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The Flag of Distress A Story of the South Sea   By: (1818-1883)

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The Flag of Distress, by Captain Mayne Reid.

This long and at times very amusing story starts off with the sighting of a barque under full sail in mid Pacific, and wearing the Chilian flag upside down. For a vessel to wear its ensign inverted is a known sign of distress, so that the British naval vessel that sights her has to try to board her, to render assistance. But the barque is a good sailer, and does not reduce her sail or heave to. She appears to have only two men on board, rather strangely dressed in reddish fur clothing.

How this strange state of affairs arose takes the whole book to tell. The captain of the barque and his passenger have been tied so securely that they cannot move; the crew are no longer on board; the two men in reddish fur turn out to be orang outangs.

Reid was an excellent writer, credited with being the first to write in the Wild West genre. This book, with its background of the sea, is out of his usual line, but it is nevertheless a quite brilliant book. You will enjoy the part of the story that takes place on the sea front of San Francisco of 1849.

It makes an excellent audiobook, if you can cope with the numerous words of unusual spelling, to represent the speech of illiterate seamen, and the Spanish words. The latter are also to be found in Reid's Wild West novels. For some reason Reid often uses a few French phrases, but that was not unusual at the time he wrote.




In mid ocean the Pacific. Two ships within sight of one another, less than a league apart. Both sailing before the wind, running dead down it with full canvas spread not side by side, but one in the wake of the other.

Is it a chase? To all appearance, yes; a probability strengthened by the relative size and character of the vessels. One is a barque, polacca masted, her masts raking back with the acute shark's fin set supposed to be characteristic of piratical craft. The other is a ship, square rigged and full sized; a row of real, not painted, ports, with a gun grinning out of each, proclaiming her a man of war.

She is one a frigate, as any seaman would say, after giving her a glance. And any landsman might name her nationality. The flag at her peak is one known all over the world: it is the ensign of England.

If it be a chase, she is the pursuer. Her colours might be accepted as surety of this, without regard to the relative position of the vessels; which show the frigate astern, the polacca leading.

The latter also carries a flag of nationality not so easily determined. Still it is the ensign of a naval power, though one of little note. The five pointed white star, solitary in a blue field, proclaims it the standard of Chili.

Why should an English frigate be chasing a Chilian barque? There is no war between Great Britain and this, the most prosperous of the South American republics; instead, peace treaties, with relations of the most amicable kind. Were the polacca showing colours blood red, or black, with death's head and cross bones, the chase would be intelligible. But the bit of bunting at her masthead has nothing on its field either of menace or defiance. On the contrary, it appeals to pity, and asks for aid; for it is an ensign reversed in short, a signal of distress .

And yet the craft so signalling is on the scud before a stiff breeze, with all sail set, stays taut, not a rope out of place!

Strange this. So is it considered by every one aboard the man of war, from the captain commanding to the latest joined "lubber of a landsman" a thought that has been in their minds ever since the chase commenced.

For it is a chase: that is, the frigate has sighted a sail, and stood towards it. This without changing course; as, when first espied, the stranger, like herself, was running before the wind... Continue reading book >>

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