Friday, April 8, 2011

The very real world of Patrick O'Brian

[an earlier version of this post was deleted through a technical error and so I have had to perform that dreariest of authorial tasks -- attempting to reconstruct from memory something already written . . . apologies for the duplication]

Stephen Budiansky

Leesburg, Va.

Surveying the dreary and wretched state of our politics each morning, I am frequently reminded of the wise words of my friend Lew Lord from Mississippi, who at times like these would announce, "I can't decide whether to shoot myself or go bowling."

One of the undeniable appeals of writing history, military history especially, and military history of a long ago era most of all, is escapism. I should hasten to say that by "escapism" I don't mean romanticism, or the mythologizing of the past.
For the fact is that those distant times really were in many ways strange and intriguing places, and traveling into the worlds of the men and women of centuries past is a journey into a place full of wonder, at times inspiring, at times horrifying and terrifying, at times just profoundly alien to our own habits of mind and assumptions. Not just their material world but their stoicism, sense of honor, and the compass of their moral horizon were profoundly different from our own, sometimes for ill and sometimes for good. As I note in the Prologue to my new book Perilous Fight, about the War of 1812 at sea:

Some of the nostalgia about the war was honestly come by: the world of sailing ships and sea battles would just a few generations later seem as remote and about as real as the knights of the Round Table. The historian Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, mused in his 1907 autobiography whether the “American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1 than to the year 1900” in the world he was born into, in the education he received, and in the habits of mind he was inculcated with. Like the year 1854, the year 1812 was barely beyond the medieval in its technologies and its rhythms of life, in its lingering feudal codes of personal and family honor. Nine-tenths of the seven million Americans alive in 1812 lived on farms, rising with the sun and going to bed with dusk, using tools unchanged for a thousand years; the rest lived in a few small cities of ten or twenty or thirty thousand hugging the Atlantic coast.
By the turn of the twentieth century literally everything had changed. One can read the memoirs and letters of soldiers and seamen from World War II or even World War I and instantly know these men: they were our fathers and grandfathers; they looked on the world much as we do; their jokes may be corny but are never incomprehensible; the mechanized, ordered warfare they fought is awful but familiar. The men of the War of 1812 can seem at times to be from another world entirely. The archaic tools with which they waged war are almost the least of it; their assumptions, their motives, their ways of thinking take work to get our minds around. The officers who commanded America’s fledgling navy of 1812 really did fight duels over tiny aspersions to honor, things we would literally laugh at today; they really did in the midst of war engage in the most astonishing acts of chivalry toward their foes; they really did endure suffering of an unspeakable blackness with a stoicism that can seem superhuman to a modern sensibility.
They also squabbled over money and promotions, lied and schemed, fornicated and drank, stabbed each other in the back when it suited them, and wrote very bad poetry. One of the enduring reasons to study war is that it shines a light on humanity hidden in ordinary times; it lays bare what is so often successfully hidden.

One of the particular joys in researching this book was to encounter the real-life manifestations of the characters, situations, and ethos of the wonderful Patrick O'Brian novels set in this same era and upon the same stage of war at sea. It was wonderful to sit in the library of the National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich outside of London, and read the letters of the captain of HMS Shannon to his wife — I suspect these were in fact models O'Brian drew upon in his letters of Jack Aubrey to Sophie. The most amazing one was written shortly after the Shannon's defeat and capture of the American frigate Chesapeake; still seriously wounded, her captain wrote home full of plans for what they should do with the several thousand pounds of prize money he anticipated for his victory ("we must make a flower garden and a greenhouse").

O'Brian was a master of characterization and dialogue and detail, as well as of a slightly eccentric but often wholly original style — with its unannounced temporal transitions and a narrative voice imbued with the staccato abruptness of a ship's log — and all of this in part explains the preternatural addictiveness of his novels. But most of all, I think, is the way he so completely reconstructs the moral world of this time, and simply presents it without explanation; it is up to us the reader to figure out what this world is about that he has suddenly found himself immersed within: one in which honor, stoicism, and glory loom far larger than our own.

