Sunday, November 18, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #13: Le Chancellor

Charleston, September 27th, 1869.—It is high tide, and three o’clock in the afternoon when we leave the Battery-quay; the ebb carries us off shore, and as Captain Huntly has hoisted both main and top sails, the northerly breeze drives the “Chancellor” briskly across the bay. Fort Sumter ere long is doubled, the sweeping batteries of the mainland on our left are soon passed, and by four o’clock the rapid current of the ebbing tide has carried us through the harbour-mouth.

But as yet we have not reached the open sea; we have still to thread our way through the narrow channels which the surge has hollowed out amongst the sand-banks. The captain takes a south-west course, rounding the lighthouse at the corner of the fort; the sails are closely trimmed; the last sandy point is safely coasted, and at length, at seven o’clock in the evening; we are out free upon the wide Atlantic.

The Chancellor, also known in English as The Survivors of the Chancellor, is not widely read in English, but it has always had a good critical reputation as one of the great novels about disaster at sea. J. R. Kazallon, whose diary we follow, is in South Carolina and heading home to Britain. He could go to New York or New Orleans to catch a steamship, but walking by the quays, he decides instead to take a sailing ship -- The Chancellor, a British ship heading home with 1700 bales of cotton in its hold. It will turn out to be an unfortunate notion. While it's a rare occurrence, cotton can spontaneously combust if conditions are right, and one of the other passengers turns out to have illegally been smuggling potentially explosive picrate of potash. What is worse, the captain seems to be suffering from a mental illness and has decided to take them off the usual route. Disaster after disaster will strike; a ship with thirty-two people on it becomes a raft with fewer and fewer people, on the verge of death, running out of food, running out of water, despairing of rescue, going mad. In such a situation, can any human being avoid being reduced to a beast?

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