trailof theimmortalmemoryblog

Menorca: Aubrey and Maturin Become Part of the Immortal Memory


Menorca (historically spelled Minorca) is the northernmost of the Spain’s Balearic Islands.  Its history has many parallels with Malta, including neolithic monuments, corsair raids, and British rule (1708-1802).  It also possesses one of the Mediterranean’s finest natural harbors, with a location convenient for ships blockading Toulon. Nelson had at least one visit to Minorca, but I went to Minorca because Port Mahon (Mao in Catalan) is where Patrick O’Brian has Jack Aubrey meet Stephen Maturin.  O’Brian places that meeting at Port Mahon’s “Governors House,” still an official Spanish military facility where an officious security guard prohibited me from taking photographs.  I was able to take a shot from the harbor, however, and that is what you see in the leader.  O’Brian’s first paragraph from Master and Commander sets the scene:

“The music room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet.  The players, Italians pinned against the far wall by rows and rows of little round gilt chairs, were playing with passionate conviction as they mounted towards the penultimate crescendo, towards the tremendous pause and the deep. liberating final chord.  And on the little gilt chairs at least some of the audience were following the rise with equal intensity:  there were two in the third row, on the left-hand side; and they happened to be sitting next to one another.  The listener farther to the left was a man of between twenty and thirty whose big form overflowed his seat, leaving only a streak of gilt wood to be seen here and there.  He was wearing his best uniform — the white-lapelled blue coast, white waistcoat, breeches and stockings of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, with the silver medal of the Nile in his buttonhole — and the deep white cuff of his gold-buttoned sleeve beat the time, while his bright blue eyes, staring from what would have been a pink-and-white face if it had not been so deeply tanned, gazed fixedly at the bow of the first violin.  The high note came, the pause, the resolution; and with the resolution the sailor’s fist swept firmly down upon his knee.  He bent back in his chair, extinguishing it entirely, sighed happily and turned towards his neighbor with a smile.  The words ‘Very finely played, sir, I believe’ were formed in his gullet if not quite in his mouth when he caught the cold and indeed inimical look and heard the whisper, ‘If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.’ “

Despite the stranger’s disapproval, Aubrey loves music,can’t help himself, begins keeping time with the next movement, and starts to hum.  Maturin, “the ill-looking son of a bitch” in Aubrey’s view, digs his elbow in Aubrey’s ribs and hushes him. Aubrey is insulted by the affront and contemplates challenging Maturin to a duel (which would have been a fatal mistake). The sea officer’s mood is not helped by his shipless state, similar to Nelson’s at times during his career. Aubrey has been passed over for a command, is in hock to his creditors, and his future seems bleak.  That changes suddenly within the next few pages and, despite the inauspicious start, Aubrey and Maturin form a professional collaboration and strong personal bond that grows richly through the next 20 books (O’Brian died while writing the 21st).  It’s a series that one critic likened to something that Jane Austen’s brothers (Royal Navy officers) would have written had they shared her talent.  I commend O’Brian highly, and the audiobooks versions read by Simon Vance are also first-rate.  (As good as it is, the Peter Weir film does not convey O’Brian’s depth or richness and it also picks scenes selectively from six or seven of the novels and skips entirely Maturin’s role as a volunteer secret agent for the Admiralty).

Plaque from the Military Governor’s House in Port Mahon

O’Brian’s Master and Commander is set in 1800 and borrows heavily from the real-life exploits of Lord Thomas Cochrane. Aubrey’s HMS Sophie follows Cochrane’s fortunes from coastal raids to the astonishing sea battle where Aubrey and his men from a 16-gun sloop board and capture a 36-gun Spanish frigate. O’Brian’s descriptions can still be seen in modern-day Mahon, as seen by comparing my photos with illustrations and descriptions from Master & Commander.

Geoff Hunt’s cover art from Master and Commander

Pigtail Steps in Port Mahon. “Now [Aubrey] was in the square, with its noble trees and its great twin staircases winding down to the quay — stairs known to British sailors for a hundred years as Pigtail Steps, the cause of many a broken limb and battered head.”

View from the top of the Pigtail Steps, Port Mahon. “He crossed the low wall that ran between the stair-heads and looked out over the immense expanse of enclosed water before him, stretching away left-handed to the distant top of the harbour and right-handed past the hospital island miles away to its narrow, castle-guarded mouth.”

“[Stephen] was sitting in the ruined apse of St. Damian’s chapel high above Port Mahon on the north side, looking down upon the great winding inlet of the harbor and far out beyond it over a vast expanse of sea, a variegated blue with wandering lanes; the flawless sun, a hand’s breadth high, rising from the side of Africa.”

Port Mahon Harbor, with the sun “rising from the side of Africa”

“Hospital Island” — the British-built Naval Hospital on Ilse de Rey or “Bloody Island”

Round Towers Near Point Mola  — the “castle-guarded mouth” of the harbor

The naval base at Port Mahon, with facilities first established by the Royal Navy in the 18th century

Naval base with British-built tower. Minorca’s flag flies in the foreground.

Point Mola at the Port Mahon harbor entrance. Aubrey sails past here in Book 3 (HMS Surprise) in a dangerous mission to the Governor’s House, which at the time (1805) was occupied by Bonapartist intelligence officers from Spain’s French allies.