The Perils of Certain English Prisoners – 1857 – A Christmas collaboration
The Perils of Certain English Prisoners is an 1857 novella that Charles Dickens wrote in collaboration with Wilkie Collins. It features British imperialism. Its full title was ‘The Perils of Certain English Prisoners and Their Treasure in Women, Children, Silver, and Jewels.’ Dickens also consulted his scholarly subeditor for Latin American affairs, Henry Morley (1822-1894), whom he had recruited to his staff in 1850. It was Morley who supplied details of politics and international relations.
Dickens suggested that the inspiration for this tale was the courage exhibited by the British women and children captured during the Sepoy Mutiny of Indian troops earlier that year at Cawnpore and Lucknow.
It is a gripping adventure story filled with murder, intrigue and strong female characters.
This is tale recounted by Gill Davis, his lady remarks that his first name was probably from Gilbert, but he was a foundling so cannot confirm this. He cannot read and write so his lady is transcribing his account of an Adventure.
He says he was leaning over the bulwarks of the sloop Christopher Columbus in the Central American waters off the Mosquito shore, a private in the Royal Marines, he was twenty-nine.
Beside him was Harry Charker, a Corporal and his dutiful comrade who read and wrote like a Quarter-master.They had been in Jamaica and been sent to Belize near the Mosquito coast. There had been reports of a gang of pirates, who evaded the British cruisers by escaping into out-of-the-way creeks and shallows, even taking to the land when necessary,
An armed sloop came once a-year from Port Royal, Jamaica, to the Island, laden with all manner of necessaries and it was aboard that sloop which had touched at Belize, that he was a-standing, leaning over the bulwarks.
The Island was occupied by a very small English colony. It had been given the name of Silver-Store. It was named so because they worked a silver-mine on the mainland of Honduras, and stored the silver at the island until the sloop fetched it away. It was brought from the mine on the backs of mules, led by friendly Indians and managed by white men. Then it was taken by canoe to the island, and carried to Jamaica by the sloop. From there it went all over the world.
Davis was one of twenty-four marines under the command of Lieutenant Linderwood, on the sloop, there to go after the pirates. Besides Lt Linderwood there was a sergeant, Drooce, who was the most tyrannical non-commissioned officer in His Majesty’s service. A local half-Negro, half-Indian guide came aboard and guided them in, he was called Christian George King.
Davis thought they should have ordered Christian George King off the boat, but he was only a private. But then he was not in pleasant humour, because he had a hard life and he thought those on the Island seemed to have it easy. ‘Here you are, good scholars and good livers; able to read what you like, able to write what you like, able to eat and drink what you like, and spend what you like, and do what you like; and much you care for a poor, ignorant Private in the Royal Marines!’
A young lady came aboard, the sister of the sloop’s captain. He was ill and had to be carried ashore, Lt Linderwood too was ill and was also carried ashore.
Davis and Charker wandered around the place, and the young lady invited them to take a loook inside the curious building. She showed them the settlement’s quarters and mentioned other houses on Signal Hill, where they lived during hotter weather, Her brother, Captain Maryon, and the lieutenant had been taken there for the better air. She was called Marion Maryon.
She described their community as consisting of thirty Englishmen, thirteen married women, eighteen children and eight who were single, like her. She did not include the sailors or the soldiers as they did not belong to the settlement.
Davis added, ‘Nor the locals ma’am? Are they reliable?’ She affirmed they were grateful and received kindness from the settlement. Davis pressed her on Christian George King, and she said he would die for us.
She pointed at a building and advised that was where the silver was stored. She talked of how it got there, and said the yield had been good this year so that the sloop would leave with a rich lading.
The young lady passed them on to her maid, English born, but West Indian bred. Davis thought she was a saucy little woman who invited a kiss, but would slap you if you did. This was Bell Tott, who had married an NCO and been widowed, in just two months, in St Vincent. She was known as Mrs Belltott.
They were strolling on the beach and met up with Christian George King. Davis confessed he was prejudiced against the Natives.
