Monday, November 9, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 4 - Racial Dynamics of the 17th Century

Any dramatic tension last chapter might have generated by promising to maroon our hero is immediately nullified by the very title of this chapter, "Bristol Finds a Ship."  Not that any of us should have been overly-concerned that the protagonist would bite it in Chapter Four, but still.

There's environmental symbolism with a "dying sun" in the background as the Terror sails to the passage separating the Nevis and St. Kitts islands from the Virgin Islands, and I guess some other symbolism as Bristol puts on a black "sea cape" (it's a cape, but you wear it on the sea) for what could be his final voyage.  Ricardo's corpse is dumped overboard so casually that you might wonder why it's worth marooning a skilled navigator over his murder.  The still-nameless quartermaster chats with Bristol a bit, and mentions that they may as well stick to the course he already plotted.  Bristol urges him to tell Bryce the truth when they meet him, again making me wonder whether they could at least keep Bristol prisoner for a day and let the boss decide what his punishment should be for defending himself from a mutineer.

But whatever, let's maroon the hero for a chapter.  A longboat is launched, and Bristol is actually the one giving the oarsmen the order to row him out to an island.  The boat hits the sand, Bristol steps off with "the rifle, the bottle of water and the bag of shot" ...wait, why a rifle and not a pistol?  A bit trickier to mercy kill yourself with a longarm than a handgun.  Anyway, he doesn't even look back as the boat departs, 'cause he's a tough guy like that.

Bristol spends the remainder of the daylight walking a circuit of his new home and reflecting on his situation.

He knew what would happen to him.  Although ships passed this point regularly, he would never dare signal them.  They would understand only too well that he was a marooned pirate.  And if a ship did take him off, he would be promptly hanged from a yardarm.

When his water gave out, that would be the end.

Hey, don't give up, maybe you could fashion a desalinization plant out of coconuts or something.  But yeah, Bristol's screwed.  His only hope would be if another pirate ship came by and picked him up, except ever since the British cracked down on Port Royal and other outlaw havens, most pirates these days have moved on to the Pacific.  And of course there's the fact that Bristol has broken two of the pirate's most important precepts, and "the law of the pirate was inflexible."  Because when you think of a bunch of rogue sailors stealing property and murdering anyone who resists, you know they're a law-abiding people.

As the sun sets behind Nevis, Bristol's thoughts turn to poor "Jim," who surely is in for a life of suckage even if Sir Charles buys whatever story she spins about her absence these past few months.  But no sooner does he think this than Bristol hears another boat land on his island.  He readies his gun and demands that the newcomer stay back, but it turns out to be none other than Lady Jane!  Yes, instead of rowing to Nevis, she decided to shadow the Terror and come to rescue Bristol under cover of darkness.

And she says "I hope you're not angry."  I don't know why.  It just seems to be something a lot of female characters in these type of stories say when they come to the rescue of a male hero.  Maybe they're feeling bad for threatening their masculinity or implying that the guy can't rescue himself.  Anyway, no, Bristol isn't mad, but he's not exactly overjoyed either - they now have Lady Jane's "jolly boat" and can go anywhere in the Caribbean, but Nevis is not an option, both because of who runs it and the fact that their ship can't sail into the wind.  Port Royal is similarly closed, and none of the Dutch holdings in the area would be welcoming either.  So they decide to...

Well, they decide nothing, instead Bristol spreads out some canvas from Lady Jane's boat to serve as a blanket to sleep on, and chivalrously takes watch.  He argues against a fire, since it would just alert any ships of the law that they're marooned pirates - between the jolly boat and lack of wreckage, they couldn't pass themselves off as shipwreck survivors.  So he spends the night "lost in thought" as Lady Jane sleeps, though we're not told what Bristol was thinking about.  He doesn't have a plan or anything ready the next morning, he just eats the smoked beef she cooks up.  Maybe he spent all night regretting never getting a parrot after turning pirate.

So our hero and his probable love interest (even if no hanky-panky has transpired yet) are stuck.  They have a boat, yes, but no good options on where to go in it.  So it's up to the author to bail them out of this mess.

No sooner does Bristol finish his breakfast than he spots a sail, kicks out the fire, and takes Lady Jane to the sparse shelter of the island's trees.  Bracing himself with his "sea boots" know, I thought that, since this wasn't a sci-fi story, we'd avoid stuff like this.  No "space boots" or "blast rods" or anything like that.  But no, we get "sea cape"s and "sea boots" instead.

