Friday, August 19, 2011

Adventure classics -- Pirates get heave-ho

The Ionian Mission

by Patrick O’Brian

I like to start with the beginning when discussing books in a series. But The Ionian Mission, although far down the list of O’Brian’s British Navy series featuring Captain Jack Aubrey, begged to be considered, pleading the pertinence of its story of upheaval around the Mediterranean, troubles in Greece and piracy to current affairs.

It also marks the return of the Napoleonic Wars series to its starting point in the Mediterranean. After a series of adventures that have taken them around the globe, Aubrey and his friend, shipboard physician Stephen Maturin, are assigned to a ship blockading the French port of Toulon and worrying about the annoying Americans. (Great Britain was not only at war with France and its allies, but involved in what is known in the United States as the War of 1812.)

The year is 1813, and the North African pirates routed by U.S. Marines nearly a decade earlier have come back to their roosts. Now it’s the turn of the British to check the piracy that threatens its navy’s supply flow. With the added limitation of being forbidden to shoot first, for fear of starting war on still another front.

Aubrey’s nemesis Admiral Harte explains, “As you are no doubt aware, the benevolent neutrality of the rulers of the Barbary States is of the first importance to us, and nothing whatsoever must be done to offend (them). . .” while clearly hoping the other side can be bluffed into violating this sham of neutrality first.

Aubrey’s career survives a tense standoff with a French ship in a neutral port that reminded me of my friend former gunner's mate John P.'s description of watching Soviet guns track his ship in Havana harbor during the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960's.  Each side with orders, no doubt, not to fire the first shot.

Fortunately for his fans, O’Brian ends his adventure with a fight worthy of Aubrey’s mettle. Now combating the forces of a renegade Ottoman, he sees one of his men fall. “For a fragment of time his ingenuous face was turned to Jack, then the Turk’s sword flashed and the fight closed in again. ‘No, no, no,’ roared Jack, driving forward with enormous strength. He had his heavy sabre in both hands and taking no guard he hacked and slashed, standing over Pullings’ body.”

All ends well, both for Pullings and Aubrey. And in 1815, U.S. forces returned to the Mediterranean to put an end to the piracy -- until the next time.

(Next Friday Adventure classics turns from captains to seamen with Herman Melville’s ill-fated young Billy Budd.)


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