They came across the sloop that was leaking and the leak had become quite serious. They were afraid it would sink in the harbour and also worried that the supplies for the settlement would be ruined. Davis and Charker scrambled aboard and they saw that Captain Maryon was carried to the beach and came aboard.
Maryon decided that they should unload the cargo, then lift off the guns and other heavy equipment, then they could careen the sloop and effect repairs. They were put into working parties to follow this plan. Davis was in a group with King, and his dedication lifted him into Davis’s good opinion.
Mr Commissioner Pordage kept in a red-and-black japanned box some document that conferred the island’s ownership, Through having this box Mr Pordage had been given his title of Commissioner, he was styled Consul too, and spoke of himself as ‘Government’. He had a very angry temper and a very yellow complexion.
Mr Kitten was a small, youngish, bald, botanical and mineralogical gentleman, connected with the mine. But Mr Commissioner Pordage called him his Vice-Commissioner or Deputy-Consul, sometimes he referred to him as ‘under Government’.
The Commissioner arrived on the beach and told Capt Maryon that this activity was not official, not regular, There had been ‘No written correspondence. No documents have passed, no memoranda have been made, no minutes have been made, no entries and counter-entries appear in the official muniments. This is indecent’.
The Captain declared that the priority was his ship not sinking. So Pordage ordered Kitten to fetch his Diplomatic coat. And on receiving it declared that Kitten, demand of Captain Maryon, of the sloop Christopher Columbus, ‘whether he drives me to the act of putting this coat on?’
The Captain was unmoved, ‘I should be sorry that you should be at the pains of putting on too hot a coat on my account; but, otherwise, you may put it on hind-side before, or inside-out, or with your legs in the sleeves, or your head in the skirts…’
Pordage put on the coat and asked for those presentto give their name. They went off to produce documents for everyone detailing the event at length and great cost.
Despite this they got the ship on her side on the beach, like some great fish out of water. They fixed the leak and would refloat her the next day,
A great party ensued where Davis saw all of the inhabitants. He particularly enjoyed seeing the children. He saw a handsome elderly lady called Venning, and her married daughter Fanny Fisher. But Davis was scathing of them all, but he did allow that they were very hospitable.
Mrs Belltott had more partners than she could dance with, but he was upset to see Miss Maryon on the arm of Captain Carton. He saw the Pordages disporting themselves like the king and queen of Great Britain.
Tom Packer sought out Davis and hinted he might be the death of Sergeant Drooce, the sergeant had certainly taken against Packer. Packer stated that if they are ever in an engagement and the sergeant needs his help, it would not go well.
Davis also noted that Christian George King was very high spirited, clearly fond of the ladies and children, gaining himself further credit with Davis.
Davis later found himself dreaming of George, when he woke with a start to find he was actiually stood by his hammock and declared ‘Pirates out!’. The marines were raised and Drooce gathered them.
Captain Carton addressed the marines, ‘there are ten pirate-boats, strongly manned and armed, lying hidden up a creek yonder on the coast, under the overhanging branches of the dense trees. Secondly, that they will certainly come out this night when the moon rises, on a pillaging and murdering expedition, of which some part of the mainland is the object. Thirdly – don’t cheer, men! – that we will give chace, and, if we can get at them, rid the world of them, please God!’ Captain Maryon volunteered his men.
Eight marines and four seamen were ordered to stay with the settlement, they would be led by Drooce and Charker, and to his disappointment Davis was selected as one of the marines to remain behind. They had drawn lots and he had drawn ‘Island’, as did Tom Packer. Christian George King was also to remain to guard the ladies and children.
Pordage arrived and asked what was afoot, Carton told him it was an expedition against the Pirates. Pordage said he trusted there would be no unnecessary cruelty. He declared, ‘Government requires you to treat the enemy with great delicacy, consideration, clemency, and forbearance.’ Carton replied that he would with, ‘merciful swiftness of execution, exterminate these people from the face of the earth.’
The party left at ten o’clock, one boat at a time, Christian George King saw them through the reef and then returned.
Miss Maryon and Miss Belltott arrived and Davis told them what was happening. Davis was later woken and went to Charker, when he noticed King with a figure wearing an eye-patch among the coconut trees. King was a traitor!
