Jack Aubrey is in funds from his successful mission to take the islands of Mauritius and Reunion. His house has additions, but he is ready for another voyage. The story includes a voyage meant to reach Australia, and occurs prior to the War of 1812.
Critics have praised the novel's “literate, clear-eyed realism” at initial publication, and stirring naval action in the cold southern ocean in the chase of the Dutch ship, 20 years after initial publication at the re-issue.
Cover of the first edition
Stein & Day (US)
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|ISBN||0-00-222145-4 First edition hardback|
|Preceded by||The Mauritius Command|
|Followed by||The Fortune of War|
Jack Aubrey, having recovered financially in The Mauritius Command, expands his house, pays off his mother-in-law's debts, and his wife is no longer pinching pennies. His household staffed with seamen, and his daughters and son are thriving. After serving in the Fencibles office for a while, Aubrey starts getting into difficulties both in cards and at business, due to his belief, on land, in the honesty of others. Diana Villiers returns from America, unmarried. Maturin sees her, and hopes again to marry her. After the local settlers enter into a feud with Captain Bligh, the governor in New South Wales, Aubrey takes command of the old HMS Leopard for a mission to New South Wales to escape his woes. In the meantime, Diana and her American friend Louisa Wogan are taken for questioning as spies. Wogan gets sent to New South Wales on the Leopard, while Aubrey is furious at carrying prisoners. Maturin gets assigned to the voyage by Sir Joseph Blaine to watch Wogan, in the hopes of catching her in espionage. Diana, innocent of the espionage charges, flees with Mr Johnson, but is deeply in Maturin's mind, as he pays her bills.
The prisoners kill their superintendent and surgeon during a storm, so their conditions are raised to meet naval standards. They bring gaol fever on board ship, which spreads to the seamen, killing most of the male prisoners and 116 of the ship's crew. Mr Martin, Maturin's assistant, dies, and is replaced by Michael Herapath, who has stowed away in pursuit of Louisa Wogan. Aubrey rates him a midshipman, despite his American citizenship. Aubrey is forced to leave many recovering crew members at Recife, including Tom Pullings. He is replaced with James Grant as first lieutenant, a challenge for Aubrey. While they are in port, HMS Nymph arrives damaged from its encounter with the Waakzaamheid, a 74-gun Dutch ship-of-the-line crossing the equator.
The Leopard encounters the Waakzaamheid before reaching the Cape of Good Hope. The Waakzaamheid chases the Leopard south into the Roaring Forties for five days. The waves and wind increase, and the ships engage. Abruptly, after a shot from the Leopard destroys her foremast, the Waakzaamheid is thrown on her beam ends in the trough of a deep wave and sinks with all hands.
Now east of the Cape, the Leopard aims for New South Wales, but soon strikes an iceberg, damaging the rudder and causing a severe leak. All hands pump, and the seamen work to fother a sail to stop the leak. Aubrey was wounded in the battle, but maintains his authority. Grant, who is more comfortable as captain, disagrees that the Leopard will float, and is given permission to take two smaller boats with the men who wish to leave for the Cape, carrying dispatches from Maturin. The Leopard drifts east with the wind, still rudderless, pumping all the time. Aubrey, making adroit use of anchors and sails, directs the ship to safe harbour in a bay of Desolation Island. Despite its name, it is full of fresh food in the rainy Antarctic summer.
The crew repair leaks, but cannot leave until the rudder is replaced. As their forge went overboard earlier, this is a challenge. Maturin is in paradise as he and Herapath collect samples of the local plant and animal life and identify edible cabbage, which fights scurvy. Maturin uses a small island in the bay for observations in the daylight. The American brig Lafayette, a whaler, arrives at the bay for supplies of the cabbage. They lost their surgeon, but they have a forge. A delicate situation arises immediately, reflecting American – British tensions from the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807, continued British pressing of Americans into the Royal Navy, and awareness that the two nations might already be at war. Maturin uses Herapath as first envoy to Captain Putnam. Maturin follows, providing medical care to all aboard. The Captain offers to pay, but Maturin does not accept payment. The next morning the forge is on the beach for the use of Aubrey. Maturin sees a perfect way to speed his plan to spoil Mrs Wogan's contact as an intelligence source by letting her and Herapath slip away on the whaler with documents he shared with Herapath. She is now pregnant with Herapath's child. Maturin advised Aubrey to resist any efforts at pressing the British sailors they see on the whaler. The rudder is set in place and the forge returned. The Lafayette sails on the tide, as Maturin and Barret Bonden watch the ship pick up Herapath and Mrs Wogan, and then it slips out of the bay.
At Craddock's for cards
At Ashgrove Cottage dinner
On the Leopard
On the American whaler, the brig Lafayette of Nantucket, Massachusetts
Kirkus Reviews noted the "usual action" present in Desolation Island compared to other nautical novels, and praised O'Brien's "literate, clear-eyed realism", which may broaden the audience for the novel beyond the usual readers of a story on sailing ships. Reviewing a later book in the series for the Los Angeles Times, Anthony Day glowingly recalls Desolation Island, writing, "Aubrey's relentless pursuit of the Dutch warship Waakzaamheid in the roaring ocean below the southern tip of Africa, day after day in frightful weather, stirs the emotions of dread and hope in every reader."
