Stephen Maturin: The Ideal Intelligence Officer for Our Times
By Nicholas Dujmovic
Intelligence professionals of the 21st century, particularly those engaged in the counterterrorism mission, could use an inspirational icon from the world of literature to replace the outdated figure of James Bond. It may come as a surprise that the best fictional figure to represent the kind of intelligence officer we need these days is a Catalan-Irish physician and naturalist serving the British Crown in the Royal Navy two centuries ago during the Napoleonic era.
Stephen Maturin is one of the two main characters in Patrick O’Brian’s epic, 21-volume series set in the years 1800 through 1815 during the global struggle for power between Britain and France. Jack Aubrey, a British naval officer, has many adventures in various ships, mostly those he commands, as well as on land. His friend Stephen is a ship’s doctor new when they first meet to the ways of the sea, a scientist devoted to the study of the earth’s flora and fauna, and secretly the Admiralty’s most valuable intelligence officer in the fight against the terroristic regime of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Maturin’s background makes him well suited to intelligence work and allows for quite unconventional cover arrangements. With a Catalan mother and an Irish father in the service of Spain, Maturin grew up speaking Catalan, Spanish, Irish, English, and French, and he intimately knows the topography of Spain and Ireland. A doctor by profession and a natural scientist by vocation, Maturin is well respected—and indeed publishes—in both fields, a situation that provides him with excellent cover for travel to exotic places and for establishing and maintaining contacts worldwide. His appointment as a naval surgeon gives him an official dimension that enhances his nonofficial cover and allows him plausible access to the Admiralty, where he deals with the chief of intelligence.
Temperamentally Maturin is a romantic, fiercely opposing the threat of tyrannical rule posed by France under Napoleon, yet he keeps a coolness and iron discipline that allows him to prevail in dangerous circumstances; it helps that he is a proficient swordsman and an excellent shot. When Maturin needs to, he can kill an enemy, or lie to a friend, but both sicken him. He is curious, always looking to enlarge his knowledge, and he is compassionate about his fellow human beings (as long as they do not serve Napoleon!). His analytic mind serves him well in intelligence work—he has a strong counterintelligence sense about him—and he is happiest when writing “a clear statement of a complex situation.”
Maturin constantly and imaginatively takes the initiative in collecting and producing intelligence since he has few specific taskings from the Admiralty, which allows him a free hand to act.
Technically proficient, Maturin is expert at codes and secret writing, at breaking and entering, and at “flaps and seals” work for opening envelopes and dispatches. He conducts effective surveillance detection routines. A practitioner of deception—what today we call covert influence operations—he tells Aubrey, “My broadsheets are as effective as your round shot.” Being well versed in interrogation techniques allows him to avoid manipulation when it is his turn to be interrogated. Maturin works for the principle of fighting tyranny rather than for money. He is, in the society of the country he serves and aims to protect, an outsider as a foreigner and a Roman Catholic. All this bolsters his cover; indeed, his own best friend Aubrey is unaware for a long time about Maturin’s intelligence work and is shocked when he learns of it. “Now listen, Jack, will you? I am somewhat given to lying: my occasions require it from time to time.”
By his looks Maturin is a slight, odd fellow, socially and physically awkward, perfectly at home with the appearance of an eccentric man of science, for that he really is. In reality he is a man of utter discretion and integrity, of keen observation and memory, of immense courage and reliability, with an intense attention to detail and also a calculated risk-taker, a patriot well aware of the shortcomings of the country he serves but totally devoted to the destruction of the evil posed by his country’s enemy.
Patrick O’Brian was rightly praised for creating a wonderful world of adventure and human relationships with his Aubrey-Maturin saga, but intelligence officers owe him a special debt for conjuring up in Doctor Stephen Maturin an unlikely but apt literary exemplar for our profession.
Stephen took his short statement out of his pocket and said, “An armament is fitting out in Ferrol, the ships of the San Ildefonso treaty: here is a list of the vessels. Those marked with a cross are ready for sea.”… He passed the sheet.
“Perfectly, perfectly,” said Sir Joseph, looking at it greedily—he loved a tabulated list, numbers, factual intelligence, rather than the usual vague impressions and hearsay. “Perfect. This corresponds very closely to what we have from Admiral Cochrane.”
“Yes,” said Stephen. “A little too perfect, maybe.” – Post Captain
2. He knows that the most committed agent is ideological, not mercenary.
“God help us,” cried Jack, gazing at the mass of gold coins lying in a deep curve along the leeward side of the cabin. “What’s this?” [Stephen answered,] “It is technically known as money…. And, I may tell you, every louis, every napoleon, every ducat or doubloon is sound: the French sometimes buy services or intelligence with false coin or paper. That is the kind of thing that gives espionage a bad name.”
“If we pay real money, it is to be presumed we get better intelligence?” said Jack.
“Why, truly, it is much of a muchness: your paid agent and his information are rarely of much consequence. The real jewel, unpurchasable, beyond all price, is the man who hates tyranny as bitterly as I do.” – The Mauritius Command
3. He convinces others of the need to violate certain principles in fighting the enemy.
Captain Aubrey would do his utmost to deceive an enemy by the use of false colours and false signals, by making him believe that the ship was a harmless merchantman, a neutral, or a compatriot, and by any other ruse that might occur to his fertile mind. All was fair in war: all, except for opening letters, and listening behind doors. If Stephen, on the other hand, could bring Buonaparte one inch nearer to the brink of Hell by opening letters, he would happily violate a whole mail-coach full. “You will read captured despatches with open glee and exultation,” he said, “for you concede that they are public papers. If you value candour, you must therefore admit that any document bearing on the war is also a public paper: you are to rid your mind of these weak prejudices.” In his heart Jack remained unconvinced; but Stephen received the letter. - Desolation Island
4. Security and discretion is a way of life to him.
“You are a close one, Stephen.”
“Yes, I suppose I am. I have to be, you know. That is why I am alive.” - HMS Surprise
Stephen had long practised medicine, a calling in which discretion is often of great importance; but for an even longer time, if time is to be measured by stress, he had been an intelligence-agent, and here discretion was of the very essence, since an unguarded word or step might lead to an agent’s death and to the death, the often hideous death, of his friends and the destruction of their cause. - 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
5. He accepts the need for “bulkheads” or compartmentation.
“How is Sir Joseph?” [Maturin] asked [the Admiralty official] when they were alone, referring to his close friend and hierarchical superior the head of Naval Intelligence. “He is physically well,” said Philips, “and perhaps a little stouter than when you last saw him: but he is worried. I shall not venture to say what about: you know how cloisonné these matters are with us, if I may use the expression.”
“We say bulkheaded in the Navy,” observed Stephen.
“Bulkheaded? Thank you, sir, thank you: a far better term.” – The Commodore
6. Like every intelligence officer, at his core a collector.
With your permission I will go ashore and gather what information I can: at present I swim in a sea of unknowing. - 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
The reviewer is a CIA historian, former square rigger sailor, and member ofthe Studies in Intelligence Editorial Board. He is the author of The Literary Spy: The Ultimate Source for Quotations on Espionage and Intelligence.
This article was originally published in Studies in Intelligence Vol. 53, No. 2 (Summer Supplement 2009). Courtesy of (I kid you not) the CIA.
Image: Detail of Newgate Prison Exercise Yard by Gustave Dore. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: