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

Rebel-Convict Dr. Peter Blood Arrives at Barbados!

“The Emblem of the Shipp Cadiz Marchent that was in the yeare 1682. The Cadiz Merchant was likely similar to the Jamaica Merchant. From Edward Barlow’s manuscript of his seafaring career. Barlow made two voyages to Jamaica in the this ship, from 1680 to 1682. National Maritime Museum.

“Towards the middle of December the Jamaica Merchant dropped anchor in Carlisle Bay, and put ashore the forty-two surviving rebels-convict.” Rafael Sabatini in Captain Blood: His Odyssey.

The Jamaica Merchant was in fact a real ship home-ported in London. Commanded by Captain Charles Gardner, the ship took sixty-eight rebels-convict aboard, probably at Weymouth, and set sail in late October or early November 1685 for Barbados. Only one rebel-convict died en route. More died on other voyages, and the desperate conditions the rebels-convict were subjected to on the voyages were much as Sabatini describes them in his famous story.

Studio publicity still for Captain Blood (Warner Bros., 1935) suggesting the conditions aboard the Jamaica Merchant. In reality the space would be much more cramped and the ceiling would be much lower (probably five to five and a half feet). One period account describes conditions as appalling as those shown above.

In the novel, it’s implied that the rebels-convict are brought ashore immediately for sale, or more correctly, for the sale of the contracts for their sentences of indentured servitude for rebellion against their rightful king.

The reality was a little different. The rebels-convict were kept aboard for at least several days before being brought ashore, and it was not until March 12, 1686 before the Jamaica Merchant convicts were sold, in part to permit them to recover their health. Many after their contracts were sold were worked hard and abused, but most still had far better lives than African slaves did.

A rather fanciful representation of what is perhaps meant to be–and should be–a sugar mill. In reality in Barbados the wheel would be for pressing sugar cane and would be driven by a windmill, “water mill,” or a team of oxen (or occasionally mules). Further, nearly all of those doing the work would not be white servants, as shown here, but African slaves. Publicity still from Captain Blood (Warner Bros., 1935).
French sugar mill for pressing sugar cane. From Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l’Amerique by Charles de Rochefort, 1665. John Carter Brown Library.

Although the term “slaves” is often used, and many rebels-convict were abused as if they were slaves, they were in fact indentured servants with a limit of ten years, not life, on their servitude, and they had many rights that slaves lacked. At bad as it might be, indentured servitude was by no means equivalent to the enormity of the enslavement of Africans or Native Americans in the Americas.

Copyright Treasure Light Press LLC. First posted December 20, 2020.

Olivia de Havilland’s Fencing Poses

Olivia de Havilland, star of Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and numerous other films, posing with stage rapiers and smallswords, fencing masks, and star-to-be Errol Flynn in a series of Warner Bros. publicity stills for Captain Blood (1935). Ms. de Havilland passed away two months ago at the age of 104.

First posted September 21, 2020. Last updated November 27, 2020.

Dr. Blood on Trial in Film!

A very quick look at the trial of Dr. Peter Blood as depicted in two film versions.

In support of the 1924 Captain Blood starring Walter Kerrigan, Vitagraph issued a series of advertisements in the form of newspaper headlines and articles, with text credited to author Rafael Sabatini:

Peter Blood is a bit too well-dressed in the scene, given his more than two months in a crowded jail. Sabatini’s original line is far more effective than the line in the film (see the image on the left above). From The Film Daily, Sunday August 31, 1924.
Detail from the advertisement above.

The sets in the 1935 Captain Blood were intended to be more figurative than entirely accurate, reflecting more the psychological impact of the trial. The sense of law-run-amok under the guise of patriarchal law and order is inescapable. The downside is that the set appears more theatrical than authentic.

The Bloody Assize courtroom in the Great Hall of Taunton Castle as depicted in the 1935 Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn. From the blog The Blonde at the Film.
The prisoners at the bar; Dr. Blood looks as if he has indeed been jailed for more than two months. From the blog The Blonde at the Film.

Copyright Treasure Light Press LLC, 2020. First published September 20, 2020.

Dr. Peter Blood Tried for Treason!

