Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) was an incredibly prolific writer of novels, short stories and nonfiction works. Even people who think they’ve never heard of him may well be familiar with the movie versions of some of his writings: Captain Blood, Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk and The Black Swan.

sea hawkTHE SEA HAWK (1915) – In the late 16th Century, English gentleman Sir Oliver Tressilian is betrayed into galley slavery by his jealous half-brother Lionel. After a time, the galley on which Oliver has been condemned to serve as an oarsman is raided by Barbary Corsairs in the Mediterranean Sea.

Our main character and other survivors of the pirate attack are given the usual “convert or die” ultimatum by their Muslim captors, and the embittered Sir Oliver is content to embrace Islam and serve as a corsair himself. His leadership abilities and seafaring savvy let him rise to command of his own pirate ship and he becomes infamous as Sakr-el-Bahr, the Hawk of the Sea.

sea hawk againEventually, the Sea Hawk and his crew carry out a raid to capture his treacherous half-brother Lionel and Rosamund, the woman they were both in love with. Lionel has lied to Rosamund over the years, convincing her that Oliver murdered her brother, even though he himself is guilty of the crime.

Sakr-el-Bahr makes Lionel a rowing slave on his corsair vessel and, to save Rosamund from the lecherous designs of the Pasha (Basha) in Algiers, marries her. The rest of the story involves Oliver/ Sakr-el-Bahr trying to keep Rosamund and himself alive amid the schemes and intrigues of the Pasha and his son Marzak while preying on Spanish, French and British shipping in the Mediterranean.

Added complications arise from British sea captains eager to capture and hang our main character, but everything leads to one of Sabatini’s (mostly) typical happy endings. There were silent film adaptations of the actual story of The Sea Hawk, but the 1940 production starring Errol Flynn changed the Barbary Corsair angle and instead used the Spanish Empire as a substitute for the Axis Powers, since World War Two was raging. 

scaramouche againSCARAMOUCHE (1921) – This novel’s opening line was the most quoted from all of Sabatini’s works – “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Those words are also the epitaph on the author’s tombstone.

The story begins in 1780s France, as the inevitable French Revolution is fast approaching. Young French lawyer Andre-Louis Moreau is a life-loving man who tries not to trouble himself over the abuses of the ruling class and the increasing political tension.

Moreau’s closest friend Philippe de Vilmorin is an idealistic firebrand who is regarded with suspicion and hostility by the aristocrats, who fear his charisma and eloquence make him dangerous. The villainous Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr has a peasant shot for killing a deer on the Marquis’ land in order to feed his family.

scaramouchePhilippe speaks out against this act, labeling it a murder, thus giving the Marquis and his peers the excuse to kill him. La Tour d’Azyr slays Philippe in a sword fight, shaking Andre-Louis Moreau out of his complacency. To avenge his fallen friend, he adopts his cause and strikes at the ruling class in any way he can.

From there, readers are treated to Moreau secretly hiding behind the identity of the masqued Scaramouche character in a traveling Commedia delle’arte troupe. Andre-Louis also uses his uncanny skill with a sword to whittle down many of the evil aristocrats and in his lawyer role wages legal and political warfare against the ruling class oppressors.

Amid his vendetta and the historical events of the time period, our hero also finds love with two women – the “bad girl” Climene from the Commedia delle’arte and the “good girl” Aline, whom Moreau has loved for years. Naturally, Scaramouche ends up with the good girl in the end. 

tavern knightTHE TAVERN KNIGHT (1904) – Early and crude Sabatini novel set during the English Civil Wars (1642-1651). The title character is Crispin Galliard, a soldier on the Cavalier side in the conflict. He was nicknamed “the Tavern Knight” because of his hard-drinking & carousing nature combined with his impressive abilities on the battlefield. 

Crispin becomes involved in a mission to help the future King Charles the Second escape from the Parliamentarian (Roundhead) forces. As the story rolls along, readers learn the secret sorrows and hatreds that bubble beneath Galliard’s surface persona.

tavern knight againThe Tavern Knight himself is really that staple of swashbuckling fiction – the secret nobleman unjustly robbed of his position and estate. While pursuing his Royalist mission and his personal agenda, Crispin encounters Kenneth, a religious zealot among the Roundheads who becomes an uneasy ally of sorts.   

