Tuesday, December 31, 2019
“The Bishop of Somaliland” by H. Bedford-Jones
Someone named Henry James O’Brien Bedford-Jones surely has a title, but it’s not one you’ll find in Burke’s Peerage (no matter how deeply Philip Jose Farmer may scrutinize its pages). Indeed, Peter Ruber named H. Bedford-Jones the King of the Pulps. That’s a title disputed by some pulp fans, who point to the popularity of author Edgar Rice Burroughs and the prodigious output by Max Brand (and a raft of other pseudonyms for Frederick Faust). Perhaps Faust and Bedford-Jones are the two main contenders based on wordage sold.
All three writers worked in multiple genres. Based on marketing savvy, Burroughs might be the clear winner, with movies, comic books, radio shows, comic strips, television shows, and a boatload of licensing for foodstuffs and clothing and toys and you-name-it associated with his characters and settings. Perhaps just the number of knock-offs from Tarzan and the number of planetary romance characters and settings his works influenced would put the final stamp on ERB capturing the title of King.
Faust also made the jump to other media with his characters, and three movies based (loosely) on just one novel, Destry Rides Again. Dr. Kildare appeared in movies and television (and, if I’m recalling correctly, as a radio show as well) plus comic strips and comic books. I haven’t counted, but a gut feeling tells me more movies have been based on Faust’s novels and stories than on those by Zane Grey. Burroughs’ influence on writers who followed him was immense, but if we use continuing popularity or sales of written works as our measuring stick, Faust claims the kingdom: Max Brand books continue to be released in one format or another every year, many of them in large print editions intended for library collections.
Bedford-Jones, however, seems known today only by readers and collectors of pulp magazines. Altus Press/Steeger Books’ campaign to publish the bulk of his work in its H. Bedford-Jones Library may change this situation slightly, but from my perspective, it appears the publisher’s marketing efforts are focused on the population of already-knowledgeable pulp fans, not on expanding awareness of HBJ’s oeuvre to uninitiated readers outside the pulp community. Like Burroughs and Faust, HBJ toiled in a variety of genres: mystery, western, spy, contemporary thriller, historical adventure, swashbucklers, naval action . . . gosh, you name it, you can find at least one example with Bedford-Jones’ name (or pseudonym) on it. He wrote stand-alone stories as well as series characters. Surprisingly, such a prolific storyteller didn’t make the leap to movies or television. A quick check of IMDB shows only two entries for HBJ. This writer has hogsheads’ worth of tales suitable for adapting to film and TV—in a world hungry for streaming content, HBJ’s library is a treasure chest waiting to be discovered.
Today we’re taking a look at “The Bishop of Somaliland,” a stand-alone adventure tale (“A Stirring Novelette”) published in the March 1936 issue of Blue Book (vol. 62 no. 5). (HBJ has a second story in this issue, an entry in his Arms and Men series: “XIV—The Sword of Michelangelo.”)
A contemporary story rather than one of HBJ’s narratives located in the Wild West or a distant historical era, this is an entertaining tale that includes some humor and some drama against a quasi-wartime setting: remember, it’s 1936 (probably 1935 at the time it was written), and the German invasion of Poland, which triggered Britain and France’s declarations of war, didn’t occur until 1939. Here’s the state of that part of the world (in as simplistic a list as you’ll probably ever see):
- After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the Port of Aden became one of the busiest ports in the world.
- Aden is a British Protectorate that lay along the northern coast of the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea. Aden Command was a Royal Air Force command formed in 1928 to control all British Armed Forces in the Protectorate.
- North of the Aden Protectorate lay Yemen, which extended from the Bab el-Mandab Strait northward about one-quarter of the length of the Red Sea’s eastern coast. Yemen and the British signed the Treaty of Sanaa in 1934 to confirm the border between Yemen and the Protectorate and for Britain to guarantee Yemen’s independence for forty years.
- Mocha (Al-Makha) is a Yemen port on the Red Sea just north of the strait connecting the sea to the Gulf of Aden.
- British Somaliland lay along the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden. British Somaliland was bordered on the northwest by a smaller territory, French Somaliland, at the narrowing of the Gulf of Aden known as Bab el-Mandab—the Gate of Tears—the strait connecting the Gulf to the Red Sea.
- Flanking the French and British Somalilands were Italian territories. Extending northwest of French Somaliland from the Bab el-Mandab Strait to a third of the length of the Red Sea’s western coast lay Eritrea, an Italian colony. East of British Somaliland from the Horn of Africa and extending southwest along the coast of the Indian Ocean lay Italian Somalia.
