The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Corsair King (1852-1853)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Corsair King (original: A kalózkirály) was created by Mór Jókai. Jókai (1825-1904) was one of Hungary’s greatest novelists, described as equal parts Dickens, Scott, and Dumas père. Although Jókai was enormously prolific, producing hundreds of novels, only a fraction of his output has been translated into English, and that in poor translations. The Corsair King is a disappointing pirate story.

Jókai based The Corsair King loosely on the life of Bartholomew Roberts (1682?-1722), the Welsh pirate known as “Black Bart.”

The Corsair King is only remotely based on the facts of Roberts’ life. The novel follows the career of “Robert Barthelemy” from his beginning as a pirate captain to his bloodthirsty apex to his death in battle. Jókai’s Barthelemy did not initially intend to become a pirate. He went to sea to earn money as a humble sailor, to feed his mother and grandmother and to provide for his fiancée, all three of whom live in a poor section of Haiti. Barthelemy was a good sailor and enjoyed the nautical life, but his ship was attacked by pirates and the entire crew, save Barthelemy, was killed. Barthelemy fought well enough and carried himself defiantly enough that the pirate captain decided to capture him and try to persuade him to join the pirates. Barthelemy was initially hesitant, but after seeing “honest” sailors flee from the pirates rather than fighting them he was persuaded to join them. He joined under a new name, however, so that his family and fiancée would never learn what he became.

During an attack on a ship Barthelemy’s pirate captain is killed. Barthelemy, who is popular with the crew, is elected captain, and he leads the pirates on a series of daring and profitable raids. Barthelemy’s dilemma is that he cannot give his family and fiancée the money he wins as a pirate, because he cannot bear to give them money won by bloodshed. Then the slaves on Haiti revolt, and Barthelemy’s home is burned down, and when Barthelemy returns to Haiti he finds no sign of his family and fiancée, leading him to think that they were slaughtered. Barthelemy becomes cruel and cold after this, no longer showing mercy to his victims (unless they’re women, who he continues to treat well). He is especially vicious toward blacks. Eventually Barthelemy and his crew become internationally infamous and are hunted by the navies of many nations. Barthelemy learns that his family and fiancée, thinking him dead, had relocated to Dublin, and his fiancée had married someone else. Barthelemy then dies in a raid.

The Corsair King is a poor place to start reading Jókai, because he is ill-served by his translator and because in the novel Jókai is under the influence of Walter Scott (see: Waverley), and for the worse because of it.

One must set aside whatever loathing one has for Scott’s prose and give him and it credit for resonating with readers around the world. Scott’s Scots nationalism resonated with readers, especially those in regions and nations dominated by other regions and nations.

Scott’s devotion to history was, in the age of European Romanticism, a surefire means of his adoption into the debate over the national self, and what constituted it¼in Scott’s historical novels, writers across Europe could find analogues for the historic struggles of their own societies, and (in cases like Hungary’s) develop a fictional articulation of the anteriority of the national self for the first time in their history.1 

In Hungary, the initial attempt at translating Scott into Hungarian in the 1820s was a failure, but “by the 1830s and 1840s familiarity with Scott’s novels gradually became a precondition of partaking in social life.”2 Jókai—only twenty-six when he wrote The Corsair King—“tried his hand at most of the styles and subgenres of contemporary fiction,”3 including the style of Scott’s historical romances. The end result was The Corsair King, which is generally seen as one of Jokái’s apprentice works and a minor effort compared to his more nationalistic historical romances. The Corsair King is a short novel–191 pages of large type–and Jókai packs a lot of incident into those pages. Unfortunately, this rate of speed is achieved at the cost of characterization and emotional involvement. Although some of the scenes, such as St. Elmo’s Fire leaping across the masts of Barthelemy’s ship, are vividly drawn, too many fall into the this-happened-and-then-this-happened-and-then-this happened style of storytelling. For a few moments Jókai strains for affect, but generally this is a novel of shallow characterization and empty incident. Although Jókai does not spare the blood and death of the pirates’ life, and even has some stranded pirates seriously consider cannibalism, the novel puts forth a romanticized version of piracy, with Barthelemy behaving hopelessly and unrealistically noble and the life of the pirates rather jolly and occasionally blithely cruel, rather than the desperate and psychotic thing it was in real life. Jókai, a keen student of other writers, learned the wrong things by intently studying and imitation Walter Scott.

The Corsair King is of some slight interest in its portrayal of piracy. The current scholarly emphasis on portraying the violent and brutal aspects of historical piracy is a relatively recent phenomenon. A romanticized depiction of piracy is a much older tradition, dating back to the seventeenth century and the “Golden Age” of piracy. In 1929 one historian put it well: pirates “offered Europe, at a moment when the formalism of the classic revival seemed to be banishing adventure, a dream world founded upon fabulous stories, astounding fortunes, heroic deeds, and orgies of the camp.”4 This “dream world” continued, largely unabated, into the nineteenth century, when the newly-forming bourgeois class created

imaginary alter egos that help him accept the libidinal restrictions of his everyday existence. In this context, the alleged freedom and might of the pirates serve the same purpose as Hollywood action heroes or the Marlboro Man—not exactly characters suitable as radical role models. In the end, romanticized notions about golden age piracy might often play more into the hands of economic exploitation than into those of radical activists.5 

However, alongside this heavily romanticized image of piracy was the reality that, well into the nineteenth century, “transplanting Atlantic cargoes remained risky¼moreover, rather than confronting pirates, British officials dealt with the problem of piracy in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries primarily through accommodation.”6 So early- and mid-nineteenth century novels of piracy, which had functionally gotten their start as entertaining variations on the novels of sea adventure made so popular by James Fenimore Cooper (see: The Last of the Mohicans) in his The Pilot (1824) and The Red Rover (1827), and which emphasized the romance and glory of life as a corsair, had to overcome the real-life loathing of pirates—still active in the Atlantic up through the mid-1850s—with the power of historical romances. Which they succeeded in doing, on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the land-locked European countries like Hungary.7 The Corsair King is part of this pre-Treasure Island trend.

Sadly, though, The Corsair King is a heap of tedious writing—too close to the arid dullness of Scott himself—and poorly-served by its translator.

Recommended Edition

Print: Mór Jókai, The Corsair King: A Kaloz Kiraly. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2012.



1 Murray Pittock, “Introduction: Scott and the European Nationalities Question,” in Murray Pittock, ed., The Reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe (New York: Continuum, 2007), 6.

2 Emilia Szaffner, “The Hungarian Reception of Walter Scott in the Nineteenth Century,” in Murray Pittock, ed., The Reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe (New York: Continuum, 2007), 141.

3 Szaffer, “The Hungarian Reception of Walter Scott in the Nineteenth Century,” 154.

4 Maurice Besson, “Introduction,” in Maurice Besson, ed., The Scourge of the Indies: Buccaneers, Corsairs and Filibusters (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1929), xf.

5 Gabriel Kuhn, Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age Piracy (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010), 4.

6 Guy Chet, The Ocean is a Wilderness: Atlantic Piracy and the Limits of State Authority, 1688-1856 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2014), 2-3.

7 Margaret Cohen’s The Novel and the Sea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2010) is very good on this.

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