O. Henry's, 'The Admiral'
In 1896, William Sydney Porter fled the United States for Honduras. He was facing embezzlement charges and at the time there was no extradition treaty between the US and Honduras, though in the coming years American financial interests in the region would lead to more and more military interventions there. While there, he’d write the collections Cabbages and Kings, about the fictional country Anchuria but inspired by Honduras. It would eventually be published in 1904.
One of the stories is called “The Admiral”, and it’s most famous today for giving us the phrase ‘banana republic’, to describe not only a Central or South American country of dubious stability with a strongly agrarian economy, but one in which the US plays a significant part in the country, mainly through the influence of large fruit corporations.
The stories in this collection are interconnected and build on each other, and at the end of the previous story a new President of Anchuria has been appointed, one Losada. Corruption seems to be at the heart of this administration from the off, as ‘The government philosophically set about supplying the deficiency by increasing the import duties and by "suggesting" to wealthy private citizens that contributions according to their means would be considered patriotic and in order. Prosperity was expected to attend the reign of Losada, the new president.’
It soon becomes apparent that there is a large element of government by whim, when the minister of war, taking advantage of a single sloop that has been confiscated for smuggling, makes use of an unused and forgotten part of the constitution that provides for a Navy. The boat, useful as a coastal patrol boat to prevent smuggling, is then elevated to the level of the Anchurian Navy. This is approved mostly for the humour of the thing.
‘It was characteristic of Don Sabas—a man at once merry, learned, whimsical and audacious—that he should have disturbed the dust of this musty and sleeping statute to increase the humour of the world by so much as a smile from his indulgent colleagues.
With delightful mock seriousness the Minister of War proposed the creation of a navy. He argued its need and the glories it might achieve with such gay and witty zeal that the travesty overcame with its humour even the swart dignity of President Losada himself.’
The joke is carried on to the full, and the sailor hired to manage the boat is given a title. ‘his commission conferred upon el Señor Don Felipe Carrera the title of Flag Admiral of the Republic of Anchuria. Thus, within the space of a few minutes and the dominion of a dozen "extra dry," the country took its place among the naval powers of the world, and Felipe Carrera became entitled to a salute of nineteen guns whenever he might enter port.’ This makes him the Admiral of the story’s title, and we get a sense of others being pulled into the sport of a political elite when their power is unchecked.
Though a very solid sailor, Felipe Carrera has some sort of learning disability. The exact wording in the story is that he ‘was sent upon earth with but half his wits. Therefore, the people of Coralio called him "El pobrecito loco"—"the poor little crazed one"—saying that God had sent but half of him to earth, retaining the other half.’ He barely converses with people on the land, all too aware of his difficulties, but is recommended as a good man to manage the boat for his actions at sea.
On being given his instructions, Carrera takes the joke literally. He turns up the next day, wearing a uniform which he has cobbled together himself and accompanied by what small crew he has been able to put together. They spend three days repainting the boat, and change its name from Estrella de Noche to El Nacionale, far more fitting for a flagship.
Naturally, no orders come for this Admiral or his ‘fleet’. Neither does any salary. It’s when he goes asking for his money that he discovers the country is not in sound shape. ‘"Salaries!" exclaimed the collector, with hands raised; "Valgame Dios! not one centavo of my own pay have I received for the last seven months. The pay of an admiral, do you ask? Quién sabe? Should it be less than three thousand pesos? Mira! you will see a revolution in this country very soon. A good sign of it is when the government calls all the time for pesos, pesos, pesos, and pays none out."’
He reasons that as a military man, trouble in the country means he will be called upon and turns to using the boat to sustain themselves financially while waiting for the call from the government. He is hurt by the fact that he is never called on by his country but continues to wait patiently. However, that call never comes. Eventually the revolution predicted by the collector arrives and even then, the faithful Admiral hears nothing. With his men armed and waiting, he sits in expectance of a telegram that never arrives. The story closes, sadly, with him reasoning ‘"They will come," would be his unshaken reply; "I am the admiral."’
O. Henry is generally known for twist-endings, warm characterisation, and creative resolutions to taxing conundrums. But aside from the sympathy we might feel towards the Admiral, manipulated as he is by people who give no thought to what happens as a result of their actions, there is little of that here. This is an atypical story by the author’s standards but one that still retains power, despite the seeming inevitability of its ending.
Peter Templeton is Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University, UK.