It’s all too easy to imagine a duel on the beach between pirates or, as fiction and film often have it, between pirate captains. A sandy beach, palm trees, spectators often including both pirates and a woman in distress, a tropical sea and sky–a duel is mandatory in the genre if only because the setting demands one.
This blog post is part one of a likely five part series on the classical piratical duel on the beach, a pirate trope too evocative to pass up and one based to some degree in reality too. Only the trope of the tavern sword brawl is as prevalent, but not as romantic.
Up first is a look at the sandy duel in fiction. Part two examines the duel described by Rafael Sabatini in The Black Swan, in particular the origin of the hero’s singular technique. Part three reviews the duel on the beach in film, part four takes a close look at the most famous fictional duel on the beach, that depicted in Captain Blood (1935) starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, and part five (yet to be written) will discuss the historical reality of the duel on the beach.
In particular, we’ll look not just at some classic swashbuckling episodes, but also consider how genres and tropes are created, and how misinterpretation often not only leads us astray, but also, at times, to authentic historical discoveries.
It’s entirely likely that I’ll also throw in a blog post each on the inquartata, the flanconnade, and also the intagliata and similar techniques of “lunging off the line,” given their prevalence in swashbuckling fiction and film (not to mention their utility in historical and modern fencing). I’ve already written one for the same reason on The Night Thrust; or, More Politely, the Passata Soto. I’ll likely also write a brief post on Dutch knife fighting for reasons noted just below.
The series is also part of an effort to encourage outdoor fencing, especially at the beach or seaside. (Don’t worry, any light rust is easily removed from blades! In fact, two or three hours in a sea breeze will start to rust carbon steel.) Not too long ago the FIE (the international fencing body) in its infinite [lack of] wisdom did away with outdoor tournaments in epee, at least as sanctioned events, and national bodies followed suit. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, sanctioned outdoor fencing tournaments should seriously be reconsidered, not to mention that they’re also a lot of fun for their own sake. Some of my fondest fencing memories are of outdoor swordplay, both competitive and recreational, and their associated celebrations.
So where to begin? It seems almost too easy. At least half the blame lays with the highly enjoyable illustrator and writer of out-sized piratical myth, misconception, and trope (and even some fact!), Howard Pyle, several of whose students–N. C. Wyeth and Frank E. Schoonover in particular–followed closely in his swashbuckling-illustrator footsteps.
However, before we get to Pyle in detail, we need to note the existence of an old ballad called “Dixey Bull” or “The Slaying of Dixey Bull” which describes a duel on tiny Beaver Island (near modern Pemaquid Beach, Maine) between a pirate captain and local fisherman. The ballad was first published in 1907 from oral tradition dating possibly as early as circa 1725 based on its mention of the “skull and cross bones,” language used, and its description of swordplay consistent with early to mid-18th century prizefighting and broadsword technique. The song was sung in Maine and environs, was apparently well-known by seamen and fishermen, and their wives and daughters, and it’s entirely possible that Howard Pyle was aware of its existence.
Dixie Bull was the first-noted pirate of New England and the northeast coast of North America. In 1632 some Frenchmen in a pinnace robbed him of his trading stock of blankets, “ruggs,” coats, &c, for which he sought reprisal at sea in his own small craft. Failing to make good against the French he plundered some local Englishmen, thereby turning pirate. In 1633 three deserters from his crew said he’d gone over to the French, although he is believed to have eventually returned to England.
In the ballad, which has no known basis in reality, as is the case with many ballads of the era, Dixey Bull is challenged by local fisherman Daniel Curtis to a duel with broadswords. If Bull wins, he and his crew keep their stolen treasure. If he loses, the pirate crew returns the plunder and sails away. Wounded, but with a trick worthy of one of Rafael Sabatini’s heroes or the best of those of swashbuckling Hollywood, Curtis kills Bull. Of course, no such duel ever took place: pirates would never offer up their plunder on a point of honor. Whether or not the ballad influenced Howard Pyle is unknown but certainly possible.
Although Howard Pyle painted several sword duels, two of them by the seaside, it’s his “Which Shall Be Captain?” (shown above the Dixie Bull images) that may be the significant culprit, and it shows no obvious connection to the duel between Bull and Curtis. In the painting, two pirate captains struggle against each other with daggers to determine who will command. The notion of dueling for command is false, however, to be discussed in more detail in part five (or if you can’t wait, you can read about it in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths). Put simply, captains and quartermasters were democratically elected. Even lesser officers required the approval of the crew. Dueling was never considered or acted upon as a means to gain command.
