How a Mystery Pirate Captain Gave Us Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood & the Films of Errol Flynn

Swordplay & Swashbucklers

Errol Flynn in a publicity still for Captain Blood, 1935, Warner Bros. Author’s collection.

With the advent of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, not to mention our forthcoming thoroughly annotated anniversary edition, a look into the largely unknown, and until now unpublished, history behind the novel is timely: of real buccaneers and mystery pirates, of an incognito pirate captain whose identity we hope to reveal for the first time, and how without them there would be no famous novel Captain Blood nor any films of Errol Flynn, at least as we know them!

One of Sabatini’s major influences was the published journal of Monmouth rebel-convict Henry Pitman who, sentenced to indentured servitude on Barbados, escaped by sea, found himself marooned on Saltudos Island, and was eventually rescued by a crew of unnamed buccaneers. His story alone is worth the…

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The Duel on the Beach, Part III: In Film!

Swordplay & Swashbucklers

The Duel between Captain Blood (Errol Flynn) and Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone) in Captain Blood, 1935. Original publicity still. Author’s collection.

Each media–the written word, the illustration, the motion picture–has a unique ability to convey action. A novel can not only describe but explain swordplay in action; an illustration can bring a moment in time to life and make an entire action timeless; a motion picture can show action as it unfolds and as we might see it were it real.

Of all three, by turning the written description or static illustration into moving action, film may have left us with our most indelible memories and tropes of the duel on the beach. Or so I argue tenuously, for several written descriptions and illustrations come to mind that likewise bring forth indelible memories.

With fiction we must imagine the duel, even when when well-described (but almost always imperfectly nonetheless)…

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Pirate Pulp Fiction Paperback Cover Art!

Swordplay & Swashbucklers

For fun!

I’m not going to pretend to write a pretentious analysis of pop cover art and imagined social implications, nor any other nonsense. I’m neither an art historian nor inclined to see things that aren’t really there. Suffice it to say that these covers are intended to be eye-catching, often titillating, and always bordering on near-lurid, entirely to lure potential readers to buy the book. The accompanying cover copy, the blurb especially, is almost as over the top as the art. This isn’t a criticism, for similar art and copy is often found on the covers of far more notable works.

As for the text inside? Suffice it to say that it’s not comparable, in spite of the cover copy claims, to that of Rafael Sabatini or any other notable writer of romantic adventure. Pirate pulps are almost always extremely light on literary substance and historical accuracy, and quite…

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The Speke Papers Have Arrived!

“Zeeslag,” anonymous, after Reinier Nooms, 1650-1738. Rijksmuseum.

It is with great pleasure that Treasure Light Press announces the acquisition of the James Speke Collection of historical documents associated with Caribbean piracy during the 1680s. The collection includes the original unpublished set of twenty-odd volumes of journals used by Rafael Sabatini as the factual basis for many of the adventures of his sanguinary hero, Captain Peter Blood.

Author Benerson Little, co-publisher and annotator at Treasure Light Press, has been searching for the papers, long thought lost, for more than a quarter century. Their rediscovery was the result of a combination of diligent research, serendipity, and thankfully thwarted skullduggery, including attempted forgeries and book-breaking, all of which was an adventure in itself.

The collection, long held by James Speke of Comerton, UK, disappeared after the amateur scholar’s death and passed, often unknowingly, through several hands, eventually ending up in an attic in a house in uptown New Orleans just off St. Charles Avenue, not far from the Columns Hotel.

For the moment we are limiting access to the papers and journals to ourselves, aided by an experienced conservator (thanks, Shell!) of antiquarian books and papers. At some point, however, given their obvious historical value, we may lend or donate the papers to a research institution for access by scholars, Sabatini fans, and the public at large, with emphasis on serious amateur historians who lack university credentials or access. Having been snubbed at times by some academic institutions ourselves, we’re sympathetic to the plight of amateur scholars producing quality research.

More importantly, per James Comerton’s wishes more than a century ago, we intend to publish the collection of journals, the most important of them in hardcover, the remainder digitally.

We’ll keep you advised on our progress with the collection. We look forward not only to further discoveries in the history of buccaneering, but also to learning how they shaped Sabatini’s famous novel, Captain Blood: His Odyssey.

Copyright Treasure Light Press LLC 2021. First posted April 1, 2021.

Captain Blood: His Odyssey and Its Mass Market Paperback Covers

A brief chronology of mass market paperback covers from various publishers of Captain Blood: His Odyssey. The cover art ranges from mere pro forma to quite elaborate. Book cover art, including dust jackets, has one principal purpose beyond identifying the book and author: to entice readers into buying the book. Historical accuracy is secondary at best, and often entirely ignored–and sometimes even the actual text of the book itself is ignored, with tropes substituted instead. In any case, enjoy. 🙂

