Master & Commander (the book) question: what's a prize agent?

Fairly self explanatory, but—

In the opening pages of the novel Jack Aubrey owes his prize agent £120 (interest due of £15), and upon receiving his first command he visits his prize agent for more to buy a new uniform and send customer gifts.

I gather a prize agent is something like a banker, and I know a prize is paid for captured ships and cargo, so is the £120 an advance against Aubrey’s share of future captures? (If so, given that any capture would require a battle and there’s always a risk of being killed, it would seem a frightfully risky field, so return must have been high.)

Thanks for any info.

Here is some information but not a direct answer to your question.

Here’s a link that explains what a navy agent did, and how they made money.

[Speculation Warning]

I am in the middle of reading the Delancey novels. These Napoleanic sea stories

The way that author uses the “prize money/agent” concept was that it generally took time (months?) for the official Prize Court to adjucate the sums to be awarded for a particular capture.

The main character of the novel gets an advance from money lenders, presumadely with interest, or a fee, (not specified in the story) for the money lender or agent. (The character uses this to buy replacement dress uniforms, for example.)

Kinda like a “payday loan”, I guess.

Ah, thanks. That makes more sense: it’s money loaned on something that has already happened rather than something that might happen, like a cash advance on a settlement.

If you’ve won longboat engagements but you NEED CASH NOW…

They also act as bankers - when your prize money is actually awarded by the prize court, they’ll hold onto it for you if you desire, instead of giving you all of it (minus your advances, interest, and their fees). And even once prize money is awarded, the owners of the ship can sue in the courts that the captain didn’t actually have the right to capture the ship - that it wasn’t a valid prize. If they win, the captain is required to return all the prize money to the Admiralty.

If you continue reading the books, this all becomes important later.

And if you don’t - Fie upon you sir!


There is an interesting SF series that is formatted like a Master and Commander in Space! which is a fun popcorn read. They also have prize agents and in a much later book in the series they ‘hold’ the spacers that are between cruises in old hulk ships so they can’t scarper off and become unavailable, just like Great Britain did back in the 1700s. Here is a free ebook of the first book in the series - With the Lightnings.

[I love it when the first book of a series is free - sort of like a good crack pusher gives out free samples … :p]

Apparently. One reason for starting this thread was that in trying to google the answer I came across what I’m guessing is a pretty major spoiler from one of the later books, namely

the embezzlement of a large amount by a prize agent

I withdrew before reading too many details, and it seems a way down the road, so hopefully it won’t spoil too much.

Thanks for all answers. I love the book so far, but it’s sent me to and wiki more than any book in a long time. I think I might be opening a standing thread for early 19th century naval questions. (I’m trying to remember: was there cannibalism in the British navy?)

I can’t recommend highly enough picking up a companion volume to help you with the naval vocabulary, not to mention the obscure historical, literary, biological, pharmacological, musical, anatomical, meteorological, geographical, military, astronomical (etc., etc., ad absurdam) references tossed about so casually by O’Brian. One of the best is A Sea of Words, Third Edition: A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian by Dean King, et al. As I have recently embarked upon my fourth (?) voyage through the series (currently about 1/3 of the way through Post Captain), I purchased this invaluable volume in e-book form and have it loaded up on my iPhone while reading to speed up the consultation process.

+1 on the book, and having it in ebook format for quick reference is BRILLIANT. I need to do that.

Thanks for that book suggestion- looks great!

Things like “Ward’s Drops” and Jigger-mast and references to Lord St. Vincent as if you should know automatically who that is get cumbersome.

I also find Harbors and High Seas: An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian to be very helpful - lets me keep up with exactly where in the world the action is taking place.

I’ve read the series twice, and I’m now slowly going through them again on audiobook during long car trips. I’m not an audiobook fan, but it’s really nice to hear the nautical stuff read aloud by someone who knows how to pronounce everything. I think the humor comes across better on the written page, though.

I have a friend who loves the Aubrey/Maturin books and doesn’t even try to figure out the nautical lingo. He once told me, “Once the crew gets to talking about bowsprits and topgallants etc. etc. I just think to myself, ‘They are sailing the ship very skillfully,’ and skip ahead.”

I followed references obsessively for the the first few books. Then I was like “Screw it, I’m just going to read.”

After a while, the references to various back stays and whatever just run together, and you know they’re doing Just Fine.

The nautical stuff is fun to figure out, though my copies had a diagram of a ship at the front. Eventually I got all the sails, lines, masts, stays, etc straight. There are a few times where they explain everything to Stephen and other hopeless types - if you read those carefully, you can pick up a lot of information.

Now the different types of vessels are a different matter. The difference between a square rigged xebec-snow and a fore-and-aft rigged barquentine is IMHO beyond anyone not born next to a 12 pounder.

Wow. Does McDonald’s even sell those anymore?

:dubious: Are you making game of me? I was of course referring to Barret Bonden, who was born between two guns on the Indefatigable.

I was making a small jest, yes.

You sir, clearly show a level of wit equal to Jack Aubrey’s.