Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) Poster


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  • Even to this day the mile is the unit of measurement used in the UK for distances of travel and is standard on all road signs. In education in the UK the metric system is taught and therefore most modern British people can readily use either unit.

    At the time of the story the kilometre had only recently (1799) been postulated in France and was not yet in use. The term would have been completely unknown to a Royal Navy sailor, even a well educated officer as the young man was. Edit

  • Many major plot lines are mixed together from "Master and Commander" and "The Far Side of the World" by Patrick O'Brian. However, several incidents and characters are plucked from other books in the 'canon' (the 20 volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin story) as well. Some of the characters are composites, taken from several people in the books. Many aspects (some very important) to the characters do not come out in the film and physical characteristics and even characterisations (especially in the case of Stephen Maturin and Barrett Bonden) are very different in the books. Edit

  • Master and Commander (1969) Post Captain (1972) H.M.S. Surprise (1973) The Mauritius Command (1977) Desolation Island (1978) The Fortune of War (1979) The Surgeon's Mate (1980) The Ionian Mission (1981) Treason's Harbour (1983) The Far Side of the World (1984) The Reverse of the Medal (1986) The Letter of Marque (1988) The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989) The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991) Clarissa Oakes, renamed The Truelove in the USA (1992) The Wine-Dark Sea (1993) The Commodore (1994) The Yellow Admiral (1996) The Hundred Days (1998) Blue at the Mizzen (1999) And finally there is an unfinished book, available as a fragment under the title The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey or Twenty-one. Edit

  • A master and commander is a term for an officer one step below post-captain, they are given commands of ships, but are not actually a true captain; this is because if they have no ship to command, then they are not paid nor have a title. While post-captain is always referred to as a captain, whether they have a ship to command or not. In 1794 it dropped the master and and was called simple commander.

    The first book of the series, set in 1800, has Jack Aubrey newly-promoted to master and commander and appointed to command the sloop HMS Sophie. Patrick OBrian did not get this wrong because although in 1794 the RN dropped the master and and the rank was called simply commander, the rank was still referred to as master and commander. The film, by following the same title makes the same mistake, as Jack is a Post Captain.

    A commander would never be placed in command of a brig which was a lieutenants command, but the minute he took command of a brig-rigged vessel it became automatically a sloop.

    A post ship (requiring a post captain) was any vessel with 20 guns or more, which could include unrated vessels as well as frigates and line-of-battle ships. A frigate like HMS Surprise is not a master and commander's command at all but that of a post captain. Jack is depicted as a post captain of more than three years seniority as he wears two epaulettes. In the books he only attains the rank in 1803 and in 1805 should only have had an epaulette on his right shoulder. A commanders epaulette was worn on the left shoulder.

    Any commissioned officer in permanent command of a ship (even a lieutenant) would be called "captain" by courtesy. This also applied to those in temporary command of a vessel, including prizes.

    In the book The Far Side of the World, Pullings is a commander without a ship and comes along for the ride.

    The master was a warrant officer responsible directly to the captain for the navigation of the vessel. He would con the vessel in battle, leaving the captain free to make fighting decisions. He was junior to all the lieutenants in theory, but typically vastly more experienced and was one of the three warrant officers that messed in the wardroom. The others were the purser (in charge of victualling) and the surgeon.

    Each vessel also had three standing warrant officers who often stayed with the vessel between commissions. These were the boatswain (pronounced bosun) who was in charge of the sails and rigging, the gunner and the carpenter. Edit

  • A weevil is an insect that often lived in the ship's biscuit. There is a saying in English that you should "choose the lesser of two evils." Basically it means that if there are two bad things to choose from, you should choose the one that doesn't seem quite as bad. The joke is a pun, since "two weevils" and "two evils" sound similar, and "lesser of two weevils" sounds like "lesser of two evils". An example of the saying comes up when Warley is washed overboard during the storm; Warley is swimming towards the wreckage that is being dragged by the ship, however the wreckage was also dragging the ship and causing it to sink. So the choices were to wait for Warley to swim to the wreckage and get him to climb up the ropes in order to try and rescue him (which would take a significant amount of time) and likely dooming the entire ship and crew or to sacrifice Warley by cutting the ropes tied to the wreckage and free the ship. One choice risks the entire crew and the other condemns a man to die. The latter being the lesser of two evils. (or weevils as Aubrey jests) Edit

  • It is a Floating Island (or rather, in this case, a whole Floating Archipelago shaped like the Galapagos).

