Sunday, 8 January 2017

Review: Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Captain Blood is probably a character known to many through the numerous film adaptations. Errol Flynn's ever-grinning face is the way I knew him for decades before I finally picked up the original novel by Rafael Sabatini and delved into the actual story. And, as always, it proved deeper and more interesting than any of the adaptations.

Rafael Sabatini is perhaps best known and respected for his Scaramouche, which was, for a large part, a political commentary. The same is true to an extent of Captain Blood: The protagonist is Peter Blood, a doctor who makes the mistake of trying to help a soldier wounded in the Monmouth rebellion. The king's troops arrest him with the rest of the rebels and he is sentenced to die by hanging. To his (relative) fortune, the sentence is changed when the king realises that he needs cheap labour: thus hundreds of Monmouth rebels were shipped to the Caribbean and into slavery. Peter Blood ends up in Barbados and makes the best of the situation. Under his new master, he continues to work as a doctor on the island, but is increasingly aware of the fate of the men who were sentenced with him. Then a twist of fate gives him the chance to turn into piracy and thereafter he tries to find his place in a world where his own country is focussed on hunting him down and every act of piracy he commits lessens his sense of self-worth.

Rafael Sabatini is pleasantly true to historical facts. The early part of the story is based on the experiences of a surgeon called Henry Pitman who was sentenced to slavery in similar circumstances in 1685 and who wrote his memoirs after he had returned to England. Further, Sabatini bases Blood's piratical career on various historical stories of existing pirates, including the famous sacking of Maracaibo by Henry Morgan, and his description of Tortuga - a safe haven for pirates - is based very much on history.

Overall, Captain Blood is a protagonist typical to Sabatini: a man with the ability to laugh at himself and the world (though he ends up in trouble because of this when people think that he is laughing at them) with the usual pulp era competence that surpasses that of normal men. As such, it is no wonder that Errol Flynn ended up playing him. His love of Arabella - the daughter of his owner when he was a slave - drives him to improve himself and the fear of the loss of that love is what unmans him. The descriptions of action and battles are a bit distant from a modern reader's point of view (more telling than showing), but still exciting parts of the adventure.

Sabatini's story is exciting - though sometimes perhaps a tiny bit slow-paced - and full of swashbuckling goodness. I ended up devouring it in short order and then regretting that I had read it so quickly. Fortunately, Sabatini has written more stories of the character, so the fun doesn't end here! Insofar as the main novel goes, I recommend it to anyone who likes historical sea adventures, pirates or swashbuckling with a good dose of character drama.