Nelson week continues here at Triple P and I struggled a bit with who to post about today. Not the man himself, surely. Far more agile and capable writers than I have tackled his biography and not one, two or even three posts could do justice to a life lived so large. But I had an idea that tickled my fancy last night and, if you will permit me, I will indulge it. Before you today, the nautical exploits of a fictional character (a Triple P first) who is, to me, the essence of a commander in Nelson’s navy. My own license has been taken where necessary. Apologies to the Great One: Patrick O’Brian.
John Aubrey was born in Dorchester, England, probably around 1770, to General Aubrey and his wife. The General was a relatively well off if unpopular landowner with a seat in Parliament. An only child, which was indeed unusual in that era and place, John, known as Jack from an early age, lost his mother to illness when he was five. It appears that not many years thereafter (perhaps three at the most) he went to sea as a boy aboard an unknown ship under Captain Boscawen.
Extant letters describing Jack Aubrey almost always refer to him as handsome. He was tall, probably six foot three inches, and large. His physician chided him in middle age for his weight which the doctor lists in a log as “17 stone” (a little less than 250 pounds). His blond hair, which he wore long all of his life, and his striking blue eyes are continuously remarked on, as is his ruddy “sailor’s” complexion and universal good cheer.
Aubrey achieved his Midshipman’s commission in the West Indies and seemed full of promise until an incident (involving smuggling and then keeping a girl aboard ship) saw him “turned to the mast” (demoted to able seaman) for a year. Upon returning to his Midshipman’s duties he was quickly promoted to Lieutenant and by April of 1800 was made Master and Commander. It should be noted here that while in Port Mahon awaiting news of his commission, Aubrey met his life long “particular friend” and future ship’s physician Stephen Maturin.
The brig-sloop Sophie had many successes under her new commander. The most famous of these was the cutting out and taking of the much larger Spanish privateer frigate Cacafuego late in 1801. This action made Aubrey a hero at home. Unfortunately, his loss of Sophie to the French in early 1802 did not endear him to the Admiralty. He faced a court martial in July of that year, but was acquitted.
The Peace of Amiens and the lack of a ship brought Aubrey back to England. At this time he met his future wife, Sophia Williams, who was living with her mother, sisters and cousin nearby. Aubrey faced growing trouble with debtors and it seems, although there is no solid documentation, that he left the country to avoid prison. He was back in the service again by May of 1804 with a promotion to Post Captain and command of HMS Lively.
Aubrey did not spend much time aboard Lively and it is at this time that a series of mysterious and marginally documented voyages became almost routine for the new Captain. In this case, trips to the Mediterranean followed by transfer of his commission to HMS Surprise are impossible to elaborate on. In all such instances, however, Dr. Maturin is in some way connected to Aubrey, again as physician in almost all of his commands.
Another lightly documented mission to India in 1805 keeps Aubrey away from the Battle of Trafalgar. He expressed his frustration in a letter to his then fiancée in a letter not unlike that written by William Hoste to his father at the same time. By 1806, Surprise is back at home and Aubrey and Miss Williams are married.
Though Aubrey is away from the sea for over a year, he again comes to national recognition as Commodore of the squadron involved in the raids on Reunion and Mauritius in 1808. Though Admiral Bertie arrived at the action late, and claimed a good deal of the honor for himself, documentation now available clearly shows that the British victory against the French can only be attributed to Aubrey.
This success led Aubrey into a series of unfortunate commands including HMS Leopard, which was nearly sunk in the South Sea after being holed by an iceberg. Aubrey was also aboard HMS Java as a passenger, along with Dr. Maturin, when she was taken by USS Constitution not long after the start of the War of 1812. After spending time as a prisoner in Boston, Aubrey managed to escape and had the good fortune to be aboard HMS Shannon (again, as a passenger) when she prevailed over USS Chesapeake.
Further trouble lie ahead, however. After taking command of HMS Ariel, Aubrey was overcome by the French and he was again a prisoner, this time in Paris. Released under truly mysterious circumstances, Aubrey returned to his favorite ship – Surprise – and headed for South America and the Pacific in search of USS Norfolk. The American was devastating British whaling in the South Seas and was finally cornered and destroyed at Sodbury’s Island by Surprise.
Returning home in 1813, Aubrey was accused (most authorities agree unjustly) of conspiracy to defraud the stock exchange. This led to imprisonment followed by a lengthy and probably rigged trial. Aubrey was fined, spent an hour in the stocks in London and had his name struck from the Post Captain’s list. It appears that Dr. Maturin purchased Surprise from the navy at this time and that he and Aubrey set out later in the year as privateers. Surprise had a good deal of success against the French which convinced the Admiralty to return Aubrey to his position as Post Captain by 1814.
A number of only vaguely documented missions were then given to Aubrey including a cruise to China and Java, followed by time in New South Wales and Peru. After these mysterious errands, Aubrey is given command of HMS Bellona at the head of a squadron sent out again the illegal slave trade off West Africa. Though Aubrey took a number of slavers, Bellona was called to the blockade of Brest for a short time before the peace with France.
Aubrey, given HMS Pomone in the spring of 1815 after Napoleon’s escape from Elba, accomplished a delicate diplomatic mission in Algiers. After making sure (it appears with the help of or possibly even through the efforts of Dr. Maturin) that the local Dey would not side with the French, Pomone took an enormous treasure galley and returned to Gibraltar just after the Battle of Waterloo.
Again in Surprise, Aubrey was dispatched to Chile to assist the revolutionary leader Bernardo O’Higgins in creating a navy. The success of this mission was punctuated by Aubrey receiving the news, probably in March or April of 1817, that he had been promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue. Aubrey raised his pennant aboard HMS Suffolk and sailed for Africa where he took command of the African squadron. His efforts against the illegal slave trade as well as his protection of British interests around the Cape sealed his place in Royal Navy history.
John Aubrey, who lived a full life not the least of which involved wine, women and song, developed an intractable and painful case of gout in his left leg not long after his promotion to Vice-Admiral in 1822. He was given command of the Plymouth station, where he could spend more time by land and at home. He chafed under the restrictions imposed on him by his friend and physician Stephen Maturin and his conditioned worsened. In November of 1826 he suffered what was most probably a heart attack and died a few days later.
Aubrey’s legitimate son became Admiral George Aubrey in 1845 and his son by Sally M’puta (the girl smuggled aboard in his Midshipman days) became a Monsignor in the Catholic Church. His daughters, Charlotte and Frances, both married Royal Navy Captains. A pair of American twins, Mariette and Josette Flynn, are also sometimes listed as illegitimate daughters of Jack Aubrey. No solid evidence exists for this other than a painting of the two, now housed in the Cabildo in New Orleans, which shows lovely young women with blue eyes and blonde hair. Hardly damning evidence. But in a life so full, one can never discount the possibilities.
And so, Brethren, Triple P's 401st post. Huzzah! for lucky Jack!