The Unknown Shore

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The Unknown Shore is the second of O’Brian’s novels based on Anson’s expedition of 1740; written at Collioure and published in 1959.

Page references are to the HarperCollins paperback edition.


Plot introduction

For more details about the plot, which will contain spoilers, see Summary for The Unknown Shore

Jack Byron and his unconventional friend Toby Barrow – a learned innocent with a passionate devotion to natural history - leave their Nottinghamshire home to join Commodore George Anson’s projected expedition to the South Pacific. After some misadventures in London, they join the Wager, one of Anson’s support vessels, as midshipman and surgeon’s assistant respectively. Before them lie shipwreck, famine, desperate journeys around the barren coast of Chile and a slightly surreal period as prisoners of war.

Time July 1740-February 1745.

Historical context

The story is firmly based on the accounts of Anson’s expedition by his chaplain Richard Walter (a prominent character in The Golden Ocean) and by Jack Byron himself. Incidents such as the insubordination and shooting of Cozens, the injury and subsequent sickness of Captain Cheap (p.150) and the Indian cacique’s casual murder of a child who has dropped a basket of fish (p.215) are faithfully reproduced from the sources. O’Brian gives a more favourable report of Midshipman Cozens’s character than Walter, who represents him as a mere trouble-maker from beginning to end; but the greatest modification is the removal of Eliot the surgeon (who in fact remained with Cheap’s party until his death on the way to Chiloe Island) and his replacement by Toby. This foreshadows the treatment of historical fact in The Mauritius Command, where Jack Aubrey simply steps into the shoes of the historical Josiah Rowley.

Major characters in The Unknown Shore

(f) = fictional

  • Commodore (afterwards Admiral) George Anson (1697-1762) Commodore of the expedition
  • Tobias Barrow (f) Poor boy educated and trained as a surgeon by Mr. Elwes; assistant surgeon of the Wager
  • Midshipman (later Admiral) John Byron (1723-1786) Midshipman aboard the Wager [afterwards Admiral, and known as ‘Foul-Weather Jack’]
  • Campbell Midshipman of the Wager
  • Edward Chaworth (f) Jack Byron’s cousin and guardian
  • Georgiana Chaworth (f) Mr. Chaworth’s daughter, kindly disposed towards Tobias
  • Alexander Cheap Lieutenant of the Tryall and later captain of the Wager
  • Cozens Midshipman of the Wager
  • Crew of the Wager: Andrew (surgeon’s mate), John Bosman, Buckley, Church, Joseph Clinch, John Duck, Moses Lewis, Noble, Plastow (captain’s steward), Rose (quartermaster)
  • [Walter] Eliot Surgeon of the Wager
  • Mr. Elwes (f) Country gentleman, ex-surgeon, who takes Tobias in hand as an educative experiment
  • Dr. Patrick Gedd Scottish physician in Santiago de Chile
  • Augustus Keppel, Peter Palafox and William Ransome Midshipmen of the Centurion
  • [Isaac] Morris Midshipman of the Wager
  • Officers of the Wager [Robert] Bean (lieutenant), [John] Bulkeley (gunner), Clerk (master), Cummins (carpenter), Hamilton (Marine lieutenant), Hervey (purser), Oakley (Marine surgeon)

Ships of The Unknown Shore

All are vessels of the Royal Navy except where stated

  • Centurion (flagship) (60)
  • Gloucester (50)
  • Severn (50)
  • Pearl (40)
  • Wager (sloop) (28)
  • Tryall (sloop)
  • Anna (hired vessel)
  • Industry (hired vessel)
  • Lys (French frigate)

Themes and motifs

At first glance, The Unknown Shore can seem like a much less accomplished work than its predecessor The Golden Ocean; the author appears less certain in his art and less like his later self than he had been three years previously. Thus the static description of Mr. Chaworth which opens the book is quite unlike anything else in his mature work and reads almost like one of P.G. Wodehouse’s portraits of Lord Emsworth. Again, O’Brian several times descends from the lofty and timeless impersonality of his authorial manner in order to comment on the differences between the era of which he writes and the reader’s own day – a reversion to Scott’s or Dickens’s method of historical-fiction writing. (See for example page 7: ‘At that period, and for more than a hundred years afterwards, all surgeons began as apprentices’, or the account of 18th-century English coinage on page 40.) Another example is his awkward refusal to write down the speeches of the Scotsman Campbell as they would actually have been uttered (p.66). If it were not for the clear references in this book to characters from The Golden Ocean, one might wonder whether it had actually been, at least in part, the earlier of the two.

