In November, 2000, the Smithsonian sponsored a seminar about Patrick O'Brian. Several Gunroom listswains attended the event and Kathryn Guare has gathered and compiled notes and impressions:
Lissun Kathryn Guare had the opportunity to speak briefly with him, and he explained that he had used the Dart and Arrow as his models for the Polychrest, which he said were most likely the actual ships that O'Brian had in mind when he wrote about the Polychrest. He even scribbled a little illustration on the back of her program to illustrate the peculiarities of the Polychrest's shape and its three keels. Kathryn reports: "I almost asked him to sign the scribble! Also, I didn't think I was going to, but I ended up also buying one of his limited edition prints - Treason's Harbor - of which there are apparently only 84 remaining. Most of you may already know, but for anyone who doesn't, these prints can be ordered from the Mystic Seaport Museum and also online at John Berg's Sea Room.
Geoff also participated in the program later in the day, and at one point he was asked if he'd ever held back one of his paintings for himself. He replied that he had not, because "I like to eat!" He was a wonderfully warm person with a great sense of humor.
Aside from his wit and insights in both this lecture and one he did after lunch, what was most evident and touching about Ringle was his obvious love for Patrick O'Brian and the canon.
Ringle welcomed us (there were about 350-400 people there) as fellow "addicts", referring to the canon as "the literary tincture of opium" and "paperback laudanum". Aubrey and Maturin, he said, "are real. They are more real than some of our friends, and if we are honest with ourselves, more real than some of our husbands and wives."
In response to Ringle's questions, about 3/4 of the audience indicated that they had read the entire canon. He remarked on the tendency by many to re-read the books saying you read them the first time for the story, the second time for the language, the third time for the ideas, and the fourth time for better understanding of how he managed to combine the three.
Ringle tested the audience's memory with a few questions - remember the name of the sloth? (Lethargy), remember Jack's first naval wound? (hit on the head with a flatiron by a woman in Portsmouth who was outraged that her man was being pressed) - and said these were what keep us coming back, those "tiny, irresistible touches. But there are so many that they exhaust our memory."
There then followed some description of nautical maneuvers and terms, (tacking, wearing, club-hauling) following along the theme of the difference between the maneuvering of a large square-rigged ship and that of today's sloops. He also spoke of a part of life on a square-rigged ship that is strangely absent from O'Brian's books - that of the work of the "topmen" and its perils. Ringle said that the books never explored the idea of what it really felt like to be working way up there, dangling over a yard with nothing beneath your feet but a precarious line that bucked and wobbled as the weight of other sailors was added or removed. Of his work in the tops on HMS Rose, Ringle said it was "like going to the gym every four hours."
In another anecdote, Ringle said that although he wasn't sure if it was still true, in modern times the naval college at Annapolis still required its "middies" to memorize the list of commands required to bring a square-rigged ship about. Ringle told of a young man who did not know the routine, so that when his instructor called out "Give the order for a square-rigged ship to come about" he jumped to his feet and energetically replied "Square-rigged ship! Come about!"
In his conclusion, he noted what many already knew: that even if you don't have the slightest idea about sailing and nautical terms it makes not the least difference in your enjoyment of the series, and he recommended "Let the nautical jargon wash over you like those long names in Russian novels." After awhile, the terms make sense in context.
During the question period, two books were mentioned for those who wish to increase their nautical knowledge, and I think they may have been mentioned already in the Gunroom. They are The Way of a Ship by Alan Villiers, and Seamanship and the Age of Sail by John Harland. Also mentioned was the USCG Training Manual, which is used aboard the Eagle, the Coast Guard's training ship.
One questioner asked about the evolution in terminology from "larboard" to "port", noting that it was obviously a quite sensible solution to avoid "larboard" being mis-heard as "starboard" during a storm or an action, and wondering why it took so long. Ringle replied that there was probably a "Darwinian curve involved!"
However, Dr. Joy himself was quite brilliant and the content of his talk quite fascinating.
