by Andy Beau
F. (Francis) Van Wyck Mason (1901-1978) wrote many adventure short stories for the pulps, such as Argosy, and also novels. These were in the mystery/intrigue and historical genres. Many of his historical tales told of adventures during the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and other events during that time range. In the 1950s, he rewrote and expanded some of his Argosy serial stories from the early pulps into full novels. The historical swashbuckler, Captain Judas, is just such a novel. It was originally written as a serial in several of the 1931 Argosy pulp issues. My 1955 edition states that it ‘has been completely rewritten’ by Mason.
Captain Judas begins in 1805 in New York City. Sitting at a local tavern located in the shipping docks area, Captain Amos Trent and his veteran seasoned first mate, Scottish immigrant Davey MacCord, are discussing the shipping of goods on their merchant ship, the Medea. After a minor tavern fight among other patrons, noise outside of a loud mob-like scuffle draws Trent’s attention. He realizes that an unruly mob is harassing a young man and a young woman, obviously from the very well-to-do part of town. A fight breaks out between the wealthy man and the mob. Trent sees the couple and is instantly smitten with love for the young woman. He comes to their rescue and joins in the fight against the mob:
Finally, using a ruse, he is able to scatter the mob. He is invited by the wealthy young lady, Dorothea, to an afternoon meeting at her house. Before going to Dorothea’s house, he discovers that she is the daughter of the banker and sister of the banker's son who were instrumental in his losing his commission in the U.S. Navy. However, he attends what turns out to be an afternoon party with many young wealthy guests. One of the guests is Sally, a friend of Dorothea, who immediately latches onto Trent. Trent tries to soon leave but ends up in a pistol duel with Dorothea’s brother who was the cause of Trent’s Navy dismissal. Again, with another ploy, Trent manages to escape being killed in the duel and also not having to kill the brother.
Trent is fed up with what he thinks was a trick by Dorothea to embarrass him at the party and decides to never see her again. He has critical cargo which he must quickly deliver to Spain, and with the help of his first mate and others, prepares to set sail. Because of circumstances, Dorothea, Sally, and Sally’s father, also a banker, have booked passage on Trent’s ship to also travel to Spain.
In the Atlantic, as they near Spain, a large English warship forces them to stop and allow English officers and marines to board their ship. The English at this time in history were in the habit of impressing American sailors on the high seas. This was the act of kidnapping American sailors to use as virtual slaves on British ships, under the guise that they were actually British deserters. Since America was such a young country at the time, it could do nothing to prevent this. In this case, the British happened to impress all the experienced cannon-crew of the Medea, much to Trent’s heated protests.
Shortly after this, the Medea, still sailing in the Atlantic toward Spain, is pursued by three pirate ships from the Barbary Coast of North Africa, manned by corsairs, the name that the Barbary pirates are known by. These are large feluccas with triangular lateen sails and many cannon along their red-painted sides. Because of the impressing of Trent’s experienced cannon-crew, he is forced to use inexperienced sailors as cannon-crews and, thus, is able to put up only a short, fierce fight.
However, the battle was soon over, and Trent, his ship and crew, were shortly captured. The Medea’s men know that their lives will be torturous and short-lived as either oar-slaves on corsair ships or slaves digging in the mines of North Africa.
The corsair admiral of the three ships is a fair-skinned, blond-bearded, blue-eyed renegade Scotsman named Gregory Lisle. He was a British Naval officer captured in the past by the Barbary pirates. But he accepted the chance at a better life than as a slave by appearing to convert to the Moslem religion and sail as a pirate against his fellow Westerners (Europeans and Americans). The term ‘Captain Judas’ was applied to this type of traitorous sea captain. The name ‘Judas’ comes from the name of the apostle who traitorously identified Jesus Christ for crucifixion.
