Master and Commander’s Prize Money

By James E. Hanley

*SPOILERS* In Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, Stephen Maturin, indifferent to wealth but desperately impoverished, accepts Commander “Lucky Jack” Aubrey’s invitation to become ship’s surgeon primarily to avoid starvation. But the pitch is revealing – Aubrey has a passion for prize money that we learn is exceeded only by his physical lusts and desire for glory.

The [surgeon’s] pay is contemptible for a learned man – five pounds a month – and I am ashamed to admit it; but there is the chance of prize money. (Master and Commander)

The Royal Navy’s pay truly was contemptible, and the uncertain prospect of prize money was the substitute. Commander Aubrey earned less than 250 pounds a year, and his subsequent promotion to post-captain would give him only a marginal increase to 255 pounds. If we can trust inflation calculations of the British pound from the early 1800s as converted into contemporary U.S. currency, a low-ranking post-captain may have earned the equivalent of less than $30,000 a year. Out of that pay he had to provide his own uniforms and, if he was to fulfill the immemorial custom of the service by properly entertaining his subordinate officers, he had to spend lavishly on food and wine.

To make matters worse, the Navy was so stingy in its allotment of powder and shot for practice that commanders and captains who wanted to properly train their crews for battle had to supplement the official allotment out of their own pockets. Except for those who were independently wealthy, prize money was a captain’s only prospect for financial security, and the main chance, as Aubrey calls it, is a theme repeated with variations throughout Patrick O’Brian’s epic 20-volume series.

The Value of Prize Money

In a Navy that had to press men to overcome its dearth of volunteers, Lucky Jack’s reputation for prize-taking lures able seamen who have assiduously hidden from the press gangs to volunteer for his commands. The prize money is as strong an incentive to them as to him, even though they take a lesser share. The value of a prize’s cargo was divided into eighths, with the captain taking 3/8 (but losing one to the admiral, if any, under whose orders he was sailing), officers, chaplains, and surgeon sharing 2/8 between them, midshipmen, lower ranking warrant officers, and Marine Sergeants sharing 1/8, and the rest of the ship’s company, sometimes hundreds of men, sharing the final 2/8. Although it’s a pittance compared to the captain’s take, Lucky Jack’s men make more than they ever could ashore, and many take their prize earnings to retire from the sea and achieve their dream of setting up a public house.

The incentive value of prize money is most strongly emphasized when Aubrey’s luck runs dry. Ship surgeon Maturin, moonlighting as an unpaid intelligence agent, alerts the British Admiralty that Spain intends to declare war as soon as a treasure ship arrives safely from South America. Aubrey is part of the flotilla that takes the ship, earning each captain more than 350 years of pay in a single skirmish. But before they can enjoy their rewards, the new First Lord of the Admiralty makes the legalistic and politically motivated decision to deprive Aubrey and the others of their prize money despite the plea of Maturin’s Admiralty patron.

“But I put it to you, my lord, that prize-money is of essential importance to the Navy. The possibility, however remote, of making a fortune by some brilliant stroke is an unparalleled spur to the diligence, the activity, and the unremitting attention of every man afloat …

“Five million pieces of eight,” said Admiral Erskine, longingly … “Was it indeed as much as that?” (H.M.S. Surprise).

Another variation on the theme plays out in a later book in the series, when one captain deliberately burns the many prizes he has captured in his blockade of Boston harbor. Desperate to reverse the Americans’ unexpected victories at the beginning of the War of 1812, he is unwilling to give up the officers and men necessary for prize crews on the eve of battle against a heavy American frigate. Aubrey is similarly aghast at the British navy’s humiliation, but even so he is surprised at the captain’s actions: the sacrifice of such wealth for the benefit of King and country is, he says, heroic (The Fortune of War).

The Navy’s Economic Burden

Despite its appeal, prize money as a substitute for decent pay is not portrayed as an ideal solution. The unexpected victories of the young American Navy over the immeasurably more experienced British are partly attributed to the strength of American ship, but also to the superior quality of a well-paid all-volunteer army. But the American Navy was small, while the British were attempting to rule the whole world’s waves while paying for their efforts from a treasury drained after years of war. The singular advantage of the prize system, as Maturin’s patron muses, is that the expense would be borne by the enemy. In this case, “it would have been the Spaniards who provided the Royal Navy with the splendid example of four youngish post-captains caught in a great shower, a downpour, of gold” (H.M.S. Surprise).

Today, casinos and lotteries carefully calculate the relationship between size and frequency of the payouts that will motivate gamblers to keep playing. The British had to trust in fate and their captains’ skill for the encouraging effects of prize money, but it seems to have worked. Although Patrick O’Brian did not set out to write an economic story, his careful historical scholarship, coupled with vivid writing, reveals how the Royal Navy’s lure of prize money was a rational response to the circumstances of the era.

James E. Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

Courtesy of The Foundation for Economic Education
Image: Doubloons discovered off the coast of Florida. Courtesy of 1715 Fleet/Queens Jewels LLC

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