He discussed the history of medical care aboard ship, from the early barber/surgeons who gave ship's surgeons a bad name, through the better trained physicians and surgeons of the 19th century. In the 18th century, ship's surgeons (and all medical practitioners) believed that illness was caused by evil humours and vapors. Thus, new "recruits" were washed, and their clothes burned, to rid them of any humours they might have brought on board. This worked, of course, because the treatment also removed lice, fleas, germs, and other parasites.
Dr. Joy spent the majority of his talk on the conquest of scurvy, and the profound impact it had on reducing the mortality and morbidity aboard ship. Early on, the symptoms of scurvy were known: lethargy, depression, foul breath, bleeding gums, spots on the skin. Dr. Lind around 1740 published a paper on scurvy and its treatment with citrus, although he thought that it was acid that worked, not specifically Vitamin C.
Early experiments were hampered by the fact that the most readily available limes from the Caribbean contained no Vitamin C. Citrus was originally thought to be a treatment, but not a preventative. Another doctor, Sir Gilbert Blane, performed the first true medical experiment, treating a dozen scurvy patients with different treatments (in pairs). Only citrus fruit worked.
He also noted that the Dutch had no scurvy, because their diet included sauerkraut. Captain Cook, on his voyages, took sauerkraut and made his crew eat it, and also took a pill that was supposed to help. The combination worked (the pill was useless, though).
Dr. Joy also discussed diet; 80% of the calories of a seaman came from alcohol!
In summary, he showed how improved treatment, especially of scurvy, reduced mortality aboard ship to "reasonable" levels (7% ?) by the early 19th century from as high as (40% ?) a hundred years earlier. He highlighted two important consequences of this improvement in medical care. First, it allowed the Royal Navy to stay at sea for much longer periods, not having to go ashore to take the ill to hospital (and early in the lecture, Dr. Joy gave the mortality statistics, with perhaps 80% coming from illness rather than battle wounds) and finding replacements. Second, the lives saved over time amounted to the crew of twenty-seven ships of the line, the exact number of ships Nelson took into battle at the Battle of Trafalgar. At the same battle, the French had 1/3 of their ships in port because they didn't have enough healthy crew.
Some of the scientists who traveled included James Magdano (again probably spelled wrong), who worked out the theory of plate tectonics while on the expedition; Horatio Hale, a linguist who collected information on languages and culture; Titian Ramsey Peale, he of the famous "Peales" not retained as an artist but as a naturalist to collect birds and animals; James Drayton, a naturalist illustrator, and Alfred Agate an artist for people and scenery.
Viola noted that Wilkes required everyone on the trip to keep a diary, and thirty of these still exist in the National Archives. He periodically required that they be passed to him for review. It was said that many on board had not realized that their diaries would be reviewed, so that when the first request for them went out, there was much confusion and consternation as pages were torn out and some books launched over the side!
Wilkes was thoroughly disliked by his men. Viola mentioned how unfortunate it is that more of the regular enlisted men were not able to write, because it would have given such a different perspective on the voyage and its daily routines. He did mention that one diary from an enlisted man illustrated the need for different perspectives on a story. One enlisted sailor, Erskine, had sailed with Wilkes before, had been flogged by him, and hated him. His diary describes how he plotted to murder Wilkes during the voyage by climbing the rigging and dropping a marlin spike on him. But Erskine writes that before he could do so, while he sat in the rigging he saw a vision of his dead mother and took this for a sign that he shouldn't go through with it. Meanwhile, Wilkes writes in his diary, "How the men love me!", and makes particular mention of enlisted man Erskine, who was so loyal as to follow him even though Wilkes had flogged him!
The expedition went first down to Tierra del Fuego and around the Horn, where they lost one of the NY Harbor sloops. They then went up the cost of Chile and Peru and across the ocean to Samoa and Tahiti. Viola explained that many of the sailors had signed on for the trip because they had heard from Cook's expedition how free and easy the women of those islands were. However, in the 50 years between Cook and the Wilkes expedition, the missionaries had arrived in the islands, and the sailors were horrified to discover that the girls there didn't do things like that anymore!
