I’ll ‘fess up and say that while I can’t swim, and am afraid of going out on the water, I have a fascination for the lore of sailing ships. As long as I’m on dry land and in a comfy seat I enjoy an occasional sea story filled with descriptions of sails and riggings and the changing appearance of the seemingly-endless ocean.
Captains Courageous, Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel, subtitled A Story of the Grand Banks, takes its title from the ballad Mary Ambree, which speaks of “captains courageous of valour so bold.” The novel’s main character, fifteen-year-old Harvey Cheyne, Jr., did not immediately have such noble thoughts towards the captain of the fishing boat that became his unplanned home for many months.
The reader first learns of Harvey through uncomplimentary remarks made in the smoking room of a ocean liner. The only child of a wealthy California businessman, Harvey was traveling with his mother, who was going to Europe “with the boy and her nerves, trying to find out what will amuse him.”
Harvey entered the smoking room, boasted of never getting seasick, and asked if anyone had a cigarette. As a cruel joke he was offered a cheap cigar. To avoid anyone knowing the harsh tobacco made him sick he staggered out to a deserted part of the deck, and a roll of the ship sent him overboard.
He was rescued by a fisherman, and taken to the Gloucester schooner We’re Here. After meeting the captain, Disko Troop, Harvey demanded to be taken to New York right away. To prove that his father was wealthy Harvey reached into his pocket for his large roll of money, discovered it was gone, and accused Disko of stealing it.
Disko thought Harvey’s talk of a wealthy father, and getting two hundred dollars a month for spending money, was caused by a knock on the head when he fell overboard, and offered to hire him at ten-and-a-half dollars a month, since one of the crew had drowned.
The offer angered Harvey, but for the first time in his life his demands were refused, so he agreed to work as a “second boy” after Disko bloodied his nose to knock some sense into him.
Disko’s son, Dan, liked having someone his own age to work and talk with. He believed Harvey’s story of being wealthy, but couldn’t imagine Mr. Cheyne, Sr. having enough money to buy anything as grand as a fishing boat.
A boy’s work on the We’re Here was cleaning the schooner and helping the cook until the men returned from fishing out of dories. After supper, work continued with cleaning and salting the day’s catch. (The livers of codfish were scooped out and dumped into a separate container.) After that the boys took their turns keeping night watch.
Harvey felt pride in his growing skills, and in the occasional grunted acknowledgements that his work was acceptable. He wondered what his parents’ reaction would be if they knew of the tasks he was mastering.
Captains Courageous introduces the reader to everyone working on the We’re Here. All are interesting characters, but Penn – short for Pennsylvania – tugged at my sympathies. Penn was a hard working but unskilled fisherman who worried about Harvey’s parents, for it seemed to him that nothing could be worse than believing your child had died.
Dan told Harvey that Penn had been a preacher, and he and his family were staying at a hotel in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on the night the dam broke and destroyed the town. Penn’s wife and children drowned, and after that he wandered about with no memory of his past. Dan’s Uncle Salters took Penn under his wing, and saw that no harm came to him. It was believed that if Penn ever remembered what had happened it would kill him.
I enjoyed learning the fisherman’s life along with Harvey. There was joy and beauty, but also danger. The weather often turned deadly, plus an ocean liner could collide with a smaller sailing vessel and not even know it had left death and destruction in its wake.
I won’t give details to spoil the story for anyone who will read the novel, but at one point there was a great tragedy, and Penn stepped forward, declared he was a minister of the gospel, prayed for a miracle, and everyone on board credited him with obtaining one. Afterwards poor bewildered Penn commented that he’d had a strange dream, with no recollection of what he had accomplished.
After many adventures the We’re Here returned to Gloucester with flag at half-mast in honor of the fisherman who’d been swept overboard in a gale before Harvey came onboard. Harvey stayed with the Troop family, including Uncle Salters and Penn, and sent off a telegram to his father.
For a time the story switches to another point of view, and the reader learns what an 1890s multimillionaire can do if he wants to break the speed record for traveling across country.
Harvey Cheyne, Sr. owned several railroads and had a private car, so telegrams were sent out ordering all regularly scheduled trains to be sidelined so he and his wife could have the right-of-way as they raced to be reunited with their son.
After an exhilarating train trip Mr. and Mrs. Cheyne were in awe of the transformation of their weak and selfish son into a strong and healthy young man. And Harvey and Dan both delighted over Disko Troop’s consternation at being “mistook in his judgments” when he learned Harvey hadn’t been lying when he had insisted he was wealthy.
If I had written Captains Courageous I would have ended the story there, or perhaps after telling about the annual memorial day where the names of all who’d died at sea were read aloud. (In a year’s time Gloucester had lost 117 seamen.) But Kipling goes on to plan out Harvey and Dan’s careers, and the story ends when Harvey is a year away from graduating from college. Not a bad ending, but it wasn’t as exciting as the adventures on the We’re Here.
Three movies have been based on Captains Courageous. I’m told that the 1977 television movie is an accurate depiction of the novel’s plot, but the 1937 theatrical release and the 1996 television version tell a good story, though not the one Kipling wrote.
If you’d like to read the book it can be downloaded free of charge at: