The Buccaneer in Nineteenth Century America

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Photo Credit: sdigitall/Depositphotos.com 

If you’ve read the first book of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, you might already be familiar with the term “buccaneer” as it pertains to the 19th century and to the Gilded Age in particular. Early in the book, there is gossip amongst the Nob Hill blue bloods about Malcolm Alderdice, the patriarch of the Alderdice family, and his rise in business and society:

“Oh, that poor Penelope, the woman was such a lamb!

“Too good for him for the likes of her father’s clerk, to be sure. Can’t think why she married him.”

“Oh, that’s obvious, my dear. Where there’s money to be had, rest assured, the buccaneer shall have it.”

“True, Catherine, true. And who can say how far the buccaneer will go to make himself one of us?”

So the buccaneer was a popular image in the 19th century Gilded Age, especially in the realms of the public sphere.

Ever since I started writing historical fiction, definitions and word origins fascinate me, and the word “buccaneer” is no exception. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term as “any of the freebooters preying on Spanish ships and settlements especially in 17th century West Indies” (“Buccaneer”, n.d.). This is the way I think many of us picture the buccaneer — something off of a pirate ship, a bad guy who looks like Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.

But in the 19th century, the word took on the more figurative meaning that exists today in our modern world which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “an unscrupulous adventurer especially in politics or business” (“Buccaneer”, n.d.). As I mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age here, the 19th century was a time when big businesses were built, millionaires were made, and corruption and graft abounded. It wasn’t just about spending money in an excessive, lavish way. It was also about making it — any way you could, whether it skirted the laws of fair trade or not.

In this atmosphere, the modern buccaneer was born. Ambitious, ruthless, and driven, the buccaneer was a wheeler-dealer whose only interest was getting ahead and making money. Thus, he often used unscrupulous business methods. Probably the most infamous of these in the 19th century were the Robber Barons. These were men like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and J.P. Morgan. In San Francisco, there were specifically four heavy hitters who made up the railroad Robber Barons: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis P. Huntington. 

We do, however, want to consider that these men, while ruthless in business, also did some good works. Many had the “pay it forward” attitude, and some of America’s most impressive institutions and cultural centers were built from their initiative. For example, Leland Stanford served as governor of California and instituted forest conservation and, as a believer in education, oversaw what is now San Jose State University and, of course, founded Stanford University.

And, interestingly, the term began to acquire less negative connotations around the mid-20th century, at least in Britain. According to this article from the BBC, several powerful corporate businessmen saw the term as connoting qualities of daring, adventure, and innovation.

While Malcolm Alderdice is not on the scale of Stanford or Carnegie, San Franciso society is none too keen to accept him into the fold, and this is part of the Alderdice family struggle in the series. There’s also another buccaneer who appears in Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women. His name is Monte Leblanc, and he’s referred to by a minor character as “our cousin, the Canadian buccaneer”. His cousin (one of the San Francisco social matrons) insists he made his fortune “without ruffling any feathers”. Whether that’s true or not remains a question in the novel.

You can read more about Pathfinding Women, which will be out next month, here. You can also learn about Malcolm Alderdice and his buccaneering ways in Book 1 of the series, The Specter, which is currently on sale for 99¢. And if you want to know more about the series in general, including Book 4, which will be coming out at the end of 2020, you can go here.      

Want more fascinating information about history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited:

Buccaneer. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/buccaneer.

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The Story of Actaeon

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Photo Credit: Diana and Actaeon, Francesco Albani, 1617, oil on copper, Louvre Museum, Paris, France: JarektUploadBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

For Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, False Fathers, the mythical hunter Actaeon and the story of Diana and Actaeon become metaphors in the book. At one time in the writing process, they were so important I gave the book the title Tales of Actaeon. I talk about that a bit in this blog post. In order to understand how the metaphor is important in the novel, it’s necessary to know a little about Actaeon and the myth.

