I approached my summer with a tiny goal of reading outside my normal zone. I chose to dip into the deep digital library of The Gutenberg Project and try to read some of the old (if not classic) adventure novels written for youth around the turn of the 20th century. Names like Jack London and H. Rider Haggard are known to most, though there are hundreds more far lesser known authors that looked worth a shot. George Manville Fenn is one of those gents, and you know, I’d bet my hat that G.M. Fenn was a white guy.
His incredibly forthright racism, which I suppose was still pretty run-of-the-mill back in 1899, doesn’t rear its ugly head until well into the story, which is the only reason I toughed it out. Otherwise, I’m confident I couldn’t have stomached much more of old sailor Bob Bostock’s take on the black race.
The story begins with 12-year-old Carey Cranford injuring himself aboard a steamer heading from England to Australia. As he lays in coma in Doctor Kingsmead’s cabin, Bostock poking his worried nose in on them from time to time, a storm comes up and threatens to capsize the ship. The captain and crew all board the life vessels, and as they wait for Bostock to bring the doctor and boy up safely from below, a giant wave washes the vessels free of their holdings, leaving the three unlucky chaps alone on their sinking ship.
As things turn out, however, the ship rests snugly upon a coral reef within view of an island. Once Carey recovers from his injury, the three make it over to the island where they enjoy a wealth of tropical delights without struggle. “I don’t believe no shipwrecked chaps was ever so well off before,” one exclaims, and so it seems. They find that the island is surrounded by clams which they harvest for the both the clam shells and the pearls that some contain.
All seemed well for this island crew as they waited for the ships owners to come out to search for their vessel, until one day a pirate of sorts and his colored minions attack the three and hold them captive aboard their own ship. This dangerous fiend has claimed this island and its bounty as his own and steals their pearls as he thinks of what to do with the three. Meantime, Carey and Bostock think up a way to tease the black men away from their master so that they can encourage a mutiny. It’s about here that Bostock lets his Darwinian theories fly. I can only best explain by sharing some quotes:
- “A black fellow’s life aren’t worth much, but they think too much of it to care about chucking it away.” (102)
- “Them black beasts then, sir, now. They aren’t much better than annymiles.” (107)
- “There’s something in a white skin as is too much for them, and you’ve only got to let ’em see that you don’t care a quid o’ ‘bacco for their blunt wood sticks and knob clubs, to keep ’em where they ought to be, down–right down. For they’re only good enough to make door-mats to wipe your shoes on.” (109)
- “Three blacks squatted there hour after hour, watching their master and tyrant like so many faithful hounds.” (116)
- “If we were alone we could make them our obedient servants. They look up to the whites as superior beings, but they are not to be trusted.” (133)
- “Seems to me, sir, that these here blacks grow up to be children, and then they makes a fresh start; their bodies go on growing like anything, but their brains stops still and never grows a day older.” (172)
I’ve left out the vilest name-calling, but as you can see, there is nothing redeemable in this story that makes it worth having saved for posterity. I don’t know what standards The Gutenberg Project goes by, unless it’s “anything goes,” but it seems like there must be so many more worthwhile works out there that should have taken precedence over this one. I don’t mean that they should censor history, of course, but rather that they should seek non-fiction works that might contain the same mentality and yet also a much more broad view of the culture that promoted it. This is simply an adventure novel for children, and a fair number of parents today might be shocked at what their kids are finding in the “classics” section of their library.
Part of my reasoning for reading through some of these old adventure novels is to vet them for my own son, as I strongly hope that he’ll be an avid reader soon. With that in mind, I’m pretty confident that George Manville Fenn will be on the list of authors to avoid.