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Treason's Harbour

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Country  United Kingdom
Publication date  1983
Originally published  1983
Preceded by  The Ionian Mission
Genre  Historical Fiction
4.4/5 Goodreads

Language  English
Pages  408 paperback edition
Author  Patrick O'Brian
Followed by  The Far Side of the World
Treason's Harbour t2gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcRS1EYHrBRmiPp16M
Media type  Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette, CD)
ISBN  0-00-222169-1 first edition; hardback
Publisher  William Collins, Sons (UK)
Similar  Patrick O'Brian books, Aubrey–Maturin series books, Historical novel books

Treason's Harbour is the ninth historical novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series by British author Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1983. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars.


Maturin finds Malta teeming with French spies. One is an unwilling spy, wife of a sailor taken prisoner, who needs Maturin's protection. The new fleet Admiral arrives, sending Aubrey on three missions in the Mediterranean, working with the Turks.

Plot summary

The Surprises wait at Malta as their ship is slowly repaired, after their successful mission on the Ionian coast. Aubrey and Maturin meet Mrs Laura Fielding at music parties she holds. Besides her musical talents, she teaches Italian, waiting on news of her husband, a naval lieutenant who is a prisoner-of-war in France. French intelligence agents use Fielding's plight to manipulate Mrs Fielding into spying for them. Aubrey saves her huge dog Ponto from a fall in the well. This endears Ponto to Aubrey, leading the gossips of Malta to assume he is carrying on an affair with Mrs Fielding. She asks Maturin to pay her attentions, to satisfy the French agents. He lets it appear to the French spies watching her place as if they are conducting an affair, and prepares false materials for her to pass on. Professor Graham is returned to England rapidly when the new Commander of the Mediterranean fleet, Admiral Sir Francis Ives and acting second secretary Andrew Wray, arrive in Malta with their own advisor on Turkish affairs. Once Aubrey gets news that an earlier prize was accepted by the board, he spends money to speed up repairs on Surprise. French spies are active in Malta. Before he leaves, Graham describes Lesueur, a French agent known to him. Unbeknownst to Maturin, Wray meets with Lesueur, receives payments from him and learns what Maturin has done to French spies. Maturin is delighted to receive his diving bell, built on Edmond Halley's design. He and Heneage Dundas test it out from Dundas’s ship. It travels with Maturin on the next mission.

Aubrey is dispatched on a secret mission by the active Admiral Ives, to capture a Turkish galley laden with French silver in the Red Sea. They sail on the Dromedary to Tina, and then walk across the Sinai Peninsula to meet the HEI ship Niobe at Suez. Aubrey takes command of Niobe and sails her down the Red Sea with Turkish troops to intercept the galley. They spot it and give chase. Aubrey notices that the galley is using a drag sail to artificially slow its speed. Realizing the trickery, Aubrey sinks the galley to deny the French its silver. Maturin and Aubrey use the diving bell to retrieve the cargo, learning it is lead not silver, a complete trap. From a fishing boat Aubrey learns that the galley had been in the sea for a month awaiting them. It was to lure them under French cannons on land. They return on Niobe to Suez and offload the disappointed and dismayed Turkish troops. The Surprises retrace their steps across the desert. Bedouin horsemen steal their camel train, so they reach Tina exhausted. Only Aubrey’s chest, with his chelengk award and the dragoman’s papers, is saved by Killick’s diligent effort. They return to Malta on Dromedary.

