The Constitution, the Java, Patrick O’Brian, and …Audubon’s Birds

This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian.

We last met “Old Ironsides” on this blog when she won her War of 1812 victory in August 1812 against the HMS Guerrière off of Massachusetts.  Less than six months later, the USS Constitution had been refitted in Boston, assigned a new captain, and in late December was cruising off Brazil.  Victory came again to her two hundred years ago on December 29 when she engaged the HMS Java bound for India, heavy laden with supplies and carrying the colony’s newly-appointed Governor, Lieutenant General Thomas Hislop and his retinue.  In this battle, heavier guns and a better-trained crew offered Commodore William Bainbridge of the Constitution some advantage, and, for the British, it was another demoralizing loss of a frigate in what was rapidly becoming a pattern in the opening months of the war at sea.  The Java’s masts were down and her captain mortally wounded when First Lieutenant Henry D. Chads, consulted the Army General Hislop and made the decision to strike her colors, in this case a British ensign that had been hastily raised on the faltering stump of the mizzen mast.  Hislop’s small pocket diary, in the New-York Historical Society’s collections shown here, records “Christmas Day,” followed by a terse account of the events of December 29.

Autograph journal of Sir Thomas Hislop briefly records events; “Hislop Papers,” Documents, 1812, December 29, BV Constitution.


Chads’s and Hislop’s names may sound vaguely familiar to those who read Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels about the Royal Navy.  In his 1979 book, The Fortune of War, O’Brian places his two recurring fictional characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and Surgeon Stephen Maturin, as shipwrecked passengers on board the Java when she has her fateful meeting with the Constitution.  They participate in the battle and interact with Chads and Hislop, but O’Brian assures us, in true historical novelist’s fashion, that they change no outcomes.  The Java is unsalvageable and destroyed; for the ordinary seamen crowded as prisoners on the Constitution this is a difficult ordeal, but, in the chivalrous custom of the day, Commodore Bainbridge treats the captive British officers with fine hospitality.

Autograph letter of Commodore William Bainbridge to his prisoner Lieutenant General Thomas Hislop, San Salvadore, [Brazil], 3 January, 1812 [making the common error we all commit in January, he means 1813]

In the letter shown here Bainbridge agrees to Hislop’s request of paroling the naval officers on the Java.  Hislop responded in turn by presenting Bainbridge with an extravagant sword for his kindness.  A kindness, O’Brian’s fictional character Stephen writes in his diary, “that extended not only to their ordinary belongings but even to the Governor’s magnificent service of official plate, a circumstance that may have added to Hislop’s eloquence.”  In any event, letters in the Society’s collection show that Bainbridge kept up a fitful correspondence with Hislop for over a decade, avowing lifelong friendship and “the good wishes of one whom the fortune of war brought to your acquaintance.”

 O’Brian delays the exchange of his characters Jack and Stephen so they can return to Boston with the Constitution and spend time as somewhat pampered prisoners, free to roam the city on parole.  For Stephen Maturin, well known to readers as a naturalist and a British intelligence agent as well as a physician, there is the opportunity to engage in romantic as well as spy-related entanglements.  An American operative makes a clumsy attempt to recruit him by appealing to the naturalist in Stephen, offering him an exquisite, detailed painting of an American bird. Stephen resists the enticement while admiring the artwork and is told that it was acquired from “a young Frenchman I met on the Ohio river, a Creole, very talented, very difficult.”  Then the American adds that the young artist was a bastard “and bastards, as no doubt you have observed, are often more touchy than ordinary beings.”  This is a blunder, most certainly, since Stephen himself was born out of wedlock.  But, having once established his point in plotting, the detail-oriented novelist O’Brian leaves it for us to determine that he is, in fact, referring to the young, unknown John James Audubon.  Or, with a wink, he simply lets it fly over our heads.

 John James Audubon’s watercolors, like Thomas Hislop’s records of the historic battle on the Java, reside in the New-York Historical Society.   The Anhinga, the water fowl painting offered to Stephen Maturin in the novel, in Audubon’s final painted form (1836).   Some of Audubon’s earliest works can be seen for the first time in the United States on exhibit this spring

 John James Audubon; Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), Havell plate no. 316; study of neck and head, Male, above; female, below, 1822; 1836

Watercolor, black ink, graphite, pastel, and collage with scraping and selective glazing on paper, laid on card, 1863.17.316

Collection of the New-York Historical Society. Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions.



  1. says

    “The Constitution, The Java, Patrick O’Brian, and Audubon’s
    Birds | New-York Historical Society” was a extremely nice
    post, . Continue creating and I’ll try to continue to keep viewing! Thanks for the post ,Wilfred

  2. Gil says

    Miriam,very nice account and the personal documents of the participants are noteworthy. As a Surpriseophile I must comment that Lucky Jack was not required to give his parole in Boston because of his serious injuries. Otherwise he would have uncharacteristically and irreparably dishonored himself by escaping as he did. Gil

    • Staff says

      Thank you, Gil. Yes, you are quite right! I am still fascinated by the chivalrous rules of warfare of the time.


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