Silver Donald Cameron

The Sea Cook of the Schooner

August 1, 2010

I read Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous when I was a boy, and I loved it. It was among the books that shaped my life by fuelling my interest in the sea, and in fishing, and in schooners. Later, after moving to a fishing community and actually meeting some of the men who had built and sailed the saltbankers, I read it again. That’s probably 30 years ago now, and I might see it differently today, but I still thought it was a fine book.

The essence of the story is simple. A spoiled young man named Harvey Cheyne Jr. is travelling with his wealthy family on a luxury liner from Europe to New York. As the ship crosses the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Harvey falls overboard. He is rescued by the Gloucester fishing schooner We’re Here, whose skipper, Disko Troop, tells him flatly that they’re not taking him ashore till they’ve filled their holds with fish sometime in the fall. In the meantime he can earn his room and board by working as a fisherman.

The boy is furious, and he resists and complains — but ultimately, for once in his life, he has to do what he’s told. Naturally, the impact on him is profound. He grows up and fills out both in body and in soul, and he learns how to conduct himself as a man among men. He develops a deep respect and affection for the working men he lives with, and when he’s eventually returned to his family, the spoiled boy has become a capable and responsible man.

When I read it the second time, I was struck by the book’s fidelity to reality, and by the really specific references — one decrepit schooner goes by, “full of gin and Judique men,” says Disko Troop, not the only reference in history to a certain Cape Breton predilection for the sauce. But when I read that the cook on the schooner was a Gaelic-speaking black man from Cape Breton, I thought that Kipling had trusted his imagination too far. No doubt Kipling knew that Cape Bretoners spoke Gaelic, and that Nova Scotia had a large black population. So he added two and two and got five.

I was wrong. Kipling was right.

Since then, I’ve run across the story of the black Gael in several places and in several forms. As I understand it, the story begins in Halifax, where Captain David Smith, the patriarch of Port Hood, met a black orphan boy on the docks, took him home, and raised him with his own family. The boy — whose last name was Maxwell — grew up as a Gaelic-speaking Cape Bretoner and married a black woman from Guysborough County. According to a 2003 article by Rannie Gillis recently re-printed in the Gaelic magazine Lasag, the Maxwell family lived on Cameron’s Island, just off Marble Mountain. Among their children were twin brothers named George and John, both of whom went to sea on separate fishing schooners.

The two had never experienced racism in Cape Breton, says Gillis, but the international schooner fishery was a different environment. Though the twins were big men, George was retiring, while John was more assertive. When the two met on the Banks one day in their dories, George complained about the harassment he was getting from two new crew members. John suggested they switch clothes and dories, and he returned to the ship in George’s place.

When the two new crewmen taunted him, John taunted them right back. When one of them rushed him, John flattened him. When the other one attacked, John knocked him cold.The next day the twins met again and switched back. Neither was ever harassed again.
Some time later, George Maxwell met Kipling in Gloucester, and the two spent several evenings together. Kipling was fascinated by Maxwell’s experiences, and the result was the black, Gaelic-speaking sea-cock of the We’re Here — the one I thought was impossible.

W.O. Mitchell once said that in a work of fiction, every single word is the literal truth, and the whole damn thing is a lie. Yes, I actually know that. And so did Rudyard Kipling.

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