Anyway, the ship is a scruffy Dutch bark that Bristol surmises to be a slave ship, or a "blackbirder."  It's pursued by a British man-o'-war out to protect Great Britain's monopoly on human trafficking in the Caribbean, which leads to two pages describing how the man-o'-war closes to wreck the Dutchman's masts and rigging with a broadside, leading the spiteful slave trader to beach his ship on a nearby shoal.  The slave-trading crew escapes to their longships and rows off to the west, and the man-o'-war loiters for another half hour before deciding its not worth trying to salvage the bark and leaving.

Well.  Wasn't that convenient?

So Bristol and Lady Jane take the jolly boat over to the misery ship, figuring that if nothing else they could scavenge supplies from it.  They board it and find it even less reputable than the British navy vessel Bristol used to work on.

Bristol wrinkled his nose.  "Whew!  Slavers aren't exactly perfume chests, are they?"

Lady Jane swallowed hard, a resolute look in her eyes.  "But what bout the slaves?  They're still 'tween decks."

Let it be recorded that Lady Jane was the first to think of the slave ship's human cargo, but also that neither she nor Bristol gave the slaves any thought until they were actually within smelling distance of them.

Bristol prepares himself for the "gagging sights" that await him, and also gives Lady Jane his pistols and sets up one of the deck guns to cover the hatch, in case things go wrong with his rescue attempt.  Then he goes belowdecks, encountering a "more than sickening" stench and "a low mutter, like that of animals surprised in a den."  And we're off to a great start, aren't we?

Three hundred slaves are crammed together in the darkness, manacled and chained to the deck, though only half of them still live.  Bristol asks if anyone speaks English, and - conveniently - someone does, and is able to pass on Bristol's warning that he's here to rescue them, but will shoot if anyone rushes at him.  This person also immediately calls Bristol "master."  Sigh.

So the slaves, probably Nubians by their height and build, are freed and stagger up to get some fresh air.  The "blacks" or "slaves" - the narration is never so kind as to call them 'men' - help themselves to some scummy water and hardtack from the ship's stores, and the fellow who speaks English approaches Bristol.  He introduces himself as... well, it's another page before he's actually asked what his name is, Lady Jane and Bristol are more curious about how he speaks their language.

Anyway, the man's name is Amara, he's got a stylish saber scar down the side of his face, and he led the rest of these men in service of the King of Sennar (modern day Sudan) before a dispute over pay led to them being sold to the Turks as galley slaves off Tunisia.  And then they were captured by the Spaniards, and then sold to the Dutch.  Eeesh.

Bristol thrust his thumbs into his scarlet sash.  He placed his feet wide apart and studied the Nubian's face.  "Look you, Amara.  If I release you to one of these islands, you will be taken and sold again, to labor and die under the blazing sun."

Amara bowed his head, eyes to the planking.  "You freed us, Captain sir, it... it is not fitting that you free us only to see us die."

Really, Hubbard?

Well, that's how it happens.  The slaves aren't so much freed as they come under new management.  Amara recognizes his place in the order of things and is ready to serve this great white protagonist.  I mean, it just wouldn't do for a bunch of slaves to be freed by some hero, thank him for his kind deeds, and just go off to do their own thing, would it?

Amara does point out that "Captain sir" doesn't... oh for fu... once again, people are willing to follow a Hubbard Protagonist before they even learn his name.  'cause Bristol never takes a moment to introduce himself, he just gives orders.  Though I guess it really isn't 'once again' since this is like his first published book...

Anyway, Amara points out that his "captain sir" doesn't actually possess a ship, since the Dutchman is slowly sinking.  But Bristol confidently states that he'll have himself a boat soon enough, and orders his new crew to strip the bark of anything useful and get the longboat fully manned.  "God knows, your men should certainly know how to row."

"Your men," corrected Amara, beginning to smile.


Amara bowed and turned to the men in the waist.  He began to bark orders.  Dull, listless eyes turned up to him.  Life began to flicker there, life and hope and the will to do....

Yeah, it's not being released from their chains and brought to the fresh air and given food and water that revitalizes these people.  It's the fact that a white guy is giving them orders.

But hey, should we really have expected otherwise?  We've seen Hubbard's casual racism in his last works, so there's no reason to expect that his first stuff is going to be any better.

Back to Chapter 3

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