Age of Sail / Nautical Fiction / Patrick Obrian / Royal Navy

An unknown Patrick O’Brian novel – The Golden Ocean

The Golden Ocean is a relatively unknown tale of the sea by Patrick O’Brian. This was the first historical tale of the sea by Patrick O’Brian, written in 1956 before he started on the Aubrey Maturin series. It is a wonderful book that fictionalizes the incredible adventures of Commodore George Anson (later Admiral Anson, 1st Baron Anson PC RN (23 April 1697 – 6 June 1762), a British admiral and a wealthy aristocrat, noted for his circumnavigation of the globe and his role overseeing the Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War) and his small fleet of ships that set out intent on circumnavigating the globe. They experienced some of the most gut-wrenching tragedies that are imaginable and lost the majority of the men (his force went from 961 to 335 men) on the first leg of the journey, around Cape Horn. Most of them died to scurvy (lack of vitamin C).

O’Brian tells the story masterfully and very engagingly. The tale is told mostly from the perspective of a young Irish midshipman – Peter Palafox, son of an impoverished Irish parson – and it is tempered with subtle humor, wonderful irony, and sidesplitting hilarity.

During the journey, the fleet is continuously reduced, until they in the end have only one of the original six ships left – the flagship HMS Centurion. This ship, and Lord Anson (see picture), is famous not only for having sailed around the world but also for having captured one of the richest prizes even – a Spanish galleon full of riches – and returning to England laden to the gunnels with an incredible fortune. Wikipedia writes:

The indomitable perseverance he had shown during one of the most arduous voyages in the history of sea adventure gained the reward of the capture of an immensely rich prize, Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, possessing 1,313,843 pieces of eight, which he encountered off Cape Espiritu Santo on 20 June 1743. Anson took his prize back to Macau, sold her cargo to the Chinese, and sailed for England, which he reached … on 15 June 1744. The prize money earned by the capture of the galleon had made him a rich man for life, and it enabled his heirs to rebuild Shugborough Hall, the family estate.

The Golden Ocean tells a tale of hardship, illness, cold, shipwrecks, hunger, courage, ambition, and sea battles. The writing in this book is as good as in the later and more famous novels. Here, as in O’Brian’s other novels, the characters live and breathe, they love and hate, they veer off the straight and narrow and they feel very, very authentic.

When young Peter Palafox sets out on this journey together with his lifelong friend, Sean, he hopes to find his fortune. They live through some of the worst hardships imaginable, but he does, in the end, return home with a vast fortune. The Golden Ocean is a great book, worthy of the creator of the marvelous Aubrey-Maturin series, and a delight to read for any fan of the series!