Likewise false, or at least uncommon as far as we know, is the use of daggers in duels on the beach. In fact, among buccaneers the musket was usual dueling weapon although some fought with cutlasses. However, there may be a possible exception among Dutch and Flemish seamen, who like many of their adventurous compatriots ashore had a habit of knife fighting, often using their hats in the unarmed hand for parrying. The style of fighting appears to have been more cut than thrust, notwithstanding the Dutch term “snickersnee,” which means to stick or stab and thrust, which Lewis Carroll turned into the snicker-snak of the vorpal sword. (See Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know for more information on cutlasses, including a bit on dueling.)
Even so, the only authenticated duel between buccaneer captains was between two Dutchmen–and they used cutlasses. Again, more on this in part five.
A duel on the beach between Dutch pirate captains is likely not what Pyle intended though, unless they were Dutch buccaneer captains of which there were in fact a fair number, more of them in service among French flibustiers than among English buccaneers. Their names are legend: Laurens de Graff, Nicolas Van Horn, Michiel Andrieszoon aka Michel Andresson, Jan Willems aka Yanky, Jacob Evertson, and Jan Erasmus Reyning among many others.
No matter his original intention, Pyle’s scene-setting has been imitated as homage, sometimes even copied, in numerous films as well as in illustrations for swashbuckling tales.
However, Pyle’s painting can only ultimately be said to have inspired the trope to far greater prominence, for a decade earlier, in 1899, Mary Johnston’s To Have and to Hold was published, a romantic novel of ladies, gentlemen, settlers (or invaders), Native Americans, and pirates. Notably, Howard Pyle painted the frontispiece, and, more on this later, Johnston’s works were a significant influence on Rafael Sabatini, author of Captain Blood and many other great romantic, often swashbuckling, novels.
Pyle’s painting of the duel for command, between gentleman hero and the last of three pirate villains he fights one after the other, takes place on what is known today as Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia. All three duels are described not in terms of fencing technique but via the hero’s thoughts and emotions as he fights–and easy way to avoid describing actual swordplay. Side note: the hero’s second adversary is a Spaniard (the best blade in Lima) and the third is the “man in black and silver”–almost as if the duel takes place in The Princess Bride. I won’t add the duel in The Princess Bride to this post, although I’m sorely tempted, as it takes place not on the shore but on the cliffs high above.
The entire composition of Pyle’s painting has been copied by many illustrators and filmmakers, including Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926) and Michael Curtiz in Captain Blood (1935).
As for the action itself, duels in fiction and film require high drama. It helps if the hero and his adversary are equally matched, although often the hero ends up hard-pressed but prevails in the end, often by stratagem. Occasionally we see the hero who is always in control, whose swordplay is so exceptional that the villain comes soon to realize he (villainous duelists are almost always a he, thus the pronoun) is entirely outmatched. Here the drama derives from the villain realizing he’s going to lose and be rewarded as he so richly deserves.
Depicting swordplay in fiction can be difficult, or rather, is actually quite difficult. Explain too much and you lose drama and tempo. Explain too little, and the duel is reduced to vague nonsense, even if dramatic. Using a few modern fencing terms has been the refuge of many novelists–but modern terms lack the flavor, and often the correct historical technique, to adequately depict a historical duel. And even in this case only fencers will actually understand what’s going on. In other words, to understand fencing you must be a fencer (and this is part of the reason, in spite of the FIE’s attempts at dumbing down fencing, why it will never be, and frankly should not be, a great spectator sport). But writers often cheat and describe swordfights only in vague terms or through the protagonist’s mental state.
In related fashion, writers often forget, or far more likely haven’t learned, that fencing on a shoreline causes changes in footwork and agility. Fencing in sand tends to slow the action down a bit, footwork in particular. Lunges are slower because the foot slips even in the best-compacted damp sand. Of course, if the beach is rocky, as in Captain Blood (1935), or covered in various beach and dune plants, this may help prevent the foot from slipping although it may also increase the risk of tripping and falling. Fencing in shallow water can diminish the lunge or even negate it.
Further, sand gets in the shoe, which can affect footwork. Sand is also readily available for villainously throwing in the adversary’s eyes. And, as in the case of all outdoor fencing on uneven ground, there’s always the chance at taking a special form of tempo, that of the brief surprise when the adversary accidentally steps in a hole or runs into a bush or trips over driftwood, or is maneuvered into doing this. Distraction, however brief, can be fatal.
There are partial remedy for these hazards, which I’ll discuss in part five, and, like running in the sand, you’ll at least in part naturally adapt to the best technique over time. (Thanks Bear Mac Mahon for your brief comments and reminders on fencing in the sand. 🙂 )
Sadly, seldom does any of this make it into fictional accounts of duels on the beach. But no matter! It’s the ring and spark of steel on steel while the sun glints off sand and sea we’re after. Which, by the way, is another issue with fencing on the beach: glare, which can easily be used to advantage by maneuvering the adversary into position with his face facing sun and sea, or even a sandy sea breeze…
On occasion there artwork of a duel on the beach unassociated with a published story, and even when discovered there is often something of a written description associated with it, as with Frank Dadd’s “The End of the Game” published in The Illustrated London News:
The duel on the beach also makes its way into pirate pulp fiction, as in these novels by Donald Barr Chidsey (the rhythm of whose name makes me think of Simon Bar Sinister):
The duel on the beach has had a fair amount of depiction in other print media as well, including trading cards and comic books:
A duel over buried treasure below, with daggers, clearly inspired by the famous Howard Pyle painting.
Below, a duel for command–a myth, as is the duel or affray over buried treasure.
The trading card above probably owes as much to Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926) as it does to Howard Pyle and various fiction, as shown below–but then, The Black Pirate owes much to Howard Pyle, purposely so according to the film program. We’ll discuss the duel in this film in more detail in part three.
There is a duel on the beach–well, not the beach but on higher ground on tiny Beaver Island, for the “ledges” (rocks) ran down to the water–in Clothes Make the Pirate by Holman Day (1925), a comic pirate novel. The duel is based on the fictional encounter between Dixie Bull and Daniel Curtis but is fought here between two tailors, Tidd and Sneck, both of them impersonating pirates (the former pretends to be Dixie Bull), and the two tailors merely pretend to fight, working out the details while briefly hidden behind some spruce trees during the engagement.
Of course, one of the great duels on the beach is depicted in Captain Blood: His Odyssey (1922) by Rafael Sabatini, in particular the dramatic build-up and famous dialogue. But alas, the duel itself is described in only two lines:
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill.”
In part four we’ll look further into this most famous of duels as it was depicted in the 1935 film starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone.
Numerous illustrators have tried their hand at the duel, some more successfully than others, historical accuracy (and even fictional accuracy) often to be desired.
This is a good opportunity to segue to several tobacco card illustrations of duels on the beach. Up first is Captain Blood, although based entirely on the duel in the 1935 film.
Although I can’t discover any connection to specific works of fiction per se, three of Don Maitz’s paintings of swordplay on the beach evoke classic swashbucklers and the paintings of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth. Mr. Maitz is a famous illustrator, perhaps most noted for his depictions of Captain Morgan for the rum of the same name. Copies of his works can be purchased here.
The purportedly authentic duel between Mary Read and a fellow pirate who was threatening her lover (or at least Charles Johnson so claimed, but he lied often in his 1724-1726 chronicle of pirates) shows up in an Allen & Ginter Cigarettes trading card, circa 1888. I’ve included it here as the account may well be fictional.
Norman Price illustrated this duel in The Rogue’s Moon by Robert W. Chambers (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1929), yet another prolific (roughly one hundred novels, short story collections, and children’s books) popular genre writer already forgotten less than a century later. The story is enjoyable enough even given its light genre and Chambers’s style. It is action-filled and interspersed with scenes of mild titillation, and includes several major characters of the era (Blackbeard among them) in prime appearances, with pirates as the story’s villains. The protagonist is a cross-dressing, seeking-revenge-against-pirates, older teenager named Nancy Topsfield. The novel pretends to a background of historical accuracy, which is in fact, as with most of the genre, only superficial at best.
The duel is brief but exciting, and follows the manner described by Charles Johnson as in use by the early eighteenth century pirates of the black flag: pistols followed by cutlasses. Read’s sword is a “Barbary” or “Arab” blade, which might be a nimcha (of which were some naval captains who owned these swords, usually as trophies) but which the illustrations suggest is more likely a scimitar (or shamshir if you want to be pedantic–but scimitar was the common word in use by Europeans at the time). In either case her blade looks curved enough that she needs to hook her thrust. The duel ends with a near-decapitation.
Although Price’s drawings and paintings of men in the story are reasonably historically accurate by the low standard of popular illustration, he takes pop culture liberties with the leading female characters. He and Chambers dress Mary Read as a typical 1920s/1930s Hollywood starlet-type of pirate, sometimes termed “pirate flapper” and derived most likely from Douglas Fairbanks’s style of dress in his 1926 The Black Pirate. Female pirates were commonly depicted in this fashion during this era, ranging from magazine ads for sterling flatware to Hollywood studio portraits.
