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    Master & Commander
    From: Kieran Kelly
    Date: 2003 Dec 6, 13:21 +1100

    Last night I watched the Peter Weir/Russel Crowe epic Master and Commander:
    Far Side of the World and thought I would share some observations as they
    pertain to navigating and ships. I am an out and out Patrick O'Brian fan and
    have read the entire Aubrey/Maturin  series twice - all 20 or so books - so
    be warned of bias.
    
    NAVIGATION
    In the books O'Brian portrays the sacred rite of the noon sight thus: The
    first officer or navigator on a British warship, often with the aid of
    practicing midshipmen, would daily observe the sun for meridian passage. At
    the point when the sun finally begins to sink after culmination the officer
    turns to the Captain and says:
    
    "He's away. Noon Sir?" Note that the officer is asking the captain a
    question.
    
    The captain would reply:
    "Thank you Mr Smith. Make it so."
    
    The ships bell would then be rung signifying noon and the nautical day would
    begin.
    
    This sequence was repeated in virtually all O'Brian's books and was hinted
    at in the film. I love O'Brian's suggestion that the officer has to ask the
    Captain whether it is, in fact, noon. The passage of the sun across the
    meridian was not enough to presume that noon had occurred. On an English Man
    O' War it was noon when the captain said so and not a minute before or
    after. However I have a question: Why was noon regarded as being at the
    point when the sun began to fall. This technically was well past noon
    although it would have but a negligible impact on the calculation of
    latitude. Was this just a flight of fancy on O'Brian's part or did this
    actually happen? Possibly our English contributors could assist here.
    
    SEXTANTS/QUADRANTS
    At the point in the movie where the noon site is being taken, Aubrey is
    instructing the ship's gentlemen - its young midshipmen - on the art of
    taking noon sights. There are about 9/10 of them all armed with a sextant or
    quadrant. About four of them are wielding sextants. Since the film is set in
    1805 I find this a bit difficult to believe. At that point the sextant was
    only coming into common use and would I believe have been a fairly rare and
    expensive item. I doubt if any English  warship would have carried four of
    them and certainly they would not have been entrusted to the tender care of
    a midshipman, who was only one rung up the totem pole from a common seaman.
    Am I right in this hypothesis?
    
    Furthermore, I read recently that until well into the 1800's, the noon
    sight - requiring less exactitude - was taken with the cheaper and more
    robust quadrant. The sextant was preserved almost exclusively for the more
    demanding lunar Distance where precision was vital.   If this is so then the
    foredeck scene on Lucky Jack Aubrey's ship was well adrift.
    
    HISTORICAL ACCURACY
    My understanding of how Napoleonic era naval actions involving Frigates or
    Men o' War were fought is that the action, once joined, was only terminated
    when one side "struck its colours" i.e. hauled down its flag to indicate
    surrender. Hostilities  immediately ceased and etiquette required that once
    struck, the colours could not be hauled up again and fighting recommenced by
    the losing side. Capitulation, by striking the colours was a constant theme
    in O'Brian's books, where he showed it occurring in the American and French
    as well as the British navy.
    
    In the critical scene after the English ship "Surprise" had taken the larger
    French Man o' War, "Archeron", Jack Aubrey the English captain asks an
    officer "Have they struck yet?"
    
    The officer replies "Yes Sir, they have hauled  their colours."
    
    "Good" says Russel Crowe/Aubrey"
    
    However, in a long shot of the two ships supposedly on the day following the
    battle, the captured French ship is shown with the French naval ensign still
    hauled aloft with the British ensign flying beneath. I suggest that this is
    factually incorrect for a couple of reasons. Once colours were hauled they
    were only run up again in the defeated ship if the defeated captain wished
    to recommence the contest. Also I do not believe that an English naval
    captain would ever have allowed the English  ensign to fly on  the same pole
    as the French ensign with the French flag ascendant, especially in a
    captured warship.
    
    I am not a naval historian but would appreciate any light the list could
    throw on any of these matters.
    
    It's a good flim go and see it. However be warned. An American film directed
    by an Australian with an Australian leading man trying to play the part of
    an Englishman will not please everyone.
    
    Kieran Kelly
    Sydney
    Australia
    
    
    

       
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