"My freedom? Ah! Yes, of course, I'm your prisoner."
"Not my prisoner, mademoiselle, you belong to my crew. If it were up to me, I would put my best longboat and my most trusted men at your disposal and have you and your women taken to the nearest port, but I cannot exempt myself from the laws of the Brethren of the Coast."
She smiled at the Corsair's chivalrous words.
"I would have found it hard to believe that a nobleman from the Duchy of Savoy had become a simple robber of the high seas."
"A robber of the high seas!" he exclaimed with a frown. "If you knew how many avengers there were amongst them! Montbars the Exterminator fought to avenge the poor Indians slain by Spanish greed. Who knows, perhaps one day you'll learn why a nobleman from the Duchy of Savoy has come to these waters. Your name, mademoiselle?"
– The Black Corsair, Ch. 11
Pirates have long fascinated audiences across the globe. Whether one first encountered them in film or print, Treasure Island or Pirates of the Caribbean, it is likely that they have left an indelible mark. Pirates can stand in for most anything, from being a symbol of a yearning to break social constraints to an earlier manifestation of state-sponsored terrorism (see the English privateers of the 16th and 17th century and the Barbary States of the 17th-19th centuries) to even being guardians of our climate (or so the Pastafarians hold). Although I am not taking sides on the Pirate vs. Ninja debate (despite my avatar being a ninja squirrel), a well-told pirate tale, regardless of the role the pirates play, certainly can provide hours of entertainment.
Outside of Treasure Island and a few stories that reference it, I somehow managed mostly to avoid reading pirate tales (I still have never seen more than a few minutes of any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), so when I was challenged to read two novels by Italian writer Emilio Salgari, The Black Corsair (1898) and Sandokan Fights Back (1907), I found myself with few preconceptions of what would be involved, outside of a presumption of action/adventure. What I discovered were two sharply written tales, suitable for both preteens and adults alike, that had a deeper social commentary than I expected.
The Black Corsair is the opening volume in a series of tales surrounding a Savoyard nobleman of the late 17th century who seeks revenge against a Spanish/Flemish governor of the Venezuelan port of Maracaibo for the betrayal of his family and the subsequent deaths of his three brothers. This corsair, who perhaps is a stand-in for the author (his name is Emilio), is courteous towards friends and foes alike, but is also driven by his oath to rid the world of the family of the traitor Van Guld. The action unfolds quickly, interspersed with references to buccaneer life on the isle of Tortuga (north of Hispaniola) and the motives that have driven otherwise peaceful sailors and farmers to take up arms against the colonial powers. Salgari's characters are broadly drawn, yet with nuances, such as the Count who first frees Emilio and then feels compelled to oppose his attempt to capture the Spanish flag during an important battle. Yet, as was often the case in late 19th century adventure/sensationalist novels, there was a dualism of power/oppression and rebel/repressed at play that manifests itself beyond the personal battle between the Black Corsair and Van Guld. Consider the quoted passage above. Salgari grounds this swashbuckling tale in a larger historical narrative, that of those who benefit and those who are exploited by mercantilism. There are references to real events and people (Henry Morgan appears in a few key scenes and several of the events that take place in this 1696-era story, such as the sacking of Maracaibo and the Venezuelan Gibraltar, actually did occur) and Salgari's focus on the heroic qualities of these pirates makes them sympathetic for readers.
One of the few flaws in The Black Corsair lies in its use of now-stock melodramas, such as the jungle expedition that involves cannibalistic Arawaks (despite later evidence that such historical charges were false), fierce jaguars, and later with the climatic battle, that today feels somewhat clichéd due to host of other stories that relied upon a similar plot device. Furthermore, the story ends abruptly, due no doubt to Salgari's intention to write a series of novels devoted to the exploits of the Black Corsair in opposition to Van Guld's machinations. Yet the frustration I felt after reading the concluding chapter (first in Italian, then in English translation) took a backseat to that vague yearning that I felt to see if I could track down e-book copies of the other volumes in the Corsair series.
Popular as the Black Corsair series was (the first volume sold an unprecedented 80,000 copies in Italy in 1898), Salgari's reputation rests largely upon the enduring success of his Sandokan series, set in a vividly-imagined (and barely accurate) late 19th century Malaysia/South Indian Ocean. Featuring an exiled prince, Sandokan (the Tiger of Malaysia) as a pirate who has declared vendetta against the English, especially the "white rajah" James Brooke (an actual historical person/ruler), the Sandokan novels have enjoyed greater popularity in non-colonialist nations due to their raising up of a non-white to the status of the hero, while having the villains be predominantly the European powers (particularly the British) and those who collaborated with them.
It is harder for me to say much about Sandokan Fights Back, because it is the seventh volume in an eleven-volume series. What I could tell, having read it in Italian and watching a 1964 movie based upon it, is that it is similar in structure to The Black Corsair in its depiction of a noble rogue who has turned to piracy as a means of taking the fight to the evil occupying power. Sandokan, however, is a more interesting character, due to his origins and how his struggle against the English serves as a powerful indictment of the then-current practice of neo-colonialism (it should be noted with some irony that around the time of the first Sandokan novel's publication, in 1895, Italy had begun its own lurching path toward becoming a minor colonial power in East Africa and later in Libya). At times, Salgari verges toward being too one-dimensional in his condemnation, but this is mitigated by his excellent use of both action and exposition to set up the concluding events in this volume. Although it too ends with a pause rather than a full denouement, Sandokan Fights Back left me wanting to read more in the series.