The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Captain Kettle Adventures (1895-1938)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Captain Kettle Adventures were written by C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne and began with the serial “The Great Sea Swindle” (Answers, 1895). The British Hyne (1866-1944) wrote widely, producing still-remembered books of fantasy (The Lost Continent, 1900), science fiction (Empire of the World, 1910) and secret service/adventure stories (his Major Colt series, collected in The Escape Agents ). Hyne was one of the most prolific writers of early magazine science fiction. He was a skilled and entertaining writer and in no way deserves his current obscurity, and the Captain Kettle stories are great examples of what Hyne was capable.
Captain Owen Kettle is an English ship's captain without a ship. He hires himself out to anyone who will pay him and who owns a ship; Kettle has a wife and children who he loves, and he has to support them in whatever way he can. The payment is the thing, for Kettle; the morality of the job itself does not bother him. He is willing to run a blockade shipping arms to rebels in Cuba, as long as he gets paid. But Kettle is unfortunate in his choice of ships, and his best efforts usually go unrewarded:
“He was the man who lost the Doge of Venice, and since then he’s never had another ship.”
“Poor devil! Yes, I know. That Doge of Venice case was an awful scandal. Owners filled up the Board of Trade surveyor to the teeth with champagne, or she’d never have been passed to sea. As it was, she’d such an unholy reputation that two crews ran from her before they could get her manned. She was as rotten as rust and tumbled rivets could make her, and she was sent to sea as a coffin ship to earn her dividends out of Lloyd’s. Kettle had been out of a job for some time. He was a desperate man, with a family depending on him, and he went as skipper, fully conscious of what was expected of him. He did it like a man. He let the Doge of Venice founder in a North Sea gale, and, by a marvelous chance, managed to save his ship’s company. At the inquiry, of course, he was made scapegoat, and he didn’t contrive to save his ticket. They suspended his master’s certificate for a year. On the strength of that he applied to owners for maintenance, putting it on the reasonable claim of services rendered. Owners, being upright merchants and sensible men, naturally repudiated all knowledge or liability; said he was a blackmailing scoundrel as well as an unskillful seaman; and threatened him with an action for libel. Kettle, not having a solitary proof to show, did the only thing left for him to do, and that was eat dirt or subside. But the incident and the subsequent starvation haven’t tended to sweeten his temper. Latterly he’s been serving as mate on a Pacific ship, and he was just a terror with his men. He simply kept alive by carrying his fist on a revolver butt. There isn’t a man who’s served with Red Kettle three weeks that wouldn’t have cheerfully swung for the enjoyment of murdering him.”1
Hyne has a good touch at description and puts his knowledge of the sailor’s life to good use in the Kettle stories. The Kettle stories are well-written examples of Victorian sea fiction and have a certain pleasing sardonic wit. What really sets the Kettle stories apart, however, is the character of Kettle himself. He is a short, cigar-smoking, red-bearded, pugnacious, brutal character but not entirely without a conscience. He says of himself,
I quite well know the kind of brute I am; trouble with a crew or any other set of living men at sea is just meat and drink to me, and I'm bitterly ashamed of the taste. Every time I sit underneath our minister in the chapel here in South Shields I grow more ashamed. And if you heard the beautiful poetical way that man talks of peace and green fields, and golden harps, you'd understand.2
Kettle has a conscience, but the only way he knows to rule a crew is through fear, and he must be brutal to do that. When faced with a mutiny he is willing to kill the mutineers:
That evening the crew came aft in a state of mild mutiny, and Kettle attended to their needs with gusto.
He prefaced his remarks by a slight exhibition of marksmanship. He cut away the vane which showed dimly on the fore topmast truck with a single bullet, and then, after dextrously reloading his revolver, lounged over the white rail of the upper bridge with the weapon in his hand.
He told the malcontents he was glad of the opportunity to give them his views on matters generally. He informed them genially that for their personal wishes he cared not one decimal of a jot. He stated plainly that he had got them on board, and intended by their help to carry out his owner's instructions whether they hated them or not. And finally he gave them his candid assurance that if any cur amongst them presumed to disobey the least of his orders, he would shoot that man neatly through the head without further preamble.3
Later, when the crew attacks him as he is sleeping,
he woke before their fingers touched him, broke the jaw of one with a camp stool, and so maltreated the others with the same weapon, that they were glad enough to run away even with the exasperating knowledge that they left their taskmaster undamaged behind them.4
These passages are indicative of the brisk style, vigorous energy, manly environment, and general level of entertainment of the Captain Kettle stories. The Captain Kettle stories were an immediate hit for Pearson’s when they began appearing there in 1897.
According to the Times obituarist, Kettle was second only to Sherlock Holmes in popularity amongst the reading public at that time, and it was thus Hyne who boosted Pearson's circulation and cemented its reputation. Pearson would later acknowledge that Hyne, and in particular Kettle, was the main factor in the magazine's success. The character appealed to Pearson as representing the true British spirit, able to stand up and fight when circumstances required. Throughout its formative years Pearson's would push this message.5
Regrettably, as Gary Hoppenstand notes, “the Captain Kettle stories...are indeed full of racist and nationalistic stereotypes, but Captain Kettle himself is drawn as a racist, nationalistic stereotype, and a rather amusing one at that...Cutcliffe Hyne intended his Captain Kettle stories to be a humorous diversion laced with satire, and not to be taken seriously."6 However, this satirical approach may well escape modern readers, who consequently might take offense at the stories’ racism and apparent promotion of an imperialist/colonialist mindset.7
Interestingly–especially in light of Hyne’s authorial intentions–the Captain Kettle stories had an influence on a contemporary who would later be criticized for racism and imperialism.
“The Transfer” is not the only Cutcliffe Hyne story that resembles Heart of Darkness. G. Peter Winnington discovered that Conrad also drew on the Hyne stories that appeared in Pearson’s Magazine from 1897 to 1898 (later collected in The Adventures of Captain Kettle  and The Further Adventures of Captain Kettle ). Winnington’s thorough and convincing demonstration of Conrad’s many borrowings from Cutcliffe Hyne and the close parallels between “The Transfer” and Heart of Darkness suggest that the vexed and contested politics of the text— the subject of so many papers, essays, and books— must first be viewed as generic, as the politics of what Patrick Brantlinger aptly calls “the Imperial Gothic...”8
Such things are to be expected from the vast majority of late-Victorian popular entertainment. Whether or not they negate the otherwise plentiful pleasures of the Captain Kettle stories is for the reader to decide.
Print: C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne, The Adventures of Captain Kettle. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2010.
1 C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne, Honour Among Thieves (London: Chatto & Windus, 1895), 41-42.
2 C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne, “The Guns for Cuba,” The Adventures of Captain Kettle (New York: A.L. Burt, 1912), 3.
3 Hyne, “Guns for Cuba,” 13-14.
4 Hyne, “Guns for Cuba,” 16.
5 Mike Ashley, Age of the Storytellers: British Popular Fiction Magazines, 1880-1950 (London: British Library, 2006), 160-191.
6 Garry Hoppenstand, Perilous Escapades: Dimensions of Popular Adventure Fiction (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018), 64.
7 For a greater examination of this element of the Captain Kettle stories, see Robert H. Macdonald’s The Language of Empire: Myths and Metaphors of Popular Imperialism, 1880-1918 (New York: Manchester University, 1994), 217-221.
8 Richard Ruppel. A Political Genealogy of Joseph Conrad (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), 59. The G. Peter Winnington article referred to is “Conrad and Cutcliffe Hyne: A New Source for Heart of Darkness,” Conradiana 16, no. 3 (1984): 163-182, unseen by me.