Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Unknown Shore

I just finished a wonderful book by Patrick O’Brian, the author of the Master and Commander series. Written in 1959, this book, entitled The Unknown Shore, was a prototype of sorts for the characters in the M&C stories. O’Brian formulated the personalities, set up one character as a member of the Royal Navy, though a sympathetic, duty-bound midshipman, and the other, who would later become Dr. Maturin, as a quirky, nerd-like fellow with a penchant for natural history and the sciences, unemotional and detached. Think of Mr. Spock!

The story, though, is not truly fiction, but an account of an actual event, with the characters dropped into the scene. Some of the action takes place on Wager Island near the bottom of South America, and Cape Horn. I was intrigued and looked it up, only to find not only the island is an actual place but the ship it was named, the HMS Wager, actually foundered near there, the result of storms, and with a mutiny following.

HMS Wager was a square-rigged, 28 gun ship of the Royal Navy, built in 1734 as an Indiaman, and made a few trips for the East India Company to India. The Royal Navy purchased her in 1739, and under Commodore George Anson, set sail for Chile in 1741. After it was wrecked, the survivors where marooned on an island in Patagonia, and under extreme weather conditions and lack of food, they mutinied.

 The lesson learned from the Wager was going forward, naval officers would retain formal authority over crew, even if their ships were lost or captured. This was an important point as with lack of authority on land, the crew, generally uneducated or rebellious having been pressed into service, did not necessarily make the best decisions. Though most of the crew of the Wager perished, the captain, named Cheap, did survive, and was able to secure passage eventually back to England where a court martial was held. Those that remained with him were acquitted of any wrong-doing. Not to say Cheap was a good, decent man. He was rather cruel and pitiless, but bottom line, his followers made it back.

Captain Cheap eventually was promoted to post captain and commanded the 40-gun Lark. He was loyal and steadfast. He died in 1752, his records and reports recorded in the National Archives. The actual midshipman from the story eventually rose to the rank of vice admiral. His name was John Byron (at right, painted by Joshua Reynolds), and his grandson would become the famed poet George Gordon Byron, who wrote an account of the Wager in The Narrative of the Honorable John Byron (1768). It sold well enough to appear in several editions.

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