Barret Bonden

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Barret (also Barrett) Bonden is coxswain to Jack Aubrey in the Aubrey-Maturin series, commanding his barge crew and serving as bodyguard when boarding enemy ships. He is introduced in Master and Commander as "a fine open-looking creature, tough without brutality, cheerful, perfectly in his place and, of course, a prime seaman—bred to the sea from childhood."[1]


Early career and family

Born between a pair of lower-deck guns on HMS Indefatigable, Bonden spent his youth in the streets of London, notably the Seven Dials area, then went to sea as "a little chap in the Thunderer", where he admits to being "beat like a drum but that was only the master-at-arms' admonition, as we say." [2] He also served under Horatio Nelson sometime prior to joining Aubrey. He has a large number of cousins, including Joseph (Joe) Plaice, an elderly foc's'le hand with whom he serves frequently, and a brother, Robert (Bob) Bonden who is sail-maker's mate aboard HMS Irresistible and "a goatish man, quite unlike his brother." [3]

SPOILER WARNING:  Plot or ending details for "Master and Commander through The Hundred Days"  follow.

Role in Jack Aubrey's crew

From his introduction as coxswain aboard HMS Sophie, Bonden's character is set and recognizable as the Bonden of later volumes. Portrayed as confident, capable, and self-assured, he has no qualms about refusing a midshipman's rating, saying "I ain't got the learning, sir...and I'm too old to wear round now," even laughing at the idea of himself "rigged out like an officer."[4] Armed with a warmhearted nature and a sense of humor, he knows the life he likes, as well as where he'll be most comfortable and be able to do the most good.

Relationship to Jack Aubrey

It is just as well that he refuses promotion, for while serving as coxswain in Aubrey's signature battle with the Cacafuego, Bonden saves his captain's life, albeit at the cost of an ear:

Jack…had a soldier in front of him, and as their swords clashed high so a pikeman drove under his right arm, ripping the flesh outside his ribs and pulling out to stab again. Immediately behind him Bonden fired his pistol, blowing off the lower part of Jack's ear and killing the pikeman where he stood.[5]

The two, who are similar in many ways although on opposite ends of the social scale, make a habit of saving each other’s lives. In Post Captain, Jack mentions that he fished Bonden out of the Mediterranean, and then in The Fortune of War, he pulls his injured coxswain from the path of a recoiling gun. In return, Bonden splits the skull of another pikeman, specifically one that fells Aubrey during the boarding of the Alastor in The Wine-Dark Sea. Possessing broad, open, smiling faces and a readiness to like and be liked, both are capital seaman. They're each skilled at aiming a gun, and neither is as good with horses as he fancies himself. Yet both these physically large and tough-looking men are capable of surprising gentleness and compassion, whether it's Jack reassuring Bonden that his pigtail was spared when a splinter ripped a hand's width from his scalp or Bonden quietly offering steadying words and a dram after Jack witnesses Stephen Maturin's self-surgery.

Bonden follows Aubrey at sea and ashore, with only a few lapses. Whether evading a hot press while Jack is out of the country, marking time as a prisoner of war (initially aboard the USS Constitution), or serving with other captains (Dundas then Corbett) while Aubrey is too poor to support him as a servant ashore, the fiercely loyal Bonden always finds his way back to Jack, whom he believes is "the finest fighting captain in the fleet,"[6] superior even to Viscount Lord Nelson. Jack thinks equally highly of the man he considers his "real coxswain,"[7] telling Stephen "a man like Bonden in worth his weight in gold"[8] and becoming furious upon hearing of his receiving fifty lashes on Captain Corbett’s order in The Mauritius Command (the first and only time Bonden is acquainted with the cat).

Varied duties, unvarying respect

Respected in the great cabin and before the mast, Bonden has the pulse of the ship and is a reliable and prudent source of information to both the lower deck and quarterdeck. As HMS Leopard stowaway Michael Herapath learns, Bonden's good word is a key to acceptance in the crew. But, as young Mr. Parslow of HMS Polychrest found on his search for the gunner's daughter to ask for the key to the keelson, Bonden can't resist a joke either.

Powerfully built, bedecked with tattoos and gold earrings, and often flashing a "singularly winning gap-toothed smile,"[9] Bonden has a "gleam of intelligence in his eye"[10] that he knows when to extinguish for the sake of discretion, one reason he is often entrusted with the delicate and difficult: carrying money to purchase ornaments to outfit the captain's cabin for visiting Sophie Williams, sewing the bodice of Clarissa Harvill's wedding dress, investigating a landing on Norfolk Island, or transporting gold to finance Stephen Maturin's intelligence gathering. Sometimes Jack needs no more than a look to convey his plans and orders to Bonden.

