RogerBW's Blog

Captains Courageous, Rudyard Kipling 02 March 2015

1897: the spoiled son of a millionaire, washed overboard from a steamer, is rescued and put to work by the crew of a Grand Banks cod-boat.

The moral can be summed up in a sentence: "a spoiled boy can be cured by hard involuntary work and corporal punishment". But that's both an oversimplification (Harvey Cheyne's salvation comes more from wanting to be useful to the group of which he's been forced to become a member) and only the smallest part of what the book is about; it's an excuse for Kipling to do what he did best, talk with someone who had done something interesting and then write about it. In this case it's clear that the someone was Kipling's doctor while he was living in Vermont, James Conland, who'd worked on the Grand Banks boats as a young man; not only did Kipling pump him dry, they spent some days visiting Conland's old haunts in Boston and Gloucester.

So the bulk of the book is simply a series of incidents of life aboard a working schooner: the work, the meals, the hazards. In a narrative sense, Harvey has to be an outsider, because that way there's an excuse for things to be explained to him: he is quite literally learning the ropes. There's also keen observation of the sort of people who do such work, most of them born to seafaring families but some outsiders grudgingly accepted once they can learn to pull their weight.

(In revisions from manuscript to initial serial publication and then to book form, Kipling toned down much of the argument and disharmony both aboard the schooner and in her crew's relations with other boats, and made the initial Harvey less of an effete weakling and more of a braggart.)

There are only two female characters, and neither has a big part nor comes over particularly well. The captain's wife is there mostly to wait for her menfolk to come back and regret the ones who don't; Harvey's mother is a weak-minded hypochondriacal ninny who is portrayed as largely to blame for her son's insufferability, and only occasionally shows any sign of any competence.

By 1897, it was clear that this age of working sail was passing, and Kipling set out to catch it before it was no longer remembered. And the final two chapters, while very much a change of pace from the main story, make that clear: one is principally an account of a trans-continental trip by rail in less than four days, worked out in detail to be just barely plausible (and apparently duplicated by an actual railway magnate who'd enjoyed the book). And while the final chapter has more about the lives of the fishermen when ashore, there's also a long paragraph hinting at the many exploits of the millionare through the days after the Civil War (not explicitly mentioned) and in the Wild West; while he's clearly had a good time doing it, he accepts that the times have changed, and his son is going to have to get college-learning if he's going to do a competent job of taking over the business the father built the rough way.

Each frame of the world shown here is a static picture, but taken together it's clear that the days of the great sailing-ships are numbered: all steam has to do is get a little faster, a little cheaper, and they'll be gone. And so will the more than a hundred deaths at sea in a year, from what can't be a huge town.

[Harvey] began to comprehend and enjoy the dry chorus of wave-tops turning over with a sound of incessant tearing; the hurry of the winds working across open spaces and herding the purple-blue cloud-shadows; the splendid upheaval of the red sunrise; the folding and packing away of the morning mists, wall after wall withdrawn across the white floors; the salty glare and blaze of noon; the kiss of rain falling over thousands of dead, flat square miles; the chilly blackening of everything at the day's end; and the million wrinkles of the sea under the moonlight, when the jib-boom solemnly poked at the low stars, and Harvey went down to get a doughnut from the cook.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:41pm on 02 March 2015

    The Cutty Sark was moved onto the wool run from Australia to the UK because there it could compete with steam. Wool does not perish and is not time critical (unlike the Tea runs she was designed for), and Australia still posed problems with coal capacity for ships. It was on these wool runs that Cutty Sark set her speed records, under an uncompromising captain who wouldn't slow down even in the worst weather.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 03:52pm on 02 March 2015

    And the running costs of sail are lower than those of steam - if you don't have to pay for lots of repairs and death benefits because you've ploughed on into horrible weather…

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