From there, they headed down toward Antarctica and Disappointment Harbor, where the Peacock was nearly crushed by a falling ice shelf. They then headed for Fiji and Hawaii, and finally to the Pacific Northwest, where the Peacock was finally lost as it crossed the bar at the mouth of the Columbia River. The expedition went ashore and marched down to San Francisco, and the group had dinner at Sutter's Mill. Viola recounts the amusing anecdote that one of the scientists who was a mineralogist came in and told Mr. Sutter "you have gold on your property", whereupon Mr. Sutter laughed and replied "Oh! If only it were true!"
Eventually, Viola said, a new political party came to power in Washington, and the expedition quickly came to be thought of as a waste of money, and so it ended. But Viola ticked off the impressive accomplishments of this incredible voyage that now barely exists in the American memory: - the first good map of the California coast, which was said to be worth the price of the expedition in itself - 50,000 plant and animal specimens, much of which still exists at the Smithsonian - 5,000 anthropological specimens (pottery, hats, etc.) - great collections of minerals and coral, helping to create at the Smithsonian what is now the finest coral collection in the world.
Viola said that Wilkes spent the next twenty years getting all the written materials together to be published, which were put out in several volumes. But the federal government only invested in about 100 or so full sets of the books, so that even for the Smithsonian's recent exhibition on the voyage, they could not assemble a full set. Wilkes was, it appears, rather a maverick. He was court-martialed three times. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery, and Viola marvels that his obituary makes no mention of the expedition at all. Ironically, the only recognition Wilkes ever got was a gold medal from the British.
Kapp spoke of O'Brian's introduction of music in the very first page of Master and Commander as the scene opens on a concert in Port Mahon (which, he noted, is where mayonnaise was invented!), and of his deep knowledge and appreciation of it. One particularly striking remark was that O'Brian had such a "casual familiarity with things that most of us hold at arm's length." However, he said, to great amusement, the Locatelli concerto in C major mentioned on the first page of the canon does not exist!
We were then treated to a most extraordinary performance of one of Locatelli's work's by Mela Tennenbaum, which included a section that Kapp said was called a "capriccio". These capriccios make the twelve concerti of Locatelli to this day the most difficult ever written for the violin. It is difficult to describe what it was like, but you certainly knew when she'd reached the capriccio. It was a very different, ragged, out of control kind of music. It brought to mind a passage from The Ionian Mission, when Jack was struggling with a piece of music and puzzled by the sudden change in the music, when it suddenly became disturbingly wild:
"...but it was the chaconne which followed that really disturbed him. On the face of it the statements made in the beginning were clear enough: their closely-argued variations, though complex, could certainly be followed with full acceptation, and they were not particularly hard to play; yet at one point, after a curiously insistent repetition of the second theme, the rhythm changed and with it the whole logic of the discourse. There was something dangerous about what followed, something not unlike the edge of madness, or at least of a nightmare; and although Jack recognized that the whole sonata and particularly the chaconne was a most impressive composition he felt that if he were to go on playing it with all his heart it might lead him to very strange regions indeed."From Ms. Tennenbaum's performance, one could get a much richer appreciation for what that meant, and it was certainly the most extraordinary display of virtuosity.- The Ionian Mission [Norton, page 155]
Starling Lawrence said that there were no plans to ghost-write the final chapters of O'Brian's last book, and said that his preference for the rough draft of the three chapters already written were that they be sent to a University Library rather than publishing them.
The JA/SM companion book is almost complete and is expected to be out for Christmas 2001. The author/editor had died with the book almost completed and, even so, the planned Christmas 2000 release was lost. Geoff Hunt says that he has completed the cover art. Also, all of POB's books with Geoff's covers made money, while earlier JA/SM publishers lost.
All in all, a remarkable enjoyable day and a wonderful opportunity to revel in the many and varied parts of Patrick O'Brian's world.
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