Relationship to Stephen Maturin

Indeed, accompanying Doctor Maturin on "many a curious expedition"[11] is something of a second occupation for Bonden. Part protector, part friend, always deferential, Bonden tends Stephen in large and small ways throughout the series: plaiting him a sennit hat, sewing him a banyan jacket, packing for every eventuality on an expedition, retrieving him from precarious heights, propelling him up accommodation ladders, tending him during his recovery from torture, rescuing him from trampling while escaping from the burning La Fleche. Through Stephen's teachings Bonden, in turn, learns to write and finds "an inexpressible satisfaction"[12] in copying verse:

Bonden had graduated from pot-hooks and hangers far north of the line; he had skimmed his ignoble slate overboard in 3°S; now he was yardarm to yardarm with pen and ink, and as the southern latitude mounted, so his neat hand grew smaller and smaller and smaller.[13]

(In The Far Side of the World, however, Maturin is credited with having taught him to read, although in both Master and Commander and HMS Surprise Bonden says he can read well enough to make out the watch bill.)

Boxing and final fights

When not on duty Bonden is an accomplished amateur boxer. Having "won the belt at Pompey, with eight ships of the line and three frigates competing,"[14] Bonden is champion of the Mediterranean. The final bout against Jo Thwaits, he explains, "took sixty-eight rounds and an hour and twenty-six minutes."[15] In The Truelove (also known as Clarissa Oakes) he breaks his nose boxing with an islander, but it is in The Yellow Admiral while acting as champion for his captain’s estate in a match against Black Evans, the gamekeeper for Aubrey’s neighbor and rival Captain Griffiths, that Bonden receives his worst injuries. Forty minutes into a tough and bloody match with ribs broken and knuckles split to the bone, Bonden is hit with the dirtiest of Evans' tricks and hurled by his pigtail against a corner post then fallen on by his barely conscious opponent. In a coma, Bonden cannot be propped at the mark when time is called as the half-blind, semi-conscious Evans is and loses the fight. The cruelest blow, however, is that Dr. Maturin must shave his head to dress the angry wound, and he loses his cherished pigtail, "the best tail in the barky…a ten-year tail that I can sit on, without a lie."[16]

His recovery is long and slow, but complete. Bonden declares his head "quite healed, 'could be hit with a top-maul and never a word,'" while Stephen is able to find scars but "nothing of that yielding either side of the sagittal suture and a little above the lambdoid that had worried" him.[17] Except for the seaman-like wig atop his head instead of the finest pigtail in the fleet, Bonden is "as good as new."[18]

Until The Hundred Days, that is, when he is killed in action, at his gun, defending his ship and captain, a sacrifice that is not forgotten or overlooked. Bonden’s presence lingers in the remaining two volumes. (He and Preserved Killick are the only secondary characters mentioned by name in every volume of the series.) The depth of his loss causes Jack a physical pain as he thinks "so many shipmates gone but never a one to touch him for true worth."[19] Even the new coxswain, Latham, knows he "could never fill Bonden's place in his own, his captain's or his fellows' affection."[20] As a final testament to the depth of the bond between he and Jack Aubrey, in 21 Bonden is described not simply as the captain's coxswain, but as Jack’s "valued friend."[21]


  1. O’Brian, Patrick. Master and Commander. 1970. Williams Collins Sons & Co, Ltd. Published as a Norton paperback 1990. p. 246.
  2. O’Brian, Patrick. The Mauritius Command. 1977. Williams Collins Sons & Co, Ltd. Published as a Norton paperback 1991. p. 96.
  3. O’Brian, Patrick. Reverse of the Medal. 1986. W. W. Norton & Company. Published as a Norton uniform edition 1994. p. 16.
  4. O’Brian, Patrick. Master and Commander. p. 247.
  5. O’Brian, Patrick. Master and Commander. p. 332.
  6. O’Brian, Patrick. Desolation Island. 1978. Williams Collins Sons & Co, Ltd. Published as a Norton paperback 1991. p. 169.
  7. O’Brian, Patrick. The Mauritius Command. p. 95.
  8. O’Brian, Patrick. The Mauritius Command. p. 98.
  9. O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. 1996. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 56.
  10. O’Brian, Patrick. The Mauritius Command. p. 184.
  11. O’Brian, Patrick. Desolation Island. p. 323.
  12. O’Brian, Patrick. HMS Surprise. 1973. Williams Collins Sons & Co, Ltd. Published as a Norton paperback 1991. p. 164.
  13. O’Brian, Patrick. HMS Surprise. p. 164.
  14. O’Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. 1984. Williams Collins Sons & Co, Ltd. Published as a Norton paperback 1992. p. 306.
  15. O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. p. 56.
  16. O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. p. 55.
  17. O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. p. 198 and 202.
  18. O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. p. 202.
  19. O’Brian, Patrick. Blue at the Mizzen. 1999. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 10.
  20. O’Brian, Patrick. Blue at the Mizzen. p. 37.
  21. O’Brian, Patrick. 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey. 2004. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 44.
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