SPOILERS: Well, sort of. It’s easy to guess that Kenneth turns out to be the title character’s long lost son. Crispin had been trying to fix up Kenneth with the beautiful Cynthia, but has wound up in love with her himself. However you think this romantic triangle will end, it’s not likely that you’ll correctly guess the actual resolution.

Sabatini would later do much better variations on this type of story, but there’s a certain rough force to The Tavern Knight, which was only his second novel. A silent film version was produced in 1920. 

black swanTHE BLACK SWAN (1932) – Set around 1680, this novel introduced readers to the beautiful Priscilla Harradine, daughter of the recently deceased Governor of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies near the Caribbean Sea. With her father dead, Priscilla is being accompanied back to England by Major Bartholomew Sands, an oafish and selfish officer who wants to marry the wealthy Priscilla and live off her inheritance.

The pair set sail on the ship the Centaur, and one of their fellow passengers is a mysterious Frenchman who catches Priscilla’s eye. When the Centaur is attacked and boarded by the pirate crew of the Black Swan, captained by Tom Leach himself, the Frenchman, Priscilla and Major Sands are the last three standing.

black swan againThe mysterious Frenchman saves all their lives by revealing himself to be the former pirate Charles de Bernis, who served under the notorious Captain Henry Morgan. The wily Charles persuades Tom Leach to refrain from killing any of them in exchange for leading their captor to a Spanish ship laden with treasure.

Most of the story takes place on board the Black Swan and on a small remote island where further intrigues unfold. As Major Sands reveals more and more of his true nature, Priscilla is drawn more and more to the pirate with a heart of gold Charles.

Needless to say, the cunning Charles ultimately turns the tables on Leach and gives in to his feelings for Priscilla, despite his initial belief that she is too good for him. The Black Swan is one of Rafael Sabatini’s most accessible novels for current day readers due to the strength and intelligence of Priscilla Harradine and the way the sexual tension between Charles and Priscilla reminds many of the Jack Sparrow/ Elizabeth Swann dynamic from the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

love at armsLOVE AT ARMS (1907) – The full title of this novel is Love-At-Arms: Being a narrative excerpted from the chronicles of Urbino during the dominion of the High and Mighty Messer Guidobaldo da Montefeltro. As that title indicates, this tale unfolds in Italy during the very late 1400s when Guidobaldo da Montefeltro ruled in Urbino.

Our hero is Count Francesco del Falco, dismissed by his family when he refused to rule over an offered dukedom, preferring the action that was to be found at the head of mercenary soldiers in the field. Francesco’s destiny is changed when he is hired to protect the beautiful, courageous and resourceful noblewoman Valentina from a forced political marriage to the Duke of Babbiano … del Falco’s own cousin.

love at arms other coverThat heroine’s father wanted her to marry in order to cement an interfamily alliance against the powerful Borgias, but the willful Valentina fled, and the story eventually finds her, Francesco and her loyalists holed up under siege in a castle that is long past its best years.

Amid the many dangers inherent in protecting Valentina from the troops of the man selected as her husband, Francesco struggles to keep his outnumbered soldiers from giving up the fight and to maintain the crumbling defenses of the ill-suited edifice. As if the external threats weren’t bad enough, treachery lurks inside the besieged castle from another of Valentina’s suitors, who wants her for himself.

Francesco and Valentina find love during this grand adventure, which features a main cast of fictional characters in the foreground, and in the background historical names like the Gonzagas, the Sforzas and the aforementioned Borgias.

venetian masqueVENETIAN MASQUE (1934) – During the Reign of Terror in 1790s France, Marc-Antoine Villiers de Melleville, half English and half French, is betrayed into the hands of the tribunals by his former steward, a man named Camille Lebel. Marc-Antoine escapes death on the guillotine but is presumed dead amid the chaos.

