Published in 1929, A High Wind in Jamaica tells the story of a group of British children living in Jamaica. After surviving a hurricane, their parents decide that England would be a safer place to grow up. The voyage home, however, is disrupted by some kidnapping pirates. These buccaneers are a motley crew, struggling to make a living at a time when Caribbean piracy has ceased to be economically viable. The world is changing. The children’s personal worlds are changing since they are variously on the border between babyhood and childhood, or between childhood and adult life. In the wider world, steamers are beginning to replace sailing ships, and law is replacing piracy. In many ways this book covers the same ground as a Western, set in a similar historical period, charting the same struggle between frontier life and the encroachment of civilisation.
The frontier is an unsettling, ambivalent place. Freedoms are passing, structures are rising. You might regret disappearing liberty, at the same time as welcoming a new order which dissuades a disaffected rancher from shooting you because he didn’t like the way you looked at him. Right and wrong are tricky concepts in the Wild West, and on the seas of the Caribbean as portrayed in A High Wind. It’s difficult to work out if the old world is innocent and good, or a place of primal violence. There are some very murky moral conundrums involving the pirates, who, whilst becoming sympathetic characters, nevertheless occasionally teeter on the borderline of child abuse. Similarly it’s difficult to work out if on-coming civilisation is sophisticated in its justice, or fatally deluded in its rules which do not accommodate the complexity of life.
These conundrums continue even today. The past is seen as a simpler age, viewed with a nostalgia, causing people to visit National Trust Properties, and buy vinyl records. At the same time, there is also a marked tendency to reinterpret the past in a negative way, to revisit past behaviour and find it unacceptable. Actual malicious behaviour has been uncovered, while at the other extreme a pop star accused of historical offences has had his house raided on national television before any wrong-doing had been established, and against whom charges were later dropped. Reminiscent of this situation have been controversies involving false memory syndrome where innocent behaviour is corrupted by later suggestion. This tension between actual bad behaviour and later reinterpretation by misguided moral guardians is a powerful theme in A High Wind, making it feel very contemporary. This is a book where events are reinterpreted according to new labels placed on them. The High Wind of the title refers to the Jamaican storm early in the story, during which the children seem more worried about their pet tabby cat, chased by local wild cats, than about their house collapsing around them. It is only later when the term hurricane is applied to the high wind that it becomes truly significant and threatening. I suppose the modern parallel would be the UK Met Office’s decision in 2013 to extend to normal storms the convention of labelling hurricanes with human names. What in the past was a gale blowing off the Atlantic, has now become something more sinister, a danger dramatised and personified.
A High Wind is a very interesting book, with beautiful descriptive passages. It left me unsettled and reassured in equal measure – unsettled that the winds of morality are so treacherous and unpredictable, reassured that the storm might not be as bad as it seems.