Occasionally, I get fooled. Bruce Trinque of Niantic,
CT, pointed out in an e-mail to me that a genuine HMS Surprise
was the prototype for Jack Aubrey's ship. Built in 1794 as the
French 24-gun Unite, she was captured two years later by
the Royal Navy and rearmed as a 28-gun frigate and used as such
until being sold in February, 1802. This HMS Surprise was
the ship that recapture the Hermione in 1801.
What fooled me was Aubrey's statement that he served
on the HMS Surprise as a midshipmen -- an impossibility
for the real ship, because it was not captured until after Aubrey
had his lieutenant's commission. And there was a real 36-gun HMS
Surprise that was commissioned in 1809.
It is not the first time O'Brian has played this
sleight of hand with real ships, either. HMS Surprise
starts with Jack Aubrey as the "job captain" -- substitute
captain -- of the HMS Lively, an actual frigate of the
period. Its permanent captain at the time was a Member of Parliament,
and did require substitutes to spell him while he attended sessions.
Desolation Island finds
Aubrey commanding "the horrible old Leopard."
It was the same 50-gun two-decker that seized three British deserters
from the US Navy frigate Chesapeake in 1807 -- the famous
Chesapeake affair that almost precipitated war with Britain.
Following that cruise the Leopard was sent to the Cape
of Good Hope, and served as flagship there until 1810. It was
converted to a troopship in spring of 1811, and (during the period
in which it was supposedly under Aubrey's command) served at Leith,
and during 1812 to 1813 in the Mediterranean, and around the Iberian
Jack Aubrey's command in The Commodore and
The Yellow Admiral is HMS Bellona, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line.
A Royal Navy 74 named Bellona actually existed during this
period. The real Bellona, launched in 1761, served in the
Royal Navy through 1814, when it was finally broken up. It was
present at Copenhagen in 1801, although it ran aground at the
opening of the battle -- serving as a shoal warning and target
for the rest of the day.
Still, O'Brian does little violence to history by
assigning Jack command of the ship. Bellona led an otherwise
undistinguished existence following Copenhagen. Substituting Jack
Aubrey for the Bellona's real skipper during 1812 to 1814 -- Captain
McKinley -- may change the destiny of the ship, but does not alter
the canvas of events during that period.
O'Brian is not the only author to mix reality with
fiction. Virtually every Tall Ship author has introduced real
ships into the plot. Some, like Alexander Kent, do so only very
infrequently -- a cameo scene on a real flagship, like HMS
Victory. Many others mix in the hero's fictional ship with
the actual ships present in a battle. Dewey Lambdin, in his Alan
Lewrie series, is particularly skilled at this. It is occasionally
entertaining to read Lambdin's books with a detailed history of
the period covered -- to determine who really was there and who
was not. It is a challenge because Lambdin stitches the fantasy
into reality with great skill.
Rarer still is the author who has a serial hero present
on an actual vessel in a famous sea fight, except if the historical
event is the theme of the book. Tom Macnamara's Henry Lunt series
and Harvey Haislip's Tommy Potter series both revolve around John
Paul Jones's exploits, for example. Without Jones -- and the events
in Jones's career -- neither series would exist.
Eliminate such cases and the examples are much scarcer.
Jack Aubrey is present as a supernumerary aboard the battles
where the Constitution beat the Java and the Shannon
took the Chesapeake. Adam Hardy placed George Abercrombie
Fox at the Battle of the Nile -- aboard the ill-fated Culloden.
(With Fox's typical luck, it ran aground at the battle's onset,
depriving him of a chance for glory.)
C. N. Parkinson had Richard Delancey serving as Saumerez's
sailing master at the Battle of Algeciras Bay in Touch and
Go (a battle into which O'Brian also interjected Aubrey
-- as a French prisoner). Richard Woodman's Nathaniel Drinkwater
was also a prisoner on a French warship in a famous battle. He
was aboard the Buccanteur during Trafalgar.
Finally, Hornblower aficionados may recall that Horatio
spent his midshipman days aboard Pellew's famous Indefatigable
-- the 44-gun razee. Unfortunately, Pellew did not take command
of the Indefatigable until after Hornblower had been promoted
to Lieutenant. During the period covered by Mr. Midshipman
Hornblower Pellew commanded a smaller 36 -- HMS Arethusa.
The grand master of historical interjection is not
Patrick O'Brian, however. It is Jon Williams. Whereas O'Brian
is content to interject actual ships changing the details of their
service, Williams uses actual ships that disappeared from history
just before the events described in his stories.
He starts The Raider with Favian Markham as
the first lieutenant of the USS United States, during the
period in which the 44-gun frigate captures the Macedonian.
Decataur's real first lieutenant, William Allen, was killed commanding
the Argus in 1812.
But where the real Allen was given command of the
Argus, the fictional Markham got the 12-gun Experiment
-- a sister to the "lucky little Enterprise"
of Barbary Wars and War of 1812 fame, and a poor catch even for
a newly-promoted Commander. In actuality the Experiment had
been sold out of the service in 1801. Markham commanded a real
ship of the period -- but one no longer in existence when the
events described in The Raider took place.
Williams topped that by having Markham literally
steal the Macedonian, now an American warship at the opening
of the next novel, The Macedonian. In actuality,
the real Macedonian was never used during the War of 1812,
scrapped near the end of the war, and replaced by a 38-gun frigate
of the same name that survived until the early years of this century.
(Trust me on this one -- The Chronicles of the Frigate Macedonian
is flat wrong when it asserts the ship that burned in New York
Harbor was the ship captured by Stephan Decatur.)
The final touch is provided in the climactic battle
of the series's last novel, Cat Island, fought between
Markham's Macedonian and Royal Navy frigate, HMS Forte.
The Forte was, indeed, a French prize captured under circumstances
described in that novel. It was also one of the few 24-lbr frigate
in the Royal Navy, making the battle a neat reversal of the typical
frigate duel of that war - by having an 18-lbr US frigate fighting
a 24-lbr Royal Navy ship. The real Forte, however, was
lost in the Red Sea in 1801, when her captain ran it onto an uncharted
A fictional Favian Markham and a fictional Royal
Navy captain fighting in two real ships, neither of which was
in service at the time of the battle. Truly a battle fought on
the border between history and fiction.