet there is also news from England that Sophie has given birth to a son, and so when Aubrey faces the Admiral he is surprisingly calm.  In fact, Maturin had started political games back in London to Aubrey’s favor.  Maturin’s propaganda also makes the invasion of Mauritius, carried out according to Aubrey and Keating’s original plan, all but bloodless.  Farquhar lands.  Maturin finds McAdam tending a badly mauled and despondent Clonfert.  When the French officially surrender Mauritius to the British, Clonfert hears the celebration and kills himself by tearing the bandage off his wounded neck, crying out against Aubrey.  The officers have a grand celebratory dinner, and Aubrey is cheered…and ordered home.

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