The Wine-Dark Sea

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The Wine-Dark Sea
Cover by Geoff Hunt for The Wine-Dark Sea.
First edition cover
Author Patrick O'Brian
Cover artist Geoff Hunt
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Aubrey-Maturin series
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Harper Collins (UK)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette, CD)
Pages 261 pp (first edition, hardback) & 262 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-393-03558-1, (first edition, hardback) & ISBN 0-393-31244-5 (paperback edition UK)
OCLC 27975129
823/.914 20
LC Class PR6029.B55 W5 1993
Preceded by Clarissa Oakes
Followed by The Commodore

The Wine-Dark Sea is the sixteenth historical novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series by British author Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1993. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars.

Plot summary[edit]

The narrative opens with the close pursuit of an American privateer, the Franklin, by Aubrey and Maturin's Surprise, a fictionalised version of the original HMS Surprise in the South Pacific, interrupted by an submarine volcanic eruption which completely disables the former and severely damages the latter. The Franklin is easily taken as most of its crew are either dead, severely wounded or drunk, and Monsieur Dutourd, its French owner, is taken on board. A wealthy philanthropist, he intended to colonise a South Pacific island, Moahu, and establish a paradise of equality, justice, and little labour, after first enriching himself by committing piracy on assorted British whalers and merchantmen, and then wiping out the island's hostile native population.

Maturin recognises Dutourd from earlier days in the high society salons of Paris, and takes pains to hide his identity from the Frenchman. Aubrey, meanwhile, finds that not only does Dutourd not know the basic courtesies of life at sea, but does not have a letter of marque permitting him to operate the Franklin as a privateer. The Franklin having taken several British ships as prizes, Dutourd's legal status is that of a pirate, liable to be hanged.

An American whaler is taken by the Surprise and the Franklin, and a British sailor on the whaler tells Aubrey of a French ship — the Alastor — turned a true pirate, unlike the Franklin, flying the black flag and demanding immediate surrender or death of its victims. The Franklin encounters the Alastor first and is outmatched, but the Surprise overcomes the pirates, with Aubrey receiving severe wounds to his eye from wadding and his thigh from a pike thrust.

The story now turns to Maturin's secret mission to Peru. He is put ashore to incite revolution against the Spanish colonial government and makes valuable contact among local military and government officials sympathetic to Peruvian independence. He is also aided by Aubrey's illegitimate son, Sam Panda, a prominent official in the Roman Catholic Church and close to becoming a prelate. Stephen also meets Dr Geary from the Three Graces and is able to secure a passage home for Mr Martin who has been severely laid low by what he presumed was the Sydney pox, but in fact which turned out to be simply bad salt sores.

His task as an intelligence agent is suddenly made harder owing to Dutourd's escape and arrival in Callao (aided by the Surprise's Knipperdolling crewmembers). He raises a hue and cry, denouncing Maturin on the eve of the carefully engineered revolution, as an English spy. Aubrey, meanwhile, sails in a small boat with a few crewmen from the Franklin to San Lorenzo to warn Maturin of Dutourd's escape. After many days of hard sailing against the wind in appalling weather conditions, they finally reach the harbour and are taken on board the Surprise by Captain Pullings. Once he has recovered, he receives a welcome visit from his illegitimate son and Sam updates him on the local political situation.

Stephen, after a secret meeting with Gayongos, a wealthy merchant and revolutionary sympathiser, has departed on a mule into the mountains, to meet with the Vicar-General, a close relation of Bernardo O'Higgins, and to view the mountainous flora and fauna accompanied by Eduardo, his highly knowledgeable and amicable Peruvian Indian guide. The doctor sees numerous condors, flowering bromeliads, guanacos and vicuña. After leaving a Capuchin monastery, Eduardo receives a message that the revolution has failed due to Dutourd's premature exposure and Maturin has to flee for his life. Trekking over the Andes mountains, Maturin and Eduardo are caught in a viento blanco (blizzard) and Stephen has to amputate two of his own frostbitten toes with a chisel - but being the indefatigable naturalist that he is, he is able to collect a considerable number of plant and animal specimens.

Having eventually made his way from Lima to Arica, and then taken ship from Valparaíso, Aubrey eventually picks Maturin up in Chile. Stephen informs him of three American China ships sailing from Boston. The Surprise sails to intercept them off Cape Horn but, as she prepares to engage them, is herself fired upon by a thirty-eight gun US frigate. After avoiding an iceberg, the Surprise is chased until her pursuer sails down a lane in the ice field that is a dead-end. The Surprise escapes but then loses her main mast and rudder after being struck by lightning. Jury-rigged, her crew spot a ship hull-down on the horizon and fear that it is the more powerful American frigate back in pursuit. However, the ship turns out to be the Berenice, a sixty-four-gun ship of the line commanded by Aubrey's old friend Heneage Dundas, accompanied by an American clipper they have taken and are using as a tender. Dundas provisions them with spars, cordage, storage and a Pakenham substitute rudder (and the much-needed pepper that Maturin needs to preserve his specimens from a moth) and as the book ends the Surprise is homeward bound.


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey - Captain (and purser) of HM Hired Vessel Surprise.
  • Stephen Maturin - ship's surgeon, friend to Jack and an intelligence officer.
  • Captain Thomas Pullings - technically the captain of the Surprise, acting as its first officer; takes command of the Franklin
  • Monsieur Dutourd - a rich French philanthropist
  • Reverend Nathaniel Martin - assistant-surgeon and Stephen's friend
  • Mr Reade - a midshipman
  • Padeen Coleman - Stephen's servant and loblolly boy
  • Preserved Killick - Jack's steward
  • Barret Bonden - Jack's coxswain
  • Joe Plaice - able seaman
  • Mr Grainger - acting Lieutenant (formerly forecastleman and a master mariner)
  • Sam Norton - a midshipman
  • Henry Vidal - acting Second Lieutenant on the Surprise (formerly a forecastleman) and a master mariner; a Knipperdolling
  • Mr Adams - captain's clerk
  • Sarah and Emily Sweeting - Melanesian girls rescued earlier by Maturin, rated as ship's boys
  • Sam Panda - Jack's illegitimate son and a Roman Catholic Priest
  • Eduardo - Maturin's Inca Indian guide
  • Don Jaime O'Higgins - Vicar-General in Peru
  • Pascual de Gayongos - a Catalan, wealthy merchant and revolutionary sympathiser
  • General Hurtado - a high-ranked Peruvian General
  • Heneage Dundas - Captain of the Berenice
  • Joselito - Mule belonging to Don Bernardo O'Higgins and loaned to Stephen


  • British
    • HM Hired Vessel Surprise - an elderly twenty-eight gun frigate
    • The Three Graces
    • HMS Berenice - sixty-four-gun man-of-war
    • A Baltimore clipper (Berenice's tender), not named in this book but name given as Ringle in The Commodore
  • French
    • Alastor - pirate ship
    • Alastor's launch - used by Aubrey to sail to Callao
  • American
    • Franklin (captured)
    • American whaler - captured by the Surprise and Franklin
    • Nootka fur trader - captured by the Franklin
    • Unnamed thirty-eight gun frigate


The novel's title is the English translation of an oft-repeated description from Homer.

Series chronology[edit]

This novel references actual events as any historical novel ought. In respect to the internal chronology of the series, it is the tenth of eleven novels that might take five or six years to happen but are all pegged to an extended 1812, or as Patrick O'Brian says it, 1812a and 1812b (introduction to Far Side of the World, the tenth novel in this series). The events of Yellow Admiral again match up with the historical years of the Napoleonic wars in sequence, as the first six novels did.