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The Black Ship, Dudley Pope, Introduction by Christopher McKee

The following introduction was written by Dr Christopher McKee, Emeritus, Grinnell College, for a new edition of Dudley Pope's The Black Ship – the history of the Royal Navy's worst mutiny, aboard HMS Hermione – published by Henry Holt, New York, in the ‘Heart of Oak Sea Classics’ series. It is reproduced with the gracious permission of the author, who retains copyright.

INTRODUCTION

WHEN BRITISH NAVAL HISTORIAN and novelist Dudley Pope died at St. Martin in the French West Indies on April 25, 1997, obituaries in The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times told the story of a notably self-directed life.

Born at Stubb's Corner, Kent, on December 29, 1925, Dudley Bernard Egerton Pope (to give his full name) attended Ashford Grammar School in his home county, then–in 1941–lied about his true age, which was really sixteen, so that he could join the Merchant Navy and Britain's war. A year later, in October 1942, he experienced that war in a most immediate way, one that heavily influenced the later course of his life, when the ship in which he was serving, M.V. Silverwillow, was torpedoed near Madeira. Pope and the other survivors spent several days adrift in lifeboats before they were rescued–days that must have been exceedingly painful for Pope, because he had sustained spinal and other injuries that sent him to hospital for a long period of surgery and recuperation.

The worst part for Pope was that, once he was finally released, he found himself, much to his dislike and despite vigorous attempts to get back into action, permanently sidelined from further direct participation in the war. Frustrated, in 1943 Pope tried his hand at journalism and by 1944 he was naval correspondent for London's Evening News, a post that he continued to hold until 1957 when he was promoted to deputy foreign editor.

While Dudley Pope earned his keep through journalism another career was incubating. The long months of surgery and convalescence had given him ample enforced opportunity for reading, and it was from this reading that Pope's lifelong interest in naval history took fire. His first books focused on the recent past, events of the Second World War: Flag 4 (1954), the story of Coastal Forces operations in the Mediterranean; The Battle of the River Plate (1956), called Graf Spee: The Life and Death of a Raider in its American edition; and 73 North (1958), a narrative of the 1942 Battle of the Barents Sea. Then he made a radical turn deeper into the past with the November 1959 publication of England Expects, his much-admired recounting and analysis of Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, which appeared in the United States a year later under the title Decision at Trafalgar.

In the same month that Pope published England Expects he resigned his position with The Evening News, abandoning the job security of journalism for the riskier life of a full-time author of books. Pope was already an enthusiastic and experienced yachtsman. When he could not be out sailing boats, he lived on them at Hoo in Kent and Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex and commuted to his work in London. Free at last to live where it suited him to write, Pope moved to Porto San Stefano in Italy where he resided for four years. Then in search of a still-warmer climate that would be even kinder to his old wartime injuries, and accompanied by his wife, Kay, and their infant daughter, Pope sailed his twenty-one-ton cutter, Golden Dragon, across the Atlantic in 1965 to the West Indies, where he would live for the remainder of his life. Here were waters that he came to know intimately as he sailed across their surface or dived into them in pursuit of another passion: the collecting of seashells.

But always he was researching and writing, for Dudley Pope was nothing if not a workaholic. First it was more history: At Twelve Mr. Byng Was Shot (1962), the story of the events leading up to the scape­goat execution of Admiral John Byng in 1757; The Black Ship (1963); and The Great Gamble (1972), about Nelson's controversial 1801 attack on the Danish fleet at Copenhagen. Then a new writing interest appeared when, encouraged by C. S. Forester and drawing on his vast and detailed knowledge of the navy of Nelson and his contemporaries, Pope tried his hand at the historical novel, creating a character, Nicholas Ramage, R.N., whose adventures he narrated in a series of eighteen books.

In spite of the success of the Ramage stories, Pope never abandoned his first love: fine naval history. The Devil Himself: The Mutiny of 1800, published in 1987, was his last major historical work. Already by 1985 Pope's old wartime injuries were causing him serious health problems. He was compelled to abandon his floating West Indian home, the thirty-seven-ton ketch Ramage, and move ashore. His health continued to deteriorate–Pope was by this time using a wheelchair–and finally the old spinal injuries played their cruelest card, memory loss, which compelled him to abandon all writing in 1989.

Oddly perhaps, the obituaries that noted Pope's death and recorded his life made scant reference to what is, arguably, his finest historical writing, The Black Ship. Only the anonymous writer in The Daily Telegraph referred to The Black Ship in any detail, calling it "a chilling account"–surely the words of a person who had read its pages with that same fascination with which one watches the approach of a large and possibly deadly snake. The terrible power of this work comes most of all from the compelling stories that it tells: the story of mutiny, on the night of September 21, and the morning of September 22, 1797, by a portion of the crew of the British frigate Hermione, in which the mutineers, pushed to the breaking point by the sadism of Captain Hugh Pigot, R.N., hacked to death with cutlasses and tomahawks, and/or threw overboard to drown, the captain and most of the ship's officers; the tale of the British navy's relentless efforts to track down and condignly punish the mutineers; and the account of Captain Edward Hamilton's recapture of Hermione, which the fleeing mutineers had handed over to the Spanish authorities in South America.