The Leopard stopped for water and fresh supplies in Saint Jago, one of the Cape Verde islands, west of Senegal and in Aubrey's time a colony of Portugal. In the nineteenth century, Saint Jago was the name rather than the modern Santiago.
The real-life Leopard's earlier involvement in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair is described in the novel. The appearance of the American whaler reveals the tension between the English and the Americans on the eve of the War of 1812. O'Brian based the account of the near sinking of the Leopard (after striking an iceberg) on an actual event involving HMS Guardian and her commander Edward Riou in 1789.
The novel uses Lieutenant James Grant as the model for fictional second lieutenant Grant, who parts from the Leopard when the situation is most grim. The real Grant was promoted to commander in 1805, and this story takes place about 1811. The career of the real Grant with early success as captain of sloops was not followed up by anything more than the promotion to commander, though he was years older than Jack Aubrey, so he provides a good base for the fictional lieutenant who would much rather be the captain.
Captain William Bligh's Governorship of New South Wales is mentioned as the motive for Aubrey's mission, though Aubrey does not reach New South Wales in this novel, nor meet Captain Bligh in any part of the story. Aubrey does tell Maturin how William Bligh is viewed by the Royal Navy, the point of which is that his story-telling foreshadows how Aubrey handles his crew after the Dutch ship sinks and their ship hits the iceberg, and how Aubrey handles Lt Grant, turning a potential mutiny into an officially allowed parting of the ways. In addition, Aubrey and Maturin speak with Captain Peter Heywood who was involved with the mutiny, with Bligh, and with Captain Edwards, sent to fetch the mutineers back.
The reason why Bligh is in trouble in the moment of the novel is also described. In short, Bligh faced another mutiny, but this time by staff under him as Governor of the colony. Captain Heywood offers the explanation that Bligh seemed not to understand the reactions of others to many things he said, and then to react too harshly, which those around him perceived as harsh criticism and a miserable life. The Rum Rebellion, also known as the Rum Puncheon Rebellion, of 1808 was the only successful armed takeover of government in Australia's recorded history. As Governor of New South Wales, William Bligh was deposed by the New South Wales Corps under the command of Major George Johnston, working closely with John Macarthur, on 26 January 1808. Afterwards, acting governors were sworn in until the arrival from Britain of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie at the beginning of 1810.
From the book Desolation Island is geographically close to the Kerguelen Islands. However, in a later book, The Thirteen Gun Salute, O'Brian writes some dialogue between Richardson and Aubrey that explicitly states that Kerguelen Island is not Desolation Island: Kerguelen is what some people call Desolation Island, is it not, sir? asked Richardson. So they do. But it is not our Desolation Island, which is smaller, farther south and east. Despite the dialogue in The Thirteen Gun Salute, the description of the harbor where the Leopard sought shelter is taken exactly from Captain Cook's description of Christmas Harbor, in the far NW corner of Kerguelen which he mapped with the assistance of his sailing master, William Bligh, on his last voyage.
Desolation Island differs from the prior novels in the series in that the main characters are not back in England or safely on the way at the end of the story. This novel leaves them on Desolation Island at the end of the Antarctic summer having just floated the ship and installed the rudder, far from home and from the original intended destination for the mission, with a part of the crew trying to navigate to the Cape in small boats. The reader does not know if the original mission will be completed or how they will get home to England until the next novel, The Fortune of War or a yet later novel. Like the previous novels, characters are introduced who will appear in later novels. Many of the characters appear in the next novel, The Fortune of War, and some will appear in several novels before their story is told (e.g. Andrew Wray).
The novel was one of the novels in the series which had themes taken into the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
This novel was first published by Stein & Day in the USA. Fontana / Collins issued a paperback in the same year, 1979. W W Norton issued a reprint 12 years after the initial publication as part of its reissue in paperback of all the novels in the series prior to 1991.
The process of reissuing the novels initially published prior to 1991 was in full swing in 1991, as the whole series gained a new and wider audience, as Mark Howowitz describes in writing about The Nutmeg of Consolation, the fourteenth novel in the series and initially published in 1991.
Two of my favorite friends are fictitious characters; they live in more than a dozen volumes always near at hand. Their names are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and their creator is a 77-year-old novelist named Patrick O'Brian, whose 14 books about them have been continuously in print in England since the first, "Master and Commander," was published in 1970. O'Brian's British fans include T. J. Binyon, Iris Murdoch, A. S. Byatt, Timothy Mo and the late Mary Renault, but, until recently, this splendid saga of two serving officers in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars was unavailable in this country, apart from the first few installments which went immediately out of print. Last year, however, W. W. Norton decided to reissue the series in its entirety, and so far nine of the 14 have appeared here, including the most recent chapter, The Nutmeg of Consolation.
Desolation Island may refer to:
Kerguelen Islands, Indian Ocean
Desolación Island, Chile
Desolation Island (South Shetland Islands)
Desolation Island (novel), a novel by Patrick O'Brian
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