Master & Commander
Why I love this book series & movie
Master & Commander
It’s a famous & fabulous 20-book series and also a great movie. You should re-watch it and read (or better yet, listen to) the books. I just finished the book series, which took me nearly a year, and I was sad when it finally finished (actually, the last book ended in the middle, as the author died while writing it, 35 years after starting).
But they are all great, including the 2003 movie (goodness, nearly 20 years ago).
Why are they great?
It’s not a naturally awesome subject, since after all, it’s a book series very heavy on sailing details, battle tactics, and life aboard ship (and ashore) 200 years ago. Napoleon ruled, and Britain was imperiled, and it’s full of battles, tedious months at sea, and challenging lives ashore.
How could that be interesting?
Written by Patrick O'Brian, starting in 1969, and continuing over for 20 books over 35 years, they are a deep look at Royal Navy and contemporary life around 1800, when Britain ruled the seas. You can see why.
O’Brian wrote deeply detailed fictionalizations of mostly real events, many I was totally unaware of. He placed our characters in many of the key battles, negotiations, and trips that helped Britain win the war and maintain naval supremacy around the world, especially in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Fortunately, all of these battles were very well-documented by historians and the author had naval log-books, letters, news accounts, and even participants' own memoirs. He told it like it was, and it was amazingly colorful. I really appreciated learning all this history all along the way.
And he got right all the sailing details, military concepts, and life aboard ship literally on the other side of the world. Makes me want to go out on a good square-rigger right now.
The books are infused with social commentaries, such as anti-slavery, multi-cultural and multi-religion (kinda), and taking care of your team. Plus strong female, minority, and other characters, along with respect for local people, traditions, and the complexities of real on-the-ground realities we so often gloss over today.
Leadership examples abound, including leaders being flawed, but trying to do their best to do what’s right by everyone, doing their duty as they see it, and supporting the forces of the good and moral as they go silently in the night on the open ocean (or in firey battles with big butcher bills).
There is a very strong ethic of doing what one should, for Britain, and especially for the Royal Navy. As Russell Crowe put it: “an epic tale of fidelity to Empire & service, regardless of the cost.” While the Empire surely wasn’t all fun & roses for all involved, least of all many colonies, it was worth fighting for, especially in the dark days of the Napoleonic wars.
Doing what’s right
A key part of leadership then and now is doing what’s right, including what’s right for the men & women you lead. This concept permeates the books, including and especially at difficult times, often in and before battles where many men might be (and often were) lost.
But a leader can go a long way, and get their team to tolerate a lot of hardship if everyone feels they are doing the right thing, for the right reasons. They were battling the ‘evil’ of Napoleon, but also of slavery, privateers, penal colony lovers, not to mention other ‘leaders’ who flogged their men or abused their authority all around.
Against Class, with Class
British society of the time was (and is) very hierarchical, with educated officers and upper class on top and the lower classes literally down below on the lower decks.
Much time is spent on managing this divide, in some cases transcending it, and the responsibilities of leaders, military men, and others to those that serve, and serve with them. This includes promoting from below, strong friendships across class, and looking down on those who prey on the weak and underclass (including in penal colonies, where then, as now, people of color or low class are often sent away for little or no reason).
And while the French are the despised enemy throughout, it’s not without respect and very few bad words are said against them (I love France and the French, by the way). They are respected as shipbuilders and military men, and outside of battle and when either side loses, the losers are treated well and with magnanimity throughout; one might way with class (e.g. defeated officers stay aboard the winner’s ship are come to dinner each night).
There are also some good elements of time with and around the upstart Americans, whose ships (including the USS Constitution) and sailors they thought highly of.
Various books in the series spend a fair amount of time ashore, especially in the rural areas around the Portsmith naval center. While like today. the communities were stratified economically, there was real respect for hard-working men of the communities, and especially the ships.
Much mention is made of the anti-slavery views of most everyone involved, as a general matter of agreement among the major characters. Of course, the Brits were earlier to end slavery than us Americans, and perhaps attitudes were already changing by then (the UK outlawed the Slave Trade in 1807, in the middle of these books’ timeframe).
One book also covered the astonishingly harsh conditions in Australia, then just a penal colony and dumping ground for undesirables. It really was slavery by another name, where the underclass and mild troublemakers were sentenced to ‘transportation’ and life in harsh Australia. The depictions were scarily scary.
Finally, Captain Aubrey himself has an illegitimate black son, who he adores and is a positive force later in the series. Not nearly as apparently scandalous as I’d have thought, it was another thread of acceptance, culture, and how each person is a thread to connect places, people, and politics all through the world.
Read the Books, See the Movie
Take the time to see the movie, perhaps again. And if you have time or inclination, read or listen to at least the first book or two and see if you like it. Certainly not everyone’s taste, you at least get a real taste of life in & around the world’s most powerful navy and a key moment in world history.
Fair winds and following seas, my friends.
The book series at Amazon.
The book series at Audible - get the ones narrated by Patrick Tull.
Movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.