O’Brian still thrills with collection of travel tales

A Book of Voyages
Edited by Patrick O’Brian
Harper Collins, £14.99; Kindle, £9.82

Patrick O’Brian, who died in 2000 at the age of 85, will be best remembered for his 20-volume run of novels that recount the lives and adventures of Napoleonic War-era Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, ship’s surgeon, naturalist and spy, Stephen Maturin.

The series has drawn comparisons with the likes of Melville and Conrad, and is ranked by many critics among the finest historical fiction of all time.

Given his passion for adventure and exploration, and his obvious aptitude for period perspective, O’Brian was the natural choice for collecting and collating A Book of Voyages, which is back in print nearly 70 years on from its first publication.

The 18 accounts selected for this book are culled from largely obscure 17th and 18th century texts. The archaic nature of the prose at times proves challenging, and not everything transfixes, but there is more than enough treasure crammed into these pages to ignite even the most torpid of imaginations.

The beautiful and scandalous Lady Craven, destined for Constantinople, treks from Vienna clear across the kingdoms of Europe to the Crimea, where she witnesses a company of Cossacks waging mock-battle out on the Russian Steppes.

Denis de Carli, a Capuchin missionary who has fallen ill while journeying to the Congo, keeps the company of a small monkey in defence against the relentless pestering of rats. John Bell, a Scot who gained a position with the Russian embassy to China, accompanies the great Manchu Emperor, K’ang Hsi on a hunt for game birds, stags and tigers.

The land voyages are certainly worthy of inclusion here, but it is the adventures and downright horror at sea that truly captivate and repulse.

Six men from St Helena, an island in the South Atlantic between Africa and Brazil, desert a whaler and, after enduring weeks without food, draw lots to see which of them will die so that the others can eat, and live.

Elsewhere, the nine-man crew of the Anne and Mary, a Galway ship returning from a trip to Norway, fare even worse. Turned around in a squall, isolated for weeks without provisions and having eaten the last of the rats, they too draw lots. Two months later, when the ship finally reaches land, seven are dead, the bones picked clean, the skulls used as drinking vessels, and an eighth, the captain, also within hours of his end, leaving just one survivor, Michael M’Daniel, to relate the story.

This material presents a window into a real past, offering glimpses of a world still defined by its mysterious corners. It is easy to see its appeal to Patrick O’Brian, this being precisely the sort of stuff that inspires great fiction.


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