They roused the others, the Sergeant ordered all into the Fort, and that he would go to fetch those at Signal Hill to join them. The fort had a poor gate, a poor chain, a poor lock.They brought furniture and lumber to strengthen it.
Miss Maryon approached Davis and asked him to pledge to kill her if they lost the skirmish. He promised he would do so, if he still lived.
Pordage was keen to make a Proclamation to the Pirates to lay down their arms, but was pushed out of the way. The children and ladies were put in a trench by the silver store, buildings were eschewed for the fear of being burnt. Swords, cutlasses and muskets were distributed among the defenders.
Miss Maryon and Miss Fisher volunteered to reload, Marion stating, ‘I am a soldier’s daughter and a sailor’s sister!’
Drooce arrived to say there were one hundred pirates, but they were not yet all landed. They decided to light the signal, a pile of wood upon the Signal Hill. Charker volunteered to take two men to light it.
Marion drew Davis’s attention to the powder, it had been ruined by seawater. Davis assumed this was Christian George King again! The sergeant had the men check their pouches and they too had been sabotaged. The sergeant declared that they would fight them hand-to-hand.
Charker and his two men fell back to the fort, pursued by a dozen. Charker had been cut to pieces, his hair was singed. The original pirate party had been guarding Signal Hill.
The pirates arrived at the gate shouting. The defenders gave three English cheers in reponse. They understood their only chance was if the boats learned of their situation.
The pirates were Malays, Dutch, Maltese, Greeks, Negroes, Convict Englishmen, some Portuguese and a few Spaniards. Davis looked around for Christian George King, but did not see him. The Portuguese captain shouted, ‘I say you! English fools! Open the gate! Surrender!’
They then charged the gate and the defenders struck at them and dropped a number of them, But the numbers were overwhelming, The marines stood back and fired their one volley. But it soon became hand-to-hand.
Davis was surrounded by Maltese and Malays, but Marion passed him a broadsword which saved his life. Sergeant Drooce also had a broadsword, and Davis heard the pirates call to get the Sergeant.
Davis had a cut to his arm and Marion tore her dress to make a bandage and applied it to his arm. Tom was called to guard Davis as he was being bound, he held a sabre.
The Sergeant was attacked by a number of pirates and he killed one of them, and this created a pause. Tom called to the sergeant and asked him, ‘Tell me you have driven me too hard, and are sorry for it’. But he said ‘No!’
Another pirate attacked the sergeant, cutting his head, the sergeant killed him. Tom called for the sergeant to say sorry. But he wouldn’t, saying ‘If you are not man enough to strike for a fellow-soldier because he wants help, and because of nothing else, I’ll go into the other world and look for a better man’. Tom swept in and freed him from the group.
Davis saw Mrs Venning and her child at the top of the trench, she hit out at a pirate but fell, shot by the pirate, Suddenly he was grabbed by a group of Natives, it was Christian George King who clung to his leg.
Davis watched as the Portuguese captain and an English convict walked up to him, then the English pirate hit him three times with a cutlass.
He woke the next morning to find the surviving prisoners being taken aboard boats. Marion gave him a meaningful look, from her position beside the Portuguese captain, Davis was loaded on to the same boat as Marion. Drooce and Packer were on it too.
They arrived at a solitary place and were mustered. The prisoners included Mr and Mrs Macey and their children were amongst us, Mr and Mrs Pordage, Mr Kitten, Mr Fisher, and Mrs Belltott. They mustered just fourteen men, fifteen women, and seven children.
They stayed afloat all that night, but this was dangerous with the eddies and rapids,. They decided to stop each night in future and camp on the far shore, for they knew of no boats that the Pirates possessed.
They worked hard managing the rafts under the direction of the seamen, who worked at improving their early efforts that kept being found out by the water.
The stream drove then toward the banks, turned and whirled them, sometimes too slowly, sometimes too fast. The children slumbered much of the time. Miss Maryon was keeping a log in a pocket-book, a journal of time and distances. They had been travelling now for seven days.
