The Cruise of the Alerte

E.F. Knight

This book was more interesting than I expected it to be. Being a Ransome devotee made it more interesting still. Aside from the lengthy Introduction which AR wrote for Knight, it appears that it may have been one of his favourite cruising yarns. After all, it has all the good requisites of a cracker seafaring yarn; pirate treasure, a motley crew which took a fair bit of sorting out. By the time the 'Odd-men-out' had left the ship, the remainder maintained a healthy regard for each other for the rest of the voyage. The classical 'deserted island' without which no maritime romance is complete is described in considerable detail, and it is no wonder that it was deserted, for its topography is so harsh. There is abundant detail also in the navigation and management of the Alerte, enough for any anchor-swallowed sailor.

The tale is of a Victorian Gentleman-adventurer of independent means, who, in 1890, buys and fits out a 64ft long and 56 ton displacement "yacht" to search for treasure supposedly left by an unknown pirate after it was looted from a Spanish ship. This is the size and general proportions of the topsail schooner Enterprize which sails around Victorian waters, so we are considering a very substantial craft indeed. The inevitable 'treasure map' and precise instruction as to the location of the hoard, is also there. This was, [of course,] passed on by a retired seaman who learned it from another seaman on his deathbed. Aren't they always thus?

The crew consisted of other 'gentleman-adventurers' who were attracted to the venture by advertisements in 'The Times' and by newspaper speculation on the success of the proposed venture. These were supplemented by a paid crew of seamen and a negro cook. Knight describes at some length the privations suffered by these people while on Trinidad Island searching for the treasure. One cannot fail to be impressed by their toughness and stamina under the circumstances.

It is patently obvious that the tale is the inspiration for Ransome's novel Peter Duck. However, only the fact of the trip is actually used by AR. The other major elements of the story, [The Viper and her evil crew, navigation down the channel, sailing in fog, the cyclone, finding the 'treasure' and the loss of the Viper] were all drawn either from AR's own experience or his remarkable imagination. One aspect which intrigued me was the degree to which 'Captain Flint' resembled Knight. A man of independent income who has travelled the world in search of adventure [and found it], Knight became addicted to covering wars for newspapers, losing an arm in the process. He later wrote a book about [literally] single-handed sailing. While certain elements of 'Captain Flint' are undoubtedly autobiographical, others are clearly drawn from elsewhere. He is a much more complex creation than I previously thought.

Although AR used Knight's book as inspiration, I am sure that Stevenson used a lot more of it for his classic, Treasure Island, even though that novel was set in the eighteenth century.1 The 'pirate treasure map' and its mysterious origins, the 'gentleman officers' [Squire Trelawney et al] who financed the trip, and other elements are featured.

To try to get a better impression of Trinidad Island, I decided to look at it through Google Earth. You can find it at 20° 30' 10" S, 29° 19' 04" W. Knight's map is surprisingly accurate, given that it was drawn without the aid of aerial photography, as maps are nowadays. The stream gorge which was supposed to contain the treasure is clearly visible.

The copy which I read was borrowed from the AusTARS library, and I can commend it to you without hesitation.

The book is also available online in the Literary Pages of All Things Ransome at The Cruise of the 'Alerte'.

Reviewed by David Bamford, June, 2009

1 A reader has pointed out that Treasure Island was published originally as a serial in 1881-1882, whereas Knight's The Cruise of the Alerte was based on a cruise in 1889 and presumably published some time afterwards, so it is more likely that Knight was inspired by Stevenson than the other way around, or that there might have been a common source for both. Wikipedia, which while not being a completely reliable source is often quite on the mark, seems to suggest that most of the description came from Stevenson's earlier travels to the West Indies and California, and Dead Man's Chest came from a book by Charles Kingsley describving travel in the West Indies.

David Bamford, the author of this review, indicates that at the time he wrote it, he was unaware of the relative chronology of the cruise and the publication of Treasure Island. The question of a common source for Stevenson and Knight remains open.

This article is ©2009 by David Bamford, and posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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