Aubrey learns that Surprise is to return to England to be sold or scrapped, very sad news. Maturin is in a mood to gamble at cards. Wray loses their piquet games, betting more than the cash he has on hand, and thus owes Maturin, who asks for naval favors in return, like a ship for recently-promoted Pullings. Before despatching Surprise to England, Ives asks Aubrey to take the Adriatic convoy up to Trieste. There he meets Captain Cotton of HMS Nymphe, who has just rescued the escaped prisoner-of-war, Lieutenant Charles Fielding. Maturin removes a bullet from Fielding, who is a brave man, but also a very jealous one. He hears the rumour of Aubrey's liaison with his wife and refuses to return to Malta on Surprise, challenging Aubrey to a duel when they next meet on land. On this return journey Captain Dundas, commanding HMS Edinburgh, tells Aubrey of a French privateer, which Aubrey then captures with Dryad in convoy. The chase delays Surprise into port, two days behind Babbington's sloop Dryad, so the news of Lieutenant Fielding's rescue has begun to circulate. Maturin speeds to Mrs Fielding's house, but she is not home. Lesueur and Boulay, a double agent on the Governor's staff, arrive to kill her, as she is of no more use to them, and have already killed Ponto. Instead, Maturin quietly listens to their conversation until they leave. When she arrives, he takes her aboard the Surprise, saving her life.

Admiral Ives orders Aubrey to sail for Zambra on the Barbary Coast to persuade the Dey of Mascara not to molest British ships, in convoy with HMS Pollux, which is returning Admiral Harte to England. While Pollux waits at the entrance of the Bay of Zambra, the French Mars with two frigates fire on her, with a fierce ensuing battle. Pollux blows up, killing all 500 aboard, but she severely damages Mars. The two frigates chase Surprise deep into the bay until the heavier frigate runs aground on a reef. Her smaller consort deserts the fight. Aubrey wants to continue; on the political advice of Maturin, he sets sail for Gibraltar. This ambush on a voyage known to so few makes it clear that someone highly placed in the British command betrayed them to the French. Maturin hopes Wray will find the traitor out.


See also Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series

  • Jack Aubrey: Captain of HMS Surprise, in Malta for repairs. He sails the East India Company sloop Niobe in the Red Sea.
  • Stephen Maturin: Ship's surgeon, friend to Jack Aubrey, natural philosopher and an intelligence officer.
  • Sophia Aubrey: Wife of Jack Aubrey and mother of their three children.
  • Diana Villiers Maturin: Wife of Stephen and first cousin to Sophia.
  • Tom Pullings: Promoted to commander in the Royal Navy on account of the success against two Turkish ships. He is not assigned a ship, but is very happy despite the cruel scars he sustained in the boarding.
  • Preserved Killick: Steward to Aubrey.
  • Barret Bonden: Coxswain to Aubrey.
  • William Mowett: First lieutenant under Aubrey, now that Pullings is promoted.
  • Rowan: Second lieutenant under Aubrey, now that Pullings is promoted.
  • Mr Peter Calamy: Young midshipman taken on by Aubrey in Worcester and carried to Surprise. He likes Maturin. Part of the mission to the Red Sea.
  • Mr Williamson: Young midshipman taken by Aubrey in Worcester and carried to Surprise, where he lost half an arm in the battle with the Turkish ship Torgud. Part of the mission to the Red Sea.
  • Mr Honey: Midshipman (master's mate) under Aubrey with enough years of service to take the examination for lieutenant.
  • Mr Maitland: Midshipman (master's mate) under Aubrey with enough years of service to take the examination for lieutenant.
  • Mr Gill: Master of the Surprise, good at laying a course, but a "melancholy, withdrawn, puritanical" man.
  • Faster Doudle: Foremast hand.
  • Davis: Foremast hand, very strong but often awkward; he follows Aubrey from ship to ship, on account of Aubrey once saving his life from drowning.
  • Mrs Laura Fielding: Young, pretty Neopolitan woman, wife of Charles, a prisoner of war to the French; she was pressed to spy for the French in hopes of his release.
  • Charles Fielding: Prisoner-of-war in the worst French prison Bitche, husband of Laura, and lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He escapes Bitche as well, rescued by HMS Nymphe.
  • Ponto: Mrs Fielding's huge Illyrian mastiff in Malta, so friendly to Aubrey for pulling him out of a well, that Malta gossips invent another story to account for the friendliness. Dies by poison from a French spy.
  • Andrew Wray: Acting Second Secretary of the Admiralty, husband of Fanny Harte, come to Malta to investigate dockyard corruption. He talks with French spy Lesueur and receives money from him. He is in deep debt for losing at cards to Maturin. Maturin observes that, although married to Fanny Harte, Wray is likely a pederast.
  • André Lesueur: A French intelligence agent posing as a wealthy merchant on Malta.
  • Giuseppe: One of Lesueur's agents.
  • Admiral Sir Francis Ives KB: Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, replacing the late Admiral Thornton in naval and diplomatic matters.
  • Admiral Harte: Second-in-Command of the Mediterranean Fleet, father-in-law to Andrew Wray, and recently a wealthy man by an inheritance. He is sent home to England aboard Pollux in company with Surprise. When Pollux explodes in the ambush, he dies at age 67 with all hands.
  • Sir Hildebrand: British Governor of Malta.
  • Boulay: Works in Sir Hildebrand's staff, a double agent who talks with Lesueur in Mrs Fielding's residence, as Maturin listens in silence. He is from the Channel Islands.
  • Admiral Hartley: Aubrey's former Admiral in the West Indies, now retired in Malta.
  • Ebenezer Graham: Professor, expert on Turkish affairs and language, a diplomat and spy in the British service.
  • Mr Figgins Pocock: Assistant to the new Admiral on Turkish affairs, pushing Graham back to England.
  • Henry Cotton: once a midshipman with Jack, and youngsters together on the Resolution, now captain of the Nymphe
  • Heneage Dundas: Captain based in Malta and a close friend to Aubrey. He and Maturin are the first to use the diving bell, off Dundas's ship Edinburgh.
  • Mr Hairabedian: Genial Turkish dragoman appointed by the Admiral to accompany Aubrey on the Red Sea mission. He likes to swim from the ship; when he does so in the Red Sea, a shark finds him, shocking even the seamen.
  • Mr Nathaniel Martin: Parson from HMS Berwick on leave in Malta, who stays too long on the troop ship with Maturin, thus joins Surprise crew as an assistant to Maturin for the Red Sea mission. He is a natural philosopher. The captain of Berwick is nervous having a parson on his ship when he wants the company of a woman in his bed, which Aubrey knows, so he takes Martin along.
  • Major Pollock: Soldier aboard Surprise at her second visit to Kutali, now an English base, with the Adriatic convoy. He reveals to Aubrey that HMS Blackwater is sailing under another captain. (The ship had long been promised to Aubrey.)
  • William Babbington: Captain of the Dryad, sailing in company with Surprise back from the Adriatic Sea.
  • Dawson: Captain of HMS Pollux, who dies along with all aboard his ship along the Barbary Coast.
  • Ships

  • British
  • HMS Surprise
  • HMS Worcester (condemned to be a sheer hulk)
  • HMS Dromedary
  • HMS Edinburgh
  • HMS Pollux
  • HMS Nymphe
  • HMS Dryad
  • Store-ship Tortoise
  • HEI sloop Niobe
  • French
  • Mars 80 gun ship of the line
  • two unnamed frigates, 38 and 28 gun
  • Series chronology

    This novel references actual events with accurate historical detail, like all in this series. In respect to the internal chronology of the series, it is the third of eleven novels (beginning with The Surgeon's Mate) 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 The Far Side of the World, the tenth novel in this series). The events of The Yellow Admiral again match up with the historical years of the Napoleonic wars in sequence, as the first six novels did.


    The title is drawn from a line in Shakespeare's play, Henry VI: 'Smoothe runnes the Water, where the Brooke is deepe. And in his simple shew he harbours Treason.' (It is also written: Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep / And in his simple show he harbours treason.) 2 Henry VI, a speech by Suffolk.


    Publishers Weekly, reviewing an inadequate audio book narrator, commends the series in the highest terms, and is sharply critical of the narrator's inability to properly convey the main characters.

