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Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and along with Venus, Mars, and Jupiter is visible for use to the nautical navigator.

The planets, in the order of their distances from the sun, are Mercury, Venus, (inner planets), the earth, and the outer planets, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. Mercury is too near the sun to be consistently visible, while Uranus and Neptune require a telescope to be viewed. Uranus was only identified as a planet in 1781 by virtue of a telescope and Neptune was discovered in 1846.

For the sea going navigator the solar system effectively consisted of the sun, moon and four planets.

Saturn is named after the Roman god Saturnus, equated to the Greek Kronos, the titan father of Zeus.

SPOILER WARNING:  Plot or ending details for "Surgeon's Mate, Post Captain, HMS Surprise, Desolation Island, Fortune of War, Far Side of the World, Yellow Admiral"  follow.

Saturn In the Canon

Patrick O'Brian uses navigational and nautical terminology to provide verisimilitude and atmosphere. As such the celestial bodies appear frequently and Saturn has a predominant and particular role.

The canon opens in Master and Commander in the pillared octagonal room in Port Mahon in which Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin and Saturn make their first appearances. Aubrey’s observation of Saturn results from his encounter of Maturin, when Aubrey's enthusiastic enjoyment of the music - Locatelli's C major quartet - is spoiled by Maturin's peevish hostility.

"Jack Aubrey looked out of the long, elegant windows into the night: Saturn was rising in the south-south-east, a glowing ball in the Minorcan sky. A nudge, a thrust of that kind, so vicious and deliberate was very like a blow. Neither his personal temper nor his professional code could patiently suffer an affront and what affront was graver than a blow?" [1]

O’Brian's celestial observation is inaccurate. Saturn at that time and place would not rise in the SSE; indeed it would set in the west after midnight in mid April 1801. Subsequent observations of Saturn a few chapters later are equally inaccurate. The apparent explanation is poetic license. Deeper analysis suggests that O'Brian also uses Saturn symbolically; to represent Stephen Maturin’s relationship to Jack Aubrey and as a reflection of Maturin's personality.

Maturin subsequently joins the Sophie as ship’s surgeon and reports on board. The next morning Jack Aubrey is on deck and notes that: "what he had taken for a far stern lantern or an uncommonly big top-light was old Saturn, low on the horizon and tangled in their rigging."[2]

Saturn may represent Maturin's personality or mood. A saturnine mood is melancholic as well as morose and unsociable. In their first encounter, Maturin's behaviour towards Aubrey, his demeanour and dress reflect his saturn like character. Marturin's jab, delivered through tangled arms and elbows like rigging, results in Aubrey's melancholic mood. "As it could not for the moment find any outward expression, his anger took on the form of melanchololy:" [3]

In The Surgeon's Mate (novel), as the Shannon enters Halifax to joyful celebration of its victory over the Chesapeake, Admiral Colpoys thinks Aubrey’s surgeon companion is called "Saturnin". On meeting the Doctor he stands in contrast to the general joy in a mood of choleric resentment; " ...a small sallow man in a blood-stained black coat, dirty linen and an ill fitting wig, ...Stephen looked at Aubrey with his strange pale eyes, red-rimmed now after days and nights of almost incessant exertion,"[4]

There are further references to Saturn in the canon.

In Post Captain, Maturin is to be set ashore on his first intelligence mission; "accustomed to the darkness he could make out the horizon well enough, a lighter bar against the black sky, with Saturn just dipping now."[5]

In HMS Surprise, Aubrey awaits Maturin’s return on the enemy coast; "Saturn came up behind the Pleiades; up and up, nearly ten degrees from the edge of the sea. He heard stones rattle on the cliff-path above. With at lift of his heart he looked up..." to learn that it is not Maturin but Joan Maragall coming to tell him that Maturin has been captured.[6]

In Desolation Island, The Leopard in danger of floundering and destruction seeks a refuge in the southern ocean. Aubrey and Maturin have been isolated in their duties and cares which underlines the pleasure each takes from the others company. Maturin, who "missed those brief periods" is pleased to be invited to join Aubrey.

"As he traversed the quarterdeck he noticed a relative kindness in the air - it was distinctly above freezing - and a peculiar brilliant star quite near the moon." In the great cabin Maturin recites Herapath's Chinese poem about the moon. Aubrey replies: "I have just been gazing at her too, with my sextant: a perfect lunar, with old Saturn there, as clear as any bell. I have my longitude to within a second. What do you say to the Mozart B minor?" The lunar fixes their position and leads them to refuge, and restores their harmony.[7]

In Fortune of War, Aubrey, Maturin, and Diana Villiers escape from Boston in a small boat to the Shanon. Aubrey and Maturin have argued and Aubrey concentrates on sailing. Aubrey looks back. "Boston was waking up - lights showing the shape of the waterfront, when he glanced astern. But they would not be needed long: Saturn had set, following the moon to rise in Tartary, and already there was a lightening in the east." [8]

In Far Side of the World, Maturin is angry that Aubrey refuses to stop at the Galapagos Islands. "'I have known that fellow hang about in port. [...] His soul to the Devil, false, hypocritical dog; but he is probably unaware of his falsity--pravum est cor omnium, the heart is perverse above all things and unsearchable. Who shall know it?'" Yet although Stephen was of a saturnine and revengeful temperament ..." [9]

In the Yellow Admiral, Aubrey once again has to land Maturin on an intelligence mission. "He had seen Stephen off like this many and many a time, but his grief and anxiety never grew less. As he went he noticed a dim star or two in the zenith and by the time the boat rejoined , with Bonden's report [...] there was a fine sprinkling of them, with Saturn in the middle,..." [10]

Aubrey's anxiety over Maturin's fate continues particularly as he fails to rendezvous with Maturin. Subsequently it becomes clear that Maturin has safely returned. "A certain lightening in the east, and it was first day at last. And they had their bearings, Vega some time before, through the tearing clouds, and old Saturn. The sea however was no less; the wind even more contrary. Jack bore up at last and sailed for Cawsand."[11]


  1. M&C, omnibus HC version, Norton, page 7
  2. M&C, omnibus HC version, page 83
  3. M&C, ibid page 7
  4. SM, omnibus HC version, Norton, page 2201
  5. PC, omnibus HC version, Norton, page 305
  6. HMSS, omnibus HC version, Norton, page 925
  7. DS, omnibus HC version, page 1827
  8. FOW, omnibus HC version, page 2138
  9. FSOW, omnibus HC version, Norton, page 3468
  10. YA, omnibus HC version, Norton page 5805
  11. YA, ibid. page 5828


The thought and analysis contained in this entry is a summation of the best work of Gunroom members. Among the many who have contributed the most notable were:

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