It really is amazing how one heroic young British naval officer could find himself involved in quite so many shipwrecks and kidnappings in such a short space of time. Naturally, he displayed fortitude and honour throughout. It’s also quite interesting to be told that South American independence was won not so much by the libertadores as by a few British sailors who went over there to help. Get the Copa Libertadores renamed the Copa Cochrane! Furthermore, the indigenous people of Peru would apparently have preferred it had Britain taken over Peru and ruled it with the same peerless justice and fairness with which she ruled India (er, even though Britain wasn’t even officially ruling India at this time, over 30 years before the Mutiny!). All right, you have to take G A Henty’s books with a large pinch of sodium chloride! However, they really are genuinely entertaining … ripping reads, in fact.
Our hero is Lieutenant Stephen Embleton, whose first experience of naval life is on a voyage to the Far East, where he’s involved in a shipwreck, finds some gold, heroically saves his friend from the clutches of local tribesmen, behaves with true honour towards a man who tries to kill him, and is eventually rescued. He then goes off to South America, with Admiral Lord Cochrane, the “Cochrane the Dauntless” of the title.
Cochrane’s a little-known figure these days, but he was a big hero in the 19th century, and is thought to’ve been the inspiration for the likes of Horatio Hornblower. He was drummed out of the Royal Navy after being, quite possibly wrongly, convicted of involvement in a Stock Exchange fraud (dodgy goings-on in the City are nothing new!) towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and he then became Vice Admiral of the Chilean Navy during Chile (spelt “Chili” in this book)’s War of Independence against Spain. He then took command of the Brazilian Navy, playing an important role in Brazil’s successful War of Independence against Portugal. Then, for good measure, he was one of the British naval officers involved in the fight for Greek independence against the Ottoman Empire, winning the crucial victory at Navarino. Victorian heroes: you’ve got to love them! They don’t seem to make ’em like that any more …
However, it’s Stephen Embleton, not Cochrane, who’s the hero of the book; and he actually spends much of his time in South America being involved in more shipwrecks, finding more gold, and being stranded in Peru, where he falls into the hands of the authorities. This is bad news: G A Henty was clearly not at all keen on the (white) Peruvians! (Note to self – need to try to find out if that was a common attitude in Victorian Britain.) The Chileans meet with his approval; the Spanish are tolerated; but the (white) Peruvians are a definite no-no. The Black Legend has crossed the Atlantic all right! The expression “priestly tyranny” is used, and the Inquisition are everywhere! Poor Stephen is about to be handed over to them but, luckily, his upright and honourable behaviour has won him the friendship of a gallant Spanish officer, who helps him to escape.
However, he then has to try to get back to Admiral Cochrane. He daren’t risk making for the Peruvian-Chilean border as that would look suspicious, so he has to head right across Brazil! To do this, he needs the help of two Indian (it doesn’t seem to be considered offensive to use the word “Indian” with respect to the indigenous peoples of South America) guides. These are our chaps who say that they wish Britain would take over Peru, as obviously Britain would treat the indigenous peoples there far better than either the Spanish or the white Peruvians! The ideals of the guides are pretty much the same as Stephen’s True British ideals of honour and comradeship and all the usual Victorian schoolboy hero stuff, in complete contrast to all the Black Legend stuff attributed to the white Peruvians. It’s not done in a patronising noble savage way: it’s done in a way that shows Henty’s genuine respect for and admiration for the indigenous peoples of Peru. Well, some of them, anyway, because some of the others kidnap Our Hero. However, he’s then rescued by his guides, who thus repay the debt they feel they owe from when he rescued one of them from a jaguar. As you do.
Stephen then learns than Admiral Cochrane is now in Brazil, and joins up with him again. Fortunately, that’s the end of the shipwrecks and the kidnappings, and Stephen returns to England (with his gold), is reunited with his dad, finds a wife and lives happily ever after!
Teachers would probably have forty fits if they found schoolkids reading something like this these days. Definitely not very politically correct – although the race and class prejudice in G A Henty’s books, written in Victorian times, is nothing like as objectionable as it is in, say, some of Enid Blyton’s books. And girls don’t get to do any of the heroic stuff at all! But there’s something about the heroism and the dramatic adventures and that idea of the sense of honour, of standing by your friends, or never lying or cheating, which is very attractive, and doesn’t deserve to be sneered at, or dismissed as being all sorts of wrong, in the way that it often is these days. As for Cochrane, what a shame that he’s largely forgotten in Britain now.
This sort of tale of derring-do isn’t very fashionable these days … but that, IMHO, is rather a shame.