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25-Aug-2006
Victor Niederhoffer reviews Patrick O'Brian's Navy, by Richard O'Neill

The book Patrick O'Brian's Navy by Richard O'Neill provides the background and foundation for any who wish to understand how the British Navy was able to secure peace, and trade and win battles during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The book is profusely illustrated with paintings and diagrams that for every point, and it has an excellent glossary and index.

It starts out with a point first made by author Ken Ringle, that there are six great literary themes; Man against Fate, Man against Nature, Man against Man, Man against Woman, Man against Society and Man against himself, and that O'Brian deals with all of these themes in each of the 20 novels.

The market trader faces the same forces and he does it in the same perilous atmosphere as O'Brian captain's, where shipwreck, foundering, enemies, sickness, bad seas, political favoritism, poorly constructed ships and mutiny are constant hazards.

The trader knows that the market is fated to do what it is going to do, regardless of the ephemeral factors that influence it from day to day. It will go up for example over many years, and especially during years when the earnings yield is much higher than the bond yield, but then it will go down to the point of least resistance of any major but weak players who can be stopped out. The nature of the market is not only the influence of weather, hurricanes, floods and tsunamis, but there are also the political factors that are known to the powers that be. The struggle of the trader is with other traders on the other side of each trade. It is a less than zero sum game where much is taken off the top by friction, and those with superior maneuverability and liquidity. The only way around that is to go with the drift and to stay within ones means.

The trader's worst enemy is himself, so he must always conquer his emotions and his weakness, for example not selling at the point when the decline is steepest, or not pyramiding and getting in over his head when the market is strongest. The political backdrop is the war against society that the trader must fathom. There is the constant battle between the political parties to make things look good or bad so that they can get re-elected, all within the backdrop of plucking the geese with the least amount of hissing.

As the war between man and woman, the market mistress is that woman, and she always has something new to throw at you to maximize your foundering and uncertainty so that she can keep the feeding chain working.

The book has an excellent chapter on the world that Jack knew, which describes all the wars, coalitions, trade, politics and economic forces that Jack faced. It is essential for understanding why the British navy was involved in each of its activities. It also has a very nice discussion on the industrial revolution and how this changed the locus of power from merchants to manufacturers, and its effect on the East India company and the power structure.

The next chapter talks about England itself, its population growth, its trade, its allies, its relations with colonies, the strength of its navy and its relationship with the army, the administration of the navy, the system of impressment, life on board a ship as well as on land (an area where Jack was as inept as he was an expert at sea). There is a detailed chapter on the construction and equipment in O'Brian's navy with numerous helpful diagrams that are a great aid to any who are not nautically trained and wish to understand what is going on in the nitty gritty of the ship.

The next chapter describes what life on board the ship was, and what the incentives and working conditions were like. Finally, there is a chapter on the tactics of battle, the achievements of Britain, the conventions of battle, the methods of communication, the tactics of blockade, the relative strength of the various combatants, the obligatory discussion of Nelson's accomplishments and abilities and the condition of the equipment they had to work with. There are three case studies of a fleet action: The Battle of Cape St. Vincent where Nelson's Master stroke in preventing the enemy's escape is detailed; a single ship action that the English lost in the Battle of Lake Erie against the United States' Admiral Oliver Perry; and the Walcheren Expedition where the English besieged Dutch ports for strategic advantage.

I found the book the ideal companion to improve my understanding of the times that O'Brian wrote about. I found that when reading of the sorrows, and hopes of the men he wrote about I came away with a much greater feeling and awareness. As the famous book review from the New York Times said:

Although the times change , people do not, the grief and follies of these men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives

No group will find O'Brian's 'map' more accurate to their own lives than traders.