Friday, August 20, 2010

Men of Honor

Men of Honor is the second book in the series Pirates of the Narrow Seas. It's my favorite; I had a blast writing it. The title says what the book is about: honor. Today we don't talk much about honor, and we don't have much respect for those old-fashioned folks who believe in honor. Slogans like 'death before dishonor' seem like macho hyperbole. Yet honor was the social currency that enabled the upper class world of the 18th century to function.

A man's word was his bond. When he gave his parole, he lived by, and if necessary, died by it. It was entirely possible to release a man on parole and have him show up for his own execution. This is because if he ran away, he would lose his honor, and he would rather die than live without honor. Interesting studies have been done about how honor relates to access to financial credit, for example. A man's reputation was the only guarantee he could offer for his debts--which is one of the reasons debtors were dealt so harshly with. The man who could not pay his debts had broken his word. Thus men with reputations as liars found it difficult to access credit--and most other aspects of life among the elite of the 18th century. Sure, there were rogues who managed to survive anyhow, but that's because no system is perfect.

Peter Thorton is an honorable man. That is intensely important to him, and it's something that other men recognize in him. In Men of Honor, when he is arrested, he gives his parole and returns to duty as a lieutenant aboard the Ajax while he awaits his court martial -- a court martial that could kill him. He makes no escape attempt -- that would destroy his honor. He's given his word, and even though he has his moments of fear and weakness, he shows up for his court martial at the duly appointed time.

English law presumed a man innocent until proven guilty, and there were very few ways or reasons to keep an officer confined. Parole worked because it had to work. If lieutenants in trouble simply ran away, the system wouldn't work at all. Such a man would have no further career in the British navy, and he probably wouldn't have a career ashore, either. Desertion was punished with death to deter running away, but the real thing that bound gentlemen to the system was honor.

Although we accept incarceration as a suitable method of holding miscreants until their trials, ships have scant facilities for such things. In fact, a ship is effectively a floating prison, so there's really no need to confine somebody -- they aren't going anywhere. British ships anchored offshore instead of docking on purpose; few men could swim, and even if they could, a mile or two of salt water is a powerful discouragement. Furthermore, unless the man in question is a peril to himself or the ship, confining him deprives the ship of his labor -- and crews, especially the officer corp, were not so large that they could afford to give up the labor of a competent hand.

Thorton freely converted to Islam, and he freely confessed his religion, knowing what the consequences would be. There are various incidents in the novel wherein other characters behave contrary to the expectations of honor. Some of the officers haze Thorton by desecrating his Sallee uniform coat, but they do it in secrecy. When the crime is discovered, the morality is made explicit: that if a man does something, he should own up to it. If he isn't willing to own up to it, he shouldn't do it. By this standard Thorton, Horner, and Tangle are men of honor. They take responsibility for what they do and bear the consequences. You can trust them.

Related to the matter of honor is the matter of apostasy, which is the sin of converting to a foreign religion. Although apostasy is despised and lowers a man in the opinion of those who know him, it does not eliminate his reputation for truthfulness. It also bars a man from serving as a commissioned officer in the British navy. But note, the British navy is ruled by law, so even though everybody knows Thorton has converted to Islam, until the court martial he has not actually been convicted and therefore cannot be deprived of his commission, or his duties and privileges as a commissioned officer. Once he is court martialed, he is convicted of violating Article One (establishment of the Church of England), stripped of his commission and disrated, and fined to boot, in an amount that is equal to about one third of his yearly salary as a lieutenant.

The question then, is why didn't Admiralty accept his resignation? Knowing the debility of his religion, Thorton tendered his resignation in good faith. Acting-Captain Perry accepted it. In Men of Honor we learn that Perry was disciplined for overstepping the bounds of his authority. Although it isn't made explicit, it is easy enough to assume that since Perry was punished for doing things he shouldn't have, those things he did -- like accepting Thorton's resignation -- are null and void.

Well then, why not demand Thorton's resignation and redo it properly? Because Thorton has flouted the Admiralty's authority. He didn't wait for the Admiralty to accept his resignation before running off to the Sallee Republic. The Admiralty is predicated on total obedience to its authority; therefore the wayward lieutenant must be made to toe the line and punished as a deterrent to any other officer that thinks he can do as he pleases as long as he drops a note in the mail to the Admiralty.

That puts the Admiralty in a spot: force obedience to the Church of England, or force obedience to its authority? If the former, Thorton gets discharged, which is what he wants, and the Admiralty's authority is undermined. Ergo, the Admiralty chooses to enforce its authority and maintains Thorton in service as a midshipman. Thorton is required to attend Divine Service the same as everybody else; Horner testified as much at the court martial. The outer forms are being observed; the Admiralty doesn't give a damn what he actually thinks. It's an 18th century version of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

All of this is in the background. The details are there, the clues all add up, it's consistent. But the politics are not what the novels are about; the politics are what set events in action and impose consequences for them. Thorton himself is oblivious to most of this. All of this is subtext for the action adventure that unfolds. The purity of the main characters in the maintenance of their honor is in ironic contrast to the more pragmatic and corrupt figures in the background of the story. That's traditional in adventure fiction; our hero is always more pure and honorable than the corrupt world through which he is forced to move.


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