But good stories are not enough. A fine story can always be badly told. Other qualities that make The Black Ship a masterwork of historical narration are Pope's keen skills as a writer and his knowledge of–and visceral appreciation for–life and war at sea in the years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars; his inspired and original research in the archives of Britain and Spain; and his personal knowledge and love of the waters in which these bloody and tragic events took place, a familiarity that adds so much to the immediacy and vividness of Pope's narrative.

The Black Ship charted two courses subsequent historians have followed to the enrichment of our understanding of the naval world that existed as the eighteenth century became the nineteenth. Although Pope was not the first historian to use court-martial records, The Black Ship highlighted the importance of these verbatim trial transcripts as sources conveying the immediacy of events through their sharply remembered detail and recording of words, be they dramatic or routine, as they were actually spoken. Just as important, Pope's exploration of ships' logs to determine the quantitative dimensions of flogging as it was practiced by Captain Pigot alerted historians who followed in The Black Ship's wake to the possibility of exploiting log books to delineate the true story of corporal punishment at sea and to discover variations in punishment practices and philosophies among different naval commanders.

Reviewers at the time of The Black Ship's publication were unanimously positive in their assessment of Pope's achievement but seemed perplexed how to evaluate a volume of naval history that was not a tale of ship-to-ship battle at sea. The sole serious criticism offered (and it is a caveat with which I agree) came from an anonymous, but clearly very knowledgeable, reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement of November 21,1963, who engaged the book on its own terms and regretted that Pope "has not always treated his sources with more critical caution and thoroughness." The critic cited

Mr. Pope's uncritical acceptance of Midshipman Casey's account of his treatment by Pigot and of the details of the mutiny. It was written by Casey forty-two years later in a document designed to present himself in the most favourable light and therefore its allegedly verbatim accounts of conversations and phrases must be taken with due caution. Moreover Mr. Pope omits completely the very relevant account of Casey's previous career and relationship with Pigot, which the document contains. Casey admits to having been court martialled on his previous ship for quarrelling with his captain on the quarter deck: the identical crime for which Pigot had him flogged. Moreover Pigot was a member of this court martial, which sentenced Casey to lose his acting rank of Lieutenant, and yet had, according to Casey, especially asked for him to be transferred to the Hermione.

Armed with this information, the reader watches for Midshipman Casey's appearances in The Black Ship, alert for psychological ambiguities of the Pigot-Casey interaction that Dudley Pope failed to exploit.

As any truly good book does, The Black Ship stirred up questions. To some of those questions later historians have proposed answers different from the ones Dudley Pope offered. Pope attributed the Hermione mutiny more to the capricious, inconsistent, and sadistic character of Hugh Pigot's punishments than to their frequency or harshness. However, when one compares Pigot's punishment record in the Success (Appendix C) with the punishment records of eight captains of the pre-1815 U.S. Navy, which I tabulated in my A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991, pages 242-247, 480-481), one discovers that Pigot punished far more frequently (but not more harshly) than any of the eight Americans, none of whom was reluctant when it came to inflicting the lash to correct the perceived misdeeds of sailors.

Also open to serious challenge, I think, is Pope's assertion in chapter 5, "The Red Baize Bag," that floggings of as few as 24 or 36 lashes–let alone those that exceeded 100 lashes–were often the de facto equivalents of death sentences. In A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession (pages 253-254), I looked at the post-flogging fates of 37 sailors in the U.S. Navy of 1794-1815 who were sentenced by courts­martial to receive punishments of 100 or more lashes, and I could find no definite evidence that a single one of the 37 died as a result of the flogging. It is all but impossible to imagine a man receiving 150, 200, or 300 lashes with a cat-of-nine-tails and surviving to continue life as a naval sailor. But the record shows that sailors did, and the historians' jury must remain out with respect to Pope's claim of the fatal nature of punishment under the lash.

If a good definition of a classic is a work that one can see or hear or read many times and still derive some new experience on each encounter, Dudley Pope's The Black Ship is definitely a classic. The role of the introducer of such a book is rather like that of an usher in the theater: to see the reader comfortably seated, then get out of the way as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible. The real show begins when the reader reaches the first page of the classic's text, and the usher-introducer is no part of the cast. My task is to persuade you to turn the page and let Pope tell the story of dark and violent deeds on board the Hermione and their pitiless retribution.

–Christopher McKee

 

Revised: 3 October 2015