Taunton Castle as it appears today, much as it did in 1685. Wikimedia Commons: photograph by Simon Burchell.

The 19th of September: On this day in 1685, Old Style, fictional Dr. Peter Blood was tried and convicted of treason at Taunton Castle, in spite of his having done nothing more than obey the dictates of his conscience and his profession in treating a wounded rebel.

The trial was in fact quite real. From a draft end note to the forthcoming annotated Captain Blood: His Odyssey:

The 19th of September was the second day of the Taunton Assize in Somerset, the “chief seat of the rebellion.” Held in the Great Hall of Taunton Castle and presided over by Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys, more than five hundred prisoners–514 to 534–were tried over two days. Four pleaded not guilty the first day; three of these men were sentenced to death but the fourth was set free. Approximately three hundred fifty more pleaded guilty the first day and were convicted. On the second day, many of the remainder pleaded guilty and were convicted. One hundred forty-six of those convicted at Taunton were sentenced to hang. Two were reprieved, but the rest were distributed among thirty-six nearby towns where they were hanged, dismembered, tarred, and their dismembered quarters hung from gibbets and various other convenient objects as a warning. Fifteen others sentenced to death were by accident left off Warrant for Execution. Two hundred eighty-four were condemned to transportation, and roughly seventy-seven were variously freed on bail, remitted to jail, recommended for mercy, or otherwise avoided the noose or transportation.

Peter Blood was one of the fortunate–or should we say, less unfortunate–ones, for he was, like the very real Henry Pitman who helped inspire his story, sentenced to be transported to Barbados for ten years in servitude.

Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys attributed to William Wolfgang Claret, circa 1678 to 1680. Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright Treasure Light Press LLC. First published 19 September 2020.

Talk Like a Pirate Day

Flibustier (a French buccaneer) from a Chart of Le Cap on Saint-Domingue, 1686, by P. Cornuau. French National Library. Similar images can be found in my post here.

A brief post in honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day. 🙂

1. Active Duty Pirate Speech:

“[H]owever nothing daunted at the disadvantage of Fight, we made a resolution rather than drown in the Sea, or beg Quarter of the Spaniard, who we used to Conquer, to run the extreamest hazard of Fire and Sword, and after a sharp Contest, still birding with our Fusees as many as durst peep over Deck, we boarded one of them, and carried her; so with her we took the second; and the third had certainly run the same fate, had not she scoured away in time…”

–Buccaneer John Cox.

“Shee fierd a Harkquebus att us, att which wee presented them with a whole Volley; she fier severall small gunns at us, and wounded 3 men. one of them after-wards died. wee laid her aboard and tooke her. She had about 30 hands in her, fitted out for an Armadillo to come downe to the Isle of Plate, to see what a posture we lay in…”

–Buccaneer Edward Povey.

2. Retired Pirate Speech:

“In his drink Sir Henry [Morgan] reflects on the Government, swears, damns, and curses most extravagantly…”

–Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, America and West Indies.

The Buccaneer’s Realm has an entire chapter on “Tarpaulin Cant and Spanish Lingua.”

First posted September 19, 2020.

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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Risk, Escape, & Life

He rose at dawn and, fired with hope,
Shot o’er the seething harbor-bar,
And reach’d the ship and caught the rope,
And whistled to the morning star.

And while he whistled long and loud
He heard a fierce mermaiden cry,
‘O boy, tho’ thou art young and proud,
I see the place where thou wilt lie.

‘The sands and yeasty surges mix
In caves about the dreary bay,
And on they ribs the limpet sticks,
And in thy heart the scrawl shall play.’

‘Fool,’ he answer’d, ‘death is sure
To those that stay and those that roam,
But I will nevermore endure
To sit with empty hands at home.

‘My mother clings about my neck,
My sisters crying, “Stay for shame;”
My father raves of death and wreck,–
They are all to blame, they are all to blame.

‘God help me! save I take my part
Of danger on the roaring sea,
A devil rises in my heart,
Far worse than any death to me.’

–Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Sailor Boy”

“Oorlogsschepen tijdens een storm” by Ludolf Bakhuysen, ca. 1695. Rijksmuseum.