Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | January 20, 2012

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 5: Desolation Island


Maybe it was the snow and ice that have still not completely loosened their grip on Seattle which made a voyage to an icy rock in the far southern ocean resonate.  Maybe it was the fact that this weather has kept me indoors since Wednesday, which gave me lots of time to read.  Or maybe it was the fact that Desolation Island was just that good.  SPOILERS, beware.

I devoured this one.  Two things made the fifth book especially good for me, which conveniently fall, again, between the sea of Aubrey and the intelligence of Maturin.  Like I said before, the problem with The Mauritius Command was that its was sort of a game of Naval chess:  Néréide moves to intercept Bellone, Boadecia moves to intercept Astreé, and so on.  That’s enjoyable…for a while.  Desolation Island, however, is more strictly a sailing adventure, Aubrey and his crew alone on the ocean overcoming perpetual challenges.  And there are lots of problems to be overcome:  storms, disease, a Dutch ship-of-the-line, and finally a collision with Antarctic ice that nearly sinks Aubrey’s ship.  It was very refreshing to me for O’Brian to have the action based on the toils of the trip rather than the moves of opposing fleets.  But then, I’m in it for the sailing more than for the war.

Maturin meanwhile, is busy with his own mental games.  He competes with a new character, a beautiful American spy named Wogan.  He competes with numerous medical challenges, not the least of which is an epidemic that nearly wipes out the crew.  And he competes with himself:  his pining for the impossible Villiers, his laudanum addiction.  Since the voyage takes Maturin from the warm Cape Verdes to the freezing Kerguelens–originally called “Desolation Islands” by no less than Captain James Cook–there is plenty to keep the naturalist Maturin, and us, occupied.

It is too broad to say that Aubrey is the brawn and Maturin is the brains.  Yet there is something to be said of the balance that O’Brian obtains in Desolation Island between the life-and-death events of HMS Leopard and the cunning espionage (and self-flagellation) of its physician.  Between the two, Book Five is simply a rollicking good yarn.

“Thatched Cottage, Ringwood, Hampshire” by T. Noelsmith

(1) Captain Aubrey and his family are living in fair comfort at Ashgrove Cottage, the wealth of his success from the Mauritius campaign allowing them to improve their home.  Stephen Maturin comes to observe the physicians attending to the elder Mrs. Williams.  Aubrey excitedly tells his friend about his next command, the two-deck, fourth-rate Leopard, recently rebuilt and not the horrible boat of old reputation.  His task is to sail to New South Wales and look into the situation of Governor Bligh, once Captain of the famously mutinous Bounty.  Aubrey then reveals to Maturin the scheme he has entered into with a man named Kimber, who has promised to turn the dross of an old Roman mine on Aubrey’s property into profitable silver.  In spite of his compatriot’s spirits, Maturin is low:  He has lost a patient, he has lost a folder of confidential papers, and he is pining for Diana Villiers.  The two ride to Portsmouth, and Maturin watches as Aubrey gambles at cards.  Returning to Ashgrove by starlight, Aubrey tells Maturin that the Leopard will be crewed by old friends, including Pullings and Babbington.  Later in the week, they meet with Pullings and Captain Heywood, who was a Midshipman on the Bounty during the mutiny, but his reminiscences offer little information about Bligh.  Although he is drawn to join Aubrey on his voyage, Maturin’s duty to British intelligence forces him to decline.

(2) Maturin, struggling with his use of laudanum to dull his sadness, returns to The Grapes.  He attempts to see Villiers, who is visiting London, but she has left suddenly; he learns that she has narrowly escaped what appears to be the law and returned to America.  Maturin is called urgently to the Admiralty, where Admiral Sieveright intimates that the connection between Maturin and an American agent named Mrs. Louisa Wogan via Villiers has exposed Maturin.  Maturin storms angrily back to The Grapes, but he is calmed by an unexpected visit by his old friend, Sir Joseph, who tells him that Villiers has been exonerated and Wogan is being sent the penal colonies of New Holland on Aubrey’s own Leopard.  Sir Joseph encourages the tired Maturin to sail with his friend and accompany the American spy.   Returning to Ashgrove Cottage, Maturin finds Aubrey’s affairs have rapidly deteriorated.  The mining scheme is collapsing.  Aubrey has called one of the gamblers a cheat, which means he is now obligated to accept any challenge from the accused.  To top it all, Aubrey has learned that the Leopard is to transport convicts.  Knowing that Aubrey must be saved from the follies of a sailor ashore, his wife Sophie pleads with Maturin to convince Aubrey to get to sea as soon as possible, but it is when she tells her husband of Maturin’s despondency that Aubrey decides to make haste and sail.