    Floating Island was a well-known English pudding dish in the 18th century; it was made by creating an "island" out of layers of light cake (or bread), jam and jelly [that's "jelly" in the British sense, i.e. Jello] and surrounding it with a "sea" of cream (which might have been beaten up with lemon juice, sherry and sugar) or thin custard.

    It was traditional to decorate one's Floating Island to look like a real island, with sprigs of greenery for trees, cream for snow mountains, etc. As Jack's Floating Archipelago represents the Galapagos, which are barren and brown, they have been covered with a topping of custard, icing or cream, coloured with something brown; most probably chocolate. Chocolate was not yet eaten in solid form, but it was popular as a hot drink and to make chocolate-flavoured desserts.

    There was also a French dish called "Ile Flottante" which consisted of a moulded meringue "island" in a custard sea. This version ousted the native Floating Island from the British culinary repertoire in the 19th century (though all the components of the Floating Island survive to this day in "trifle", a classic British dish).

    In Jack Aubrey's time either version might have been served on board a British ship. There would be no difficulty getting cream, eggs and milk for custard and meringue, since the Captain would have shipped privately-owned chickens and a couple of goats, or even a cow, to ensure a supply of milk.

    The officers paid for their own food. They would appoint one of their number wardroom caterer, put as much cash as they could afford and put it into a kitty from which he would purchase supplies for the voyage. He would probably buy some chickens, and a nanny goat to give milk. The captain would bring his own supplies on board with him, which were not only for him but allowed him to invite his officers to dinner. Most of what is being eaten at that dinner will have been paid for by Captain Aubrey.

    The officers ate better food than the ratings' rations, but only because they had catered and paid for it themselves. If the voyage lasted long enough without going into a port where they could re-stock, when the captain's and the wardroom stores ran out they lived on exactly the same rations as the men. Edit

  • The Royal Navy was one place for orphans to earn a living and receive regular and acceptable meals and housing -- not much by today's standards, but one should always keep in mind the conditions in orphanages and work-houses in those times. When Charles Dickens painted their grisly reality in the 19th century (check out Oliver Twist and Bleak House) he was actually softening up his own first-hand experiences.

    Life at sea would certainly have been an improvement on those conditions. While these children and teenagers were definitely in harm's way, they were equally so in life on land (life at sea being much surprisingly far healthier than life in poverty on shore), and in times of war, they were as likely to be recruited into the regular army as anyone else. Also, one should take into account that the vast majority of ships in the RN, while certainly ready to fight at a moment's notice, did not actually engage the enemy throughout most of the war - the blockading fleets off the coast of Brest, La Rochelle, Cadiz, Toulon or wherever else the Admiralty felt the need for them, spend endless months and even years cruising just off the French fleet's harbours, daring them to come out, in vain. So actually, while these kids were part of a fighting unit they never saw action. People, including parents, were very much aware of this.

    Also, those "powder monkeys" and cabin boys received a very informal, but none the less rather effective apprenticeship as seaman, enabling them to work as able rated crew members later in life in both the RN and the merchant marine. Certainly better. or at least more desirable, than a life as an unskilled labourer or even a vagrant on land, although one's personal mileage may vary on this. On a more material note, it should be mentioned that even a cabin-boy or powder monkey (if they were on the books, that is the crew's list) shared in prize money for any ship's or assets captured and send home. Which would, even for a single sizable prize, often be more than one (or several) years wages. so actually the position wasn't that badly paid either. Not that one had much chance to spend the money anyway, being at sea most of the time.

