Wednesday, 4 July 2001

Rudyard Kipling: Captains Courageous (1897)

Edition: Minster, 1967 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 858

The life of the Banks fisherman, chronicled in this novel, must have changed almost beyond recognition in the course of the last century. Technological innovations such as radar and GPS will have made the seas safer, telephone and the TV will have made the fishing communities less isolated and the big cities may well have lured many of the younger generation away.

At the time when Kipling wrote his tribute to the courage and hard work of these fishermen, the situation was very different. Much of the equipment would have been recognizable to the medieval sailor, though the boats would be stronger to cope with North Atlantic seas and the power would be steam (the latter the biggest advance). Captains relied on an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Banks, with simple instruments like the lead providing all the information they needed for navigation.

Admiration for these men - and hundreds of fishermen died each year - prompted the novel, and it is impossible not to feel the same when reading it. That is for more important than the simple plot, in which a spoilt rich boy is rescued by a fishing boat after being swept overboard from a steamer, and is forced to grow up and become a totally different person during the several months fishing before the return to the mainland.

The banal story makes this one of Kipling's less important novels, but it does still have the marvellous evocation of a foreign culture (which, even then, it would have been to the vast majority of his readership) which is part of his best work.

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