Department of Language and Literature, Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Scuttled; or, Bessie, the Slaver's Daughter (1866) Spotlight

About the Novel

Scuttled; or, Bessie, the Slaver’s Daughter is an antislavery dime novel set in Africa. Its main character is a black mariner out of Guinea named Moodie who opposes the slave trade and is in pursuit of Captain Wykes, a slaver. At the end of the novel, Moodie is revealed to be a white naval officer in disguise. The work stands out among dime novels in general and among Roger Starbuck’s numerous seafaring dimes, which commonly deal with Pacific adventures aboard whalers, because its heroic protangonist presents as a black man for most of the novel.

Cover illustration of a reprint of the novel in Frank Starr's American Novels no. 153, published under the title The Slaver Captain; or, Scuttled at Sea.

Moodie enters the narrative wandering the forests of coastal Guinea. Wearing a skullcap and straw hat, he meets a stray American sailor and introduces himself as a Guinea native who has recently deserted an English ship in order to visit relatives ashore. “I am afraid [my relatives] have been carried off into slavery. God help them!” he says to the American, a white man named Wilfred Dale (page 10). Moodie is later captured by a local chief, who brings him—along with Wilfred—to a riverside dock. The chief sells Moodie to a Captain Wykes, commander of a fugitive schooner named Mirage. To prevent Wilfred from fleeing and revealing the schooner’s location, Wykes orders that he be put in the hold for a time along with Moodie and other captives. During ocean sequences that depict attempts to outrun a pursuing American warship, Moodie reveals nautical expertise and convinces the captain to unchain him so that he can help sail the ship but also secretly plot a revolt. Fearing capture and prosecution, Wykes eventually scuttles the schooner and drowns with the crew. Surviving captives drift on a makeshift raft until the chasing warship rescues them along with Moodie, Wilfred, and Bessie Wykes, the slaver captain’s angelic young daughter, who had accompanied her father on his fatal voyage. In several sentimental passages, Bessie denounces her father’s crimes, decries the crew’s cruelty, and calms conflicts between various characters. 

Shortly before the conclusion comes a surprise. Moodie reveals he is not a black sailor from Guinea but really a white naval officer from America: Captain Perryville of the pursuing warship. As Perryville explains, he had long chased the Mirage but failed to arrest it. “Being very fond of adventure,” he says, “I therefore resolved to disguise myself like a negro, and attempt the capture of the vessel by a ruse” (pages 34-35, italics in original text). His trickery involved darkening his skin with dye, donning the skullcap, secretly landing on the coast, getting caught, and being put aboard the schooner, where he could work to enable its capture. After removing the dye, Perryville retakes command of the warship. 

Scuttled; or, Bessie, the Slaver’s Daughter was originally published on August 28, 1866 in American Tales no. 40. It was reprinted once, on September 29, 1874, in Frank Starr’s American Novels no. 153 under the title The Slaver Captain; or, Scuttled at Sea: A Story of a Cruise off the African Coast.

About the Author

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Roger Starbuck (1837 - ?) was one of America’s most prolific authors of mass-market sea fiction. In the late 1850s, he began publishing short sea yarns in story papers, and in 1865 Beadle published The Golden Harpoon, the first of his numerous dime novels involving whaling themes. 

Roger Starbuck Author Image_0.jpg

Roger Starbuck (1837 - ?)

Roger Starbuck was the author’s pen name. His real name was Augustus Comstock. His family had ties to both the whaling industry based on Nantucket Island and the popular-fiction trade based in New York City (Johannsen). Before turning to a writing career, he worked as a greenhand aboard the whaling ship St. George, which sailed out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in September 1853. During a voyage lasting slightly more than 3 1/2 years, the ship passed through whaling grounds of South America, the South Pacific, Hawaii, the coast of Kamchatka, the Arctic Ocean, and the sea between Japan and Korea (Dias). Although Starbuck penned some Civil War stories and several Westerns, the great majority of his fictions deal with nineteenth-century high-seas adventure. 

Engaging, witty, and often thrilling, Starbuck’s seafaring dime novels faintly echo romantic sea epics by James Fenimore Cooper and layered sea novels by Herman Melville. Incorporating realistic treatments of shipboard language and activities, they also anticipate elements in early twentieth-century sea fictions such as those by Jack London. 

Suggested works to complement readings of Scuttled include his debut dime novel, The Golden Harpoon (1865), which deals with a mutiny aboard a whaler in the North Pacific, and his second dime novel, On the Deep (1865), an engrossing South Seas adventure highlighting language variation and replete with comical malapropisms. The Mad Skipper (1866) presents a story of an obsessed captain, suggestive of Melville’s Ahab, who diverts his whaleship from its normal course to lead a multinational crew toward a disastrous encounter with the Norway Maelstrom. Stories that echo Scuttled’s attention to characters from locales outside of North America include Overboard (1866), featuring a remarkable sequence in which American mariners drift ashore in Korea, Shadow Jack (1868), dealing with early nineteenth-century conflicts with Algerian pirates, and The Ice-Fiend (1871), depicting an Eskimo’s longstanding grudge against American whalers.

Comstock married on December 31, 1867, in New York. He and his wife, Mary, had one child named Clara.  He was known to have been living on Long Island as late as 1907, but his date of death is not known.

Discussion Questions

• Consider Scuttled’s final reveal: Moodie is a white American who had disguised himself as a black African. How does the revelation reinforce—or undermine—the story’s treatments of racial categories and stereotypes? Given that disguise was a common device in dime novels and story papers, how surprising would the revelation have been to most nineteenth-century readers? 

• Imagine you could speak to readers in 1866: the year Scuttled was first published, the first year after the Civil War ended, and the first year after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. How do you think readers during that time would have responded to the characters and their motivations in this story? How might the responses of past readers compare to those of readers in our current era?

• Michael Denning, author of a book on working-class ideologies in dime novels, opines that the dime novel “remains firmly within the racist parameters of the nineteenth-century producer culture, lacking even the minstrel-show’s carnivalesque staging of the boundaries of race” (210-11). To what extent does Scuttled support or challenge Denning’s assertion?

• Which characters speak the most marked (or so-called nonstandard) varieties of English in Scuttled? Which characters speak lines that more closely approximate a standard variety? How does this marked/unmarked divide in speech particularly underscore the contrast between the characters of Captain Wykes and Bessie? 

• Oceangoing passages in Scuttled (as in most of Roger Starbuck’s sea fictions) tend to feature plenty of nautical jargon. How does the profusion of such specialized terms enhance or detract from the enjoyment of reading these passages?

Teaching Suggestions

Scuttled could be constructively taught or read alongside multiple works that are more widely assigned. Some possibilities:

• Compare how Moodie’s trickery and secret identity operate in Scuttled to the ways Babo’s trickery and feigned identity operate in Herman Melville’s short story “Benito Cereno.”

• Compare the idealized depiction of Bessie Wykes in Scuttled to the depiction of Evangeline St. Clare (Little Eva) in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

• Compare how Moodie reacts to skin-color prejudice in his various interactions with white characters to the personal experiences with such prejudice that John Howard Griffin reports in his nonfiction book Black Like Me.

Further Reading

Craven’s article highlights how Starbuck’s The Mad Skipper conspicuously echoes characters, plot, and language in Melville’s Moby-Dick. It also surveys passages in a few of Starbuck’s other sea fictions suggestive of a Melville influence.

Denning’s otherwise thorough study avoids examinations of seafaring dime novels such as those by Roger Starbuck. The concluding chapter features a discussion of how dime novels tend to lack developed black characters.

  • Johannsen, Albert. “Comstock, Augustus (Roger Starbuck)."The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of a Vanished Literature, vol. 2, University of Oklahoma Press, 1950, p. 62.

Johannsen’s biographical sketch of Roger Starbuck incorporates details from a promotional piece about Starbuck that appeared in Street and Smith’s New York Weekly in 1871 (“Roger Starbuck”). It also draws on Alfred Trumble’s 1886 article (see below).

Inviting comparison with the depictions of race and characterization in Starbuck’s Scuttled, this sixth chapter of Schell’s book includes an analysis of racialized terms associated with characters in Starbuck’s The Golden Harpoon as well as a survey of characterization in several of Starbuck’s subsequent dime novels dealing with whaling.

  • Trumble, Alfred. “Everyday Etchings VIII: Some Typical Storytellers.” The Journalist, vol. 3, no. 20, 7 Aug. 1886, p. 3.

A former writer for story papers, Trumble offers in this piece a few memories of his dealings with dime novelists, including an in-person impression of Augustus Comstock, also known as Roger Starbuck.

Works Cited