John Steinbeck’s first book about pirates is an interesting read. Published in 1929, when Steinbeck was 27, Cup of Gold is a historical fictional account of Henry Morgan’s rise from humble beginnings in Wales to notorious buccaneer in the Americas in the 1600’s. For all the promise of swashbuckling adventures, plus romance and allegory too, this novel falls short because it oversells on excitement and is a patchy read.
At 15 years of age, Henry Morgan leaves home for a life of piracy on the high seas. At the port town of Cardiff, he meets a sailor who secures passage for him on a ship bound for the Caribbean. When Morgan arrives in Barbados, the boy discovers he has been hoodwinked, and sold as a bond slave to landowner James Flower.
Instead of working the fields alongside African slaves and criminals from France, Britain and Holland, Morgan serves as Flower’s companion for five years. During this time, he learns about sailing and war, how to manage a plantation and steal over £1000 from his owner. Even though Flower becomes attached to the youth and offers him half the plantation, Morgan leaves and sets off on his adventure.
The pirate in training quickly rises up the ranks, from taking Spanish ships by surprise to burning and pillaging colonies in the region with a fleet that he commandeers. But despite finding fame and fortune, Morgan is bereft of love. He believes that if he can conquer Panama, the cup of gold, and possess La Santa Roja, the woman every man desires, he will be happy.
Steinbeck shows what a flawed, mercenary man Morgan is, who will kill indiscriminately and betray others, and unflinchingly move on. There’s no romance here, no happy ever after, and I can’t help thinking that his quest is a waste of time.
For me, the book is not an exciting, masculine tale, but a sad commentary about blind ambition and moral bankruptcy.