Master and Commander

Master and Commander pp 326 #

Submitted and presented by Janet Strachan.

Re-enactment as a game:

RICHARD SNOW in An Author I’d Walk the Plank For, portrays the shape and texture of a whole era. Without ever seeming antiquarian or pedantic or showy, O’Brian summoned up with casual omniscience the workaday magic of a vanished time. The furniture of life was all unobtrusively here: clothes, curtains, the sauce on the fish, the absent-minded politeness of daily intercourse with grocers and friends, everything whose inconsequence insures its almost immediate oblivion, and which is so hard to retrieve without an ostentatious show of “research.” In fact, the story was told with such scrupulous respect for every nuance of the world in which it unfolded that I might have been reading the prose of Jane Austen’s seafaring brothers (two served in the Royal Navy), had they shared her gifts. Before I finished the book, I was convinced it was the best historical novel I’d ever read.

On every page O’Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.

As Bruce Dawe writes: “the dancers changing/But the dance forever the same”.


On deck again he saw that it was so, of course: the vessel over there was the Cacafuego; she had altered course to meet the Sophie, and she was in the act of setting her studdingsails. In his telescope he could see the vermilion gleam of her side in the sun.

‘All hands aft,’ he said, and as they waited for the crew to assemble Stephen could see that a smile kept spreading on his face—that he had to make a conscious effort to repress it and look grave.

‘Men,’ he said, looking over them with pleasure. ‘That’s the Cacafuego to windward, you know. Now some of you were not quite pleased when we let her go without a compliment last time; but now, with our gunnery the best in the fleet, why, it is another thing. So, Mr Dillon, we will clear for action, if you please.’

When he began to speak perhaps half the Sophies were gazing at him with uncomplicated pleasurable excitement; perhaps a quarter looked a little troubled; and the rest had downcast and anxious faces. But the self-possessed happiness radiating from their captain and his lieutenant, and the spontaneous delighted cheer from the first half of the crew, changed this wonderfully; and as they set about clearing the sloop there were not above four or five who looked glum—the others might have been going to the fair.

The Cacafuego, square-rigged at present, was running down, turning in a steady westward sweep to get to windward and seaward of the Sophie; and the Sophie was pointing up close into the wind; so that by the time they were a long half-mile apart she was directly open to a raking broadside from the frigate, the thirty-two-gun frigate.

‘The pleasant thing about fighting with the Spaniards, Mr Ellis,’ said Jack, smiling at his great round eyes and solemn face, ‘is not that they are shy, for they are not, but that they are never, never ready.’

The Cacafuego had now almost reached the station that her captain had set his mind upon: she fired a gun and broke out the Spanish colours.

‘The American flag, Mr Babbington,’ said Jack. ‘That will give them something to think about. Note down the time, Mr Richards.’

The distance was lessening very fast now. Second after second; not minute after minute. The Sophie was pointing astern of the Cacafuego, as though she meant to cut her wake; and not a gun could the sloop bring to bear. There was a total silence aboard as every man stood ready for the order to tack—an order that might not come before the broadside.

‘Stand by with the ensign,’ said Jack in a low voice: and louder, ‘Right, Mr Dillon.’

‘Helm’s a-lee,’ and the bosun’s call sounded almost at the same moment; the Sophie spun on her heel, ran up the English colours, steadied and filled on her new course and ran close-hauled straight for the Spaniard’s side. The Cacafuego fired at once, a crashing broadside that shot over and among the Sophie’s topgallants, making four holes, no more. The Sophies cheered to a man and stood tense and eager by their treble-shotted guns.

‘Full elevation. Not a shot till we touch,’ cried Jack in a tremendous voice, watching the hen-coops, boxes and lumber tossing overboard from the frigate. Through the smoke he could see ducks swimming away from one coop, and a panic-stricken cat on a box. The smell of powder-smoke reached them, and the dispersing mist. Closer, closer: they would be becalmed under the Spaniard’s lee at the last moment, but they would have way enough . . . He could see the round blackness of her guns’ mouths now, and as he watched so they erupted, the flashes brilliant in the smoke and a great white bank of it hiding the frigate’s side. Too high again, he observed, but there was no room for any particular emotion as he searched through the faults in the smoke to put the sloop right up against the frigate’s mainchains.

‘Hard over,’ he shouted; and as the grinding crash came, ‘Fire!’

The xebec-frigate was low in the water, but the Sophie was lower still. With her yards locked in the Cacafuego’s rigging she lay there, and her guns were below the level of the frigate’s ports. She fired straight up through the Cacafuego’s deck, and her first broadside, at a six-inch range, did shocking devastation. There was a momentary silence after the Sophie’s cheer, and in that half-second’s pause Jack could hear a confused screaming on the Spaniard’s quarter-deck. Then the Spanish guns spoke again, irregular now, but immensely loud, firing three feet above his head.

The Sophie’s broadside was firing in a splendid roll, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven, with a half-beat at the end and a rumbling of the trucks; and in the fourth or fifth pause James seized his arm and shouted, ‘They gave the order to board.’

‘Mr Watt, boom her off,’ cried Jack, directing his speaking trumpet forward. ‘Sergeant, stand by.’ One of the Cacafuego’s backstays had fallen aboard, fouling the carriage of a gun; he passed it round a stanchion and as he looked up a swarm of Spaniards appeared on the Cacafuego’s side. The marines and small-arms men gave them a staggering volley, and they hesitated. The gap was widening as the bosun at the head and Dillon’s party aft thrust on their spars. Amidst a crackling of pistols some Spaniards tried to jump, some tried to throw grapnels, some fell in and some fell back. The Sophie’s guns, now ten feet from the frigate’s side, struck right into the midst of the waverers, tore seven most dreadful holes.

The Cacafuego’s head had fallen off she was pointing nearly south, and the Sophie had all the wind she needed to range alongside again. Again the thundering din roared and echoed round the sky, with the Spaniards trying to depress their guns, trying to fire down with muskets and blindly-held chance pistols over the side, to kill the gun-crews. Their efforts were brave enough—one man balanced there to fire until he had been hit three times—but they seemed totally disorganized. Twice again they tried to board, and each time the sloop sheered off, cutting them up with terrible slaughter, lying off five or ten minutes, battering her upper-works, before coming in again to tear out her bowels. By now the guns were so hot that they could scarcely be touched; they were kicking furiously with every round. The sponges hissed and charred as they went in, and the guns were growing almost as dangerous to their crews as to their enemies.

And all this time the Spaniards fired on and on,irregularly, spasmodically, but never stopping. The Sophie’s maintop had been hit again and again, and now it was coming to pieces—great lumps of timber falling down on deck, stanchions, hammocks. Her foresail yard was held only by its chains. Rigging hung in every direction and the sails had innumerable holes: burning wad was flying aboard all the time and the unengaged starboard crews were running to and fro with their fire-buckets. Yet within its confusion the Sophie’s deck showed a beautiful pattern of movement—the powder passing up from the magazine and the shot, the gun-crews with their steady heave-crash-heave, a wounded man, a dead man carrying below, his place instantly taken without a word, every man intent, threading the dense smoke—no collisions, no jostling, almost no orders at all.

‘We shall be a mere hull presently, however,’ reflected Jack: it was unbelievable that no mast or yard had gone yet; but it could not last. Leaning down to Ellis he said in his ear, ‘Cut along to the galley. Tell the cook to put all his dirty pans and coppers upside-down. Pullings, Babbington, stop the firing. Boom off, boom off. Back topsails. Mr Dillon, let the starboard watch black their faces in the galley as soon as I have spoken to them. Men, men,’ he shouted as the Cacafuego slowly forged ahead, ‘we must board and carry her. Now’s the time—now or never—now or no quarter—now while she’s staggering. Five minutes’ hearty and she’s ours. Axes and broadswords and away—starbowlines black their faces in the galley and forward with Mr Dillon—the rest aft along of me.’

He darted below. Stephen had four quiet wounded men, two corpses. ‘We’re boarding her,’ said Jack. ‘I must have your man—every man-jack aboard. Will you come?’

‘I will not,’ said Stephen. ‘I will steer, if you choose.’ ‘Do—yes, do. Come on,’ cried Jack.

On the littered deck and in the smoke Stephen saw the towering xebec’s poop some twenty yards ahead on the port bow; the Sophie’s crew in two parties, the one blackfaced and armed racing from the galley and gathering at the head, the other already aft, lining the rail—the purser pale and glaring, wild; the gunner blinking from the darkness below; the cook with his cleaver; Jack-in-the-dust; the ship’s barber and his own loblolly boy were there. Stephen noticed his hare-lip grinning and he cherishing the curved spike of a boarding-axe, saying over and over again, ‘I’ll hit the buggers, I’ll hit the buggers, I’ll hit the buggers.’ Some of the Spanish guns were still firing out into the vacancy.

‘Braces,’ called Jack, and the yards began to come round to fill the topsails. ‘Dear Doctor, you know what to do?’ Stephen nodded, taking over the spokes and feeling the life of the wheel. The quartermaster stepped away, picked up a cutlass with a grim look of delight. ‘Doctor, what’s the Spanish for fifty more men?’

‘Otros cincuenta.’

‘Otros cincuenta,’ said Jack, looking into his face with a most affectionate smile. ‘Now lay us alongside, I beg.’ He nodded to him again, walked to the bulwark with his coxswain close behind and hoisted himself up, massive but lithe, and stood there holding the foremost shroud and swinging his sword, a long heavy cavalry sabre.

Holes and all, the topsails filled: the Sophie ranged up: Stephen put the wheel hard over: the grinding crunch, the twang of some rope parting, a jerk, and they were fast together. With an enormous shrieking cheer fore and aft the Sophies leapt up the frigate’s side.

Jack was over the shattered bulwark straight down on to a hot gun run in and smoking, and its swabber thrust at him with the pole. He cut sideways at the swabber’s head; the swabber ducked fast and Jack leapt over his bowed shoulder onto the Cacafuego’s deck. ‘Come on, come on,’ he roared, and rushed forwards striking furiously at the fleeing gun-crew and then at the pikes and swords opposing him—there were hundreds, hundreds of men crowding the deck, he noticed; and all the time he kept roaring ‘Come on!’

For some moments the Spaniards gave way, as though amazed, and every one of the Sophie’s men and boys came aboard, amidships and over the bow: the Spaniards gave way from abaft the mainmast, backing into the waist; but there they rallied. And now there was hard fighting, now there were cruel blows given and received—a dense mass of struggling men, tripping among the spars, scarcely room to fall, beating, hacking, pistolling one another; and detached fights of two or three men together round the edges, yelling like beasts. In the looser part of the main battle Jack had forced his way some three yards in: he had a soldier in front of him, and as their swords clashed high so a pikeman drove under his right arm, ripping the flesh outside his ribs and pulling out to stab again. Immediately behind him Bonden fired his pistol, blowing off the lower part of Jack’s ear and killing the pikeman where he stood. Jack feinted at the soldier, a quick double slash, and brought his sword down on his shoulder with terrible force. The fight surged back: the soldier fell. Jack heaved out his sword, tight in bone, and glanced quickly fore and aft. ‘This won’t do,’ he said.

Forward, under the fo’c’sle, the sheer weight and number of the three hundred Spaniards, now half recovered from their surprise, was pushing the Sophies back, driving a solid wedge between his band and Dillon’s in the bows. Dillon must have been held up. The tide might turn at any second now. He leapt on to a gun and with a hail that ripped his throat he roared, ‘Dillon, Dillon, the starboard gangway! Thrust for the starboard gangway!’ For a fleeting moment, at the edge of his field of vision, he was aware of Stephen far below, on the deck of the Sophie, holding her wheel and gazing collectedly upwards. ‘Otros cincuenta!’ he shouted, for good measure: and as Stephen nodded, calling out something in Spanish, he raced back into the fight, his sword high and his pistol searching.

At this moment there was a frightful shrieking on the fo’c’sle, a most bitter, furious drive for the head of the gangway, a desperate struggle; something gave, and the dense mass of Spaniards in the waist turned to see these black faces rushing at them from behind. A confused milling round the frigate’s bell, cries of every kind, the blackened Sophies cheering like madmen as they joined their friends, shots, the clash of arms, a trampling huddled retreat, all the Spaniards in the waist hampered, crowded in upon, unable to strike. The few on the quarter-deck ran forward along the larboard side to try to rally the people, to bring them into some order, at least to disengage the useless marines.

Jack’s opponent, a little seaman, writhed away behind the capstan, and Jack heaved back out of the press. He looked up and down the clear run of deck. ‘Bonden,’ he shouted, plucking his arm, ‘Go and strike those colours.’

Bonden ran aft, leaping over the dead Spanish captain. Jack hallooed and pointed. Hundreds of eyes, glancing or staring or suddenly looking back, half-comprehending, saw the Cacafuego’s ensign race down—her colours struck.

It was over. ’ ‘Vast fighting,’ cried Jack, and the order ran round the deck. The Sophies backed away from the packed mob in the waist and the men there threw down their weapons, suddenly dispirited, frightened, cold and betrayed. The senior surviving Spanish officer struggled out of the crowd in which he had been penned and offered Jack his sword.

‘Do you speak English, sir?’ asked Jack.

‘I understand it, sir,’ said the officer.

‘The men must go down into the hold, sir, at once,’ said Jack. ‘The officers on deck. The men down into the hold. Down into the hold.’

The Spaniard gave the order: the frigate’s crew began to file down the hatchways. As they went so the dead and wounded were discovered—a tangled mass amidships, many more forward, single bodies everywhere—and so, too, the true number of the attackers grew clear.

‘Quickly, quickly,’ cried Jack, and his men urged the prisoners below, herded them fast, for they understood the danger as well as their captain. ‘Mr Day, Mr Watt, get a couple of their guns—those carronades—pointing down the hatchways. Load with canister—there’s plenty in the garlands aft. Where’s Mr Dillon? Pass the word for Mr Dillon.’

The word passed, and no answer came. He was lying there near the starboard gangway, where the most desperate fighting had been, a couple of steps from little Ellis. When Jack picked him up he thought he was only hurt; but turning him he saw the great wound in his heart.