WHH Short Fiction: “The ‘Prentices’ Mutiny”

Review: “The ‘Prentices’ Mutiny”, William Hope Hodgson, 1912.

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Cover by Jason Van Hollander

This is something of the quintessential non-fantastic Hodgson sea story. It’s got his siege plot, and it touches on Hodgson’s unhappy days as apprentice seaman in the Mercantile Navy.

First published in 1912 as a serial in Wide World Magazine and sometimes known as “Mutiny”. Jeremy Lassen says in his introduction to The Ghost Pirates and Other Revenants of the Sea: Being the Third Volume of the Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson that the promotional copy and framing of the story on its first publication strongly suggested it was a true story. It was published in three installments.

Two apprentices, Harold Jones and Mercer Kinniks aged 15 and 16 respectively, are brutalized by Captain William Beston, Second Mate Jan Henricksen, and Bo’sun Carl Schieffs. The First Mate, Robert Jenkins, is decent enough, but he’s not in charge and not around the boys all the time. The boys are abused in various ways. (No, there is, of course, no mention or hint of sexual abuse.) The able-bodied seamen are of divided about how well the apprentices are treated: maybe they’re uppity or need to be “handled” a bit, or they are maltreated.

In San Francisco, six more apprentices are taken aboard. They hear about the bad life on the ship from the first two apprentices. (It’s noteworthy that Wyckliffe, aka Jumbo, is described as an “exceptionally powerful young man” and is perhaps Hodgson’s alter ego.) The apprentices form a compact. If any of them is mistreated, they will stand up for their rights.

The Second Mate kicks one of the apprentices. He calls for help, and the Second Mate is told by the apprentices they won’t stand for being mistreated. This doesn’t impress the Second Mate. In a fight with the three ship officers, two of the apprentices are beaten very badly, and three are put in irons and put in the lazarette.

Apprentice Larry Edwards (aka Tommy Dodd for some reason) learns from the steward that the beaten two apprentices, put in their bunks, may die.

A plan is hatched.

The three chained up apprentices (and they are chained up in a very uncomfortable position and the captain intends on having them whipped) are freed, stores of food and water laid in, guns secured or disabled by the apprentices, and the six apprentices hole up in a steel house on deck.

Over four days, the captain tries to displace them with a fire house, break down the house, and eventually firearms are used (first by the Captain’s forces and the First Mate is worried that the apprentices will be murdered). Eventually, the Captain tries to use a cannon on them unsuccessfully. Then the house is blasted.

The apprentices win though.

The Captain takes a bullet to his shoulder. The Second Mate is deafened and blinded from the explosions. The Bo’sun, says the First Mate, will stay clear of them. One sailor has his fingers crushed. There is a humorous bit about this: “He cease, sailor-like, I suppose – to think overmuch about the matter”. The Second Mate gets sight back in one eye. The Bo’Sun loses his right middle finger, is wounded in the shin, and his face caught shrapnel when the breech of the cannon blew up when it was fired. We hear the Bo’Sun is eventually killed in some underground chamber in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

It does not end well for all the apprentices though. One of the two severely beaten ones, Darkins, does recover but, a week after returning home, falls from “aloft” and dies. The narrator suspects his beating damaged his brain though he can’t prove it.

Hodgson ends the story, as he does with a couple of others, with a paragraph that the events he’s related prove that things do still happen at sea nowadays.

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