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A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Dicken Hughes. He was tall, like my grandfather, but taller and thinner. And we knew he liked children. His wife Frances was nice, but she does not shine in my memory. Dicken, however, is a beacon. He knew about children. He knew that my brother and I loved to climb up him, the first step his bony knee, then his waist and then – hup – standing on his shoulders, seeing the world from even higher up than he did. 

My memory of Dicken was of a tall man, bearded perhaps, wearing tweeds perhaps and irresistible in his ability to connect to children. He had had five of his own. He knew that children are hardy, imaginative, fun to be with and are capable of being deadly.

A writing exercise about a visit to my home reminded me of the man, and then of his novel, published in 1929, of children on a pirate ship in the Caribbean. A High Wind in Jamaica is still an impressive novel after 92 years. 

A High Wind in Jamaica

The five Thornton children live with their parents in Jamaica in the 1860s. It is a time of chaos on the island, with the end of slavery and the demise of the plantations. The land is lush and old houses are being reclaimed by the vegetation, the abandoned machinery falling apart. There is an earthquake. A hurricane destroys their house and the parents decide that the children must return to England, along with two neighbouring children. They put them on the Clorinda for passage to England.

Not long after they have returned home to pack up what is left of their lives in Jamaica the parents receive information about their children. After a long and detailed account of being ambushed by a pirate ship the captain of the Clorinda gets around to explaining what happened to the children.

The children had taken refuge in the deck-house and had been up to now free from harm, except for a cuff or two and the Degrading Sights they must have witnessed, but no sooner was the specie some five thousand pounds in all mostly my private property and most of our cargo (chiefly rum sugar coffee and arrowroot) removed to the schooner than her captain, in sheer infamous wantonness, had them all brought out from their refuge your own little ones and the two Fernandez children who were also on board and murdered them every one. (44)

Captain Marpole’s account is very melodramatic, not very grammatical and concerned to reassure them that ‘there was no time for what you might fear to have occurred’. The reader is initially alarmed, but it is soon revealed that through a series of accidents the children had sailed away with the pirates, without the knowledge of Captain Marpole or the pirates.

When the children are discovered the pirates put in to a hidden port in Cuba to try to sell their booty and to find someone to look after the children. They fail in both endeavours and a fatal accident means that the pirates must leave again with the children.

The next few months the schooner is at sea and the children and crew learn to get along. The eldest Thornton girl, Emily, becomes the focus of the novel as she tries to understand herself and the captain. She is about 10 years old, inventive and imaginative. We come to know all the children and Captain Jonsen and his close friendship with Otto, the mate. 

The climax comes when the pirates board another ship. There is little of value on board except fresh supplies of rum and some circus animals. While the crew is distracted by the animals (a lion and a tiger) the captain of the captured ship who is bound up on board the pirate ship is stabbed to death. Now Captain Jonsen knows that he and his crew are in serious trouble. If caught they will be tried for murder. And still there is the problem of the children on board.

He manages to offload the children onto a steamer bound for England. The other passengers, and people in London, including their parents, assume that the children suffered badly at the hands of the pirates. Emily is a key witness in the crime, but she is hardly able to articulate what happened. The truth might have saved the captain and his crew. Emily goes back to learning to be a nice young lady.

An awfully big adventure?

On the surface this looks like an adventure novel. Its original title was An Innocent Voyage. It was made into a full colour movie in 1965 with Anthony Quinn (who else) as the captain and James Coburn as the mate. But this is not a swashbuckling adventure. 

The novel challenges sentimental notions about children. These children live in the moment, adapt quickly to life on board and to difficult events, and do not mourn the absence of their parents or their home in Jamaica. When shocking events occur, they are silent on the subject. While they are to an extent wild – we have seen them swimming naked before they leave for England – they can be quite prudish. Rachel had been shocked when the captain referred to her drawers. It is the worst they can say of Captain Jonsen.

Through the narrative runs the vexed problem of sexuality and children. There is a moment when Captain Jonsen approaches Emily and she bites his wrist to prevent whatever was to happen next. This moment interrupts, but does not destroy their relationship. And Margaret deliberately leaves the children to sleep with Otto. The children do not know what to make of her and when she returns to them, they do not speak of it.

In an adventurous world, all comes good in the end, the bad guys are dispensed with and the heroes find happiness. That is not the world of A High Wind in Jamaica, which is chaotic, as it had been on Jamaica when they left it. It is not clear that the pirates are baddies. Furthermore children do not understand England when they arrive there, not even the courtroom in which the pirates’ trial takes place. 

And the murder of the Dutch captain is brutal, desperate and entirely believable. The reactions of the two children who witnessed it are incomprehensible to the adults, both refuse to talk about it.

There is a great deal of humour in this book, and especially in the observations of the behaviour of the children, their interactions with the crew and life on board. The description by a recent publisher sums up the novel.

A tale of seduction and betrayal, of accommodation and manipulation, of weird humor and unforeseen violence, this classic of twentieth-century literature is above all an extraordinary reckoning with the secret reasons and otherworldly realities of childhood. (from NYRB blurb.)

First edition cover of A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes was first published in 1929. I read the  Penguin Modern Classics edition of 1971. 192pp

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