Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 6 - Stingy Danish Merchants

Well, I suppose last chapter had enough intense piracy action to last us a good while.  So let's hit the fast-forward button and recap Captain Bristol's exciting adventures on the Caribbean.

The Spanish ship, rechristened the Falcon, had earned herself a reputation.  She was a fleet ghost across the trade lanes, to be feared and shunned - not because of excessive brutality, but because of the terrible calmness with which her attacks were planned and carried to completion.

Yeeaaah.  At least Hubbard's not trying to convince us that Bristol is some sort of tactical genius.  And I guess a bunch of chill pirates who casually capture your boat would stand out from the excitement of normal outlaw attacks.

Anyway, now it's July, and if we knew what time of year it was in Chapter 1 this would mean something.  The Falcon is towing a French ship that dropped its flag after the first broadside, and I'd say that this could be an early reference to the stereotype of "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," except this story was published a few years before World War II, so there's probably no malice behind the French ship's quick surrender.

Bristol's still sore about the capture, though, since all the French vessel had in its cargo hold was "cocoa, cotton and indigo."  You know, some trade goods and luxuries that inspired the great seafaring empires to establish their off-shore colonies in the first place.  What possible value could those have?

They're headed towards the port city of Charlotte Amalie, a Danish holding... wait, Denmark was in the Caribbean?  Dammit, I hate it when I have to admit that I learned something from a Hubbard story.  A bunch of "bumboats" sail up to the approaching unscrupulous sailors, and the fruit-selling "blacks" on them are surprised that "the rail should be lined by men of their own race," especially dark-skinned fellows whose stylish bandannas and shiny belt buckles mark them as freemen.  Meanwhile on deck, it's up to "Jim" to explain that Bristol should sell their captured cargo to the Danes, "and though they won't give you a twentieth the value, it's better than nothing."  Miserable Danish misers.

Oh, and Lady Jane wants to go to shore for a bit, partly to stretch her legs after an indeterminate time at sea, and partly because... well, she wants to go shopping.  Lady pirates are still ladies, am I right, fellas?  Bristol only agrees if she takes along some "husky lads" and makes sure her powder is dry, and off she goes, eyes a-sparkling and bags clinking with gold she's been hoarding "for just a spree."

Or in other words, we're in a standard adventure story and the only female character has just wandered off-screen, out from under the protagonist's supervision.  

Two local men including a cargo broker named Jersen come up to haggle over Bristol's haul, and the process has two awkward moments - when Bristol nonchalantly gestures at all the cutlasses his men are carrying when discussing his confidence that he'll get a fair deal, and when Jersen makes the mistake of suggesting that Bristol have his slaves transfer the cargo.

Bristol looked surprised.  "My slaves?"

"Why... why, yes," the Dane replied, certain that he had somehow made an error, but not quite certain just what error it had been.  "These men about your deck."

"You mean my crew," replied Bristol, an undercurrent of anger in his voice.  "These men are free men, not slaves.  I don't happen to be of your stamp, gentlemen.  When I take lives I use a rapier, not the whipping post and starvation, and yet I am a pirate, while you and your brothers are supposed to be civilized beings."

Yeah, yeah, and the Indians were "savages" when it was the United States that was conquering them, and the people of Blito-P3 consider the Voltarians "aliens" when it's they who have the bizarre and nonsensical society.

Bristol explains that his "men" - finally - are serving under him voluntarily, and once they get bored of piracy will be free to go back to Africa "with money enough to buy and sell their rulers."  Jersen gets to gape that Bristol considers them as his equals, Bristol gets to quip that he does so "more than a naval captain consider his men as equals," and Hubbard's not racist, see?  Right there in the story.  Just ignore how often the narration refers to someone as "the black" while leaving off "man" or "person," thus defining a character solely by their race, and only if that race happens to have a lot of melanin.

As evening nears, the cargo gets transferred off the captured French ship, and Bristol realizes that "Jim" is still missing.  Interestingly, when he asks his quartermaster, the man replies that he has not seen "him," and Amara only refers to the missing officer as "Mister Campbell."   So I guess Bristol's the only one who knows that Jim is a crossdresser after all?  Or maybe it's an open secret and everyone else is playing along.  The illustrations that came with my edition give Lady Jane a stylish bobbed haircut and friggin' lipstick, so I don't see how she expects to fool anyone.

Anyway, Bristol and Amara and some others head ashore as a search party, and march along the shadowy, lantern-lit streets, Bristol marching at the front of a squad of "powerful blacks" that cows anyone in their way.  They eventually find one of the Sennarians who had accompanied Lady Jane, sprawled dead in an alley with a bloody cutlass.  Bristol's immediate response is to declare that he'll bombard the town to rubble, and it's Amara who gets to point out that if "Mister Campbell" is being held hostage somewhere, that might not be a good idea.  So instead Bristol gets to make a dramatic entrance at the local tavern and demand that someone return his second officer to him before he levels the city.

An official steps forward and respectfully explains that there was an English ship docked that afternoon, and it left them a proclamation from Lord High Governor Sir Charles Stukely of Nevis, promising a bounty of two hundred pounds gold for the head of Captain Thomas Bristol, and an equal amount for the pirate's second officer if delivered alive.  Dramatic musical sting!

This news, oddly enough, makes Bristol relax.  "Terrible calmness," I guess.  He laughs "as sharp as the ring of a cutlass on steel," and asks if any of the tavern's patrons want to try to collect the bounty on him, but they all politely decline.  So Bristol and Amara and the rest return to the Falcon to set sail for Nevis and the climax.

I guess this story might be fair for its day.  Like its main character insisted that he was equal to the black men under his command, even if the author has a habit of using demeaning language when referring to them.  And the female character and implied love interest got to dress up and play pirate before she was captured by the villain.  Progressive for the 1930's, right?

Back to Chapter 5

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