Master and Commander
Researcher: Samantha HL
Total nerd about military history. Minor in American history. Trivia maven. Navy brat and spouse. Currently reading the Aubrey-Maturin books and I CANNOT recommend them enough.
As was the case in Great Britain during the Napoleonic Age, life aboard a Royal Navy Ship was stratified by rank in society.
There were Commissioned Officers, Warranted Officers, and the Crew
The list below is not exhaustive, but covers all the featured ranks and rates from the movie
Generally needed to be politically connected and/or well liked by superior officers in order to advance in rank. They also tended to be more formally educated and usually of the gentry or aristocratic classes.
Captain John “Lucky Jack” Aubrey’s official rank as captain of the HMS Surprise is “Post Captain”
Post Captain is the rank of commanding officer of any rated ship, that is a ship with 20 guns or more.
Ironically, despite it being the title of the movie, Post Captain is one rank above “Master and Commander” which denotes command of an unrated ship (a ship with less than 20 guns).
Lieutenants, which in French literally translates to “place holder”, were the junior officers aboard a Royal Navy vessel and commanded the ship when the captain was otherwise occupied.
The larger the ship, the more lieutenants a captain would have.
Lieutenants were ranked, with the First Lieutenant being the most senior - on the Surprise, this is 1st LT Pullings.
In the book series, Pullings comes from a family of farmers and warrant officers and works his way to a commission from a Master’s Mate. Due to lack of political connections he has a harder time gaining promotions throughout his career.
Midshipmen (also called “The Young Gentlemen”) were prospective officers, but had not yet earned a commission.
At the time of the movie, midshipmen needed to serve as such for at least two years and pass an exam before they were considered for commissioning.
Well connected boys as young as 12 years old could become midshipmen.
Midshipman Lord Blakeney, in contrast to Pullings, is politically well connected and socially outranks everyone else aboard the ship.
Marine Officers were the commissioned officers of the Marine contingent aboard the ship.
Marines were tasked with sentry duty and manning gun crews and boarding parties during battle.
The Sailing Master (or simply Master) of the ship was considered the same rank as a lieutenant and could also command the ship in the captain’s absence.
Expertise in navigation and piloting the ship.
Generally of a lower social class and therefore unlikely to advance if they obtained a commission.
Surgeons treated the sick and wounded aboard the ship.
Generally there was only one surgeon aboard and he was assisted by trained Surgeon Mates (called Assistant Surgeons after 1805).
They were also responsible for the cleanliness of the ship, ensuring fresh air occasionally made its way to lower decks and keeping stock of food (and grog) safety.
The Wardroom was the dining area/messroom for all Commissioned and Warranted Officers on smaller ships and senior officers in larger ships.
Typically the Captain would dine in his state room (a combination of office and bedroom) but would invite senior members of the crew to dine with him. These meals would be at the captain’s own expense.
Reciprocally, the Wardroom would invite the captain to dine with them on occasion.
Midshipmen would only be included in Wardroom meals if invited.
On large ships, junior officers would mess in the Gunroom.
Petty Officers (Non-Commissioned Officer)
Boatswains (pronounced bosun) were in charge of the maintenance and replacement of the sails and the rigging.
In charge of all deck activities like weighing/dropping anchor.
Oldest rate in the Royal Navy. dating to 1040 CE.
Carpenters usually started their careers building ships before going to sea. They were in charge of maintaining and repairing the ship’s hull, masts, and yards.
Gunners maintained the ship's guns, small arms, and powder supply.
The ship's Boatswain, Carpenter, and Gunner were considered “standing” officers of the ship and would typically stay with one ship their entire careers.
All three had high status aboard ship but typically came from lower ranks of society.
All three were assisted by “mates” (Boatswain’s Mate, etc).
Coxswains (pronounced cox’n ) were helmsmen in addition to driving boats the smaller vessels carried within the ship when deployed.
Barrett Bonden (Billy Boyd) was Aubrey’s Coxswain throughout the book series, aboard many different ships.
Able Seamen were the most experienced at performing the basic tasks of sailing a ship.
Ordinary Seamen had less experience.
Landsmen were essentially fresh recruits with no skillset yet.
Boys as young as 12 could volunteer as seamen.
During times of war when the Royal Navy wasn’t able to fill out crews with volunteers, they would turn to this practise.
Men, experienced sailors or random people off the street, could be legally kidnapped and forced into service aboard a Royal Navy ship.
