Saturday, July 03, 2004


In the strangest of coincidences, I too saw Pirates of the Caribbean on DVD and The Pirates of Penzance at the Guthrie Theater last weekend. But my recent foray into pirate literature goes one deeper than Eloise's.

A few weeks ago I read Captain Blood, a 1922 pirate novel by Rafael Sabatini and the source for the Errol Flynn movie by the same name. Peter Blood is an Irishman by birth, a physician by training, and an experienced sailor who has just spent a decade fighting for the Dutch and French navies and wallowing in a Spanish prison when the book opens in 1685. His adventurous days seemingly behind him, he settles down at age 32 in the town of Bridgewater, England, intending to practice his profession and read Horace in peace. But quite against his will he is caught up in a failed rebellion against King James, wrongly convicted of treason, and saved from the gallows only by a last-minute command that he and eleven hundred fellow convicts be transported to the West Indies for ten years of plantation servitude. (All this in the first thirty pages.)

He's not a slave for long. Forced into piracy by his unfortunate circumstances, Blood is a reluctant but skillful buccaneer who parlays his extensive nautical experience and keen wits into remarkable success. His adversaries are pompous, incompetent, and venal but powerful; through cunning and guile Blood invariably bests them. Through it all he is, as one character remarks, "chivalrous to the point of idiocy." It's as if he's fighting with one hand behind his back. For instance, he is constantly letting his bested adversaries go free (conveniently allowing him to best them again, of course). The mainspring behind his hyper-chivalry is his unwavering devotion to Arabella Bishop, the maiden niece of the loathsome and corpulent governor of Barbados who serves as the book's chief villain. Not entirely convincing, but I suppose chivalry doesn't work without a Beatrice, and it's fun to have the chivalry around, as it makes the peaks and valleys of the roller-coaster ride all the more precipitous. And I trust I won't be spoiling anything by revealing that he gets the girl in the end.

Captain Blood is marvelously entertaining, and it's the perfect summer read. Plus, it gives you this little bit of trivia: The book is peppered with references to "boucan hunters," which I didn't bother to look up at first, assuming was a precursor term for buccaneer, with boucan being treasure or some other object of piratical affection. (Incidentally, references of this sort are also indicative of how Sabatini's style teeters on the brink of floridness, though it never quite topples--perfect for the genre, it would seem.)

Turns out that's not quite right. Near the end of the book comes this sentence: "After that followed days of activity in Tortuga, refitting the ships, boucanning meat, laying in stores." Boucanning meat? What the hell could that mean?

Off to Google! From the Nautical Terms page of the Brethren of the Coast site (and avast, beware of MIDI pirate music if you navigate this link, mateys):
Boucan - French word for a grill used to smoke meat. The word buccaneer came from boucan. Smoking meat for sale to passing ships was common from about 1620 to 1670. Men were illegally hunting and smoking the meat until the Spanish cracked down on them. Many took up pirating since their livelihood was over. These men at the time were known as Boucaniers.
So there you have it: the fearsome pirates of yore were really just a bunch of ticked-off hot-dog vendors.


Reading Captain Blood right now, thanks for the enlightenment on boucan hunters. "Ticked off hot-dog vendors" Hilarious.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:17 PM  

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