On any approximately proportionate view of history, of the kind that may become more gradually available to us as the long day of the twentieth century wanes, the Napoleonic conflict would deserve to be called the First World War. Never before had two great powers and their volatile allies mobilized their societies so extensively to contend for mastery over so immense a reach of the earth’s surface. Great engagements were fought at the gates of Moscow, in the Baltic, at the mouth of the Nile, in Italy, Turkey, and Spain, but the reverberations extended, by way of proxy fighting, to China, Australia, and other barely charted latitudes. Both North and South America, and the intervening Caribbean basin, were drawn in, and found their internal politics conditioned by French and English rivalries and allegiances. Hitherto obscure archipelagoes and islands such as the Falklands and Mauritius became decisive. Local nationalisms were inflamed and manipulated from Chile to Ireland. Macaulay later wrote of Frederick the Great that, as a consequence of his perfidies, scalpings occurred by the Great Lakes and butcheries on the coast of Coromandel. How much more true is this of the long struggle between imperial and Georgian Britain and Jacobin and Bonapartist France. Conflicts to which tradition has awarded other customary names—the Peninsular War, the War of 1812—were in actuality subplots of this great contest. Stendhal, Tolstoy, Wordsworth, Beethoven, and Goya all spent themselves trying to set down some of it.
This astonishing global tumult, which also involved important battles over religion and ideology, and which gave rise to convulsive changes in the technological and scientific apparatus available to men and to governments, is the macrocosmic context that was chosen, with great daring and address, by the late Patrick O’Brian. His fictional settings and allusions range—to use rather a paltry term—from the towns of Andalusia and Albania to the convict settlements in Botany Bay, the colonial outposts of Hong Kong and Calcutta, and the forts and monasteries of the Andes: from China to Peru as was once said by another author. But precisely because the deciding element in this war was that of sea power, he also summons the decidedly microcosmic atmosphere of the decks, holds, and cabins of a seagoing fighting machine.
It was the sloops, frigates, and men-of-war of the Royal Navy which first blockaded revolutionary France and then, by supplying her enemies and terrifying her friends, wore her down. A certain autonomy had to be given to commanders so far from home base, and this epoch marks the transition of British oceanic tactics from something quite like piracy into something more nearly resembling a professionalized if still highly mercenary imperial discipline. A person holding official seal and warrant in such a gigantic war could still appear in the character of a free-lance or aquatic knight-errant, though he would have been prudent to bear in mind, as Captain Aubrey must…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.