HMS Agamemnon” by Henry Clifford

(3) The Leopard fights a northwesterly gale in the notorious Bay of Biscay.   During the storm, the convicts below deck have managed to kill their superintendent, and their surgeon has died by accident at the same time that many of them are deathly seasick.   To make matters even worse, a stowaway is discovered, Mr. Herapath.   As the Leopard recovers from the blow, Aubrey discovers the wretched conditions of his human cargo and the tiny, solitary cabin that houses Mrs. Wogan.  Maturin, aided by his assistant, Martin, as well as the ship’s chaplain, Fisher, takes responsibility for the well being of the convicts.  He meets Wogan and at first keeps the relationship only that of a doctor and his charge.  Herapath is nursed into a place as crew.  The officers gather for dinner in the large wardroom with Capt. Aubrey and Dr. Maturin:  The Marine Captain Moore; two Marine Lieutenants, a highlander named Macpherson and an uncomfortable man named Howard; First Lieutenant Pullings; the middle-aged Second Lieutenant Grant; Third Lieutenant Babbington; the master, Larkin, soon revealed to be a bad alcoholic; the jolly purser, Benton; and Reverend Fisher.  Maturin urges Aubrey to grant as much liberty as possible to the convicts for the sake of their health and accompanied walks on the poop deck for Wogan…a means for him to get to know her and her information.  Another Lieutenant, Turnbull, beats a member of the crew, making him unfavorable in the eyes of Aubrey.  Maturin and Aubrey play music, always a happy thing for them both.

“Bai von Porto Praya (St, Jago, Cape Verde Islands” by Louis Auguste de Sainson

(4) The ship speeds southward, and all at first seems routine.  Herapath is assigned to the foretop and falls on his first climb, rescued, naturally, by Aubrey.  They reach St. Jago in the black, volcanic Cape Verde Islands.  Aubrey writes home of his contentment with his ship, while Maturin goes ashore for nuts and birds.  Yet there is trouble afoot, and much of it is due to the presence of Wogan.  Maturin discovers that Herapath hid aboard the ship to be with Wogan, his friend and lover.  Wogan’s mere presence as a woman aboard is creating inappropriate behavior and lapses in discipline for the crew, especially among the Marines.  Aubrey is resentful of Wogan’s influence, but he is all but directed by Maturin to let him handle her.  Lt. Grant, meanwhile, shows his jealousy for Aubrey’s success.  Then gaol-fever strikes the convicts; three men go into a coma and die.

An 18th century lithograph of Rua de Bom Jesus, Old Recife

(5) As the Leopard reaches the hot stillness of the doldrums, the gaol-fever quickly becomes a deadly epidemic.  Maturin loses Martin, and Herapath steps in.  After three long weeks, a storm brings wind and immediate improvement.  As the ship reaches the trade winds, the plague has finally run its horrible course:  116 lost, including all but three of the male convicts.  Herapath is rated Master’s Mate so that he can continue to assist Maturin.  With the crew reduced to the point that the Leopard can barely sail much less fight, and with Maturin’s medicine chest depleted, Aubrey decides to head for Recife.  Maturin hands over Wogan’s walks to a grateful Herapath, but this further distracts the sailors.  As the ship approaches South America, the crew writes letters; Maturin intercepts Wogan’s, which he carefully reads for hidden intelligence.  At Recife, the remaining invalids—including a very disappointed Pullings—are put ashore, Aubrey gains a few Portuguese crew, and Maturin procures medicine.  They encounter the frigate Nymph, who has just escaped from a Dutch seventy-four, the Waakzaamheid.

(6) Sailing for the Cape of Good Hope, Aubrey prepares his ship and crew for the possibility of battle.  The odds are bad:  The Dutchman is a much larger, more heavily armed man-of-war, and the Leopard itself is insufficiently manned.  There is more woman trouble as Wogan’s servant causes an outbreak of venereal disease and a Gypsy convict spreads word of bad luck and a ghost.  Over whisky, Herapath reveals his romantic history with Wogan…and his old addiction to opium.  Maturin “dowses” the ghost.  At dawn the next day, a sail is spotted—the Waakzaamheid.  Aubrey has only one option: run.  They exchange light fire from a distance, neither seriously damaging the other.  By cover of night, the Leopard crosses the Dutchman’s wake and flees for the Cape.

