Thursday, December 22, 2011

Books: Captain Scarfield

In the late 1800s Howard Pyle published his Book of Pirates. The book is full of interesting anecdotes and life stories about pirates both familiar and arcane. It is also full of Pyle’s lyrical prose which is descriptive, insightful and generous to its characters’ thoughts. This is the kind of prose that would never be published today, and our literature is diminished greatly for that fact. To put it more succinctly, I cannot recommend this book enough.


Though Pyle purports that all of his tales are true, one in particular jumps off the page as a story – though plausible – well told but impossible. This is “Captain Scarfield” and it would, in all honesty, make a gripping pirate movie to this very day.

The story is set in 1820 in the American city of Philadelphia and the West Indies. It focuses on young naval Lieutenant James Mainwaring who Pyle tells us is a “broad-shouldered, red-cheeked, stalwart fellow of twenty-six or twenty-eight.” Mainwaring has had the good fortune to serve aboard USS Constitution during the War of 1812 and is still in the U.S. Navy as our story unfolds.

He is a close friend of a much older Quaker businessman, Eleazer Cooper who, as captain of his own merchant vessel the Eliza Cooper, has become quite literally filthy rich trading flour and other goods to blockaded ports during the war. The story is rounded out with the addition of Cooper’s niece Lucinda Fairbanks. The eighteen year old girl, who now lives with her childless aunt and uncle, is in love with Mainwaring. The two cannot hope to marry as our story opens, however, due to her status as a Quaker and her uncle’s disposition against war and those who engage in it.

Mainwaring is called away to command the brig of war Yankee, assigned to hunt pirates around the Bahamas coast. In particular, Mainwaring is charged with the capture of the most heinous pirate of all, the notorious Captain John Scarfield. While making his last call to the Cooper farm before he sets out to sea, Mainwaring informs his old friend of his assignment. Eleazer, quite uncharacteristically, begins to vehemently defend the pirates in general and Scarfield in particular.

Mainwaring is taken aback by the old Quaker’s defense of a man who had maimed, killed and encouraged rape aboard his ship. Out of respect for his host, however, he refrains from protesting too vehemently. After a brief and clandestine interlude with the charming Lucinda, the Lieutenant is off to take up his new command.

Pyle puts in the perfect vignette for any motion picture just here. Mainwaring is alone in a coach bound for New York and he contemplates the miniature of Lucinda that he wears next to his heart:

in the damp and leathery solitude he drew out the little oval picture from beneath his shirt frill and looked long and fixedly with a fond and foolish joy at the innocent face, the blue eyes, the red, smiling lips depicted upon the satinlike, ivory surface.

Yankee spends five months in the West Indies hunting freebooters with a deal of success. To Mainwaring’s frustration, however, the one pirate he wants to meet most is always two steps ahead of him. Scarfield even leaves taunting messages for the Lieutenant with battered and marooned merchant seamen.

Finally, Mainwaring heads for the most notorious pirate port of all, San Jose in the southern Bahamas. He boldly maneuvers Yankee into port and, to his utter shock, is met by the “… large, well rigged schooner” Eliza Cooper riding at anchor. He puts his gig in the water and finds Eleazer Cooper waiting for him at the gunnels of his ship. Cooper has a ready explanation – he is only selling foodstuffs to the locals – and the guns Mainwaring saw on deck were used only in self-defense. “I am a man of peace,” Cooper says. “But there are men of blood in these waters and an appearance of great strength is of use to protect the innocent from the wicked.”

Upon further questioning, Cooper reveals that he had only just finished a transaction with Captain Scarfield and Mainwaring drops his usually calm fa├žade. In response Cooper, in an unaccustomed menacing tone, promises that the Lieutenant shall have “… news more or less directly of [Scarfield] within the space of a day.”

Unsatisfied and uneasy, Mainwaring returns to his ship. He hangs lanterns as night falls and posts double watches before retiring to his cabin to tend to his log. Once he is settled in, he hears calls along side his ship and in short order Captain Cooper appears at his cabin door. But this is not the gentleman Quaker Mainwaring has known from his youth. As they converse, Cooper becomes more agitated, sweating and shaking as if he is either frightened or intensely angry.

Mainwaring finds the case is the latter when, enraged by the Lieutenant’s insistence on knowing Scarfield’s whereabouts, Cooper pulls out a pistol and cocks it in Mainwaring’s face. “I am John Scarfield,” Cooper shouts at last. “Look at me, then, if you want to see a pirate!”

Stunned at first, Mainwaring regains his senses when he realizes that Scarfield/Cooper means to take Yankee as prize. He manages to get the pirate to discharge his pistol harmlessly and then hand-to-hand combat commences on the floor of Mainwaring’s cabin. The Lieutenant is stabbed more than once but he at last reaches the spent pistol and pummels the pirate into unconsciousness.

The pirates have overrun his ship in the meantime but his crew, ready as they were, beat the villains off. Most of Scarfield’s crew swims off in the dark waters of San Jose’s harbor.

Scarfield/Cooper is not dead, and he lingers aboard Yankee for three or four days tended by his “left hand wife”, a local mulatto woman. The old Quaker’s delirious rantings lead Mainwaring to muse about the nature of good and evil and whether or not a man can turn one off and the other on virtually at will:

Could it be madness – madness in which the separate entities of good and bad each had, in its turn, a perfect and distinct existence?

In this, quite interestingly, Pyle seems to echo Robert Louis Stevenson’s thoughts in his 1886 novella revolving around Jekyll and Hyde.

The pirate cum merchant captain finally succumbs to his wounds but he has left one last surprise for Lieutenant Mainwaring. In each of the innumerable casks of flour stowed aboard Eliza Cooper – known as the Bloodhound while sailing under a black flag – the young officer finds a cache of silver coins. “In all,” Pyle writes, “upward of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars…” An enormous sum in prize money for the Lieutenant and his crew.

The end of the story amounts to a quick seven paragraphs. Lucinda Fairbanks marries James Mainwaring and, when her aunt dies, inherits the Cooper fortune. Though Mainwaring has “qualms and misdoubts” about the origins of this inheritance, he tosses them aside rather quickly. He establishes the “… great shipping house of Mainwaring & Bigot” and doubtless lives to a fruitful, happy and ripe-old age.

The story is rich and capably told, if fairly obvious in its “surprise” villain from almost the first page. It is well worth the read, though, and it stands out as perhaps the best of the bunch in Pirates. As noted, too, it would make a stunningly good movie if handled well. Might I suggest Russell Crowe as the stodgy old Cooper turned nefarious pirate in the person of John Scarfield…

Header: The Buccaneer by Howard Pyle

2 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! A good yarn, indeed. Unfortunately, as you and I have discussed many times, Hollywood doesn't seem much interested in making pirate movies unless they involve supernatural CGI B.S. a la PotC...

They can't even make a Master and Commander sequel... No CGI ghosts, skeletons and sea monsters means no movie.

Pauline said...

It sure seems like it, doesn't it? All the same - if done well - this could be a really gripping movie. Or novel. Hey...