- From Eritrea’s northern point to the Horn of Africa and on to the southernmost point of Italian Somalia, the coastal colonies of Italia, France and Britain make Ethiopia (also known as Abyssinia) a land-locked state.
- January—Italy united Eritrea and Italian Somalia to form Italian East Africa, whose capital was located in Mogadishu. The northern section (Eritrea) and southern section (Italian Somalia) remained separated by French Somaliland and British Somaliland.
- August—The United States passed the Neutrality Act of 1935, initiating a prohibition on trading in arms and war materials with any parties engaged in a war. The Government of India Act separated Burma and Aden from British India. (
- September—The Reichstag passed the Nuremberg Laws, legalizing the persecution of Jews.
- October—The second Italo-Abyssinian War began when Italy invaded Ethiopia. Launched from Italian East Africa, the Italian armies bore toward the Abyssinian interior in a pincer campaign from the north (Eritrea) and simultaneously from the south (Italian Somalia).
This map may help clarify some of the geography:
That’s the background for Bedford-Jones’ story, which takes place on only a small chunk of a territorial map that had been highly volatile since the end of World War I. And maybe that’s too much historical detail to provide for a story that fills only 21 pages of a pulp magazine, but that’s the sort of information that globally savvy readers of the time would have had at least a general awareness of while reading “The Bishop of Somaliland.” And if they hadn’t been reading the papers and listening to the radio news, HBJ’s tale still would have entertained them. These political and geographic details lend verisimilitude to Bedford-Jones’ story, which is quite what any professional writer would desire.
The story—which, by the way, is prefaced with an editorial blurb that reveals part of the plot, “Guns for Abyssinia”—opens with two men at the rail of a French coastal mail ship putting in at Mocha after sailing north from Aden. One is an American, Breen, who’d been first officer on a ship until he’d gotten ill and been left at Aden. The other is George Augustus Kenworthy Braggton-Hurts, a spare, rough-hewn Briton in black clerical garb who introduces himself as the Bishop of Somaliland. The latter explains to Breen he’s heading to a mission in British Somaliland near Djibouti (in French Somaliland) because the curate there had left his post and left behind “all the sacred vessels, which are of much value, and also the books and reports and records of the diocese—and he died of malaria at the Djibouti hospital last week.” The Bishop’s on his way to retrieve the diocesan property, because it’s been left near the area of the Italian-Ethiopian conflict.
The Bishop intends to board an Arab steamer, the Nurredin, to travel to French Somaliland. However, the Nurredin needs a captain; having learned that Breen is a master of steam, the Bishop beseeches the American to take the ship’s open post so he can leave straightaway to fulfill his duties at the mission.
Breen balks at the request. There are Italian destroyers patrolling the waters “with savage intent to stop all running of guns across to Ethiopia and parts adjacent.” He raises objections:
“Look here, Bishop,” he said curtly. “That Red Sea yonder is fuller of warships than of Egyptians right now. The Italians have twice tried to land troops right here in Yemen, and the British chased ‘em off. They want to stop gun-runners. So do the French and British. I’d gamble any money that these ships anchored here are loaded with munitions for Ethiopia. I bet these boys have made use of you.”
The Bishop waves aside Breen’s points, saying that any gun-running the Nurredin may be engaged in is “aside from the question of my duty.” He declares the steamer sails under the British flag, which should protect Breen, the Bishop, and the crew from assault by any foreign power.
Once ashore, the Bishop introduces Breen to the ship’s owner, Yusuf the Damascene. At the American’s questioning, Yusuf claims the steamer’s cargo is condensed milk intended for the French troops at Djibouti. Breen agrees to consider the position, but leaves to wander the town while the Bishop negotiates with Yusuf for a larger fee on behalf of Breen to finally entice him aboard.
In a typical pulp-magazine coincidence, Breen encounters the Nurredin’s first mate, Gaffney, who tells him the steamer’s British crew is hiding below decks and only its Arab stokers are moving about in sight to keep curious eyes from becoming more curious. When Gaffney lets slip that the captain the Nurredin is awaiting is a man named Stafford, Breen is shocked. The public opinion of Stafford is that the man is a murderer and a pirate. Gaffney assures Breen that the stories the American has heard are overblown and don’t include the facts; that Stafford’s crew is loyal to the man as he only deserves. For that reason, Gaffney won’t tell Breen what Nurredin’s cargo is—not unless he signs on as the steamer’s master.
