The Secret History of Captain Hook


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The holidays typically lead one home. Then, quite often, to the memories of one's childhood. And then onto the stories thereof.

This year, I found myself digging into the notes and bits that surround my favorite Christmas story, Peter Pan, which was staged in London each December early in the 20th century. Amid the digital wandering, I made an unexpected discovery: Eton—the world's most esteemed high school—is not only the alma mater of Prince William and Prince Harry; of Prime Minister David Cameron and 18 of his predecessors[1]; but also of Captain James Hook, commander of the Jolly Roger.

A pirate whom J.M. Barrie descried as "cadaverous and blackavised, his hair dressed in long curls which look like black candles about to melt." A man whose real name, if revealed, would "set the country in a blaze."

Hook's Eton, with its tailcoat dress code and five hundred years of blue-blood lineage, is an intriguing place. The name, for many Brits, is synonymous with privilege. And its traditions and arcane wall game, an amalgamation of rugby and soccer played against a brick wall and found nowhere else in the world, make it is as close to Hogwarts as mortals and Muggles will likely find.

Yes, James Hook, or Jas., as he is now known to have referred to himself, was an old Etonian, and a Pop[2] at that. From Eton we can make sense of Hook's reverence for good form; his "distinguished slouch;"  and, Barrie wrote, the fact that "[h]e was never more sinister than when he was at his most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding."

Indeed, Hook's dying words in the play are "Floreat Etona": "May Eton flourish," the school's crested motto.

In 1927, more than two decades after the story was put to page, Barrie was invited to Eton to give a lecture. The prompt, as given by the provost a month prior, was to refute the statement: "James Hook, the pirate captain, was a great Etonian, but not a good one."

The lecture is here; and it is magnificent. 

Barrie takes the tone of an investigative reporter or prosecutor-judge, dutifully presenting the facts he has found. "We should not even know that he had been an Etonian but for the statement 'Eton and Balliol' in a work that is probably unreliable," he told his young audience, referring to his own writing. Balliol being a college of Oxford, and the one that Hook purportedly attended.

Barrie's inquiry unearths books Hook withdrew from the library while at Oxford, "all of them, oddly enough, poetry, and mostly of the lake school;" and a curious medical record indicating that Hook, when hurt on the football pitch, had 'bled yellow. And that "after the fatal affair" with Peter Pan, "a search made in the cabin of his floating hulks brought to light that throughout the years of his piracy he had been a faithful subscriber the Eton Chronicle. Hundreds of copies of it, much thumb-marked, were found littering his bunk." 

But the magic of the speech comes after Barrie has built his credentials as an investigator, as he describes the fateful return to Eton by a man who loved his school dearly. A man who knew his own legacy was more damning to the school than perhaps anything else in its past.

Barrie's chief source, we learn, was an old Etonian, a man who remained tethered to Windsor—as some alums tend to do—unable or unwilling to venture out. One night, wandering the campus after lights out, G.F.T.Jasparin, the informant, came upon Hook, dressed in the coattails and silk hat of an Etonian, and sitting atop the school's wall.

"[N]ever, I say, could I have conceived a Colossus so shrunken," Jasparin recounted to Barrie. "It was mournfully obvious that he was gazing with peeled eyes through the darkness of his present to the innocence of his past, from the monster he had become on the Spanish Main, to the person he had been at Eton." 

Hook, there atop the wall, where only members of the Eton Society might sit--though Hook was such a member, a Pop--was confronted by a bobby in the night.

"Are you a Pop, Sir?" the policeman asked huskily, for he knew that every stone in the wall was listening. The Solitary not only lowered his hook, but, shocking to relate, hid it behind his back. After an agonizing struggle, "No," he said. Once a Pop always a Pop, but for the honour of Eton Society, he denied his proud connection with it.

The solitary had merely to slew around his right arm to end the fellow, but for the honour of the school, he humbly got off the wall-his wall.

Hook was seen later that night by others on campus. And it is clear that he had returned to tear his records from the Eton Society's logs. And that, not long thereafter, the captain died. A will, returned to his aunt Emily by a landshark of Rio, left all his belongings to Eton; the school's governor refused the marauder's pillagings.

Presented by

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of Conversations With Power. More

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes on foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the millennial generation, and the perils of the digital age. Previously a nationally syndicated columnist, he is the author of a book of interviews with former global leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Fernando Henrique Cardosso, Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk, and Pervez Musharraf: Conversations With Power.

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