    As for the midshipmen and officer candidates, eligibility for lieutenancy was determined by seniority, that is time spend aboard a RN ship and "on-the-books". Hence, to pass the relevant exams sometime around the eighteenth to twentieth birthday, prior to which six years minimum (often more) had to be spend aboard gaining both practical and theoretical knowledge of nautical skills, you had to be around twelve years or even younger (few captains would actually allow children of less than a dozen years aboard) to achieve it. and stand a chance to make post captain at any reasonable age at all.

    Also, let's please remember that in the 18th and 19th century formal schooling if any) was much shorter and apprenticeships started much earlier and lasted distinctively longer than nowadays, it being very common that children of twelve plus years left home to enter an apprenticeship, often quite a distance from home. If they were so lucky as to enter an apprenticeship and not simply enter a household as a basically unskilled servant/maid, or work the farm of their parents (or their respective landlords). And of course, many children worked alongside their parents far earlier than that, depending on profession and regional poverty (like the Yorkshire mines). The concept of a protected, sheltered and secure childhood (with many liberties quite unthinkable in the 18th century) lasting up to the end of puberty is a concept of the Victorian age (for the middle and upper classes at least) and the early 20th century, which has very much altered our perception of the whole subject. Edit

  • Black seamen were treated just like white ones, and all the lower-deck ratings were open to them. There was no official bar to their becoming officers; the barrier was more a question of class and education than race. In the mid-18th century Navy it had been quite common for "common sailors" to make their way up "on to the quarterdeck" and become commissioned officers. By the Napoleonic wars this was becoming much rarer, and most of the few who did manage it were men who had had a reasonable education and some social know-how before joining the Navy; i.e. were middle-class in origin. In the nature of things, very few black sailors would have started out with these advantages.

    The National Archives (UK) write: "The 'Annual Register' for 1815 reveals that a Black sailor, William Brown, 'recently' paid off from HMS Queen Charlotte with the rest of the crew, was a woman. It was not unheard of in the 18th and 19th centuries for women to disguise themselves as men and join the Royal Navy - and some even managed to serve in this way for many years. (...)It is recorded, in the extract reproduced here, that 21-year-old William Brown from Grenada joined the crew of the Queen Charlotte on 23 May 1815 as a landsman (the least experienced class of rating) and was discharged on 19 June 1815, 'being a female.' " (source:

    During the American Revolution, a number of former slaves escaped and joined the British Army and Navy. After the war they were demobilised in the UK. Some of these men ended up as far away as Australia (see C. Pybus: "Black Founders: The unknown Story of Australia's first black settlers", Sydney 2005).

    Information about black people in the UK during this time is anecdotal. There have been a number of african and caribbean immigrants at that time, most of them as slaves to British owners, but also a number of free men and women. For 1770 the number of 14,000 black people is given ( Note: At this time, the term "black" would essentially refer to all non-european people, including Indians and other Asians.

    According to Arthur Herman's "To Rule The Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World"(p. 242): "Even more remarkable was John Parkins, the pilot seaman who ended up commanding the brig Endeavor as lieutenant and the the frigates Turk and Arab as post captain, until ill health forced him out in 1805. Remarkable enough because Parkins spent his entire career as a Royal Navy officer in the West Indies, without once visiting England. But remarkable, too, because Parkins was black, the son of a slave and very probably a former slave himself." If Perkins had really once been a slave, that was actually more of a bar to his promotion than his being black. There was a vague but strong feeling in the 18th century that having been a slave was a blot on the character, a sort of defilement however undeserved, like illegitimacy, that couldn't be washed out. The Freemasons, for example, accepted black men quite readily throughout the 18th century, but only ones who had been born free; having been a slave (or being illegitimate) was an official impediment to membership. (Thanks to syntinen and dalmatica for the info) Edit

