Richard Hughes

A High Wind in Jamaica

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A High Wind in Jamaica Summary

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A High Wind in Jamaica is a 1929 novel by Welsh author Richard Hughes. First titled The Innocent Voyage, it concerns a young girl named Emily Bas-Thornton and her four siblings, John, Edward, Laura, and Rachel, whose lives on a Jamaican plantation are interrupted when a hurricane decimates their home. Their parents send them home to England on a ship that is then commandeered by pirates. The novel departs from traditional, one-dimensional models of the courageous and innocent child protagonist, for whom the audience is meant to become sympathetic. The children do anything they can to survive, actively reject their innocence, and even commit murder and occasionally turn on each other. The novel has been adapted into several films and radio and stage adaptations.

A High Wind in Jamaica begins sometime after the British Empire abolished slavery in 1834. A hurricane hits Jamaica, destroying the Bas-Thornton plantation. Placed in a dire living situation, the children’s parents put them on the Clorinda, a ship sailing to England headed by Captain Marpole. There, they meet two creole siblings, Harry and Margaret Fernandez. Not long after departure, the ship is approached by pirates, who claim they merely intend to take their cargo and refund its rightful owners. Once aboard the ship, they threaten to kill the children and force Captain Marpole to open the safe. The pirates take the children to their ship to serve them dinner, and Captain Marpole escapes, believing they have died. He writes a letter to their parents communicating this.

The children soon befriend some of the pirates, including the cook, José, and the first officer, Otto. The chief pirate, Captain Jonsen, especially favors Emily. Their first stop is Santa Lucia, where they sell the stolen goods. Captain Jonsen tries to get a rich lady to adopt the children, but she refuses. That night, José takes the children off the ship; they wander the island, and John tragically dies from a fall in a shipyard warehouse. Emily, Edward, Rachel, and Laura, instantly repress the memory of their brother, while Captain Jonsen mourns him. When they set sail again, Captain Jonsen makes a sexual advance towards Emily, which she fearfully rejects. Rachel accidentally injures Emily’s leg, and Captain Jonsen houses her in his cabin. Margaret, meanwhile, begins to sleep with Otto.

The pirates grow desperate for a successful capture, and finally, overtake a Dutch ship transporting exotic animals. They instigate a fight between a tiger and a lion for their entertainment. The captured Dutch captain pleads with Emily to release him, then sees a knife and advances towards it. Emily grabs the knife and kills him. When the pirate crew comes back to their vessel, they assume the able-bodied Margaret is the murderer, and toss her overboard. Luckily, some pirates are still rowing back to the ship, and they save her.

Captain Jonsen tries to stick the children with a steamship that passes by alleging that they were found abandoned in Cuba. Initially, the children stick to the captain’s story and travel aboard the new ship, where they enjoy great luxuries. However, Emily lets slip that their former vessel was run by pirates. The steamer’s captain notifies the British government, which captures the pirates and schedules a trial. When the children finally return to their families, they appear unchanged by their voyage, aside from Margaret, who has gone insane. Emily has almost completely repressed her memory of the murder she committed, and the younger siblings have forgotten most of the voyage.

The family’s lawyer recommends that only Emily should stand witness for the pirates’ trial. He drafts her a statement to deliver in court affirming that the pirates did not harm them. However, once in front of a jury, Emily breaks down and states that she witnessed the murder of the Dutch captain (though she is unable to assert her responsibility). As a result, the pirates are declared guilty and executed. The siblings return to school, and the traumas they suffered remain somehow invisible to the naked eye. A High Wind in Jamaica neither absolves nor condemns its child protagonists; instead, it relays their struggles matter-of-factly, forcing readers to make their own judgments.