The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Iron Pirate: A Plain Tale of Strange Happenings at Sea (1893)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Iron Pirate: A Plain Tale of Strange Happenings at Sea first appeared as “Captain Black” (Chums, Mar 1-Aug 2, 1893) and was written by Max Pemberton. Captain Black appeared in a sequel, Captain Black (1911). Pemberton (1863-1950) was a writer of over sixty novels, the editor of Chums and Cassell's Magazine, director of Northcliffe Newspapers, and founder of the London School of Journalism. He was knighted in 1928 for various good works.

The Iron Pirate is about Captain Black, a pirate. Years ago he grew wealthy on the proceeds of a Michigan copper mine, but after the death of his son he turned bitter and misanthropic and decided to punish mankind. He used his wealth to build a special ship, and with it rules the seas, sinking everything he can reach. Black’s ship, which is never given a name in The Iron Pirate, is made of “phosphor bronze,” a special super-tough metal that shines and gleams like gold. The ship is a “great, well-armed cruiser” with cannon and machine guns. It is gas-powered and is capable of great speed.

Black sails under two flags: one Chilean (much to the surprise of the Chilean government, who have no connection with Black) and one black. After Black captures a ship he loots it and then sinks it. He takes the ship’s survivors those on the ship he takes to his hidden port in Greenland where they are forced to work to death in Black's coal mines. Black’s nautical depredations eventually lead to an attack by the European countries united against him. At the end of the novel Black’s ship is sunk and he is presumed dead. In Captain Black he returns with a Nautilus-like submarine.

The Iron Pirate was an enormous success for Pemberton and Chums: "Of The Iron Pirate [Captain] Shaw recalled in 1958, 1Max Pemberton’s “Iron Pirate” seemed the be-all and end-all of a boy’s existence, who couldn’t run fast enough to the local newsagents to get the next issue, almost hot from the press.'”1 

The Iron Pirate was a departure for Chums and for its publisher, Cassell.

Very few [publishing] houses…were willing to even entertain a manuscript which differed from current fashions: school stories were all supposed to model themselves on Tom Brown’s Schooldays...adventure tales were expected to follow the patterns which W.H.G. Kingston and R.M. Ballantyne had set in the 1850s.2 

What followed Iron Pirate in Chums was a virtual updating of adventure stories for young men, with authors like John Bloundelle-Burton (see: In the Day of Adversity) and story paper regulars like Stacey Blake writing new and in many cases contemporary-seeming adventures.

Modern readers are not likely to find The Iron Pirate nearly so entertaining as its original audience did. Pemberton’s Jewel Mysteries I Have Known has far more wit and life in it. Captain Black is a rather grim and ruthless character whose actions are large indefensible—one wonders what parents thought of their children reading The Iron Pirate. The Iron Pirate is a graceless, charmless sub-Vernean (see: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) sea adventure that readers are encouraged to skip.

Recommended Edition

Print: Max Pemberton, Iron Pirate: A Plain Tale of Strange Happenings on the Sea. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.



1 Jeffrey Richards, “Popular imperialism and the image of the army in juvenile literature,” in John M. MacKenzie, ed, Popular Imperialism and the Military: 1850-1950 (Manchester: Manchester University, 1992), 101.

2 Patrick A. Dunne, “New Grub Street for Boys,” in Jeffrey Richards, ed., Imperialism and Juvenile Literature (Manchester: Manchester University, 1989), 18.