  • The books did not follow this plot line at all. There is no Acheron in the books. The Far Side of the World is set in 1813 and HMS Surprise is chasing USS Norfolk in the war of 1812. But there is no battle between them. Edit

  • It is Boccherini's La Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid No. 6, Op. 30. It is in fact on the soundtrack, but not readily apparently so, as the very last piece of music changes tack sharply after approximately four minutes and deviates from the previous piece straight into this tune. has samples from the soundtrack that may help to identify other pieces of music you heard in the film: Edit

  • Well, yes. And at the same time, a resounding No.

    The notion of evolution was already around by the end of the 18th century, having been suggested by - among others - Lamarck and Charles Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. So at the time of M&C, plenty of naturalists would be speculating that organisms had changed and adapted over time. What Charles Darwin provided half a century later was the thing all his predecessors had failed to - a coherent explanation of just how evolution happens. The joke in M&C of course, is that Stephen visits the Galapagos and collects many of the specimens which later provided Darwin with the evidence he needed for his theory, but is then forced to abandon them and leave empty-handed.

    You must also remember that belief in God at that time was as normal as eating and breathing. Virtually no one entertained any notions of Atheism or even suggesting that God may not only not exist, but was not needed for life to procreate and evolve. Even though evolution was somewhat "in the air" as early as 1805, it took Darwin some 20 years to work up the courage to publish what he knew would be subversive to the church and believers in general. He had conceived the idea of evolution through natural selection in 1839... --but didn't publish it until 1859.

    By 1859 the idea of evolution was not only in the air, but was on the brink of being postulated by a few other scientists as well. The Wikipedia has more on the historical development of the theory of evolution:

    (from forum contributions by pterodaustro and Lionhearted99) Edit

  • The technical term for such actions is "ruse de guerre," or "trick of war". An honourable fight would certainly include not fighting under false pretexts (like under a false flag or betrayal by allied troops), but would most certainly include using ruses, disguises, ambushes and obfuscations.

    Witness Aubrey disguising the "Surprise" as a whaler to lure the French in, or employing a decoy to draw off the "Acheron", when it has the dominating position in a fight. He even once (in the books) sails his vastly weaker command "HMS Sophie" in under the guns of his soon to be boarded enemy by flying the flag of a neutral country , but is_very_ careful to haul down the misleading colours before opening fire, having now much less to fear from the enemy's broadside.

    And the sole doctor aboard a prize for Valparaiso would most certainly be called upon to treat medical emergencies and inspect the healing process of wounds for both sides aboard the prize, French or British, because, under the hippocratic oath , they wouldn't raise a weapon or cause undue pain to anyone under their care or supervision, a paciifism usually extending even into other areas of life. Which " de Vigny" of course is not affected by either...

    It all boils down to honour. Once a man has surrendered and thereby given his word of honour to desist from hostile action (until freed or exchanged as a prisoner of war ), he cannot break this vow except by losing all and any respect as a person.

    Which, very much, the French captain has not. He goes into "hiding" by claiming to be the innocuous and lower ranked doctor, never having to give his personal surrender that way, and as such, not endangering his honour. Which is a ruse, so nothing defaming or nefarious about it, from a viewpoint of "honour". It's simply clever and taking advantage of a magnanimous attitude and assumptions by Aubrey.

    Which in a way is wonderfully ironic, because Aubrey has just before pulled the the wool over his eyes by disguising the "Surprise", now he returns the favour by disguising as a 'harmless' doctor. Edit

  • In the final scene, Maturin reveals that the doctor of the Acheron died some time back, which must mean that the man claiming to be the doctor was probably the captain (or the perhaps the captain could be hiding somewhere on the Acheron).

    The implication is that the captain may try to retake control of the Acheron, possibly killing Pullings and some of his prize crew in the process.

