09 April 2012

Cruising Toward Cannibals with Grant Allen



The Cruise of the Albatross;
   or, When was Wednesday the Tenth?
Grant Allen
Boston: Lothrop, 1898

I've never bothered with the stories in The Boy's Own Annual – the pictures are more than enough fun – but I imagine they read something like this very slight Grant Allen novella. Cannibals, slave traders and a powerful thirty-pound brass gun are just a few of its many attractions.

The Cruise of the Albatross begins aboard same with the sighting of a small boat bobbing in the Pacific Ocean.  Ship's captain Julian Braithwaite sets out for the lesser vessel and finds "two white-faced lads, apparently twelve or thirteen years old, dressed in loose blue cotton shirts and European trousers". The pair cling to life, but manage to convey that their missionary parents and siblings are captives of cannibals on the far off island of Tanaki. Barring an act of divine providence or earthly daring-do, all will feature in a feast to take place on "Wednesday the tenth".

Julian is a good man – he once risked his life to free forty or so kanakas from slavery – so it comes as no surprise when he sets course to save the boys' parents. The captain's brother figures they'll arrive just in time:
Jim took out a piece of paper and totted up a few figures carelessly on the back. "We've plenty of coal," he said, "and I reckon we can make nine knots an hour, if comes to a push, even against this head wind. To-day's the sixth; that gives us four clear days still to the good. At nine knots, we can do a run of two hundred and thirty-six knots a day. Four two-hundred-and-thirty-sixes is nine hundred and forty-four, isn't it? Let me see; four sixes is twenty-four, put down four and carry two; four three's is twelve, and two's fourteen; four three's is twelve, and four two's - year that's all right: nine hundred and forty-four, you see, exactly. Well, then look here Julian: unless Tanaki's further off than nine hundred and forty-four nautical miles, - which isn't likely – we ought to be there by twelve o'clock Wednesday, at latest.
Anyone familiar with adventure stories will recognize Jim's calculations as more than mere filler. Time is not only of the essence, it is central to both plot and plot twist. When Was Wednesday the Tenth? – the alternate title – gives away something of the latter. I'll go a bit further and spoil things for the well-read by revealing that the story's twist owes everything to Around the World in Eighty Days.


This is a late Victorian story, complete with heavy, politically incorrect steamer trunks and other musty baggage. Thus, Allen writes about the sensitive European nostril and sharp Polynesian eyes. When ship's boy Nassaline, speculates that the two boys had run away because they feared being eaten by their own kind, Julian responds:
It's my belief, Nassaline, we'll never make a civilized Christian creature of you, in a tall hat, and with a glass in your eye. You ain't cut out for it, somehow. How many times have I explained to you, boy, that Christians never cook and eat their enemies ? They only love them, and blow them up with Gatlinojs or Armstronos – a purely fraternal method of expressing slight differences of international opinion....  
I omitted to have remarked to him (as I might have done) that I hadn't seen such a painful sight before, since I saw the inhabitants of a French village in Lorraine – old men, young girls, and mothers with babies pressed against their breasts – flying, pell-mell, before the sudden onslaught of a hundred and fifty Christian Prussian Uhlans. These little peculiarities of our advanced civilization are best not mentioned to the heathen Polynesian.
Now, I find myself wondering. Would a passage such as this have made it into The Boys' Own Annual, a publication of the Religious Tract Society?


Object: An attractive, slim hardcover in olive green cloth, my copy was purchased for $20 last month from a London, Ontario bookseller. The front free endpaper is signed and dated by a Marion Allen. I've not been able to determine whether this lady was in any related to the author.


Access: Held by most universities, the public libraries serving Toronto and Kingston, the National Gallery of Canada Library, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, but not Library and Archives Canada.

"An uncommon Allen title", claims one bookseller. Well... not really. More than three dozen can be bought online with Very Good copies going for under ten dollars. The print on demand folks have really moved in on this title, offering all sorts of ugliness at much higher prices.

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