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Anna Trench illustration - Andrew Joynes on Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous

Harvey Learns the Ropes

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I have been aware of the themes of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Captains Courageous (1897) almost all my life. I was given the book by my father when I was a child, just after the family emigrated to Canada in what turned out to be a failed attempt to escape the privations of post-war Britain, where daily life was governed by the ration card. After the transatlantic liner docked in Quebec in 1951, we walked up to the city heights to have breakfast in a diner. As he began to eat, my father said, ‘These are the first pork sausages I have tasted since 1940 . . .’

Two days previously, when my brother and I were about to climb into bunks in the family cabin, we had been told by a passing steward that the ship would be crossing Newfoundland’s Grand Banks during the night. He spoke of the days when codfish were so numerous in these warm shallow seas that they slowed the onward passage of sailing ships through the ocean. But by the time we woke the next day and rushed to the rail to see this wonder of nature, the ship had left Newfoundland far behind and was about to enter the St Lawrence. On both rocky shores of the vast river mouth, pine trees crowded down to the water’s edge. Ocean spray breaking on forest: this was my childhood image of an immense New World, with my father’s delight in his arrival breakfast a hint of the abundant life to come.

When he gave Captains Courageous to me, my father described the opening episode of the book: a teenage boy falls overboard from a transatlantic liner at night and is hauled into a dory by a deckhand from a Grand Banks fishing schooner. Unsurprisingly, the story resonated with me immediately, for to the child’s mind the story of Captains Courageous is one of rescue. A boy falls into the sea, has adventures and forms friendships, and in due course is returned to his grieving parents.

To the adult mind, however, the story is one of redemption. Harvey Cheyne Jr is the spoilt

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I have been aware of the themes of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Captains Courageous (1897) almost all my life. I was given the book by my father when I was a child, just after the family emigrated to Canada in what turned out to be a failed attempt to escape the privations of post-war Britain, where daily life was governed by the ration card. After the transatlantic liner docked in Quebec in 1951, we walked up to the city heights to have breakfast in a diner. As he began to eat, my father said, ‘These are the first pork sausages I have tasted since 1940 . . .’

