Slaves to the truth – Frank McNally on learning history in the novels of Patrick O’Brian

Haunting the seas

Reading Patrick O’Brian’s The Hundred Days (1998) over Christmas, I was taken aback by a sub-plot involving Irish child slaves in Algeria. O’Brian’s sea-faring novels are noted for historic veracity. If something happens in them, it probably happened in real life – or could have, at least.

And it’s well known that Algerian pirates did for centuries haunt the seas off Ireland in search of human prey. They once kidnapped a whole Cork village, as dramatised by a James Clarence Mangan ballad, The Sack of Baltimore, and by Des Ekin’s more recent book on the subject.

But that was in 1631. Whereas, in keeping with the title, The Hundred Days is set in the relatively modern 1815, during the tumultuous period between Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his final surrender after Waterloo.

The theatre of war in O’Brien’s novel is a side-stage to that drama: the Mediterranean, where his heroes’ mission is to thwart the involvement of Islamic mercenaries in the Bonapartist cause, by intercepting a consignment of gold that will pay them.


It is while on a related intelligence-gathering trip in Algiers that Stephen Maturin – ship surgeon, polymath, and half-Irishman – hears his own mother tongue, spoken with a Cork accent, in the slave markets:

“He turned and saw two small children, a boy and a girl, ugly, dirty, and thin. They were far too young for the usual chains, but they were tied together, left arm to right arm by a piece of string.”

So posing as a customer, Maturin interviews the children in Irish. They turn out to be a Kevin and Mona Fitzpatrick, from Ballydonegan, who had been fishing for crabs off Dursey Island when a great wind tore their boat out to sea, where they were picked up by raiding “corsairs”.

The pirates’ catch that day included only one adult, a “Sean Kelly”, who has already been sold, possibly as a galley slave. But the children prove luckier.

Offered a two-for-one deal by the merchant (“Four guineas for the boy, sir – the usual redemption fee – and I will throw in the girl for the honour of your custom”), Maturin buys their freedom.

He then returns them safely to “the Cove of Cork”, via a series of convoluted baby-sitting arrangements, on land and sea, that almost rivals the complexity of the competing political allegiances in the novel’s main theme.

Among the people he entrusts the siblings to en route are the women on board his British navy ship. There really were such things, sometimes, O’Brian tells us.

And sure enough, as I now know from the history books, there was also still slave-taking in the seas off Ireland until precisely 1815, when the second “Barbary War” (led by the US, whose ships were among the main targets) put an end to it.

That conflicted lasted just three days, from June 17th to 19th, 1815. Which must have been a busy news week. Waterloo was on the 18th.

The great battle itself bears only brief mention in The Hundred Days, inspiring the bonfires that light the Spanish coast in the backdrop to the novel’s climax.

I won’t spoil the plot in case anyone still plans to read it. But for another example of O’Brian’s fidelity to historic detail, I might also be allowed mention an incident involving an enemy vessel to which his protagonists give chase.

It’s a light-weight galley that, depending on speed and agility to defy the heavier British warships and their big guns, alternates between using sails and, when the wind drops, oars.

But even slave rowers had to be fed and watered. So as battle intensifies, viewers from the chasing ships are appalled to see the galley captain economise on weight and provisions by throwing his shackled oarsmen overboard, into shark-infested waters.

I knew without checking that this also really happened on occasion too. And on at least one occasion, it happened on a British vessel.

By grim serendipity, only last year in Boston, I saw JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840), which depicts an actual incident of 1781, wherein the captain of a ship bound for Jamaica ordered 132 slaves thrown overboard to save scarce drinking water and in the belief that he could still claim insurance for their loss.

The painting was notorious in its time not just for the horrific subject matter. Some art critics found it in bad taste that the event itself seemed secondary to Turner’s usual obsession with nature, light, and colour.

Others, including Mark Twain, complained that it required viewers to believe in “the floating of iron cable-chains and other unfloatable things”. But Turner was an ardent abolitionist.

Exhibited a few years after the British trade had been officially abolished, his painting was part of a movement that eventually ended transatlantic slavery in general.