Fleeing to England, our hero agrees to work against the French and their emerging military champion General Napoleon Bonaparte. He is dispatched to Venice to work as a spy, but unluckily encounters Lebel along the way. Marc-Antoine kills Lebel in the resulting battle and assumes his identity with the Venetian authorities.

venetian masque againJuggling his impersonation of Lebel with his assigned espionage duties and intrigues for Great Britain, our main character works against the forces of the Reign of Terror in general and the invading Napoleon in particular. While instigating and aiding guerilla opposition to Bonaparte’s army near Venice, Marc-Antoine is reunited with his long-ago love Isotte Pizzamano, who has been forced into an unwanted engagement.

Regular readers of Sabatini will know that, though Marc-Antoine and Isotte cannot change the course of history by definitively thwarting Napoleon’s campaigns, they can emerge from the adventure with a happy ending for themselves.

captain bloodCAPTAIN BLOOD (1922) – Rafael Sabatini’s most popular and adapted hero. The author revised several of his Captain Blood short stories from 1920 and 1921 into novel form for this work. The Irish Doctor Peter Blood cares for some wounded Monmouth rebels following the Battle of Sedgemoor in July of 1685.

Like a long ago Dr. Mudd, Peter is judged to be as guilty as the rebels themselves just for tending their wounds and is sold into slavery and deported along with them by King James the Second’s government. While serving as a slave in Barbados, Blood’s intelligence and medical skills make him stand out and he is soon granted assorted privileges by his owner, Colonel Bishop, the Royal Governor.

captain blood againOur hero fascinates Bishop’s niece Arabella, who sympathizes with Peter over his unjust condemnation. When Spanish pirates raid Bridgetown, Peter Blood and several fellow slaves, among them skilled seamen, seize a Spanish ship commando style and sail off to become pirates themselves.

Captain Blood’s former experience as a ship’s captain in the Dutch navy years earlier helps make him the scourge of the high seas. Loyalty to Great Britain prompts him to spare English ships while viciously preying on Spanish shipping.

In 1689, Captain Blood is pardoned by the new rulers of England – William and Mary. When he saves Jamaica from a Spanish invasion, he is also appointed the new governor of the British colony, marries Arabella and shows leniency to her deposed uncle.   

captain blood returnsCAPTAIN BLOOD RETURNS (1931) – Over the years, Sabatini had written additional Captain Blood short stories, all of them set during his pirate career of the 1680s. Ten of those stories were used in Captain Blood Returns.

THE FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD (1936) – Seven more previously published Captain Blood short stories were collected in this final volume of the pirate’s adventures. One of them sets its action in 1690 in spite of Blood’s pirate career ending in 1689.

scaramouche the kingmakerSCARAMOUCHE THE KINGMAKER (1931) – So-so at best sequel to the 1921 novel. In this story Andre-Louis Moreau, whom you’ll recall was motivated by vengeance and not loyalty to the French Revolutionary cause, switches sides and plots to destroy the Revolution and restore the monarchy. Not much to root for there. Aline is back as his love interest.





Filed under opinion, Pulp Heroes


  1. Thank you for this!! I had heard of Captain Blood and Scaramouche but not the others and I certainly did not realise their stories were so relatively recent!

  2. It amazes me how such prolific writers–probably at the front of mind for lots of readers during his lifetime–drift into invisibility. I’ve never heard of Sabatini and look at all the books he’s written!

    • I know what you mean! I only got into him as a kid because I like swashbuckler stories and a few Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power pirate movie reruns had Sabatini’s name in the credits. And this post barely scratches the surface of his works!

  3. Charlee: “Our Dada says we have to ask if Scaramouche can do the fandango.”
    Chaplin: “We have no idea what he is talking about.”

  4. I’m currently reading a naval book called “The King’s Own” that was written in the 1830s. I have no idea where I got it. It’s not exactly a swashbuckler but it’s interesting as a historical curiosity …

  5. I’ve never heard of this author and glad you mentioned Sabatini’s books turned into movies!

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