Prototypes of Peter Duck's Crab Island and Roger's Monkey 'Gibber'

Mike Field

Many people will remember several variously-described mentions in the canon of the book Knight on Sailing. They occur primarily in The Picts And The Martyrs (five mentions) and We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea (two mentions – and thanks to Ed Kiser for the research).

"Knight" was a real person (Edward Fredrick or EF Knight) and Sailing a real book – one of the earliest how-to manuals for small-boat sailors. The book was first published in 1890, and copies of it can still be found for sale if you have a mind to look, or you can read it on All Things Ransome at Sailing. Ransome taught himself to sail using this book, and later used the book itself for his characters to do the same thing.

The author, Knight, was a barrister, journalist, war correspondent, sailor, and adventurer, a bit of a latter-day Elizabethan really. He owned and sailed the 30-tonner Falcon (usually single-handed), about which he wrote two books, The Cruise Of The Falcon and The Falcon In The Baltic. From these he earned the soubriquet "Falcon" Knight. Knight is widely considered to be the prototype of Erskine Childer's hero Davies in The Riddle Of The Sands.

In 1889 Knight bought the cutter Alerte and, as part of a more extended cruise, sailed her to the island of Trinidad off the south-east coast of Brazil (see map), in search of buried treasure. (Knight's "Trinidad" is spelt "Trindade" nowadays to distinguish it from Trinidad off the coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean.) He was equipped with a treasure map provided by an old sailor who had heard the story of the burial of the treasure from a young chap he had befriended, ... etc, etc. Knight was pretty sure that he had correct information, and that it was worthwhile trying to find the treasure – reputed to be part of some pirated Portuguese loot. Digging was commenced scientifically in accordance with the map (and with energy), but after some weeks the search was abandoned when sea conditions made it unsafe to stay any longer.

Knight wrote of these experiences in The Cruise of the Alerte published in 1889 (also available on All Things Ransome at the link). His description of Trinidad and its topography (see picture) sits well with AR's description of Crab Island in Peter Duck, as does his description of the sea conditions experienced while they were there. Knight also makes several references to the land-crabs with which the island was infested, and how he and his partners would deter them from attacking the camp at night by killing several hundred on which the others then feasted.

There seems little doubt that AR based his Crab Island on Knight's Trinidad.

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However, nowhere in any of my reading have I found any reference to the pet monkey Jacko that Alerte carried on her cruise. Here is Knight's description of Jacko –
"[The men] also brought off a land-crab, which did not seem at all at home on our deck. He was introduced to Master Jacko, our monkey, whose horror at the uncouth apparition was intense. The wise monkey would not get in reach of the crab's nippers, but, having cleverly driven him into a corner, tried to push his ugly visitor through a scupper into the sea with a bit of firewood.

"I must now aplogise to Jacko for not having before this introduced him to my readers. He was a delightful little creature that we had purchased on the Praya at Bahia. He was very affectionate, and was free from malice, though, of course, full of mischief. He had a red blanket of his own, which he would carry about with him wherever he went, and, should a few drops of rain fall or spray come on board, he would deftly roll it about him in the fashion of a cloak, with his funny little head just peeping out of the hood. He was very fond of tea, and while we were at sea he took his 4 a.m. cup with the others. As soon as the cook began to lift the boiler of tea from the stove Jacko would give a whistle of delight, clamber up the pantry wall, unhook a pannikin, and walk up with it to be filled, "all de same as a little ole man," as the cook used to say. It was amusing to see him test the temperature of the tea with his fingers before drinking it. He was a marvellously intelligent and jolly little creature, and is now dwelling happily in a little house on a cocoanut tree in a plantation near Port-of-Spain. He prefers a West Indian life of warmth and unlimited bananas to an existence in a damp ship on salt junk and biscuit."
Here are two other snippets too, which help round out this delightful description –
"Some [seabirds] would coolly perch on our davits and stare at us very rudely, to the great indignation of Jacko, who swore at them in his own language."

"We took Jacko on shore with us. He did not admire the island, and particularly objected to the land-crabs. His favourite amusement was to turn on the tap of our tank, when no one was looking, and let all our hard-got supply of water run out. He behaved very well on the whole, however, except on Christmas Day, when he drank some rum which he found at the bottom of a pannikin, and, I am grieved to say, became disgracefully intoxicated. He had a dreadful headache the next day."
In Their Own Story, a short piece of meta-fiction provided by AR to describe how the story Peter Duck came to be written, the "authors' – the children themselves – decided that Roger should have a monkey called Jacko aboard for the Wild Cat's cruise to Crab Island.

Can anyone doubt that Roger's "real" monkey Gibber was based on any other than Knight's delightful Jacko?

Adapted from a post on TarBoard, and revised by the author.

This article is ©2013 by Mike Field, and posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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