In the book, the male secret society that plays a role in Jake’s coming-of-age is named The Order of Actaeon. When I was looking to name the fraternity, I had the idea of using a mythical character that represented some of the fraternity’s values and also lent itself to the theme of masculine identity, which is so prevalent in Jake’s story. I came upon the story of Actaeon, the grandson of Thebes’ founder and first king. I was intrigued by Actaeon for several reasons. Unlike many mythical characters, he is rather a mystery. Little is known about him except that he was a hunter and well trained by the centaur Chiron. He’s identified as a Theban hero, but there is no record of a specific deed or act of heroism on his part (at least, none that I could find). All accounts of him focus on the same thing — his encounter with Diana (Artemis) and his fate in her hands.

Diana was known as the virgin goddess of the hunt. She abhored the idea of marriage, and she and her maidens were none too kind to any man who dared try and court them. Her life was about freedom and independence, as this suited her wild nature. Any man who tried to mess with her or one of her maidens did so at his peril. 

The story goes that, one day, Actaeon was wandering in the woods with his dogs and came upon Diana and her maidens bathing naked in a stream. As noted above, Diana and her nymphs were modest ladies, and the idea of a man invading their private sanctuary did not please them. Diana, in her rage, splashed water into Actaeon’s face and cursed him. Almost immediately he began to sprout horns and, within moments, he had turned into a stag. Stumbling back into the woods, he came upon his hunting dogs (which, according to some accounts, number in the 20’s). They did not recognize their master and took him as game, jumping on him and devouring him. Thus, the dogs the hunter had trained to kill had now turned him into the hunted.

The story is generally considered to be a metaphor for human sacrifice to the mythical gods and goddesses. But to me, this is too simplistic a reading. Diana didn’t sacrifice Actaeon — she punished him for daring to impose upon her and her maidens in their moment of nakedness. He compromised their chastity, and this was severe enough to warrant his fate in Diana’s eyes. So there is quite a feminist side to this story when we look at it in modern terms.

How much Actaeon was responsible for his own end has been highly debated. Many versions of the myth show Actaeon as an innocent victim of Diana’s wrath, a hunter who was just wandering around the forest and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, others point out that Actaeon was known for his arrogance and predatory skills (both with game and women), and he may had had a rivalry going on with Diana, since they were both skilled hunters. It would stand to reason that, as hunting is generally considered a “manly” sport, Actaeon would deem himself as the superior hunter to Diana.

In False Fathers, the idea of the hunter plays a role in the theme of masculine identity in the Gilded Age, which is Jake’s is struggle. The fraternity he is invited to join capitalizes on the character of the hunter as part of their masculine identity — cunning, wily, skilled, but also ethical in terms of how and why they hunt. Hunting was more accepted as a necessity for many living in rural 19th century America than it is today, so it would have been more about utilitarianism than sportsmanship. The Order of Actaeon believes in all this, so much so that hunting is one of their main fraternal activities.

There are also some references to the myth of Diana and Actaeon in the characters of Vivian and Stevens, the older man who becomes Jake’s father figure in the book. Stevens sees Vivian, with her rebellious nature, as a modern-day Diana. In fact, he refers to her often as “Diana with her crown of thorns.” Vivian, in turn, reminds him that the wrath of Diana is nothing to be toyed with, referring to the story of Actaeon’s fate:

[Stevens] then turned to Larissa and Marvina and explained, “I told Jake his painting of his sister matched my impression of Diana, the Grecian wood nymph. I don’t think she cared for the idea.”

“You seem to have forgotten,” Vivian said. “That wood nymph turned a man into a stag and let his own hunting dogs eat him alive.”

Stevens looked at her with amusement and fascination, the turbulence gone. “She had good reason. Actaeon came upon her in the woods, and she was compelled to punish him for violating her chastity. If one has committed a crime or a sin, one must pay for it.”

These metaphors of Diana and Actaeon will come back in Book 4 of the series, Dandelion Children.

To read more about False Fathers, which will be out on December 29, 2019 and is now available for preorder, you can go to this link. I also have an excerpt from the book that involves Jake with The Order of Actaeon in my readers group here. And to read more about the characters in this upcoming book, you can check out the series page here.

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