The note at the conclusion of Chapter One in the Oxford Illustrated Edition of "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners" is fairly typical of bibliographical attitudes towards the collaborative authorship of the text Collins wrote with Dickens:

[The second chapter, which was not written by Dickens, describes the Prisoners (twenty-two women and children) taken into the interior by the Pirate Captain, who makes them the material guarantee for the precious metal and jewels left on the Island; declaring that, if the latter be wrested by English ships from the pirates in charge, he will murder the captives. From their "Prison in the Woods," however (this being the title of the second chapter), they escape by means of rafts down the river; and the sequel is told in a third and concluding chapter by Dickens.] [Christmas Stories, 192]

That Dickens exercised authorial control over the writing of the second chapter is not to be doubted; however, as Lillian Nayder notes, Collins toned down the racist rhetoric in that, although he continued to employ (as narrator Gill Davis) such terms as "Sambos" (people of mixed Indian and African heritage to whom Morley does not refer in his February 1851 travel article in (Household Words) and "nigger," he somewhat individualizes the pirates and finds much to admire in the Pirate Captain, Pedro Mendez, as well as much to laugh at. Rather than depicting "The Don" as a sexual predator or sadist, Collins renders him by turns a sagacious leader, a popinjay, and a stage buffoon. Even though Collins (following Dickens's cues, perhaps) describes him as "An uglier, meaner, weaker, man-monkey to look at" (14), Collins notes the pirate-leader's facility with languages and his obvious leadership and strategic abilities, for he commands his ragtag band absolutely and alone originates the plan to use the hostages as leverage against the Royal Navy.

The disruption to the narrative that the omission of Collins's chapter [text] causes is incalculable, for there is much fine writing here, in particular, his descriptions of the leader of the pirates, the beauties and terrors of the tropical forest, and the Mayan ruins that appear, like the ruins of classical Rome, to "have been made for the use of a race of giants" (22). What most editions summarily dismiss as "the prison in the woods" is in fact a massive, pillared building 300 feet in length that the Indians have dubbed "El Palacio" or "The Palace" (21), a setting that contributes markedly to the tone and atmosphere (as well as the verisimilitude) of the chapter. Collins's description of this "wildnerness of ruins" (Collins 22), which the Pirate Captain means to make his head-quarters, especially in terms of its "unearthly silence" (Collins 22) and the massive scale of its overgrown buildings, seems to be based on the earlier description of the pre-Columbian site in "The Phantom Ship. Central America":

What Titanic wall is that whose image is reflected in the river? By the shrubs and creepers we can climb up to the summit. It looks like a portion of some massive ruin. We have climbed, and we stand spell bound. Step below step, broken by trees, loaded with shrubs, and lost at last in the luxuriance of forest, we see traces of a theatre of masonry. But from the pillar of broken stone below, the fixed stare of an enormous sculptured head encounters us. We descend wondering, and stand before an altar richly carved. We seek for more, and find at our first plunge into the forest a colossal figure frowning down upon us; it is a statue twelve feet high, loaded with hieroglyphic and with grotesque ornament. The grand face seems to be a portrait — but of whom? We explore further, and find more and more of these stone giants, elbowed from their places by the growth of trees, some of them buried to the chest in vegetation, staring through the underwood with their blind eyes. Monkeys in troops pass to and fro among them. [518]

For their knowledge of Mayan Copan, discovered in 1839, both Collins and Morley probably relied on John Lloyd Stephens's account in Incidents of Travel in Central America (London, 1841), although, as I have suggested, Collins may have adopted the simple expedient of mining Morley's article for the material he needed. Collins subtly transforms the awe-inspiring ruin from Morley's article site into a menacing, mournful backdrop for the war of nerves and cunning between the British captives and their pirate captors. The sculptures, for example, are not "grand" as in Morley's article, but "barbarous" (Collins 23), and the passageways between the rooms in the ruined palace are "choked up by rubbish." The two pieces differ, too, in their descriptions of the details of ornamentation of the stone slabs of the portico, ornamentation according to Morley which is both "richly carved" and "grotesque" (518) but which according to Collins is "carved all over, top and bottom, with death's-heads set in the midst of circles of sculptured flowers" (22). The ruins which hold us "spellbound" in Morley's article, are merely "dismal" in Collins's. Most tellingly, Collins's monkeys do not merely "pass" in troops through the trees; rather, they are collectively characterized as a "surge" (24), and they "burst out with a sound like waves on a sandy shore" (24). In Morley's fanciful travelogue, we rise above the ruins; in Gill Davis's escape narrative, we are entrapped in the mournful ruins whose numinous power the Indians, despite their commerce with the Pirates, "having a superstitious horror of remaining in the ruined city after dark" (Collins 33), flee before sunset.

This retreat to their own village is a necessary plot device since Collins does not wish to have the Indians remain as an additional impediment to the escape of the hostages after dark. Prior to departing for the security of their own village each afternoon, the Indians prepare tortillas for the pirates to eat as they come off evening guard duty. Collins does not need to explain the nature of this comestible here, for his narrator states earlier, as the party marches inland, that the captives and natives share the same "miserable starvation diet" (19).

This consisted of black beans fried, and of things they call Tortillas, meaning, in plain English, flat cakes made of crushed Indian corn, and baked on a clay griddle. Not only was this food insipid, but the dirty manner in which the Indians pared it, was disgusting. However, complaint was useless; for we could see for ourselves that no other provision had been brought for the prisoners. [19]

The food, we note, is not inherently "disgusting"; rather, Gill Davis deplores the unsanitary (from a European perspective) preparation of the dish which slavery has compelled the English to eat. Morley in his earlier article had mentioned that the production of "Tortilias" [sic] "forms a good part of the women's household work" (518) among the aboriginal peoples of Central America. Collins implies that members of both genders cook the maize-cakes for their allies, the pirates, who find the cakes even "nastier than ever" (28) on the night the captives intend to effect their escape. Momentarily we are held in suspense as we wonder whether the pirates, despite their hunger, will reject this native food and thereby escape the effects of the soporific drug with which Miss Maryon has infused the tortillas.

Related Materials


Dickens, Charles, and Wilkie Collins. "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners." Household Words, Extra Christmas Number, 7 December 1857. Pp. 1-36, after Vol. 16.

Dickens, Charles. "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners." Ch. 1 and 3 only. Household Words (extra number) Christmas 1857.

— -. "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners." Ch. 1 and 3 only. Christmas Stories, intro. Margaret Lane. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1966. Based on the Charles Dickens Edition of 1871. Pp. 161-208.

Hollington, Michael. "Dickens, Morley, and Latin America." Conference paper given at the Eighth Annual Dickens Symposium. The Dickens Society of America. ,Oakland University, Michigan. Session Six, "Influences on the Dickens World." 12 October 2003.

Lohrli, Anne. Household Words: A Weekly Journal Conducted by Charles Dickens: Table of Contents, List of Contributors and Their Contributions Based on the Household Words Office Book in the Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists in the Princeton University Library. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1973.

Nayder, Lillian. Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, & Victorian Authorship. London and Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. P., Dec. 2001.

Stewart, Nicolas. "'The Perils of Certain English Prisoners': Dickens' Defensive Fantasy of Imperial Stability."(Belfast University: 21 June 1999). Accessed 3 October 2005.

Last modified 8 June 2007