Wednesday, May 20, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
You may feel the urge to don your sea cloak and keep a sharp eye on the horizon when you read The Captain from Connecticut, a novel by C.S. Forester (originally published in 1941) that salutes the young U.S. Navy during the waning days of the War of 1812.
Forester – best known, of course, for his Hornblower series – gives us, here, an exciting fictional account of the commerce raider, Delaware, and her bold Yankee captain, Josiah Peabody, a young man who was rescued from a miserable life as the son of an abusive, alcoholic farmer by an uncle, and provided with an opportunity to go to sea, where his talent for hard work and leadership propel him to a position of substantial authority as the captain of a ship in the tiny U.S. Navy. It is a dangerous and frustrating job, however, because one of the main challenges to U.S. war ships at the time was simply escaping from port through the strong blockade of British ships that ringed the American coastline. The novel opens, in fact, with a daring, and successful, dash from Long Island in the middle of a winter storm:
“[Peabody] stood with his hands behind him, facing into the bitter wind, and making no attempt whatever to shelter from it. Forward he could just hear the voice of the boatswain as he gave the word to the men at the capstan bars. Then he heard the clank-clank of the capstan; it was turning slowly – very slowly. It was hard work to drag the big frigate up to her anchor against that wind. There were men aloft, too; their movements disturbed the snow banked against the rigging, and it was drifting astern in big puffs visible through the snow. Another unexpected noise puzzled Peabody for a moment – it was the crackling of the frozen canvas as it was unrolled. The frozen ropes crackled, too, like a whole succession of pistol shots, as they ran through the sheaves. Little lumps of ice stripped from them came raining down about him, whirled aft by the wind” (Gives me the shivers just to read it!).
Josiah is ably assisted by his first lieutenant, George Hubbard, Midshipman Kidd and assorted old salts, and exasperated by his younger brother, Jonathan, whom he rescued, in his turn, from farm life, but who fails to take to sea life in the way that Josiah has. Adding to Josiah’s occasional fits of melancholy is the fact that U.S. ships are limited, for the most part, to capturing and destroying mercantile vessels, whereas he is champing at the bit to go hull to hull with British warships (he winds up getting several opportunities to do exactly that).
While raiding in the Caribbean, the Deliverance comes across a strange ship flying an unknown flag. Not sure whether it is a privateer, a British merchant ship or something else, Captain Peabody fires a shot across its bow. It heaves to, and Peabody boards her, only to discover, on closer inspection, that the ship’s flag is that of the Bourbons. He learns, to his amazement, that Napoleon has been defeated, and that the House of Bourbon has been restored. He also is informed, to his consternation, that peace has been declared between France and England, which increases the threat to the United States, as more English ships will be available to further tighten the blockade.
All of these thoughts are temporarily driven from his head, as the French captain introduces him to the Marquis de St. Amant de Boixe (the new French governor of the Lesser Antilles), the Marquis’ sister the Comtesse d’Ernée, and his daughter Anne, whose grace and beauty have rather the effect of a poleax on Peabody.
Eventually, Peabody winds up being chased by three British ships, under the command of Captain Davenant, but the impending battle is abruptly shut down by the French governor because the Americans and the British have encountered each other in now-neutral French waters, and under the unusual rules of warfare in existence at the time, the two hostile forces are not permitted to depart for the open sea simultaneously – whichever nationality leaves first, the other cannot not set sail for 24 hours. The balance of the novel is taken up with the Americans and British trying to outfox each other, and their French hosts. Peabody and Davenant maintain a barely civil demeanor to each other, and at the Governor’s party, harsh words are exchanged, and Peabody and Davenant are embroiled in a duel (which is comically foiled by Anne and the Countess).
How does it turn out? Read it and see! Captain from Connecticut is a first-rate novel of the Age of Fighting Sail, which is exactly what we would expect from the great C.S. Forester.