Patrick O'Brian,
The Golden Ocean
(W.W. Norton, 1956)

Before Aubrey and Maturin, there was Palafox.

Peter Palafox, son of an impoverished Irish parson, is the protagonist of The Golden Ocean, a stand-alone tale that predates Patrick O'Brian's more popular series of nautical tales. In this, Britain is at war with Spain, and Palafox -- along with his good chum Sean O'Mara, a lively and unpredictable soul -- is attached to HMS Centurion for Commodore George Anson's remarkable four-year circumnavigation of the globe.

This epic mission to disrupt Spanish interests in the Pacific takes Palafox and Centurion around stormy Cape Horn and eventually all the way to China before returning to Britain. Those who survived were richer men, profiting from the bold capture of a Spanish trade galleon carrying 1,313,843 pieces of eight and 35,682 ounces of silver. But rich men were few; after setting sail with a small fleet and 1,854 men, Anson returned to England with only Centurion intact, carrying 188 survivors. The rest fell victim to various battles, scurvy and sickness, unpredictable weather and the ever-present dangers of the sea.

The history is riveting stuff, and O'Brian's research is meticulous and his presentation, thrilling. Palafox has a quick wit and an unflagging good spirit, taking to the sailor's life with enthusiasm and intelligence. His shipmates -- from the commodore himself to the lowest jack tar and, most especially, his mates in the midshipman's bunk -- are distinctly and lovingly crafted by O'Brian's careful pen.

And The Golden Ocean is certainly as richly developed as O'Brian's later work. It is quite astonishing, in fact, just how well the author developed so vast a cast of characters.

O'Brian is unparalleled in the nautical genre. By book's end, you'll have faced down cannons and tropical storms ... and damned if your teeth don't ache just a bit from sympathetic scurvy.

book review by
Tom Knapp

16 July 2011

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