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    Re: Jack Aubrey's fixing of longitude
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2011 Jun 22, 21:10 -0700

    Geoffrey, you wrote:
    "So, with such a high standard of scholarship in naval history in evidence elsewhere, are we not entitled to expect a similarly high standard of knowledge about early 19th century astro-navigation methods?"

    Yes, I would say so, and for very much the same reason that's been mentioned previously: he used extensive historical resources. Occasionally people have even contended that he's guilty of plagiarism since whole passages are taken directly from the "Naval Gazette" and other old books, but the consensus seems to be that these are reasonable uses of the old texts. The directly copied passages add to the realism. Or at least this is what they tell me. I've only read a few chapters of this series.

    For those who like O'Brian, there's a very active online community at hmssurprise.org. Some of you have met one of the main contributors there, Don Seltzer. He has attended a number of the events and classes we've hosted at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

    You added:
    "I am not so concerned with actual events. I do not mind if there was no lunar occultation of Venus in the Indian ocean in 1804 or whenever."

    I agree. And that's reasonable literary license. There were plenty of occultations of Venus in that decade. Dave Walden provided a nice list for the few years in question. Any one of these might have been observed by someone with real astronomical ability and recorded. And O'Brian may well have used specific details, like that "two seven four", from the records of that observation. Incidentally, the idea that it was cleared right on the spot is perhaps our modern concept of navigation sneaking in. The observations would have been just as useful for posterity if they were not cleared at all until the vessel returned to Britain. The idea was to fix the longitude of the island. O'Brian's description, indicating that the chronometers were immediately found to be in error by 22 miles may have been a misunderstanding on his part. One problem with using something like the Naval Gazette as source material instead of truly primary sources like logbooks, journals, even notebooks is that the results of observations and the steps involved to acquire them have been cleaned up for publication. Also the accuracy of the results is almost always exaggerated in these publications. Every contributor will claim that his observations and his resulting longitudes and latitudes are excellent and far better than anything ever before published. There are examples of this in the Nautical Magazine even in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

    Finally, I would not be in the least surprised if someone eventually digs up a nearly exact description of a Venus occultation (assuming that's what this was) made by Royal Navy officers and crew complete with the language used right there in O'Brian's novel. That's why I tried searching on that phrase "Venus clear above the Moon" (no luck). That may well appear in the original source.

    -FER


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