(In this regard I am somewhat ridiculously reminded of the time I was traveling in Europe for a study I was working on for the US Congress on NATO conventional defense options. Four of us were in Brussels for three or four nights, and each evening we would repair to our respective rooms in the hotel and we each would find ourselves watching the only thing available in English on TV — which happened to be the interminable BBC coverage of the snooker championships. It was absurd of course, all the more so since none of us knew anything or really cared anything about snooker; but we found ourselves absorbed watching for hours on end, and then having lengthy and impassioned debates each morning at breakfast as we tried to deduce, ab initio, the complex rules of the game simply from our observations.)

In the War of 1812 there was plenty of brutality (the sheer butchery of naval warfare, in the hand-to-hand combat of boarding actions above all) and cruelty (the treatment of many American prisoners, notably, a little-written-about part of the war that I devote a chapter to in my book); but there were acts of chivalry as well that seem breathtaking to our modern sensibilities. It is tempting to dismiss them as romance but for the fact that they are well-attested, and far too frequent to be dismissed.

One of my favorite such stories was the experience of an American privateer captain who was captured by a British captain who could have been Captain Jack Aubrey himself. Besides an extraordinary story of adventure and escape, it was a glimpse of this world where personal honor and chivalry was a tangible moral force. Here's the excerpt of my book where I relate his adventure:

