Early Florida Fiction: The Florida Pirate

Early Florida Fiction: The Florida Pirate 2

Since its founding in 1883, the St. Augustine Historical Society has come to collect vast holdings of historically significant documents, books, and items. In honor of National Library Week, we will be highlighting a particularly interesting and unique fictional work from the 1820s, John Howison’s “The Florida Pirate, or, An Account of a Cruise on the Schooner Esparanza; with a Sketch of the Life of her Commander,” initially published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in April of 1821. John Howison was one of the magazine’s most notable authors, specializing in suspenseful stories. “The Florida Pirate” centers around the tale of a black pirate captain wrestling with his past enslavement and the rise of the United States in a Euro-centric world. Incorporating slave stories, traditional Gothic elements, and romance, the story became tremendously popular upon its release for audiences both in Europe and America. A short story at approximately eighteen pages in length, it is told from the perspective of a white European surgeon who accompanies the pirate captain, Manuel, on his schooner.

Through this literary work, John Howison addresses important topics of the time, such as slave violence, cruelty, and the roles of law, chivalry, and logic within society during the 1820s. The restlessness in England regarding abolition at the time of writing likely played a role in Howison addressing the topic of slavery, as did the continued brutality of the institution of American slavery. The language and approach used both bridges the gap between and takes inspiration from both European authors and early American authors. In a way, Howison’s work demonstrates a new sort of stylistic approach that was truly unique at the time, which would inspire later American authors, including Edgar Allen Poe. The narrative does not shy away from the horrors of chattel slavery nor the role of the pure white southern woman in American society. Captain Manuel’s stories about his life as told to the surgeon while aboard the schooner Esparanza serve as the lens through which Howison examines these topics. Once a slave on a large plantation in South Carolina, Manuel lost his right hand for striking his master, before hatching a plan with other slaves on the plantation to torch their master’s home and flee. After burning the man’s home to the ground, he and the others involved fled, eventually falling in with pirates and making new lives for themselves.

Of course, the tale is not without its fair share of traditional piracy escapades. The bulk of Howison’s work follows the surgeon, Manuel, and the crew on their raid of another ship in the Caribbean. Plundering it and taking captive some of its passengers, Manuel keeps a mortally wounded white man and his daughter safe at the behest of her pleas. The crew is eventually set upon by an American warship, which overtakes their schooner and captures them all. What stands out throughout this harrowing tale is Howison’s portrayal of Manuel as a pirate and the surgeon’s perception of him. While Manuel certainly exhibits instances of cruelty, he is hardly characterized as a brute, unlike his crew. He even shows mercy to those captured from the plundered ship, most notably the man wounded by one of his crewmen and that man’s daughter. During the voyage, Manuel and the surgeon converse quite often, treating one another as equals despite Manuel coercing the surgeon onto the schooner in the beginning. Manuel also raises interesting points about the relationships between whites and blacks during the early nineteenth century, as well as inequity within the law regardless of race. Overall, Howison’s work tackles important topics in a manner that keeps the reader interested and speaks to the difficulties of seeing the world with a “good and evil” mentality.

The copy of “The Florida Pirate” in the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library’s possession is an original from the 1820s, and is rather delicate due to its age. The reason we have chosen to highlight it is because it will be getting a full restoration soon, serving as a trial run to secure funding to continue restoring older books in need of major repairs and attention. Given that it is also National Library Week, we feel it only fitting to highlight another aspect of our collection- works of fiction concerning Florida as it was becoming part of the United States.

 

Sources Consulted

Howison, John. “The Florida Pirate.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (April 1821).

Howison, John, “The Florida Pirate” (1821). Early Visions Bucket. 47.

 

Written by Robert Covert