Lisle realizes that he has also captured two prized women on the Medea in the persons of Dorothea and Sally; women who will bring high bidding in the slave markets of Tripoli. Trent is anxiously trying to think of a plan to rescue them from the degradation and suffering of the slave markets and the eventual imprisonment in a sultan’s harem.
The women are stripped naked on the deck of the ship to the gawking and ogling of the pirates. But Lisle tells Trent that nothing will happen to them because they will bring a higher bid if they remain ‘virgo intacto’, as Lisle describes it. Trent is then sent to the oars as a slave and rows for many tortuous days as the ships sail the Mediterranean to eventually dock in the city of Tripoli’s harbor.
Later, Trent is summoned from the dungeon he’s been thrown in to Lisle’s meeting room in his palatial residence.
Trent convinces Lisle that the women are worth much more in ransom than being sold on the slave block. Trent is later introduced to the ruler of the city, the Bashaw of Tripoli, who is always looking for converts among the Western infidels. Trent sees that his “conversion” could help in his rescue plan. Then, extremely reluctantly, he feigns becoming a Moslem convert and pirate, and thus earns for himself the name ‘Captain Judas’ from the American slaves who don’t yet know of his rescue plans.
Trent then attempts to execute his daring plan of escape for his men and the two women, hoping that by some hand of Fate or God it will succeed and that he will finally be with the woman he loves.
Mason has taken what otherwise might have become a good, traditional Caribbean pirate story and made it even more exciting and interesting by having the pirates come from an exotic locale, the Barbary States on the north coast of Africa. Also, the pirates are not of a traditional European, Christian background, but from other groups of peoples from Africa and Arabia: Berbers, Moors, black Africans, Arabians, etc. They are of a completely different religion (Moslem) and culture, and wear clothing consisting of turbans, fezzes, flowing robes, capes, pointed curled slipper-like footwear, etc. Their palaces are like something out of the Arabian Nights. Also, their swords are somewhat curved like scimitars, and their brightly painted ships use triangular lateen sails instead of the Western square sails. Adding the exotic to a standard tale can make it a more appealing and fascinating story for the reader, which Mason has certainly accomplished.
Mason writes in a straight forward style that keeps the tension and excitement going, even when there is no physical confrontation, such as when Trent is trying to leave Dorothea’s party without getting into several fights, or when Trent is trying to quickly get his ship ready to leave for Spain in order to beat another ship there.
An interesting side note is that the events in this novel occurred at about the same time as the U.S. Marines invaded another town in the eastern part of the state of Tripoli as part of the American effort to force the corsairs to stop their piracy. This event has been incorporated in the Marine Corps Hymn, "...to the shores of Tripoli...." However, this particular event is not a part of this story.
Now to the covers, which I always feel should convey accuracy at least in the main points of the story. The Argosy cover is basically accurate except that it shows a larger Western ship in the background instead of a smaller Barbary one. The paperback cover has some major discrepancies. One is that the blond man in the foreground being held with a knife pointed to his side is supposed to be Trent. However, he looks more like Lisle, the blond Scottish renegade corsair admiral. Trent is better drawn in the Argosy cover in that he is described in the story as having ‘chestnut’ hair (a deep reddish-brown).
The pirates on the paperback cover are pictured as typical Caribbean-styled pirates dressed in American/European shirts and pants, with tricorn hats, head bandannas, and stocking caps. However, the cover should have shown the Barbary pirates as depicted in the corsair pictures displayed in this review, with billowy pants and turbans and fezzes.
The partially inaccurate covers notwithstanding, this is a unique swashbuckling historical pirate tale set in an exotic locale, told in an exciting and colorful style.
I’d like to thank David Edwards for his photo scan of Mason and the Argosy cover scan. He has also written a biography/bibliography of Mason and his works located at Wikipedia, “The Free Encyclopedia,” on the web. This site contains more detailed information on Mason, which was extremely helpful in writing this review.
This book can be found on Abebooks.com and other used book web sites for a few dollars.
Forgotten Stories of Fantastic Sword-fighters.