James Onedin is an ambitious, headstrong sea captain
working for the Callon Line. Upon returning to Liverpool in
1860, he is denied a bonus by his employer, Thomas Callon,
because a portion of the cargo has been lost. Upon seeing a
notice offering the old schooner Charlotte Rhodes for sale,
James decides to set up his own shipping company.
Unfortunately, his cautious brother Robert, who has
inherited their father's chandler's shop while he was away,
refuses to put up any capital.
James calls on Captain Webster to inquire about the
Webster rejects James' low offer (his life savings), but his
plain spinster daughter, Ann, who deftly manages her
cantankerous and drunken father, is concerned about her
future. She makes James a counteroffer: the ship as dowry.
Anne Webster is significantly older than James, at a time
when single women had barely any rights. He offers her an
interest in the company, but she insists on the protection
that only marriage can bring. He is surprised, but, after
some thought, accepts.
He persuades Robert to enter into a partnership (and a equal
share of the profits of the first voyage) by giving him all
his money. When Ann objects, James explains in private that
he is not doing his brother any favor. The money will not
last long, and while he is at sea, Robert will have to fend
off the creditors and families of his crew.
James Onedin sails to Portugal to see a wine merchant and
longtime Callon client, Senhor Braganza. Mr. Callon guesses what
he is up to and reaches Braganza first, offering to lower
his shipping rate to secure a new contract. However, James
Onedin makes a daring proposal, to deliver Braganza's wine for free
provided he is given a monopoly on returning the wine
barrels, which are worth more than the wine itself. Braganza