The Mauritius Command is a historical naval novel by Patrick O'Brian. It is fourth in the series of stories that follow the partnership of Captain Jack Aubrey and the naval surgeon Stephen Maturin. It retells in fictional form the real campaign carried out by the Royal Navy in 1810 under Commodore Josias Rowley. As is common to most of the stories, Aubrey's inspired tactical seamanship is a suitable foil for the dramatic and "Machiavellian" scheming of his medical man and intelligence expert Maturin. Both Britain and France need to protect their trade routes and prey on the enemy in the Indian Ocean. Mauritius and La Réunion are suitably placed to be desirable bases for both countries. At the start of the book the French hold the islands and are capturing British ships.
When the novel begins, Aubrey is at home in his cramped Ashgrove Cottage with his wife, his twin baby girls and his shrewish mother-in-law, Mrs Williams, ashore and without a ship on half pay from the Navy. His spirits are lifted when his long time friend and colleague Stephen Maturin comes to call.
Aubrey is ordered to take command, as the Commodore of a small squadron of ships in Cape Town and sails south from Portsmouth with some of the ships, to the Cape of Good Hope, with instructions to disrupt French interests in the region. Particularly he is charged with taking the islands of Mauritius and La Réunion. He is given command of the 38-gun frigate HMS Boadicea. The wife of one of his captains, Lady Clonfert, seeks passage with Aubrey to enable her to join her husband but Aubrey is not keen on this and contrives to leave early one morning without her.
The long journey takes the squadron to the Cape of Good Hope. On the way Aubrey attempts to bring the crew up to his standards of efficiency, but he is only partly successful. They meet with the French ship Hebe which is escorting a captured merchant ship. After a brief chase the French are overcome and the ships occupied. Hebe turns out to be HMS Hyaena captured some time before by the French. He sends the prizes to Gibraltar under the command of the Boadicea's aged First Lieutenant Akers. Aubrey uses this device to be rid of the officer and send home letters, one of which attempts to excuse his leaving early without Lady Clonfert.
On arrival, Aubrey meets Admiral Bertie and also has to contend with the disparate characters of his captains. One of these is Lord Clonfert, a minor member of the Irish aristocracy who has political influence, and who served with Jack Aubrey whilst out in the West Indies. They were involved in an action together and he had some reservations at the time about Clonfert's courage. Another is Captain Corbett who is a harsh disciplinarian and drives his men almost to the point of mutiny. Barett Bonden, usually Aubrey's Coxwain, and Preserved Killick request permission to join Aubrey once more, particularly as Bonden was given fifty lashes for an unpolished firing piece on his cannon.
During his campaign Aubrey temporarily switches his pennant to the elderly 64-gun ship of the line HMS Raisonnable, but returns to the more weatherly HMS Boadicea with the onset of the tropical typhoon season. La Réunion is captured almost bloodlessly after a landing by British East India Company troops under the cooperative Colonel Keating, their path already softened up by Maturin's propaganda and political machinations. Mauritius proves a tougher nut to crack. As HMS Néréide is detached to chase the Iphigenia to Port South East on Mauritius, Maturin suffers a serious fall and spends much time in the company of Lord Clonfert and Mr. McAdam, Clonfert's learned but drunken surgeon. The first demonstrates himself to be a largely ineffective person, craving the fawning attentions of his officers and crew, whilst McAdam, a less convivial conversationalist, is made fun of by the young officers particularly when "in his cups."
However, events worsen on their arrival. Keen to capitalise on the capture of the Île de la Passe fort, the small group of ships, under the command of the unadventurous but solid Captain Pym, land men and troops to consolidate the land campaign. Whilst so disposed, the French appear with four ships Bellone, Minerve, Victor & Ceylon. Boldly sailing past the British into the sound, the English are caught unprepared but decide to attack. They struggle to navigate the unfamiliar channel into the harbour and, with two ships running aground, the French are able to bring all their guns to bear on the ships that eventually reach the harbour. The end result is the Néréide is taken (Clonfert is severely wounded in the neck by and head by a wooden splinter), Sirius and Magiciénne are burnt to prevent their capture, and Iphigenia and the fort Ile de la Passe are abandoned to be retaken by the French. Only a messenger vessel, with Maturin aboard, gets back the La Réunion to inform the commodore of the "ill tidings".
Aubrey immediately rushes to see if Iphigenia and Ile de la Passe can be saved but the British are chased off after finding both are clearly in the French hands. After eventually making contact with the Emma transport and the Windham, which itself appears to be unseaworthy, Aubrey believes his fortunes have changed when HMS Africaine - now commanded by Captain Corbett - re-joins them. Sailing in chase of the French during the night Africaine, clashes with the Astrée and the renamed Iphigenia (once again the French Iphigenie). But the encounter goes badly and Corbett is killed during the fight, probably, as the ship's surgeon informs Maturin later, by his own oppressed men. The French capture the ship, but leave it dismasted when the Boadicea and Aubrey bear down on them and, much to Aubrey's joy, refuse an engagement. Joined by the Otter and Staunch, the flotilla eventually reaches harbour and Africaine's refit is the Commodore's top priority.
Before repairs are complete the Pearl races towards harbour, meeting HMS Boadicea with the news that Bombay is nearby, being pounded by both the French Vénus and Victor. Outrunning the Staunch and Otter, Jack engages the pair who have captured Bombay and makes use of extra volunteer crew from the refitting HMS Africaine to board both Bombay, recapturing her, and the Venus. During the encounter the French Commodore, Hamelin, is killed by grapnel in his heart. Now with news that Bellone and Minerve are almost certainly "heaved down", and Iphigenia and Néréide are likely to be of little use even if refitted, Aubrey believes the tide has turned in his favour. En-route from St. Denis to take Mauritius from the French, the squadron encounters a large British force under the command of Admiral Bertie, who proceeds to steal Aubrey and Keating's thunder by taking command of the whole invasion force and claiming the honours. However, news of the birth of his son causes Aubrey to remain ebullient even when everyone expects his mood to be downcast.
The final invasion, based almost entirely on Aubrey and Keating's original plan, is almost without bloodshed. The French capitulate after being given honourable terms, and Maturin finds that Captain Clonfert has committed suicide by removing the bandages from his wounds whilst captured, unable to face up to the jubilance of his rival, Jack Aubrey, in victory. A ceremonial dinner is given back in Cape Town and Admiral Bertie, who is not a complete scrub, gives Aubrey the honour of taking the dispatches aboard the Boadicea and sailing for England in compensation for "stealing" his victory.
The novel gives further scope to Maturin's role as both a secret agent (in which he uses propaganda effectively to support the campaign) and as a naturalist (in which he is seen collecting relics of the extinct birds the Dodo and the Solitaire).
O'Brian used literary license in making Aubrey a Commodore when he wasn't a very senior captain. At that time, a captain would spend twenty years or more on the Captain's list before his promotion to Admiral. A Commodore's appointment was a considerable plum, and only very senior captains received them. On a remote station, when an admiral would have to draw on the captains on station, it would be a different matter. But Aubrey was appointed directly by the Admiralty to a post that, traditionally, would have come to an officer more than a dozen years more senior.
Dotted around the story are allusions to ideas and thinking of others. But most striking is when a character actually quotes from literature. At one point Aubrey is recorded "adding, not without pride, Ex Africa surgit semper aliquid novo, – novi, eh?" ("Always something new coming out of Africa".) This is the popular version of a quotation from Pliny the Elder, "unde etiam vulgare Graeciae dictum semper aliquid novi Africam adferre" – "Whence the common saying among the Greeks, 'Africa always offers something new'."
Later Maturin is found quoting, Samuel Johnson, "Every man would be a coward if he durst"
"Jack's assignment: to capture the Indian Ocean islands of Réunion and Mauritius from the French. That campaign forms the narrative thread of this rollicking sea saga. But its substance is more beguiling still..."—Elizabeth Peer, Newsweek
"O'Brian's sheer brilliance as a writer constantly dazzles, and his power over the reader is unique. No writer alive can move one as O'Brian can; no one can make you laugh so loud with hilarity, whiten your knuckles with unbearable tension or choke with emotion. He is the master." — Kevin Myers, Irish Times