    This novel, the ninth installment of 20 in what is certainly the greatest series about the British Navy ever written--indeed, one of the most successful of its magnitude ever written in any genre--is not well served by its reader. Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre actor Pigott-Smith has an appropriately English accent, but his characters' voices lack consistency and sensitivity to the subtleties of O'Brian's pen. In this recording, the swashbuckling Captain Aubrey and the ironic, stealthy Stephen Maturin, his ship's surgeon, do not step onto the stage of the Napoleonic wars as the nuanced heroes O'Brian's readers have come to know over three decades. Pigott-Smith's Maturin lacks compassion; his Aubrey lacks intelligence. The narrative turns from nefarious intrigues in Malta to an amazing mission in the Red Sea and back again, but the drama is conveyed with neither satisfying variation of tempo nor ringing cadence. While O'Brian's devotees will find all the naval and historical details they usually delight in, they will despair at hearing how this production tramples upon his genius in portraying shockingly real characters in an utterly foreign, far-off time. Based on the Norton hardcover. (Nov. 2000) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

    Patrick Reardon, writing in the Chicago Tribune when the paperback was issued in the US, mentions the incident of Mr. Hairabedian's abrupt demise. In assessing that shocking scene and the crew's reaction to it, Reardon says that "Not much happens in O`Brian`s books, not much, that is, in the sense of battles and great drama. But his novels are filled with real people doing real things, brilliantly imagined and conveyed in crisp, clear, strong writing."

    Narrative style

    Most of the novels in the series tell the story exclusively from the point of view of Maturin or Aubrey, either through descriptions through their eyes, direct conversations, their internal thoughts, or their letters and diary entries. In essence, the reader usually knows only what one or both of the two main characters know.

    In Treason’s Harbour, however, O'Brian tells some of the story through conversations between the French agent Lesueur and Andrew Wray or other confederates in Malta, conversations which the protagonists neither hear nor overhear. Thus from the opening pages of the novel, the reader is aware that Wray, the acting second secretary of the British Admiralty, is secretly accepting money and taking orders from France. When Aubrey's mission to the Red Sea is a total failure, and again when Aubrey, Maturin, and Admiral Harte are sent on a suicide mission to the Barbary Coast, Aubrey begins to quietly doubt his luck, but the reader knows the true cause.

    As the plot unfolds, Maturin gradually realizes that there must be a traitor in the upper echelons of the British Admiralty. But again unlike the reader, he does not know the traitor's identity as the novel comes to a close. In fact, one of his last actions in the book is to write a letter to Wray detailing his suspicions and describing the French spy network in Malta.

    Publication history

  • 1983 UK Collins hardback first edition ISBN 0-00-222169-1
  • 1984, April UK Fontana paperback ISBN 978-0-00-616815-7
  • 1992 USA W.W. Norton & Company paperback ISBN 978-0-393-30863-1
  • 1997, March UK, HarperCollins paperback ISBN 978-0-00-649923-7
  • 2003, July USA Chivers Windsor Paragon & Co large print paperback ISBN 978-0-7540-9148-6
  • 2007 UK HarperCollins paperback ISBN 978-0-00-725591-7
  • 2011, December USA W.W. Norton & Company e-book ISBN 978-0-393-06381-3
  • The books in this series by Patrick O'Brian were re-issued in the US by W. W. Norton & Co. in 1992, after a re-discovery of the author and this series by Norton, finding a new audience for the entire series. Norton issued Treason's Harbour nine years after its initial publication, as a paperback in 1992. Ironically, it was a US publisher, J. B. Lippincott & Co., who asked O'Brian to write the first book in the series, Master and Commander published in 1969. Collins picked it up in the UK, and continued to publish each novel as O'Brian completed another story. Beginning with The Nutmeg of Consolation in 1991, the novels were released at about the same time in the USA (by W. W. Norton) and the UK (by HarperCollins, the name of Collins after a merger).

    Novels prior to 1992 were published rapidly in the US for that new market. Following novels were released at the same time by the UK and US publishers. Collins asked Geoff Hunt in 1988 to do the cover art for the twelve books published by then, with The Letter of Marque being the first book to have Hunt's work on the first edition. He continued to paint the covers for future books; the covers were used on both USA and UK editions. Reissues of earlier novels used the Geoff Hunt covers.


    Treason's Harbour Wikipedia