A DARWINIAN SCHOONER (1893) – Written by William Alden. With the latest Planet of the Apes movie hitting many theaters today I figured it was a good time to post a review of this story that’s in a similar spirit.
The tale starts on board a 22-man ship called the Jane G Mather. This vessel is 500 miles or so west of Cape Saint Roque in Brazil when the 2nd Mate – Mr Samuels – catches sight of a schooner barely a mile off.
The schooner has full sails on but keeps listing to and fro almost as if its crew were novices or drunk. After two hours the Captain – Bill Simmons – takes an interest in the careering ship in the distance since it is clearly a potential threat to sea traffic.
Captain Simmons has Mr Samuels round up an away team consisting of Samuels himself and four other men. They are to board the errant vessel and advise the captain to get his crew and his ship under better control. Soon, Samuels and his four men pull alongside the schooner and are shocked to see nothing but large monkeys – baboons, Samuels guesses – aboard the ship.
The 2nd Mate of the Mather is unnerved at the sight and by how calmly the baboons watch him and the rest of the away team board the ship. The primates make no sound and do not jump around or otherwise behave like real monkeys, if you know what I mean and I think you do.
Samuels and his fellows, surrounded now by the curious baboons, make their way to the quarterdeck where they find a white-haired old monkey sitting regally. This monkey’s air of authority is disquietingly like a human captain. Jokingly, Samuels asks the monkey if it is indeed in charge of the vessel.
The monkey seems to understand and politely bows. Presently the other four men with Samuels advise him there are no humans anywhere on the schooner, neither above decks nor below. The baboons – except for the dignified old “captain” – begin making mournful sounds.
Mr Samuels and his men determine that the simian “crew” have been without water for days, since the only open cask is empty and the baboons apparently did not understand how to open the other casks. Our main character opens one of the others and the monkeys frantically drink their fill, even the white-haired chief.
Chalking up the odd behavior of the animals to their dire thirst Samuels and company grow less wary. He discusses taking the ship into Rio de Janeiro for salvage. His old friend Liverpool Dick – no relation to Spastic Colon – agrees with the plan.
Captain Simmons gives his ascent and sends two more men over to help his Second Mate and Liverpool Dick take over the ship for sailing to Rio, where they can file a claim on the salvage proceeds and then rejoin Captain Simmons and the rest of the crew on the Mather.
By nightfall Samuels and Liverpool Dick have lost all sight of their original ship. Periodically the baboons gather around Old Whitey as if awaiting orders but their Captain gives no signals and the others return to quietly watching the humans.
As the hours roll by Samuels and Liverpool Dick notice that the ship’s log is missing AND both lifeboats are still on board. Our heroes begin to suspect the baboons did away with the original crew, a feeling that seems confirmed when they discover that the primates have hidden various firearms around the ship.
More and more frequently the white-haired monkey seems to be issuing orders to the baboons. The primates are caught trimming the sails and showing other signs of intelligence when they think no one is looking. The “captain” is caught with a concealed knife and is angry when the humans take it away from him.
The monkey business (sorry) grows more frequent, with the white-haired captain caught trying to steal Mr Samuels’ charts and the baboons showing more and more signs that they know a great deal more about sailing a ship than animals could be expected to.
When land is sighted off in the distance the primates choose that night to strike, apparently wanting to be in control of the schooner as it reaches port. The baboons, coached by their white-haired chief, attack the humans, tearing the throats out of some crew members and tossing them overboard.
The bulk of the men are driven before the assault of the baboons and are herded into the hold, then locked in. Samuels and Liverpool Dick are the last humans left on deck fighting the mutinous monkeys.
Dick is bloodied and in dire straits when Samuels at last manages to shoot the white-haired monkey dead as well as a few others. The remaining baboons seek cover below deck.
Samuels and Dick free the captive crew members, who were on the verge of suffocating and the terrified men stay awake and together the rest of the night. Come morning the schooner pulls into Rio de Janeiro, at which point the baboons rush from below deck screaming.
Luckily they race past the surviving humans and leap ashore before disappearing into the jungle. Mister Samuels and Liverpool Dick rally their men and convince them to say absolutely nothing about the baboons and their seeming leader.
The men all stake their salvage claims, which we are told finally get paid to them about a year later. Nothing more was ever heard of about the murderous, intelligent baboons.
Overall, A Darwinian Schooner has a fun, eerie kind of A Cold Night’s Death feel to it but set on a ship. The ending is a bit of a let down since most readers probably expect all of Rio de Janeiro to turn out to be in the hands of intelligent monkeys, thus dooming our protagonist and his men.
This is a diverting – but far from high quality – short story. +++
FOR TEN MORE EXAMPLES OF ANCIENT SCIENCE FICTION CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2014/03/03/ten-neglected-examples-of-ancient-science-fiction/
FOR WASHINGTON IRVING’S 1809 depiction of an invasion from the moon click here: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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