This could happen in port, when so-called “Press-Gangs” would roam the town and capture able-bodied victims.
It also happened to the crews of captured ships. Impressment of American sailors was a major cause of the War of 1812.
Accounts vary but it is estimated that in 1812 (around the time of the book, but not the movie) 8% of crews were boy volunteers, 15% were men volunteers, 50% were pressed Brits, and the rest were pressed foreigners or Brits sentenced to naval service.
Impressment ended in 1815.
A Sea of Words by Dean King (this reference is always by my side when I’m reading the books!)
The USS Constitution, docked in Boston, is the oldest commissioned warship in the world. :!2 was commissioned in 1797 and is the inspiration for the ACHERON. Totally worth the visit to learn more about navies during this time period.
HMS Surprise (the ship used for filming) is open for tours in San Diego.
Researcher: Benjamin David Curley
What can you say about one of the films famous for being one of the most historically accurate films
ever made? Starting with the obvious that the film was adjusted from being set during the War of 1812
and moved to the final days of the Napoleonic wars this means we are adjusting the chase of a massive
American warship that can change the tide of the war to a French Privateer (Corsair). Privateering is a
tradition dating back officially for hundreds of years during the time of the film, a privateer is an
officially sanctioned pirate who after receiving a Letter of Marque was free to prey on the enemies of
the patron who issued the Letter until the Letter expired or until the war ended. This was an enticing
option for many merchant seamen as the rewards for sailors was in many cases many years worth of
income you would make as a merchant or serving in the official navy. The captain of the privateer
would be expected to send a portion of their prize earnings home to the patron, and the rest would be
disbursed among the crew.
Most naval action between Privateers/Pirates would have been relatively non-violent. While all
merchant ships were armed the difference between a sailor who knows how to fire a cannon and a
Privateer who is there with the express expectation of combat often lead to one sided willingness to
engage. If you were a sailor, would you really feel like getting stabbed and shot so some Merchant in
Liverpool, Calais, or Boston could make money while paying you a pittance? The privateer would often
take what they want from the ship, leaving the crew and enough supplies to get them to port. While we
often think of pirates (and by extension privateers) as bloodthirsty and vicious it really is important that
they managed to straddle the line between “will kill you if you make them” and “will kill all of you so you
may as well fight to the last man”. As to the fear the officers on the Surprise feel toward the damage
one ship can do unopposed. According to one source (Naval Chronicle, Vol 17. p. 369) French Corsairs
captured more ships that were lost to the dangers of the sea (with 3,639 tonnes lost to capture and
2,967 lost to the sea or running aground). One added difficulty when dealing with the switch between
the ship being an American Warship to being a French Corsair is the implausibility of a top of the line, 48
gun, warship being commissioned as a Corsair, and not as a warship. While many privateers and pirates
did have large well armed ships this was usually after trading up several times by taking larger and larger
prizes, not having a fresh out of dock advanced war ship commissioned for this purpose. It begs the
question why they didn’t just make it a French Naval ship, unless they wanted to avoid talking about
Trafalgar and why the ship wasn’t destroyed there. Looking at the ships of Corsairs that sailed at the
same time the film took place they were more the size of the Surprise, such as the Duc de Dantzig that
sailed in 1808, which was a Brig with a crew of 103 and 14 18-pounder cannons, or the corvette
Confiance which sailed 1797 and had a crew of 213 and 18 8 pound long guns with 4 swivel guns. The
proposition of manning, arming, and supplying something like the Acheron privately seems to strain at
the edge of what is possible.
One thing I loved in this film was the use of actual naval implements as weapons of war. We see
boarding axes and wonderfully pikes being used along with the more famous muskets, flintlock pistols,
and sabers. When outfitting a privateer it would be incredibly common for you to use what you have at
hand so seeing pikes made me very excited. One great weapon we all too briefly see in the film is a
Nock Gun. A Nock Gun is a seven barreled weapon that was ordered by the British Navy just at this
exact part of the Napoleonic period. The weapons distinctive 7 barrel design was made so that all the
barrels fired at once. It was originally intended to have rifled barrels but was adjusted to smooth bore
as the reload time with rifling made the weapon beyond impractical. While I wish you saw more of
them during the fight the fact that they have a gun that was only in service up through the exact time
that the film took place in was very exciting. How many films will include a weapon that was only in
service for 22 years and could easily have been replaced in filming with more familiar flintlock muskets?
