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The Letter of Marque is a historical novel by British author Patrick O'Brian. It is twelfth in the series

Plot summaryEdit

In The Letter of Marque Jack, now a civilian, prepares to sail the Surprise, now owned by Stephen, as a privateer. Jack is bitter and is in low spirits about his dismissal from the navy, and dreads affrontal and disrespectful treatment from Royal Navy officers. However, he is strongly supported by his hand-picked crew, notably smugglers and Sethian religious fanatics from the fictional port of Shelmerston.

The downfall of the traitors Wray and Ledward in the previous book has restored order in British intelligence circles, and Maturin - now the secret owner of Surprise - plans to use her privateering as cover for a covert anti-Spanish mission to South America. The ship is therefore under official protection to an extent and Aubrey's innocence is known privately to many, though the spies are still at large and politics will make his rehabilitation impossible without extraordinary deeds on his part. They depart on a cruise, during which Maturin's servant Padeen becomes a secret laudanum addict after painful dental surgery, diluting Maturin's own supplies with brandy in order to conceal his theft. Maturin is thus unknowingly weaned off his own addiction (though he later substitutes it with the practice of chewing Coca leaves).

The Surprises first capture the US privateer Spartan's consort, the Merlin, and then board the Spartan itself, retrieving its valuable cargo of quicksilver, looted from the Spanish Azul, as well as tricking her five prizes out of Horta harbour. These, together with his success in the cutting-out of the Diane from the French port of St. Martin despite serious wounds, make Aubrey both wealthy again and a popular hero. He is offered the opportunity to seek a free pardon, but angrily declines on the grounds that he is innocent and his friends fear that he has missed his chance of redemption. However, Aubrey's embarrassing father, a fugitive since his part in the stock-jobbing affair, is found dead in a ditch, and Aubrey is offered a Parliamentary seat by his cousin, Edward Norton, who owns the borough of Milport. This extra influence is enough for him to receive private assurances from Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, that he will indeed be restored to the Navy List as soon as the time is right.

Maturin, in possession once more of Diana's magnificent Blue Peter diamond, decides to take it to her in Sweden. He sails part of the way on the old Leopard, now sadly reduced to a lowly transport ship, before re-joining the Surprise. He meets his wife Diana in Stockholm and is unsurprised to learn that the letter he sent to her from Gibraltar via Wray, accounting for his supposed infidelity, was never delivered. She also tells him she has not been unfaithful with Jagiello, and has been supporting herself by ascending - whilst mounted on a small Arab horse - in a hot-air balloon before an audience. Maturin is seriously injured in a fall after taking his usual dose of laudanum to soothe himself after their initial meeting, unaware that his tolerance has been reduced by Padeen's actions. Diana nurses him back to health and they become reconciled once more. When the Surprise returns from a trip to Riga to buy poldavy, Maturin hears from Martin about Padeen's laudanam addiction, discovered after he was caught siphoning laudanum from one of the carboys and replacing the tincture with brandy. Stephen is well enough to be finally transported back to the ship, accompanied by Colonel Jagiello's escort, and Diana embarks with him and Jack for home.

Characters in this storyEdit

Jack Aubrey-captain of the Surprise

Stephen Maturin-ship`s surgeon, friend to Jack and an intelligence officer

Sophie Aubrey - Jack's wife.


Philip Aubrey - Jack's younger half-brother.


Diana Maturin (née Villiers) - Stephen's estranged wife.


Sir Joseph Blaine


Mr Nathaniel Martin


Preserved Killick


Barret Bonden


Padeen Colman - Stephen's Irish servant; loblolly-boy on the Surprise


Captain Tom Pullings - a volunteer King's officer on board the Surprise.


Captain William Babbington - Captain of HMS Tartarus; commander of the St Martin blockading squadron; made Post Captain.


Fanny Wray - daughter of Admiral Harte and wife of Charles Wray.


Andrew Wray - works for the Admiralty; a French agent.


Charlotte, Fanny and George Aubrey - Jack's three children.


The Duke of Clarence - the Regent's younger brother.


Ledward - works for the Treasury; a French agent.


Mrs Broad - landlady of The Grapes.


Mr Davidge and Mr West - officers on the Surprise.


Slade - a follower of Seth and crew member of the Surprise.


Colonel Gedymin Jagiello - a Colonel in the Swedish armed forces.


Countess Tessin - Jagiello's grandmother.


Ships in this storyEdit

The British:

  • The Surprise - a private man-of-war or letter of marque
  • HMS Tartarus
  • HMS Dolphin
  • HMS Camel - a transport ship
  • HMS Vulture - a slop-ship
  • HMS Leopard - a transport ship

The Spanish:

  • Azul

The American:

  • The Spartan
  • The Merlin
  • USS Constitution

The French:

  • Diane

Allusions or references to actual history, geography, and current scienceEdit

Whilst in Stockholm, Stephen visits an apothecary's shop to buy laudanum. He inquires about the coca or cuca leaf from Peru and the apothecary replies, 'It is said to dissolve the gross humours and do away with appetite.' Stephen buys a pound and the coca leaf eventually comes to replace his opium habit in later novels. He carries the leaves in a pouch and lime in a small silver box. When he feels the need for it, he simply rolls the leaves into a ball and pops them into his cheek with lime.

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