Pocket Books edition, UK, 1940, with color restored from a faded copy. The artwork is intended to represent the duel on the beach between Peter Blood and Levasseur.
Undated US Armed Forces edition printed during WWII by arrangement with Houghton Mifflin. The cover of the book depicted was never actually published except on the cover of this edition. A pirate with cutlass, a flag of skull and bones–this is all that’s necessary to lure the reader in.
Pocket Books edition, UK, fifth printing, 1943. The scene is not tied any specific one from the book, and was likely inspired by the dustjacket of Captain Blood Returns, see below. The sword hilt is entirely fanciful.
Cover art by Dean Cornwell for the dustjacket of Captain Blood Returns (1930). The same illustration in blue and white was used in “The Expiation of Madame Coulevain,” a 1930 magazine short story later published as part of Captain Blood Returns.
US Pyramid edition, 1961. Again, the cover is tied to no specific scene in the book, and includes anachronistic Hollywood Spaniards in morions, and the obligatory damsel in distress at the hero’s feet. The cover is intended to entice, not to accurately illustrate the novel.
UK Arrow edition, undated. 1950s or early 1960s? Sharp-eyed readers may note the black swan figurehead: the image was taken from a Hutchinson hardcover edition of Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan.
UK Pan edition, second printing 1963, original 1961. Again, the cover does not depict a scene from the book, but instead evokes its atmosphere. As in many Captain Blood illustrations, the protagonist has a mustache, unlike in the book (although he did have one in the original magazine series). The cutlass is both anachronistic and incorrect for Peter Blood. Unusually, the Spanish ship on the left is flying the correct flag.
US Pyramid edition, third printing, 1967. This is the first edition I ever read, and its cover remains one of my favorites.
Publicity still for The Sea Hawk, 1940. The cover above was inspired by this photograph, and probably by publicity stills from Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk showing Errol Flynn on the gunwale during a boarding action.
UK Pan edition, 5th printing, 1974. Although the woman resembles Arabella Bishop, she is in fact, given the scene, the daughter of Governor d’Ogeron. And again, the mustache and, incorrectly (although common in Hollywood and fiction illustrations), riding boots.
Without doubt the most elaborate and artistic of mass market Captain Blood covers. US Bantam edition, 1976, one of my favorites. See the image below.
Inside cover art, highly unusual in mass market paperbacks but occasionally found in trade paperbacks.

Most editions after the 1970s are larger trade paperbacks lacking original cover art. Publishers try to spend as little money as possible, often leaving cover art either simple or taken directly from artworks in the public domain. Howard Pyle’s pirate art is a common source for Captain Blood editions, and for the cover art of many books on the subject of piracy as well (including one of my own, The Buccaneer’s Realm).

Copyright Treasure Light Press LLC, 2021. First posted March 4, 2021. Text by Benerson Little.

Fortune’s Fool: Swordplay in the Time of Pestilence

With historical biographical update added… 🙂

Swordplay & Swashbucklers

Dust jacket from the first American edition. I much prefer the swordplay illustration below.

Set amidst the 1665 London plague, Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini spins the tale of an English officer, Colonel Randal Holles, too often abandoned by the goddess Fortune.

It’s not Sabatini’s best work, but it’s an enjoyable read and, in particular, it clearly show’s his worldview: one romantically cynical, in that he understood well the foolishness and fecklessness, even the depravity and cowardice, of much of humankind, while simultaneously asserting that good can, and often does, triumph in the end.

Sabatini understood that to succeed honorably, even nobly in such a world, one needed not only courage, but wit as well. And it never hurt to have a sharp sword too.

Early 17th century image of the plague in London.

In particular, the novel, whose details are almost certainly drawn from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of…

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Captain Blood: His Odyssey–A Near-Century of Dust Jackets

Swordplay & Swashbucklers

First edition cover, Houghton Mifflin, 1922. Illustration, also used in the frontispiece, by famous illustrator and Howard Pyle student N. C. Wyeth, father of famous painter Andrew Wyeth. Price for the book? $2.00! Highly collectible.

Associated with our announcement of the creation of Treasure Light Press and the forthcoming publication of its first title, Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, The 100th Anniversary Annotated Edition, here’s a look at Captain Blood dust jackets over the years!

In a future post I’ll cover trade and mass market paperback covers.

The dust jacket of the first hardcover edition above is iconic, if not entirely historically accurate, but then, fiction book cover illustrations almost never are. Artist and illustrator N. C. Wyeth–a student of Howard Pyle–does, however, well-conveys the color and swashbuckling adventure of the novel.

Notably, as in many of the dust jackets below, Captain Peter Blood is sporting a…

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“Excalibur and Taunton Castle Gate” by Ken Grainger, 2009. At Taunton Castle was Dr. Peter Blood tried and convicted of treason.

“Perhaps there ought to be a chapter about the coronation. The barons naturally kicked up a fuss, but, as the Wart was prepared to go on putting the sword into the stone and pulling it out again till Doomsday, and as there was nobody else who could do the thing at all, in the end they had to give in. A few of the Gaelic ones revolted, who were quelled later, but in the main the people of England and the partizans like Robin were glad to settle down. They were sick of the anarchy which had been their portion under Uther Pendragon: sick of overlords and feudal giants, of knights who did what they pleased, of racial discrimination, and of the rule of Might as Right.”

—T. H. White, The Once and Future King

The Duel on the Beach, Part I: In Fiction

Swordplay & Swashbucklers

N. C. Wyeth’s illustration for the short story “The Duel on the Beach” by Rafael Sabatini, in Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. The story was the basis for the 1932 novel The Black Swan. The painting was also used for the dust jacket, and in some editions the frontispiece, of the novel. The original is privately held. For more information, see the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Author’s collection.

It’s all too easy to imagine a duel on the beach between pirates or, as fiction and film often have it, between pirate captains. A sandy beach, palm trees, spectators often including both pirates and a woman in distress, a tropical sea and sky–a duel is mandatory in the genre if only because the setting demands one.

This blog post is part one of a likely five part series on the classical piratical duel on the beach, a…

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