The reason, perhaps, is that in The Unknown Shore we see O’Brian in transition. Thus far in his career, his work had been clearly divisible into two groups: on the one hand there are the tales of adventure – we might borrow Graham Greene’s terminology and call them entertainments – in the spirit of Stevenson and Kipling, largely dependent on exotic settings and incidents, and intended chiefly for young readers; on the other there are works such as Testimonies, The Catalans and many of the short stories, in which the locations (while still often described with great love and vividness) are those that the author himself knew, and the inner life of the main characters is far more important than the telling of a story. In The Golden Ocean O’Brian had found the medium for reconciling these two aspects of his art, but he had not yet learned to exploit it to the full; he had not yet grasped that the ‘wooden world’ of the Navy was indeed a whole world of human behaviour in microcosm, ready for the deepest study. In this book he goes further. He can be as hilarious as ever, as in the ‘turkeys on the Monument’ incident (pp. 47-51), but often he looks into darkness: into the extremes of exposure and privation; into the deforming influence of authority on human nature (Captain Cheap, although he mellows at the last, is for most of the time a paradigm of petty tyranny and selfishness, far removed from the benevolent Olympian Anson of The Golden Ocean); into the tragic accidents that can deal out life or death – Cozens, oafish but good-hearted, is shot dead because he has disputed an order, only doubtfully emanating from the captain himself, to stop a man’s grog for some trivial default; into the utter brutishness to which human beings, whether Indians or castaways, can sink where all principles and standards of conduct are either forgotten or not yet known. (All these will be fruitful elements in the Aubrey-Maturin books.) Amid all this material O’Brian is like a man learning to ride two horses at once. He does the trick, but there are places where the effort still shows.

Maturin in the making

Of course the most striking prefigurement of the later O’Brian is the character of Tobias Barrow and his friendship with Byron: on the one hand an uncouth, slovenly, unsocial and decidedly unsailorly but immensely learned, dedicated and courageous medical man; on the other a genial sea-officer named Jack. There are, it is true, important differences. Toby is a child of the London slums who has never mixed in any form of society and knows nothing whatever that he has not learned from either books, birds or beasts, whereas Stephen Maturin, university man and sometime frequenter of the salons of Paris, is perfectly capable of behaving like a polished gentleman when he thinks of it. (What is true, however, is that the Stephen of the early Aubrey-Maturin books occasionally shows signs of reverting to his Barrovian origins; the ‘bees in the cabin’ episode of Post Captain is perhaps the outstanding example.) Furthermore, Toby (a mere surgeon, not a physician) does not quite stand on the same ethical eminence as Stephen; he has no hesitation in reinforcing his influence over the men by pretending to produce earwigs and mice from their wounds, a technique he learns from Eliot (p.88), whereas Stephen in The Far Side of the World catches Higgins at this practice and at once suppresses it. Again, Toby has little of Stephen’s intense intellectual life, although he does foreshadow Stephen’s radical fury against the abuse of authority (p.101, in regard to Jack’s mastheading). Jack Byron, for his part, has not yet developed Jack Aubrey’s glorious uncertainty of idiom, but he does originate one favourite catch-phrase: ‘We only call it the gun-deck’ (p.69) – and there is a foreshadowing of Aubrey’s amatory entanglements in Byron’s involvement with the governor’s daughter (p.250). Each of the two has his chance to enjoy lecturing the other on his own special area of knowledge, just as Maturin and Aubrey will do, and the scene of Toby’s emergence from delirium (pp.158-9) has all the tenderness, touched with humour, of the later episodes such as Stephen’s convalescences in The Far Side of the World or The Letter of Marque. In short, the details of the friendship will bear (and will receive) much expansion, but the framework is already securely in place.

Fictional Non-Aubrey-Maturin Books

Caesar | Hussein | Testimonies/Three Bear Witness | The Catalans A Novel/The Frozen Flame | The Road to Samarcand | The Golden Ocean | The Unknown Shore | Richard Temple

Collected Short Stories

Beasts Royal | The Last Pool and Other Stories | The Walker and Other Stories | Lying in the Sun and Other Stories | The Chian Wine and Other Stories | The Rendezvous and Other Stories/Collected Short Stories

Non-fictional Books

A Book of Voyages | Men of War | Joseph Banks A Life | Picasso


The Coming of Age by Simone de Beauvoir | De Gaulle: The Rebel by Jean Lacouture | Papillon by Henri Charrière

See also the Aubrey-Maturin series
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