For the past two months (on and off, there’s life outside this blog) I’ve been researching a post about the Hungarian corvette Implacabile – yes, you heard me right, a corvette of a land-locked country.
The Black Prince
I hit on this unlikely topic while translating one of my favourite Hungarian children’s novel into English for the perusal of Young Friend of the Elephants whose Hungarian will never stand up to tackling it in the original.
The Black Prince by András Dékány is an adventure story about an English clipper under the command of an exiled Hungarian sailor, racing from China to London with her cargo of tea. Set in the middle of the 19th century, it’s got everything you’d expect from a novel about the heroic age of sailing, including pirate attacks. And part of the background of the exiled Hungarian hero in The Black Prince is that he had commanded the Hungarian Navy corvette Implacabile on the Adriatic Sea during the 1848-49 War of Independence against Austria.
András Dékány: An Unlikely Author of Sea Stories
András Dékány (1903-1967) was – and remains – a highly popular children’s author who introduced generations of Hungarian children, most of whom have never ever been anywhere near the sea, to the world of sailing ships, the beauty of the Adriatic Sea and the story of the sinking of the Titanic. Among others. Nobody who reads his stories can doubt Dékány’s fascination by the world of the sea and sailing ships; he paints it in lyric, romantic, heroic colours, lamenting the passing of the age of sail.
But why did an author from a landlocked country end up writing about the sea?
Perhaps because – unlikely as this might sound – at some point in his life he had been a sailor. As a young man Dékány led the kind of hand-to-mouth existence that was not at all unusual in post-Trianon¹ Hungary: he tried to make ends meet by working at various times as a factory worker, a carpenter, a salesman… a sailor. In the end, he made it as a writer and journalist and his sea stories proved particularly popular.
The Legend of the Implacabile
The name of the Implacabile, whose story formed a very minor and completely irrelevant incident of the 1848-49 War of Independence, is only known because of Dékány. The real story itself is, entirely understandably, unknown to the Hungarian public; the fictitious story of the Implacabile as written by Dékány in The Black Prince on the other hand is quite well circulated.
Dékány wrote fast paced adventure, a kind of a cross between C. S. Forester and Arthur Ransome, and he did it very convincingly. If he chose to present something as fact, as historical background to his story, well, we took his word for it. As a child I had absolutely no doubt that there was, in fact, a Hungarian corvette named Implacabile and that she had, in fact, heroically fought a larger Austrian warship on the Adriatic, just as Dékány had written. I’ve never even questioned why a supposedly Hungarian warship should have had such an outlandish (Italian) name. Admittedly, at that age I didn’t know enough about the history of my own country to realise how unlikely the mere idea of a Hungarian Navy was.
But now as I was working on the translation of The Black Prince, I assumed that the background of the hero of book, Balázs Monostory, was as complete fiction as him ever commanding the clipper Taitsing in the great tea race. Except…
Fact Stranger Than Fiction
Dékány mixed fiction with fact freely in a heady and utterly convincing cocktail, enough to spin the heads not only of his young readers but of adults as well. How or why he dug up the story of the Implacabile, I can’t even begin to speculate. But he told it so well that I increasingly wondered if there was truth in it after all. And I’m not the only one. Mature Hungarians debate seriously in various internet discussion threads about how much truth there is in the story of the Implacabile, or whether the ship even existed. Many of them believe that the fundamentals of the story, as handed down by Dékány, are true.
There was only one way to settle my doubts: by research.
- Fact: there was a tea clipper named Taitsing.
- Fact: there were races between tea clippers.
- Fact: there were hugely successful pirates on the South China Sea.
- Fiction: the entire plot of The Black Prince, including the life story of the protagonist….
- Fact: there was a Hungarian brig, called Implacabile, during the 1848-49 War of Independence –
Whose unlikely story is coming soon to these pages…!
Notes: ¹ The Treaty of Trianon (1920) was the peace treaty relating to Hungary at the end of World War I. (In the interest of self-preservation, never ask a Hungarian about Trianon! :) ) You might also like: ⇒ The Pirates of the Adriatic ⇒ They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships