Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 17, 2004

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on November 17, 2004

Encompassing elements of Patrick O’Brian’s first and final novels, Peter Weir’s exciting but reactionary “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” might strike one as the dialectical opposite of Herman Melville’s sea-going tales. Melville’s anti-authoritarianism and sympathy for workers and indigenous peoples is turned on its head. In Weir’s film, the sailors and the native peoples recede into the background, while the officers and their reactionary values are basked in a kind of halo. This is all the more surprising given Weir’s history as a critic of the military-imperial ethos in “Gallipoli.”

Starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, “Master and Commander” takes place mostly on the waters and islands of the Atlantic and Pacific as he pursues a much larger and better armed French warship in 1805 during the Napoleonic wars. The film begins with a surprise attack on Aubrey’s ship and concludes with his revenge. Since this period is so remote from 20th century WWII and Cold War semiotics, it by no means can serve as a facile propaganda piece for Anglo-American imperialism. Indeed, O’Brian’s “The Far Side of the World” pitted Aubrey against American warships during the war of 1812. By substituting the French for the Yankees, Weir makes the film more commercially viable although by no means more relevant to a modern audience’s thirst for easily recognizable villains. Indeed, after Aubrey’s ship is nearly blown to bits in the opening scene, he confides to his fellow officers that the French were more skillful than they were, as if discussing a football match on the following Monday morning.

In the climax of the film, Aubrey rouses his men with the cry, “Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? Do you want your children to grow up singing the ‘Marseillaise’?” Oddly enough, this evokes the climactic scene in Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” when the British monarch also leads his troops into battle against a far larger French army:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

You might recall that military historian and plagiarist Stephen Ambrose wrote a book titled “Band of Brothers” that like all his books puts forward an old-fashioned defense of martial values. Ambrose served as a consultant for Stephen Spielberg on “Saving Private Ryan.” In addition, Spielberg directed a TV movie based on “Band of Brothers.” The affinity between O’Brian, Ambrose and Spielberg should be obvious. In contrast to Melville in the 19th century, who lashed out at military injustice in “Billy Budd,” and Joseph Heller, whose “Catch 22” made WWII look like the hellish madness that it was, they seek to restore war-making to the glory it once enjoyed.

War-making of course requires blind obedience. In “Master and Commander,” the midshipman Hollum (Lee Ingleby) has lost the respect of his men, who view his youthful sensitivity as a weakness. When one of the crew jostles Hollum as he passes by him on deck, Aubrey has the man whipped in full view of the rest of the crew. Aubrey correctly observes that it is necessary to use corporal punishment as a way of maintaining discipline since the rank-and-file have little sense of Britain’s imperial calling. What brought them into battle during the reign of Henry V and the Napoleonic wars was cold cash, just as is the case in Iraq today.

A character like Hollum showed up in “Saving Private Ryan.” Corporal Upham, a translator, is not like the rest of the soldiers. He is a not a killing-machine, but a hesitant intellectual. When he is swept up in a hand-to-hand battle between a fellow soldier and a Nazi, he is reduced to a fearful puddle of tears and an object of contempt in the audience’s eyes. Clearly, he is not made of the same mettle as those who took snapshots at Abu Ghraib or who put a bullet into a helpless, wounded Iraqi insurgent.

In contrast to Aubrey, the ship’s doctor is a man of breeding and sensitivity, but far more useful in the scheme of things than the feckless Hollum. Whatever his reservations about Aubrey’s crusade, he knows how to stitch a wound (the film includes gruesome but realistic scenes of on-board surgery.) Played by Paul Bettany, Dr. Stephen Maturin is not afraid to raise criticisms of his friend and commanding officer’s relentless, Ahab-like drive to track down and destroy the French warship. Ultimately, however, it is Aubrey’s bullheadedness that prevails.

Of some interest is Maturin’s avocation for collecting plants and animals during stopovers on the remote Pacific islands, where indigenous peoples are depicted as grinning, gift-bearing bumpkins out of 1950s National Geographic magazine.

His passion appears totally intellectual in nature, but the real record of such naval officers in the rise of the British Empire was far more mercenary. Richard Drayton’s “Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World” tells the story of how science served as a handmaiden to mammon during the voyages of a notorious captain not unlike Jack Aubrey:

“The voyages of Bligh on the Bounty in 1787 and on the Providence and Assistant of 1791-3 aimed at bringing new food and economic crops to the botanic gardens of St. Vincent and Jamaica. According to Banks, this project had been planned by Pitt himself. Its particular target, breadfruit, long the object of planters’ requests and Society of Arts premiums, was meant to provide food for the slaves, supplementing plaintains and cassava, and replacing the flour which American independence now made foreign.”

Drayton explains that the British were in a race with the French over who would succeed in mass producing breadfruit. In February 1787, the British Secretary of War wrote:

“it seems past a doubt that the Rima or Breadfruit tree is arrived in the French West Indies. Indeed the cargo of South Sea & Oriental plants must be very considerable…It must therefore be acknowledged the French are beforehand with us, Monsieur Céré seems to have been the immediate active Instrument on this occasion, having I presume authority from the French government to use his discretion..”

This rivalry over slaves and the means of keeping them fed had much more to do with the naval wars depicted in O’Brian’s novels than whether children grew up singing the ‘Marseillaise.’


  1. Imagine (not a poem)
    At at time far in the distant past I often imagined what would have become of the world had the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had not been assassinated. I imagined that the world would have been a much better place. Then in the distant past I began to think, NO a war between the European Powers was inevitable. Had this war come in 1924 or 1934 the world that we live in today would likely be much worse than it is now.
    But then last night my recliner lifted off the ground and began to spin faster and faster. I called for my wife to help but she sleeps so soundly and with ear plugs to listen to music to boot that she did not wake up. I eventually passed out from the centrifigal forces and during this time I lived in a different world.
    Here is a summary of how the history of this world developed.
    Around 1890 two men met between Krackow and Breslau. One man whose father was German and mother Polish worked for the German Telephone Service. The other man whose father was Hungarian and mother was German worked for the Dual Monarchy Telephone Serice. These men were responsible for developing the telephone service between Breslau and Krackow. During lunch they discovered that they shared a common dream. A United States of Europe that would encompase all of the countries from Norway to Bulgaria (including Italy) east of the western German Border At that lunch they founded the United States of Europe Movement. Well the Monarchs of these countries were not very pleased when they learned that this movement was gaining traction among the proffessional classes and the government workers in Eastern and Central Europe. But they decided to tolerate it as they decided that the movement also might provide them with benifits. The founders of this movement and the Monarchs of Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy, Romania, and the Scandanavian countries all figured that the Western European Countries and Russia not had huge (overseas) empires and it might be a good thing if these newly developed countries stuck together.
    So over the decades the movement gained traction and seemed to be having some success. A United States of Europe was not created by a growing military and economic cooperation not only developed in this area this alliance spread to Turkey and even Iran as the Turkish Sultan and the new Iranian Sha decided that to ward off attempts be the British and French and Russians to colonize their territories they should work closely with the countries that the Turks previoulsy had fought many wars with in eastern Europe. One result of the movement for a United States of Europe is that the people who plotted to kill the crown prince in Sarajevo never formed a conspiracy to do so in the first place as they were deflected from the goal of independence for their tiny little enclaves. They wanted to be part of something bigger, but fairer instead.
    So the first World War did not take place in 1914. Instead the world history of the 20th century would be set in motion by events in Asia not Europe. In the 1920s a communtist uprising began in China. It was the beginning of a bloody civil war. Then the Japanese decided that they should take advantage of the situation and invaded China. The result was a 3 sided war. Well after the Long March the communists looked for aid from the communists in Russia who were a growing but still peaceful underground movement. With in a few years the communists in Russia had also launched a civil war as many Russian communists who had fought in China returned home with battle experience. They were led to victory by a man name Trotsky. Trotsky died however in 1940 and was replaced by a young man named Kruschev. The Russians communists or not had no love for the chinese who had humiliated Russia early in the century so the new Russian government attacked Japan and helped drive the Japanese back to the Korean pininsula. The Chinese Communists benifited more from this developement than the forces of Chang Kai Czech. So with in 2 years the communists took control of China. There was no Taiwan for the the nationalsts to flee to as that was under Japanese control.
    Well the humilated Japanese Goverment now feared that it would be gobbled up by European militarists so they were desperate to show that they were still a power to be reckoned with and they desperately needed to expand their naturual resource base. The Japanese military leaders did not have the confidence to take on the French Empire or the United States so they attacked the Dutch West Indies. They calculated the opinion of the world leaders correctly. The leaders of England, France, the USA, and others figured if the Dutch did not have to power to defend their colonies that had no business being in the business of colonialsim. So Japan easily siezed a new colony and called in Indonesia.
    But what had up unitl now been a single chain of events now became a dual chain of events. Events were triggered in India and in Africa. First the Dutch reeling from the loss of the crown jewel of their overseas empire decided that they needed to compinsate for the loss. Their leaders quicly decided that the Portugese Empire was ripe for the taking and furthermore it was rumored that Angola had lots of oil. So the Dutch quickly siezed Angola from the Portugese, while Germany took advatage of the situation to take Mozambique.
    Well the Énglish leaders were really pissed about what Germany had done. Yet they could not do anything at the momement because they were tied up with a revolt in India led by two people. One was a movement of civil disobedance led by Ghandi that demanded independence from England. The second movement was led by shadowy communists movement whose leader was the son of an Irish father and and Indian mother. It was a violent movement but what really made it important was that it did not demand independence it demanded Indian representation in the English Parliment. Well the English feared huge losses to the Germans, which by this time is kind of an archaic phrase because Germany, Austro-Hungary, Romania, and Italy had formally merged. Other smaller nations in the region were also by this time negotiating an enterance in to what was known as the Central Nations Confederation. if the “Germans” could support another Boer Uprising in South Africa. They feared that they would lose South Africa AND India as the Germans and their Turkish Allies threatened the Suez Canal and the Horn of Africa. So the English cut a deal with Ghandi that gave India local automony.
    But word traveled quite fast in these days. Many black Tanzanians had fought with the Germans when they had siezed Mozambique. These veterans were influenced by events that unfolded in India. A movement took place in Tanzania which spread to Mozambique which demanded that Africans have representation in the German parliment and a voice in the constitutional battles taking place in Germany between the Monarchy the SPD and the Communists.
    Well the leaders of the CNC took a surprising step. They decided that they could meet the demands of the people living in their African Colonies because the population relationship was not at all comparable to the English letting the hundreds of millions of people in India have a say in making English policy. Then because they feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union they took a page from Bismarks play book. They adopted economic policies that were much more regulatory than those in England or the USA. There were very progressive income and wealth taxes and a vast array of regulations protecting worker safety and a finally a vast social safety net. As a footnote during the Russian civil war that establshed the Soveit Union Poland broke free of Russia and eventually joined the CNC. Italy on the otherhand left the CNC and invaded Lybia.
    So after the “Germans” met the demands of the people in their colonies. There was a wave of colonial revolts one after the other in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1970 the British Empire had become a global capitalist trading pact with each colony ruled by a local capitalist class. In France the communists and socialists had more power and France became a global social market economy. The Netherlands and Belgium merged for mutal defence against the huge empires surrounding it and followed the English or the French/German path in to the 21st century, (Take your pick)
    Since the Europeans never fought a massive war between them there was never a power vacumn for the USA and the Soviet Union to fill. As a result the USA never became a global economic empire and there was never a bilateral cold war with the Soviet Union. The United States was eventually faced with a communist uprising in the Philipines begining in 1960. By 1973 the last US government employees were lifted out by helicopter from the capitol building in Manila. This made the leaders of the USA more determined than ever to maintain its economic control over central America and the people from the Dominican Republic to Columbia suffered accordingly. Much worse even than if America had become the world’s most powerful country.
    In Asia a civl rights movement by Koreans on the Korean pinisula and Japan which had become a fully intergrated economic entity, in combination with Philipine independence led to a Pacific Asian Trade and Security Pact between Japan (including Korea and Tiwan) with the Philipines and Indonesia.
    The motto of the currency of this region was, one society two systems.
    So histories have not been told. Well Thiland, and Ethiopia enjoyed a status and reputation like that of Switzerland. Safe, neutral, countries that the Euopean powers were prepared to accept as buffer states. Then Brazil and the Spanish speaking countries around it. Well I did not learn anything about how they would have developed had there never been a World War One.
    In Summary by the beginning of the 21st century people in much of the world, especially Asia were ruled by communists goverments. Much of the world was governed by market economies that mitigated the harmful effects of cutthroat capitalism, and much of the world was ruled by unfettered cutthroat gangster capitalism. The Cresent of Crisis was not found in the middle east but in central America. Despite all of its flaws the “unofficial”English Empire continues to limp along. Its control of Saudi Oil which it achieved in the 1910s has managed to keep the inhabitants of the territories under its defacto control in a position in which a cost risk benifit analysis makes revolt an unprofitable choice.
    Is it a better world than the one I live in? If I went back at the end of the 21st century what would I find?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 10, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

  2. OK Aliens might find the above essay sophmoric but I would much prefer that they use the Term RANDian, of course stemming from Ayn Rand.

    I think that I left out somethings of intermediate interest like the overthrow of the Sultan by Atatürk who realized that the Sultan had to go after the English siezed what is today Saudi Arabia.
    It is not as if the Turks could not have prevented it. It is just that they did not know at the time how much oil was there and they thought that with all the oil that they had in Iraq and Kuwait. plus the good relations that were developing with Iran that there was no reason to go to war over it. The overthrow did not take place immediately. It was preeceeded by a long period of Byzantine intrigue.

    Also by the end of the 20th century the CNC included Turkey, Iran and Scandanavia

    After the loss of their overseas colonies, with the exception of some islands in the Atlantic, Portugal reunited with Spain. Long story short, The new country of Iberia was a federation of Catalonia, Castile, Basqueistan, Portugal, Andalusia, and two other states whose names I forget. A civil war broke out in which Italy supported a general named Batista and France supported the republican government. A stalemate developed and the country was divided for decades but in 1989 the Republicans won a decisive victory. Yet the country still has not fully recovered from the devesation of the long war.

    At the end of the 20th century Italy which included what is today Lybia was considered the loose cannon of Europe but its got support from the English so neither the French nor the CNC wanted to use military force to make it “behave”

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 10, 2017 @ 4:31 pm

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