The Black Swan

Publication date: 1932

The biggest difficulty in dating this novel is determining its year.

The first thing we learn is that King Charles II is dead, but was alive five years ago [Chapter I].  Since Charles II died early in 1685, and since most (or all) of The Black Swan takes place in June, we are limited to 1685–1689, with 1690 perhaps also admissible.

Then Sir Henry Morgan, who died in August 1688, comes into the picture very much alive.  And in Chapter IX, de Bernis comments on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which revocation took place in October 1685.  So the remaining possibilities are 1686, 1687, and 1688.

But here's the trouble:  Morgan was knighted in about 1674, became Lieutenant Governor and acting Governor of Jamaica shortly thereafter, hunted pirates as described in the novel for several years, but fell out of favor and lost his political offices in 1683.  Looking at Morgan's history, we'd expect this novel to take place in the early 1680s, when he was in fact being hounded to do more against the buccaneers.

This earlier dating is confirmed by de Bernis' résumé.  The Sieur Simon was placed in charge of Santa Catalina (Old Providence) by Mansfield in May 1666, and it was retaken by Don Juan Pérez de Guzmán in August of that year.  If, as explained in Chapter II, de Bernis was "under twenty" on Santa Catalina and is "scarcely more than 35" as the novel opens, then our story takes place about 1682 and surely not later than 1684.

It seems to me impossible to date the novel to a period when Sir Henry Morgan was demonstrably not Governor of anything and was, in fact, very ill and drinking himself to death.  We must therefore regretfully ignore the comments about Charles II and the Edict of Nantes.

(Why "regretfully"?  Because if we did have to choose among 1686, 1687, and 1688, the answer would be easy:  Peter Blood, that endemonized pirate out of Hell, was fully active by June 1687; surely he would have been as much a target for Morgan as was Tom Leach.  Yet Blood's name is not even mentioned in The Black Swan.  So we would cheerfully adopt 1686 as the only possible year.)

We're left with the problem of picking a year in the early 1680s or perhaps the very late 1670s.  The deciding fact is in Chapter XI:  It is (as we shall see) Thursday night, nine days after the first Tuesday in June, and the buccaneers (and Priscilla) have gone to sleep, when "the moon, almost a half-disc by now, came up".  The description and time of night imply that the moon is on the wane, slightly before third quarter.  The only year between 1679 and 1683 inclusive when this happened was 1682, when the third quarter moon was June 18.  (In Chapter IX de Bernis absurdly sings "under the new moon" at 6 PM, but if we read "full" for "new" here everything makes sense.)

On this understanding, as Cahusac might say, all arranges itself.  We are told explicitly that the Centaur was captured "on a Tuesday of the first week in June" [Chapter IX], that is, June 6.  The novel therefore begins with de Bernis' embarkation the previous Saturday, with Sunday and Monday spent in Roseau.

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Copyright © 2007 Larry Denenberg