Two days previously, when my brother and I were about to climb into bunks in the family cabin, we had been told by a passing steward that the ship would be crossing Newfoundland’s Grand Banks during the night. He spoke of the days when codfish were so numerous in these warm shallow seas that they slowed the onward passage of sailing ships through the ocean. But by the time we woke the next day and rushed to the rail to see this wonder of nature, the ship had left Newfoundland far behind and was about to enter the St Lawrence. On both rocky shores of the vast river mouth, pine trees crowded down to the water’s edge. Ocean spray breaking on forest: this was my childhood image of an immense New World, with my father’s delight in his arrival breakfast a hint of the abundant life to come. When he gave Captains Courageous to me, my father described the opening episode of the book: a teenage boy falls overboard from a transatlantic liner at night and is hauled into a dory by a deckhand from a Grand Banks fishing schooner. Unsurprisingly, the story resonated with me immediately, for to the child’s mind the story of Captains Courageous is one of rescue. A boy falls into the sea, has adventures and forms friendships, and in due course is returned to his grieving parents. To the adult mind, however, the story is one of redemption. Harvey Cheyne Jr is the spoilt son of an American railway magnate, and he slips through the rails after swooning from the effects of a head-dizzying cigar which he has lit to show off to the card-players in the liner’s smoking-room. The agent of his redemption is Disko Troop, master and owner of the schooner We’re Here, who tells the arrogant boy that there can be no question of taking him back to port before they have caught enough fish to cover the costs of the schooner’s voyage (it is now May, and the schooner will not have its hold full of salt cod until at least September). Harvey insists his father will pay, but Disko cannot believe that anyone, even a railway magnate, could be rich enough to reimburse him for an abandoned voyage. When Harvey loses his temper and accuses the schooner’s crew of stealing his money, Disko responds with a clip round the ear that brings Harvey to his senses, and by the end of the first chapter Kipling has tidily set the scene for the boy’s remarkable character transformation during a busy summer at sea. As with all sea stories, the reader of Captains Courageous becomes a kind of stowaway, an eavesdropping presence in the little floating world of the We’re Here. Conversations are overheard, characters are recognized, tensions noted. Kipling soon establishes the personalities that are key to his central story of Harvey’s transformation from braggart into self-reliant stalwart. Principal among them are Disko, the stern but kindly captain, and his son Dan Troop, a boy of Harvey’s age with whom the newcomer forms a close friendship. The other crew members provide the chorus to this story. They literally teach Harvey the ropes, taking him on a daily circuit of the schooner’s deck and requiring him to lay his hand on each piece of rigging as its arcane name is called out, reinforcing the catechism with a rope’s end if he makes a mistake. The black cook, who speaks only Gaelic, is human flotsam from the tides of Empire in the North Atlantic: he comes from Nova Scotia, where the descendants of runaway slaves who waged a successful guerrilla war against the British army in Jamaica were resettled at the end of the eighteenth century. Gifted with second sight, he observes with silent and mystic approval Harvey’s transformation. Throughout his writings, Kipling finds grace in everyday trades. There is a remarkable passage in Captains Courageous where he describes in detail the process of dressing and salting the cod which have been brought back to the schooner by the dories (these are then stacked inside each other on the schooner’s deck like teacups on a kitchen dresser). It is almost as though he considers his own writer’s craft to be inferior to manual skill and dexterity, and he leaves the reader in no doubt that, in acquiring such journeyman skills, Harvey’s moral redemption has begun: ‘At the end of an hour, Harvey would have given the world to rest; for fresh, wet cod weigh more than you would think, and his back ached with the steady pitching. But he felt for the first time in his life that he was one of a working gang of men, took pride in the thought, and held on sullenly . . .’ When Kipling was writing this book over a century ago, there was still an abundance of fish on the Grand Banks. From medieval times onwards, salt cod had been a staple of the European diet: the bacalão that one finds in Mediterranean markets today takes its name from Baccalieu, a Newfoundland fishing-ground. But such abundance could only be maintained by traditional fishing methods such as those described in Captains Courageous, where wily skippers like Disko Troop would study the weather and the sky and the movement of birds and whales and bait-fish to indicate the whereabouts of the cod, and then send his crew out in dories to catch them with baited lines. In modern times these teeming waters were rendered barren by international fishing fleets, whose crews used sonar indicators to find the fish and then scooped them into wide-mouthed, close-meshed seine nets that scraped the very silt from the seabed. A quarter of a century ago the Grand Banks were closed to all fishing by the Canadian government (although today there are hopes that the cod are returning and that a limited amount of sustainable fishing might be permitted). With such a profound sense of environmental loss there has to be an elegiac quality to the reading of Captains Courageous today – as indeed there was to a radio programme I made about the Grand Banks some years ago, when I travelled to Newfoundland and to Gloucester, Massachusetts, the home port in Kipling’s day of hundreds of fishing schooners like the We’re Here. An old lady I met there said to me, ‘Can you imagine it? “No Fishing” signs on the Grand Banks! That’s like putting “No Farming” signs on the American prairies . . .’ Kipling wrote Captains Courageous in New England, where he spent half a decade in the early 1890s. He had gone there after marrying Carrie Balestier, a girl from Vermont. These were intensely productive years, during which he wrote The Jungle Book and its sequel, published a collection of short stories called The Day’s Work, and gathered some of his most popular poems into the verse collection Barrack-room Ballads. But it was the novel subtitled ‘A Story of the Grand Banks’ that expressed his sense of the immense potential of the great continent where he had settled. Nowhere is Kipling’s sense of North America’s industrial and entrepreneurial potential more dramatically expressed than in the dénouement of Captains Courageous. The We’re Here is the first schooner in the Grand Banks fleet to fill her hold with cod, and Disko Troop speedily sails her back to Gloucester to name a ‘take it or leave it’ price to the town’s fish merchants, who are avid for the new season’s catch. Harvey sends a telegram to his parents, who have been in California all summer, grieving for the son they believed lost in the spring, and the news of his survival strikes like a thunderbolt. In a remarkable modernist sequence, which evokes the hissing of steam trains and the pounding of pistons, Harvey Cheyne Sr enlists the help of his fellow railway magnates to make a crossing of the North American continent in record time. He and his wife arrive in Gloucester to see their transformed son play a confident part in the tally of the schooner’s cargo, and in due course he and Disko Troop plan a joint future for their two sons which mysteriously corresponds to the black cook’s second-sight predictions. When he wrote Captains Courageous, Kipling may well have been intending to stay permanently in New England, but by the time the book was published a bitter quarrel with his brother-in-law had led him and his wife to return to England. My own family’s New World idyll ended in the mid-1950s, with my father waving bleakly to his departing wife and sons from the same Quebec dockside where the family had disembarked four years before. Perhaps because of those defining childhood sea journeys, I have always loved model boats and ships, and in recent years I have built a number of them. During my visit to Gloucester, I went to a shipbuilding museum and bought some plans of old Grand Banks schooners. Not many of these beautiful vessels have survived, because most were built of pine, which is prone to rot and decay. The plans show the lovely lines of the typical Gloucester schooner: a long hull, a foremast shorter than the mainmast, and a fore-and-aft sail plan which means the vessel can sail close to the wind. I built a display model showing a schooner under full sail, with three little carved boxwood figures in the stern. One is crouched at the wheel, with his legs flexed like a weightlifter. Another is seated by the rail, out of the wind, his arms clasping his knees. And the third is reclining on the hatch-cover, hands behind his head. Disko, Harvey and Dan, the central figures in Kipling’s tale of fatherhood and redemption. If, like a painting, a model could be given a title, I would call it Heading Home.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 56 © Andrew Joynes 2017


About the contributor

Andrew Joynes worked as a BBC producer and is now a writer and historian. He is the author of Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies and Tracking the Major: Sketches from the Powell-Cotton Museum.

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