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Waakzaamheid is a Dutch 74-gun ship which Jack Aubrey encounters in Desolation Island. In 1811 the Kingdom of Holland has been incorporated in the French empire. As such the Waakzaamheid is a threat to the Leopard (54). The Waakzaamheid is clearly a superior force given its full compliment of crew and greater number and weight of guns. Aubrey intends to avoid an encounter: “ Ignominious flight is the order of the day” [1].

Waakzaamheid literally means wake-full-ness, the condition or state of alertness and ready for action. While this Dutch 74 is a fictional ship, there was a Waakzaamheid 24-guns at the Battle of Camperdown (Kamperduin) in 1797. It was captured in 1798 off Texel by HMS Sirius (36) and taken into the Royal Navy, retaining its Dutch name.[2]

SPOILER WARNING:  Plot or ending details for "Desolation Island"  follow.

In the Canon

Jack Aubrey first learns of the Waakzaamheid’s presence when he meets the frigate HMS Nymph at Recife who recounts being chased unrelentingly for 2 days before it escapes. The event foreshadows the Leopard’s encounter with the Waakzaamheid.

The Waakzaamheid’s long pursuit of the Leopard deep into the southern ocean is in effect in two parts. In the first part Aubrey concludes that the Waakzaamheid‘s intention is to capture the Leopard as a valuable prize, hence it is driving them south where its superior sea keeping abilities will negate the Leopard’s speed and enable it to board and capture the Leopard. The initial sighting gives way to an 8 day cat and mouse game in which the Dutch captain counters Aubrey’s every move to escape. “It was exactly as though he had been leaning over my shoulder last night, while I worked out our course.” [3] On the night of the 6th day, the Waakzaamheid attempts to take the Leopard by a surprise boat attack. It is thwarted when the Leopard cuts up the boats “ most dreadfully with grape-shot at two hundred yards;” [4] The chase continues for two more days until the Leopard manages to out sail the Waakzaamheid.

Several days later, the Waakzaamheid suddenly reappears to resume the pursuit but with greater intensity and tenacity, despite a building gale which threatens both their total destruction. Now the Dutch captain seems singularly bent on the Leopard’s destruction. Aubrey wonders at the Dutch captain’s motivation and concludes : "A bloody-minded man, I see” [5] In a long stern chase through the storm, each ship trades long shots. At the last moment, just as Aubrey is struck down, the Leopard’s shot carries away the Waakzaamheid’s foremast; it slews broadside, broaches and sinks. “ My God, oh my God, he said. Six Hundred men” [6]

O’Brian signals the Dutch captain’s change in motivation and intention. When Aubrey first sees his adversary, he is dressed in a light blue coat with brass buttons. [7] Later, when the chase is resumed, Aubrey glimpses the Dutch captain; “But now, instead of his usual light blue, he had a black coat on.” Jack wonders “ whether it is a just an odd chance, or whether we we killed some relative of his? His boy, perhaps, dead God forbid.”[8] It is possible that the Leopard’s destruction of the boat attack brought about the Dutch captain’s murderous intent.

The Waakzaamheid’s long pursuit of the Leopard south of the Cape, its apparent ability to suddenly reappear, the lurid light of the gathering storm and many other aspects echo the tale of the ‘Flying Dutchman’. O’Brian may have chosen to incorporate the myth’s powerful images in Desolation Island.

In the opinion of many, the long pursuit of the Leopard by the Waakzaamheid is some of O’Brian’s finest writing in the Canon. In it he sustains mounting tension, suspense and dread which when resolved by the cathartic destruction of the Dutch ship, only provides a momentary respite before Aubrey and the Leopard must confront the elements of the southern ocean.

O’Brian’s mastery of this sequence is also the first wholly fictional naval battle created from the author’s imagination. In the four previous books of the canon, O’Brian’s sources were the actual historical record of battles, events and personages. In Desolation Island his rich imagining arguably creates a conflict and resolution which transcends any actual historical events no matter how impressive.


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