George Coggeshall, for his return voyage, took command of “a fine Baltimore built vessel . . . a remarkably fast sailer,” the letter-of-marque schooner Leo, lying in L’Orient harbor. For three weeks he skillfully dodged British men-of-war in the Bay of Biscay while taking several prizes, and then one afternoon there came racing across their weather quarter a prize to put all others to shame, an English packet just out of Lisbon, bound for England, almost certainly carrying a huge quantity of specie. Just as they were on a course to intercept within a pistol shot the schooner gave a violent lurch, and the foremast snapped in two places.
The only hope now was to get into Lisbon, a neutral port, before the next morning; the seas were teeming with British warships. The Leo’s crew worked for an hour clearing away the wreckage and rigging a jury foremast and by four o’clock in the afternoon they were making seven knots.
But with dawn and the Rock of Lisbon in sight the wind died. All day they swept and towed, and just as their hopes had risen again—four miles from land, the Lisbon pilot already aboard—Coggeshall saw coming out, on the ebb tide of the Tagus and a light land breeze, a 38-gun British frigate. In a matter of minutes they were under her guns, and prisoners of war.
The frigate was the Granicus and her captain, W. F. Wise, far removed from the growing brutalities of the American war, was of the old and chivalrous school; Coggeshall was given his own stateroom and was invited almost every day to dine with the captain, who was all manners and kindness, praised the seamanship and ingenuity of American sailors and shipbuilders, and more than once urged him, “Don’t be depressed by captivity, but strive to forget that you are a prisoner, and imagine that you are only a passenger.” At Gibraltar the crew was immediately shipped off to England and Coggeshall and his lieutenants were to follow in a few days, once they had given the required depositions to the admiralty court: the governor of Gibraltar had received positive orders that every American prisoner brought in was to be forwarded to Dartmoor, without exception, and the officers were not to be paroled, despite Wise’s urging that they be treated civilly, all the more so since the Leo had voluntarily released some thirty British prisoners they had taken. “I said but little on this subject,” Coggeshall said afterward, “but from that moment resolved to make my escape upon the first opportunity.”
It seemed an even more impossible proposition than escaping from a prison hulk in the Medway, for Gibraltar was itself a citadel, with a guarded gate leading to the landside. The first day Captain Wise said he was prepared to let Coggeshall and his officers attend the court proceedings without a guard if they pledged their parole not to attempt to escape. Coggeshall did so, and used the chance afforded by their stroll back to conduct an hour’s reconnaissance.
The next morning they were to return to the court, and Coggeshall arose, put all the money he had, about a hundred gold twenty-five franc pieces, in his belt, and slipped a few keepsakes in his pocket.
“Well, Coggeshall, I understand you and your officers are required at the Admiralty Office at 10 o’clock,” Wise greeted him, “and if you and your officers will again pledge your honor, as you did yesterday, you may go on shore without a guard.”
Coggeshall gave him a careful look and replied, “Captain Wise, I am surprised that you think it possible for any one to escape from Gibraltar.”
Wise, pleasantly but firmly, said, “Come, come it won’t do, you must either pledge your word and honor that neither you nor your officers will attempt to make your escape, or I shall be compelled to send a guard with you.”
“You had better send a guard, sir.”
And so a lieutenant, with a sergeant and four marines, conducted the Americans to the office. While Coggeshall and one of his lieutenants were waiting in the courtroom for their turn to be examined the lieutenant walked casually to the door, then urgently beckoned him over; the British lieutenant was not in sight. Coggeshall then cheerfully asked the sergeant if he would like to go up the street to the wine shop at the corner for a glass of wine with them while they waited. The sergeant thought it was an excellent idea, and leaving the rest of the marines accompanied the two Americans up the street. The wine shop had entrances on each street; Coggeshall and the lieutenant went in one door, and while the sergeant waited there Coggeshall slipped out the other after whispering to the lieutenant to follow and meet him two blocks over.
 Coggeshall removed the eagle insignia from his cockade, and with that gone his blue coat, black stock, and black cockade “had, on the whole, very much the appearance of an English naval officer.” He waited with growing apprehension at the corner he had named, but the lieutenant did not appear. “I had now fairly committed myself, and found I did not have a moment to spare,” and so he set off with what he hoped was an attitude of “the most perfect composure and consummate impudence” towards the sentinel guarding the Land Port Gate. Fixing the guard with a stern glare, he strode on, received a respectful salute, and in a moment was outside the walls of Gibraltar. He went down to the mole where a crowd of boatmen were all too eager to row him out to his ship; he chose one, hopped in, and as they got into the bay the oarsmen asked, “Captain, which is your vessel?” Coggeshall was at a loss for a moment, but seeing a Norwegian flag flying from one he decided that the Norwegians were probably more trustworthy than most people and jabbed a finger toward it.
He decided that his best chance was to tell the truth, and he could scarcely finish his story before the Norwegian captain grasped his hand, said he had been a prisoner in England and would do anything to help him, in two minutes flat had him fitted out in a pea jacket, fur cap, and pipe like any Norwegian seaman. The captain then gave him dinner, and said he needed to go ashore for a few hours to arrange things.
The Norwegian returned “pleased and delighted”: the whole town was in a state of pandemonium over the escape of the captain of the American privateer. The lieutenant of the frigate had been arrested. The next night a gang of smugglers came alongside silently in a long fast-rowing boat and “certainly, a more desperate, villainous-looking set was never seen.” But the Norwegian captain had arranged everything; he did business with them all the time, selling them gin and other odds and ends; and the smugglers said they would be all too happy to take the “captains’ brother” to Algeciras, nearby in Spain. 
The water was smooth, the night dark, and the ten miles’ passage was a matter of two hours’ steady rowing. A lantern was shown for a minute, then covered; an answering signal winked from the shore; and then they were on land crunching their way up a winding track, and at about three in the morning they entered a small cabin, one room with a mat hanging in the middle as a partition; this was where the chief of the smugglers lived with his wife and two small children, and for three days the family took him in warmly and kindly. Venturing out cautiously to see if there was an American consul in the town, Coggeshall was able to find his way to an initially disbelieving diplomat, but once he had doffed his fur cap and pea jacket and “looked somewhat more like an American” he was able to tell his story, and the consul—Horatio Sprague, who had been consul in Gibraltar before the war began—immediately invited him to stay with him and help him on his way. 
After waiting ten days in hopes of hearing news from his two lieutenants, he hired a guide and mule and dressed as a peasant to avoid the brigands traveled over zigzagging mountain footpaths to Cadiz, where he arrived two weeks later, just before sundown, the sun’s final rays lighting the church steeples and the mountains beyond them in burst of gold. He made his way to Lisbon on a coasting schooner, then to New York on a filthy and vermin-infested Portuguese brig, finally arriving home in May 1815 to learn that the war was over, and peace restored.