C.D. White,
The Broken Sword
(Heritage, 2005)

Captain Jack Cunningham, skipper of a British merchant ship, rallies his crew to join in the fight over American independence with a clarion call for freedom. And his men, one and all, follow their captain into battle -- on the British side.

It might seem odd at first, at least to those of us raised in American schools, that freedom was a point of propaganda on both sides of the war. But for Cunningham, a Scotsman, and a not-so-young crew largely composed of fellow Scots and former black slaves, the New World is certainly not the land of the free. As Cunningham tell his men:

"For the Scots, you have lived in the colonies for most of your life and yet you are branded by these Virginians as foreigners, outsiders. For the Negroes, you only have to look as far as the tobacco fields to see what these bloody colonials mean for you, a life without possibility of future or fortune. ... We sail not simply for England, but for the right to call ourselves free men!"

The Broken Sword is a slim volume that sees Cunningham and the crew of the Norfolk Gold in the early, uncomfortable days of war, when loyalties are torn between both sides of the conflict. For Cunningham, despite his rousing speech above, it's simple finances that drive him to take a posting with the British fleet. With trade suspended by the outbreak of hostilities, he has a hold full of cargo and nowhere to sell. Faced with sailing home penniless to England and a loveless marriage, the opportunity to trade his goods for cannon and cede command of the Gold to a British commander may be his only option.

But, while his early encounters with colonial troops give him ample reason to fight for England, Cunningham is conflicted; after all, his years of trade along the Mid-Atlantic coast have made him as much Virginian as English subject.

The Broken Sword seems likely to be the first in a series, which I can only hope will follow Capt. Cunningham and the Norfolk Gold through the war. Author Charles White quite obviously has a seaman's working knowledge of ships and sailing, and his view of life on the Gold and the tactics she uses are interesting, colorful and educational, too.

White also has manned the Gold with an unusual crew, from the elderly first mate to the jovial pilot; certainly, they cannot count on fair treatment from the highly prejudiced colonial forces. Cunningham himself is a troubled man, clearly uncomfortable -- albeit gifted -- in matters of war, and equally unsure how to measure the value of his home and family in England against the ideals of colonial rebels. I'm certain his path will be fascinating to follow.

by Tom Knapp
5 August 2006

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