Pirate literature, and more recently pirate movies and TV shows, have shaped our ideas of what pirates are like. But they also remind us of aspects of piracy we are liable to forget. A High Wind in Jamaica (or, The Innocent Voyage), Richard Hughes’s 1928 novel, is more in the latter category than the former. For it is a rare piece of fiction that reminds us how mundane and ordinary pirates could be.
The story is set sometime between 1833, when the slaves were emancipated in Jamaica, and 1860, which in itself is unusual. There had been a major wave of piracy in the Caribbean as Spain’s Latin American empire collapsed in the 1810s and 1820s; many of the pirates had claimed to be privateers operating under the authority of one short-lived Latin American rebel state or another. But the end of the Latin American wars of independence and vigorous efforts against the pirates by the American and British navies had put the vast majority of Caribbean pirates out of business by 1833.
Hughes knows this, and the portrayal of pirates in the story reflects the decay of their trade. The pirates claim to sail under a commission from Colombia, but even they know that’s a pathetic fiction. Their ship has no cannons, they never deliberately kill a single person during the entire story, and they never take a ship carrying treasure. In fact, the most valuable thing they find on either of the ships they do take are ship’s stores, supplies they need to keep their own ship in good order. As for what loot they find, they auction it off for a fraction of its value in a somnolent Cuban port that has seen better days. These pirates are so banal as to be tiresome. They are ordinary people who somehow got stuck with an illegal career. Walter White from Breaking Bad would make mincemeat of them.
Their comeuppance begins when they encounter the Clorinda, a barque carrying six children as passengers to England. The pirates take the children off as hostages to ensure the good behavior of the captain of the Clorinda. But he mistakenly assumes that the pirates have killed the children, and takes off with the Clorinda before the pirates can return the children. That sets the tone for the rest of the story: everybody not on the pirate ship believes the pirates are vicious creatures, while the pirates are desperately trying to find a way to get rid of the children without bringing the authorities down on them.
The real heart of Hughes’s story is his depiction of the children, which he portrays as thinking and acting very much unlike adults, to the mutual misunderstanding of both. Emily, the ten-year-old girl who dominates the story, finds the earthquake and the death of the family’s cat to be much more interesting events than her time among the pirates. When she is rescued and quizzed by authorities in England, her account of the pirates is about what she thinks important, not what adults would consider so, leading the authorities to despair of using her testimony to convict the pirates. Ironically, it is due to a misunderstanding the adults have about Emily that leads the pirates to be convicted of a murder which Emily herself unintentionally committed!
As a story about children, A High Wind in Jamaica is disturbing. As a story about pirates, it is a useful antidote to the common portrayals of pirates as romantic, heroic, or even comic swashbucklers. It is also a useful reminder that piracy was not confined to its “great ages,” and could be a humdrum and unprofitable affair.