As for the fighting itself it is chaotic and brutal as boarding actions could indeed be. With the ships
entangled and grappled not just crossing from deck to deck but from gun deck to gun deck could
happen. Two things the film ignores in order to add movie magic is ignoring that the Royal Marine
gunners in the top sails of the Surprise would easily be able to see the French Corsairs setting up their
ambush on the quarter deck, and the fighting below decks is far too well lit. Other than that I can say I
have few complaints with the depiction of the combat.
On the other hand one thing that both made me very happy to see included and disappointed to not see
fully implemented is the use of shanties and sea songs. While 3 are displayed prominently (Spanish
Ladies, The British Tars, and Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate) and while are all perfect for the era, they
don’t display just how much singing would happen on a sailing vessel. Shanties were not just for
entertainment as displayed in the film, but to help keep everyone in time. If you know that for every
line of a song you heave a rope once you are able to keep a dozen sailors in time making the work go
smoothly and more quickly. As part of this we have shanties of vastly different lengths depending on
the task they would be paired with, and with the number of actions you would need to do. While many
films revolving around sailing tend to avoid the use of song entirely I was at least glad to see some music
included, and was glad it was period appropriate.
Researcher: Dave Feldmann
These notes are taken from Alan Schom’s book Napoleon Bonaparte. ISBN 0-06-017214-2, Jay Luvass’s book Napoleon on the Art of War, ISBN 0684872714
Lord Horatio Nelson and Napoleon
Aubrey and his officers openly admire Nelson as a natural leader and expert on naval warfare. They detest Napoleon and mock him in their cups, but the character of the French captain in the Acheron provides a figure that very closely resembles Napoleon, albeit at sea. The French captain is capable, unpredictable, and a worthy opponent for Lucky Jack -- very similar to how the Duke of Wellington described Napoleon both before and after the battle of Waterloo - “the nearest run thing you ever saw” was how the Iron Duke described Napoleon’s final defeat.
In reality, Nelson was an incredibly charismatic and tactically brilliant commander who led from the front, suffered grievous injuries (most of an arm and the use of an eye), enjoyed the immense respect and near worship of his men, and who defeated Napoleon’s cause not once but twice.
The battle of the Nile.
Napoleon landed in Egypt for a Middle Eastern adventure at the expense of the ruling Ottoman empire, “the sick man of Europe.” Nelson and his British fleet located the French fleet after Napoleon had disembarked, and destroyed the entire fleet except for 2 ships. Nelson lost an arm in the battle This all but guaranteed that the Egyptian expedition would be a failure for logistical reasons, and Napoleon abandoned his men to return to France. The men of the Egyptian expedition ultimately died of disease or surrendered.
The Egyptian expedition also signaled the end of peace in Europe, and the beginning of the War of the Second Coalition. Between crushing defeats on land and sea, Napoleon fled Egypt on a fast schooner, and deposed the French Directory, installing himself as Consul Bonaparte. Had Nelson not defeated French forces so completely, its possible that the Directory’s leadership could deal with Napoleon’s coup more effectively.
Trafalgar. This is the battle that brings Nelson to the level of Alfred the Great and Henry V in terms of English military heroes.
In the film, England is mentioned as being under “threat of invasion.” This is absolutely true, and thousands of French soldiers were bivouacked on the English channel. Napoleon intended to invade England in order to remove their naval and economic power off the board, and prevent the incredible financial resources from tipping the scale of the conflict between France, Russia, and Austria. The Prussians would not become involved again in the Napoleonic wars until 1806.
A combined fleet of Spanish and French men-of-war intended to sail out of the Mediterranean and cover the proposed invasion. Despite being outnumbered, Nelson expected success and claimed at least “20 prizes” would be taken.
Battle was joined, Nelson was shot through the spine on the quarterdeck by a sharpshooter (“Stand tall on the quarterdeck, always.”) Nelson survived long enough to accept the surrender of almost the entire French fleet, capturing 22 vessels in all.
In the film, its noted that Nelson was England’s only hope if “Old Bonnie” decides to invade -- it is exactly what happened. Napoleon no longer considered an invasion of Britain to be feasible or possible, and instead attempted to isolate England from Europe economically using the Continental system. While Napoleon would defeat the emperors of Austria and Russia at the battle of Austerlitz (a battle considered to be as tactically brilliant as any in the Western World), the building of the Continental system was ultimately what pulled Napoleon into invading Russia, and his eventual defeat. You can draw a line between Nelson and the British fleet directly to the burning of Moscow and Waterloo.