The Dark Frigate




The Dark Frigate

by Charles Boardman Hawes

Age: 12+

Interests: ships, pirates, adventure, action, violence, travel, history, British history

Little, Brown and Company: 1924

246 pages, 24 chapters

Also by this author: The Mutineers

Next: Treasure Island (book or movie), Pirate Diary: the Journal of Jake Carpenter, The Coral Island

Wherein is told the story of Philip Marsham who lived in the time of King Charles and was bred a sailor but came home to England after many hazards by sea and land and fought for the King at Newbury and lost a great inheritance and departed for Barbados in the same ship, by curious chance, in which he had long before adventured with the pirates.

19-year-old Philip Marsham is an orphan who has spent much of his life at sea. Penniless on the road, he falls in with two seedy characters – buffoonish Martin and his wiser colleague Tom Jordan. Jordan takes his leave of them, and after several adventures Philip and Martin sign on as crew with the Rose of Devon. Before too long they are captured by pirates, and the leader of the pirates turns out to be Martin’s old associate Tom Jordan. Philip is forced to join the pirate crew, but resolves to escape at the first opportunity. The pirates attack several ships, plus an ill-fated raid on a village. Jordan disciplines a rebellious crew member, a young friend of Philip’s, who throws himself overboard, drowning to avoid a more painful death. Philip has had enough and steals away the next morning. He is found by a ship of King’s men, who then capture the pirates as well, and Philip is once more in their company as they face a London judge, charged with piracy. At the last minute, witnesses attest to Philip’s opposition to the pirates and he alone escapes the hangman’s noose. A free man, Philip returns to marry a serving girl he’d met at a country inn, only to find she’s married another. He then joins the cause of fighting for the King vs. Oliver Cromwell’s army. The book skips over the wars, save only to tell that the King is defeated and Philip finds himself alone, at the docks, ready to sail again to Barbados with the first ship he sees, which happens to be the old Rose of Devon, once again a legitimate trading vessel.

This is a ripping adventure yarn, not sparing on the violence, nor on unhappy events, as first the noble Captain Candle and then the brave young Will Canty are brutally killed by Jordan and his men. Philip returns to England, escaping execution, only to find he’s been jilted by his former flame, whereupon he joins the losing side in a war. The end of the book finds him rather disconsolate and without prospects, a surprisingly downbeat ending for an adventure story, though the vision of the dark frigate, the Rose of Devon, seems a harbinger of more adventures to come.

The highlights of this book include incredible historical detail about life in 17th century England. In particular the portrayal of the life of a sailor is incredibly vivid, gleaned as it was from the author’s painstaking research. Much time is given to nautical terms and descriptions, making this a great book for any sailing enthusiast, but the outdated language and unfamiliar vocabulary may discourage some.

There’s no romance in this volume, with its no-nonsense, gritty approach to the world and the hard characters on society’s lowest rungs. The buccaneers are not at all glamorized; they are brutal, violent, selfish, and often cowardly as well. All characters, large and small, are well-written and colourful, from a ranting madman met on the road (“Never was a man beset with such diversity of thoughts!”), to Tom Jordan himself, the ruthless, intellectual pirate captain.

This was only the author’s second novel. (The first being The Mutineers, 1920). Hawes died soon after The Dark Frigate was published, at the young age of 35, and his widow accepted the Newbery Medal in his honour.

For fans of Treasure Island and the like, this book has action enough to keep the reader involved, but the dated vocabulary and intense nautical minutiae may deter some. For historical detail it is marvellous, depicting the period and details of life at sea with great accuracy and vividness.

A challenging read with a bit of a slow start, but worth it for the incredible drama and adventure.

Opening sentence:

Philip Marsham was bred to the sea as far back as the days when he was cutting his milk teeth, and he never thought he should leave it; but leave it he did, once and again, as I shall tell you.

(available at


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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