Pordage was in his Diplomatic coat, it was a sorry state what with mud, water and tearing boughs, he took to polishing the one button left on it. He kept calling for pens, ink, and paper, tape, and scaling-wax, over a thousand times in twenty-four hours. Clearly he thought they would not survive unless it was all written out in a formal Memorandum. Mrs Poradge kept her nightcap on, with complete dignity and propriety.
On the seventh night they made fast the rafts, camp was made, supper served, the children slept and the watch was set. The women who had lost children wept, crying themselves asleep.
Davis spoke with Miss Maryan about soon reaching the sea. She said would he be pleased to see England, but he said it did not mean much to him, and she remonstrated that he must return to England and marry.
They resumed their journey the next day and one of the sailors sat at the front called that there were voices up ahead. The seamen agreed their were voices and oars.
Davis was put ashore to provide some warning to the rafts. He could soon hear the talking and the oars. He soon heard it clearly, they were saying ‘Chris’en—George—King! Chris’en—George—King!’.
He feared they were pirates but he saw they were English men in English boats. Captain Carton was at the helm of the first boat. Captain Maryon at the helm of the second boat.
Davis reported ‘All escaped, sir! All well, all safe, all here!’ They rowed to meet the rafts, there was a tumult of laughing and crying, kissing and shaking of hands, catching up of children and setting them down, and a wild thankfulness and joy that melted every one and softened all hearts.
Captain Carton told them that the deception had them chasing the light pirate boats all night, they suspected too late, They got back to the Island, the sloop scuttled and the treasure gone. He told how they left Lieutenant Linderwood there and their three boats had scoured the coast for news of them.
Mrs Fisher asked of her mother and was told she was safe, ‘she lies under the cocoa-nut trees on the beach.’ She asked about her child and he said ‘Your pretty child sleeps under a shade of flowers.’ Then the child emerged from an arbour on his boat and cried, ‘I am not killed. I am saved. I am coming to kiss you. Take me to them, take me to them, good, kind sailors!’
The captain had found her hiding on the Island, and she would not leave his side, which was why he had created the arbour, Everyone was moved by the event.
Mr Pordage was happily reunited with paper and he made documents with Kitten. He would subsequently be much praised for this part in the event. Years later he would die of yellow jaundice, but by then he was a governor and a KCB.
Sergeant Drooce was nursed by Tom Packer and Mrs Belltott. She would later become Mrs Packer.
They were nearing where the Silver-store people were to be left, the marines ordered on to Belize. Captain Carton asked him to load a curious long-barrelled Spanish gun, he did and laid it at Carton’s feet.
They paused at the river’s bank and Carton saw something, He surreptitiously took the gun, cocked it and fired it. Someone fell into the water and Carton said ‘It is a Traitor and a Spy. And I think the other name of the animal is Christian George King!’ His body was left hanging to a tree.
They rushed off, just in case, and they made their way to the settlement on the Mosquito coast. They rested for seven days, but then Davis and the other marines were ordered away.
As they took their leave they found everyone assembled, Davis was called forward to see Captain Carton and Miss Maryon. Marion said they were so grateful to him and presented him with a purse of money and their thanks.
Davis accepted the thanks and affection but not the money. He asked instead for something of Miss Maryan’s, perhaps a ribbon. But she gave him a ring.
She added, ‘The brave gentlemen of old—but not one of them was braver, or had a nobler nature than you – took such gifts from ladies, and did all their good actions for the givers’ sakes. If you will do yours for mine, I shall think with pride that I continue to have some share in the life of a gallant and generous man.’
The pirate ship was vigorously attacked by one of His Majesty’s cruisers, among the West India Keys, It was swiftly boarded and carried, that nobody suspected anything about the scheme until three-fourths of the Pirates were killed, and the other fourth were in irons, and the treasure was recovered.
Davis had loved Miss Maryon, and he satisfied himself by never disgracing her. He served many years and was writing this all down in his dotage.
He was doing this at the country house of Admiral Sir George Carton, and it was Lady Carton who was writing it for him.
Lady Carton was of course Miss Marian Maryan.
Charker, Corporal Harry
Davis, Private Gill
King, Christian George
Pordage, Mr Commissioner
Tott, Bell (Isabella or Belltott)