“The Gust” by Willen van der Velde

(7) Like a phantom, the Dutchman appears again in the morning.  Aubrey’s second attempt at the maneuver still finds his enemy between him and Africa.  The Dutch send boats to board the Leopard the next night, but they are repelled and Aubrey sails his ship out of reach and further south.  As the Leopards sail anxiously, Maturin writes false documents to leak to Wogan and poison foreign intelligence.  Master Larkin, driven to further drink, murders Marine Lieutenant Howard. The Leopard is alone for 200 miles until sail is spotted, but this time it is a whaler, the Three Brothers from London.  After briefly entertaining the whaler’s captain, Aubrey turns back towards the Cape as a storm rises.  The Waakzaamheid once more appears out of nowhere.  Aubrey pushes his ship to the limit.  He turns south again into the Roaring Forties, the wind and seas growing.  The Dutchman gains, and the weather becomes more dangerous.  The ships began to exchange chase fire, stern and bow, dueling through trough and crest.  The ship’s drinking water is pumped out so that it will be lighter and faster.  The Dutchman scores a direct hit that knocks Aubrey out.  He comes to just in time to see the Waakzaamheid, barely twenty yards away, breached by the high sea and sunk in an instant.

“The Ship of Jules Dumont d’Urville Stuck in an Ice Floe In Antarctica” by Ambriose-Louis Garneray

(8) Seriously wounded, Jack bemoans what he considers a sad victory.  As Maturin cares for him, the ship is in flat seas with no wind and heavy snow.  Ice is spotted.  Slowly returning to deck, Aubrey decides that they are too far from the Cape and steers straight east for their destination.  Deprived of landfall, Maturin’s effort at disinformation is spoiled.  The ice is used to resupply with water.  Suddenly, in the fog, the Leopard crashes into an iceberg. The rudder is gone, and they are taking on water fast in spite of nonstop pumping.  The ship all but a wreck, Lieutenant Grant urges Aubrey to abandon ship.  Aubrey refuses, but Grant is given a cutter and a launch for those that want to go.  A mad desire for escape—and a break-in to the spirit room—create chaos on the Leopard until the boats head away to try their own luck crossing the 1,300 miles to the Cape.

(9) A sail pulled under the vessel finally plugs the hole, and the pumps begin to make progress.  There is still the problem, however, of the missing rudder.  They try to rig a steering-oar.  Maturin observes penguins and a giant whale.  The focus required by the emergency, as well as the departure of the “Jonah,” Larkin, creates a sense of harmony in the ship.  They go in search of the Crozet Islands, but just as they hold a course the oar cracks and their refuge disappears behind them.  Scurvy breaks out.  The Leopard glumly limps eastward.  Music making by Aubrey and Maturin signals something like normalcy.  Turning even further south, Aubrey intends to find the mysterious Desolation Island.  Land is hailed, but the barometer is plummeting.  As another storm builds, Aubrey sails into unknown waters, opting to try to make the island before the storm hits.  Abruptly they reach shelter.  Leopard drops anchor in the safety of a barren, dark bay.

Modern shipwreck, Cat Island, Kerguelen Islands

(10) Desolation Island allows the men much-deserved rest.  As Aubrey oversees repairs, Maturin finds himself in a naturalist’s wonderland.  Local “cabbage” helps the crew return to health.  Yet Aubrey is near to despair, because he can come up with no solution to the problem of the rudder.  Weeks pass, and, while Maturin and Herapath enjoy the bird island Maturin has named “Paradise,” it is looking likely that they will need to winter on Desolation.  An American vessel arrives, a Nantucket whaler, the La Fayette.  The situation is far from friendly, as the Leopard is recognized for its defeat of the American warship Chesapeake, and there is a distinct possibility of war breaking out between the United States and Britain.  The American ship also beckons freedom for Wogan and Herapath.  Herapath is allowed to visit and reports that while the whalers are hostile they are also in very poor health, especially their captain, Mr. Putnam.  Maturin and Herapath go aboard to help the whalers and discover that many of the crew are largely Irish…and many are deserters.  The tables turned, the La Fayette offers the Leopard the use of its forge in return for the doctor’s services.  Wogan and Herapath, now expecting a child, are on edge.  Maturin, out of both kindness and a desire to get his false letters into enemy hands, gives Herapath a means to escape and Wogan just enough information to follow.  By moonlight, while Aubrey is working a new rudder into place on the Leopard, the couple reaches the whaler as she sails.


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