Feeling Salty? Get Your Sea Legs with these 8 Great Nautical Adventures
Novelist Amitav Ghosh recently published the second installment of his Ibis Trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies, took place almost exclusively on board the slave ship Ibis. There the reader was treated to a panoply of colorful characters including an exiled raja, a prophetic former wife of an opium addict, a gender confused religious mystic and slaveagent. Writing much of the dialogue in a musical lascar pidgin, Ghosh recreates a richly detailed world on the brink of what would become the Opium Wars. The follow-up, River of Smoke, picks up where Poppies left off.
Madame Paulette (who masqueraded as a ship-hand in the first book) has taken a birth on botanist Fitcher Penrose’s plant-laden scientific research vessel. Neel, the aforementioned exiled raja, takes a job working for the opium smuggler Bahram, who also happens to be the father of the inimitable Ah Fett. Bahram and his consortium of fellow free trade enthusiasts have run into some trouble with the authorities in Canton for their unimpeded trafficking of the black mud. Both books are fairly magnificent affairs, in terms of representing the time period and artistic breadth. Here are some other books that are set on the high seas and impart some historical perspective.
Israel Potter: This one is pretty far down the ranking in the Herman Melville oeuvre, as the author himself is said to have hated it. But, despite lacking the soul-crushing gravity of Moby Dick, Israel Potter is a fun tale of one man’s improbable journey through the American Revolution. Like the Chinese government in River of Smoke, Potter has some issues with His Majesty’s Royal Navy. As was their wont, the Brits would impress American sailors from captured ships to work their own (Can you imagine us using captured Taliban fighters to fly Black Hawks? Me neither). But that’s not the end of his story, and along the way Potter meets luminaries of the era such as Ben Franklin, John Paul Jones and the King himself (Not Elvis. The British one).
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: David Mitchell’s tale of a ginger Dutchman and his life in 19th century Japan isn’t strictly a sea adventure, but it does bear some resemblances to Ghosh’s latest, in terms of European colonialism in Asia. It’s richly detailed and perhaps most importantly, features a silly, feces-flinging ape known as William Pitt.
Master and Commander: This is universally considered one of the most historically accurate takes on the high seas of the Napoleonic era. Patrick O’Brian’s series chronicling the adventures of Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey will make you want to unleash a crippling broadside on a slow moving French galleon and celebrate the victory over a glass of port and some hardtack.
Horatio Hornblower: Despite his unlikely moniker, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower is the pride of the Royal Navy. His casual, modest heroism and forthright knowledge of charts and Azimuth Circles and the like don’t much endear him to the ignorant rabble, but his more noble shipmates would follow him to the gates of Davy Jones’ locker and back. Whether he’s fighting fire ships, the Black Death or clandestine Irish nationalists, you know that Hornblower will do His Majesty proud.
A High Wind in Jamaica: Richard Hughes wrote a number of books that could be included here, but this one about a group of bloodthirsty pirates who end up playing nursemaid to a group of children deserves first mention. The kids are taken aboard when their transport ship from Jamaica is waylaid by these scurvy seadogs. The pirates don’t make them walk the plank, but it turns out that Blackbeard’s ilk lack many basic parenting skills. As a result, some of the children become kind of feral, and the bearded buccaneers quickly begin to pine for the days when piracy was still about booty and blood and not about babysitting. Also, Hughes is cool because he spent much of his time writing books in Laugharne Castle in Wales. That was back when writers were kings among men.
Typhoon: Joseph Conrad’s short novel is akin to Richard Hughes’ In Hazard in that both books put giant storms at sea front and center. Captain MacWhirr is a man at least as willing as Ahab to drive his ship and crew into the teeth of a merciless fate. If ever there was a time for mutiny, this would probably be it.
Captain Blood: Doctor. Pirate captain. Lover. Rafael Sabatini’s Dr. Peter Blood is a high-minded swashbuckler for the ages. The 1935 film starring Errol Flynn (who else?) is also a classic. “All right me hearties, follow me!”
Tales of the Black Freighter: The Watchmen’s grisly comic within a comic tells the tale of a castaway who stops at nothing to get back home to warn his family and friends of a ship of the damned that is coming to claim the town. Dude rides a dead shark as a boat and eats parts of it as he goes. He’s the true Captain Blood. Even Hornblower would blanch at having to eat raw pieces of his own shark carcass boat creature.