On his way back to Yusuf’s, Breen encounters the Bishop belaying three attackers with knives; the Bishop uses his fists in a very unclerical manner, and quickly puts down the three men. The Bishop then spots Breen, tells him he’s convinced Yusuf to guarantee Breen a larger fee, and the two men set off for the Nurredin.
At this point, the reader is 110 percent sure that the Bishop and Captain Stafford are one and the same and the Nurredin’s hold is stacked with boxes filled with guns. While the American has no illusions about his cargo, Bedford-Jones doesn’t let on just how much Breen is sure about Stafford or whether he only still suspects. It hardly matters, because HBJ has fun showing us crewmembers trying to keep Stafford’s secret in front of Breen. It’s perfect fodder for strong character actors of the period in a Hollywood adventure tale: as humorous scenes lighten the drama, so the dramatic scenes are intensified as the likeable secondary characters we’ve warmed up to are threatened.
The Nurredin, like every other boat afloat that night, makes its way without lights. There are a few near-crashes with other craft, but all goes well as Breen relies on his charts and his memory of the local waters. All goes well, that is, until the steamer strikes something in the dark: it turns out to be an Italian submarine, and its officer and his men quickly board Breen’s ship.
One thing astonished him—the acrid hostility between his men and the Italian seamen. True, relations between the two countries were badly strained, with warlike moves in the air, with the destiny of Europe trembling in the balance against that of Ethiopia; yet the swift reflection of this racial trouble surprised Breen, who was not accustomed to the sharp emergence of nationalism. His men were quite helpless, it is true; but they could snarl, and snarl they did.
This is writing with a sure hand based on good knowledge of the military and political maneuvering in the region. Maybe that’s just the perception from eighty years away, but Bedford-Jones handles the contemporary tensions from a far corner of the world in a solid manner for the readers of a popular mass market periodical.
Breen is further confused and infuriated when the Italian lieutenant says, “I don’t mind telling you that we had advance information that this ship was loaded with contraband.” Breen recalls a “scrap of talk from Gaffney. The men had their orders; it didn’t matter if an Italian ship overhauled them. Why?” In this way, Bedford-Jones lays aside the faux puzzle of Stafford’s disguise as the Bishop and gets to the crux of his plot: what’s really going on here?
The lieutenant locks Breen in his cabin. The cook brings him food and tries to pass a message to Breen—something’s up, but he can’t fathom just what it may be. The American is further confused by the sounds he hears and the Nurredin’s sudden movement in the water.
A wild tumult of voices—and then a sudden lifting shock that stopped Breen’s heart for an instant. He had felt that lift before now, when keel surged on coral; but it was no coral. He was flung off his feet, hurled headlong into a corner of the cabin. The bows of the ship lifted and settled again, with a frightful crunching crash.
Then shots burst forth from the bridgedeck.
The Bishop and one of his men had broken loose and rammed the submarine. I won’t spoil all the details, but Breen learns the truth behind the stories about murderous Stafford, and that’s just what we expected, right? The entire plot set up not just to run guns to Ethiopia for money, but also to sink an Italian submarine. Stafford’s story is a tale of revenge, and turns to a darker note than its opening and middle scenes suggested may be coming.
Still, Bedford-Jones handles the adventure, the humor, and the pathos in a fine manner. A career writer didn’t sell so much as he did if he didn’t have a storyteller’s true hand as a narrator. Not all his work is consistent—writing so much so quickly for so many markets will make any writer falter from time to time. But this tale, “The Bishop of Somaliland,” is a fine piece that, while perhaps not in the highest echelon of Blue Book’s fiction, is certainly entertaining, diverting, and engaging. That’s just what a reader expects for 15 cents in 1936. It's what Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins would be doing in print many years later with great success. Again, I can see in my mind’s eye a black-and-white motion picture with a dramatic score and a dandy script based on this story. It would have been just the thing Hollywood would have produced to wind up the American viewers in the years leading to the war.
My brief research doesn't show that Steeger Books has reprinted this particular story. But this publisher has released a number of books containing much of the best of HBJ's Blue Book work. Check the links below to view some of the volumes in the H. Bedford-Jones Library. I've also included a link to a contemporary adventure tale, if something like "The Bishop of Somaliland" whets your appetite: check out Black Dog Books' The Master of the Dragons. There's a lot of good reading to be found within those covers.
The Gate of Farwell: The John Solomon Stories Volume 1
The Gate of Farwell: The John Solomon Stories Volume 1
Labels: 1936, Alistair MacLean, Blue Book, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Bedford-Jones, Max Brand, Steeger Books
Subscribe to Posts [Atom]