    The French captain has already proven himself to be a crafty and capable opponent over the previous months. As established leader of the French crew he will be in a good position to lead an uprising against the prize crew - doubly so if the British are unaware the French have capable leadership. Furthermore, as a "doctor" he would be allowed comparatively easy access to the wounded and captives. This is especially true since he won't have given his word of honour as an officer not to take up arms against the victorious British crew and hence not be bound by any terms of truce or restraint as a gentleman. In essence, as far as honour is concerned (and that is all that matters), he has never surrendered nor foresworn violence against his victorious foes. Since he is the French commander neither has his unit, which serves under him, and which follows his orders exclusively.

    From his point of view, the "Acheron" hasn't surrendered at all, but only lulled the "Surprise" into a mistaken sense of victory and security. Of course, uprisings might occur regardless of honour, but officers (and gentlemen) were expected to enforce the binding nature of their personal surrender onto their crew as commanding officers. And, as the French physician (a warrant officer position), would not be kept in the hold or below decks like normal crew, but allowed comparably free reign of the Acheron, enabling him to engineer a means for his crew to escape their quarters (such as unbolting hatches and removing guards posted, soaking guns etc.) and/or hinder any attempts of resistance made by the unfortunate prize crew through distraction, violence or subterfuge.

    Aubrey therefore decides that HMS Surprise will have to change course and escort Acheron. But Aubrey doesn't really seem to be very concerned. In fact it seems that he is taking this course of action only as a precaution and, in any event, we see that the Acheron is only about three miles away are unlikely to have been retaken yet.

    Another point to note is that Valparaiso in 1805 was Spanish territory and Spain was at war with Great Britain, meaning that it was not a place to which a prize could be taken and refitted as suggested. Edit

  • Nobody knows. Though the main asset, the ship, is still available, 20th Century Fox sold it to the Maritime Museum of San Diego in 2007. There have been tons of rumours, but nothing tangible. Edit

  • He plays the part of Barret Bonden, the captains coxswain, and spends a lot of his time at the helm or fighting alongside Jack in battle. In the books he is a large, bruising prize-fighter with many battle scars. You may feel that Billy Boyd does not fit this description. Edit

  • The Social History of the Navy, 1793-1815, by Michael Lewis That might sound stodgy, but trust me, it isnt. In this book Lewis (who was a distinguished naval scholar, Professor of History at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich) clearly sets out the hierarchy of a Nelsonian-period naval ships crew, explaining who did what and how they ranked socially and professionally; he also researched into the backgrounds of the people on board, showing what their social and geographical origins were likely to be. Its full of wonderfully characterful anecdotes. It was originally published 1960 and you may well find a 2nd-hand copy sculling around; if not, it has recently been reprinted. Its 100% worth tracking down, I promise you. (Syntinen). (Hardback, ca. 25 £)

    Nelson's Navy, by Brian Lavery This is a comprehensive description of the ships, the men and naval organisation in the period 1793-1815. It has a full listing of primary and secondary sources. (Cliff)

    The Wooden World by N.A.M. Rogers Comparable to the book by Michael Lewis, this book describes the social world of the Georgian Navy (around 1760). It is a bit more readable, at least in my opinion (and not as thick, only available as paperback, ca. 10 £)

    Men O'War. The Illustrated story of life in Nelson's Navy. by Peter Goodwin. A book in the same vein as the three above, but more in the style of a coffeetable book, i.e. with lots of illustrations (paintings, photographies, charts, etc.). Not as comprehensive, but still informative and a good start. (LookinGood)(Hardback, ca 15 £)

    Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana These are the memoirs of a young Bostonian who signed on to a merchant ship as a common seaman. It takes place a few decades after (1834) the beginning of the Aubrey-Maturn series, but as the narrative of a member of the upper class settling into a life of skilled but rough labour, is great for giving us an impression of what it was like. Dana also includes a glossary of nautical terms. Paperback $16 on Amazon, but old copies cheap. (megabigBLUR) This book is also available in translations from English. Edit



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