Given the rarity of known pirate duels, it’s not surprising that so few are depicted in various literature. However, at least one is. The famous duel, familiar if you’ve read the French edition of Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America, or other related French texts (or even some of my books), between Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Van Horn at Isla Sacrificios near Veracruz in 1683 is also depicted on a cigarette card. However, given that this duel actually occurred and we have period accounts of it, we’ll save further description for part five. Whoever illustrated the duel below had not read the rare eyewitness account (unsurprising at it is neither easily found nor easily deciphered) although he or she may have read a secondary account, possibly Exquemelin’s.
All of this rather meandering exposition of the duel on the beach in fiction is leading us to a single novel that epitomizes it above all others: The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. And, given its role and singular technique, I’ll devote part two of this series to it entirely.
An honorable mention of sorts must go to George MacDonald Fraser’s comic novel The Pyrates (Collins 1983 & Knopf 1984). It’s one of my favorite pirate novels. It’s a campy, loving, satirical send up of pirate fiction and film, including Captain Blood: Fraser was a fan of Sabatini as I was and remain (and as well of Fraser). My attachment is also due in part due to the fact that when I first read it I was a somewhat cocky young naval officer, Navy SEAL, and swordsman recovering on a San Diego beach from an injury received on a Hawaiian beach during deployment.
Fraser’s duel on the beach scene is not traditional. Instead, it is a blindfolded duel between the super Sabatini-esque hero, Benjamin Avery, and the anti-hero Colonel Thomas Blood, a character based on the real quasi-gentleman who stole the English Crown jewels and whose name Sabatini appropriated for his honorable hero. Soon abandoned by the pirates who set them en garde on Dead Man’s Chest (an islet or cay in the Virgin Islands and the inspiration via author Charles Kingsley for said lyric in Treasure Island), the two adversaries fence comically in hoods, with swords tied to their hands and a small bell as well to cue them.
A line or two captures the spirit: “Even Black Sheba, concerned as she was for Avery, could not repress a smile as he came academically on guard, extended himself in a perfect lunge, and fell slap into the surf.”
I’d have to do a more detailed survey of recent fiction to adequately note any other significant renderings in fiction of duels on the beach. At the moment, only one comes to mind, that depicted by famous Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte in El Puente de Los Asesinos (2011), part of his excellent Capitán Alatriste series. Alas, there is no English translation. The first six were translated, but not the seventh due to low sales, an indication of where the genre–especially “upmarket” swashbucklers–is today, replaced largely, and sadly, by fantasy.
Much if not most of the swashbuckling fiction that does make it print today tends to fall into the “writing by trope” category with inaccurate historical detail (a problem with much historical fiction in general today, to the point that many authors have accepted fictional tropes as historical fact and will vigorously, even hilariously, defend them) and “dialogue as might be spoken by modern suburbanites at a cocktail party” (likewise a common problem as a journalist friend pointed out), or is sadly relegated to small ebook and print-on-demand presses with little if any access to brick-and-mortar chains and independents. I remain hopeful that this will change. And if I bother to dust off Fortune’s Favorite, the sequel to Fortune’s Whelp, I’ll let you know–it has a duel on the beach in it. In the Caribbean. Naturally. 🙂
On a more positive note, I’ll close with two watercolors of pirate dueling on the beach, by one of the most famous American painters of all: Andrew Wyeth, son of illustrator N. C. Wyeth, around the age of twenty.
And last, well, just because it’s a beautiful beach painting in the pirate genre by Andrew Wyeth…
A couple of notes on the duel at Teviot beach by Howard Pyle: Aficionados of fencing history will note that Pyle clearly took his inspiration from late 19th and early 20th century epee duels, many of which were photographed, and some even filmed. In the late 17th century it would be unusual for there to be a directeur de combat (someone who monitors the fight, in other words, and ensures that no villainy is perpetrated). Further, seconds often fought too, and spectators were absent more often than not.
Even more critically, both swordsmen are in sixte rather than tierce (although one might argue that the fencer on the left is actually correctly in carte, perhaps having just been parried to the outside line by a circular parry). Sixte, not yet called by this name, was not unknown but was disregarded by most masters and fencers in spite of its utility in closing the “light” (hole, open target) revealed in tierce. Sixte is a weaker position and requires more blade set and wrist angulation (some of the latter was later relieved by modifying the way the grip was held) than tierce, which is a stronger position physically and whose point falls naturally toward the adversary’s shoulder. The guards shown in the painting are more typical of fencers in Pyle’s day (and in ours as well).
POSTSCRIPT for members of the Huntsville Fencing Club: post-pandemic we’ll [finally] host a rum tournament on the beach. 🙂
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published September 1, 2020. Last updated March 20, 2023.
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