I came across Diamond Rock a few weeks ago, in a pile of books simply labelled “Antique” in the corner of one of my favourite bookshops. As you might imagine, such a sign and such a pile is the literary equivalent of catnip to me and so I dived and I rummaged and I came out with a pile of very tiny treasures. I’ll introduce you to some more of them over the next few weeks (and I’ll also introduce you to the most delightfully hideous edition of the Pennington series by KM Peyton that I’ve ever seen) but for now, I’m all about Diamond Rock by J. Macdonald Oxley.
First published in 1894, Diamond Rock is the story of Dick Freeman and his life in the British navy. It’s the sort of story that makes me want to write BRITISH and NAVY in CAPITAL LETTERS because it is VERY PROUD OF IT’S BRITISHNESS, as indeed so many of the books of these were at that time; the British are the BRITISH who have COME TO SAVE THE DAY, everything’s appallingly racist and grotesquely colonial, and it’s up to Dick – a proto-Hornblower – to save the day. His best friend – slightly feeble Arthur Tenderley – helps him on the way, as do the men who recognise Dick’s excellent and noble qualities and do their best by him because he is that sort of a good chap. Also Admiral Lord Nelson pops up for a superbly overwrought cameo. So far, so hideous, right?
Clearly this is all pretty hideous and yet, Diamond Rock is told with a fierce verve that makes it work. Of course this does not excuse the other qualities, and I don’t ever seek to do that in the books I talk about here, but it’s important to recognise this book for what it is: this made boys go to sea. It probably helped those same boys go to war only a few years later. Every inch of it tells of an adventure that is literally waiting to be had for the reader. And when you’re on this adventure, it will be perfect: everyone will worship you, everyone will adore you and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to surrender to the French who will admire your plucky defense of the island fort and allow you to keep the colours and thus, your honour.
What mattered it that these bronzed, haggard, weary men, who seemed to be under the command of a bit of a boy, were their hereditary enemies, and had just cost them many lives and done them heavy damages? They were true warriors not-withstanding; and so, snatching off their caps, officers and soldiers with one accord sent up a cheer that awoke the echoes of the farthest crag. It was the spontaneous tribute of brave hearts to brave hearts and many an eye in the garrison dimmed with tears.(p281).
I read a lot of ‘Girl’s Own’ literature, but Diamond Rock is ‘Boy’s Own‘ down to it’s very bones. The good boys are noble, upper class figures who respect their mother and don’t drink. The bad boys do not. The indigenous peoples are depicted in appalling tones. Slavery is depicted as something fine if you’re nice to your slaves (!), but if you’re not then it’s not great but hey, back to sea with you. It’s eye-opening stuff but it’s also important to recognise that these attitudes existed and for many readers of that generation, they began in the nursery. Dick is something of a Mary Sue; everything happens well for him, and he is beloved by all. He is an ideal of a very specific type of boyhood and I imagine this book made a thousand little boys want to be him.
Here’s Dick being saved from a shark. For a while I thought it was a giant trout or something but no, apparently it’s a shark. It has just bitten his foot:
Though it was first published in 1894, my edition is somewhere from the 1930s. I suspect it was republished into the 40s, judging by the state of some of the jackets on Abebooks. If you’re interested in Boy’s Own literature, naval stories featuring Plucky and Brave Boys Who Love Their Dearest Mamma, or Super Racist Colonial Boy’s Adventures, it’s worth picking up a copy. Even if you don’t pick it up, I think it’s still important to realise the place that books like this had in the world. Stories like these helped build the British Empire, a very specific form of the patriarchy, and some deeply problematic attitudes that I think we’re still wrestling with in this post-Brexit world we live in. Sometimes children’s books from over a hundred years ago can be of more relevance than we think and the importance of taking the “right tack” cannot be underestimated.