John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold is a 1929 novel telling the story of Henry Morgan, his life and death, and his time spent in Panama City, also called the titular “Cup of Gold.” The famous privateer, our protagonist, is followed from his childhood in 17th century Wales to his death, showing his conquests and his personal frustrations. Morgan’s relationship to the Cup of Gold, its riches and its women are documented in detail, creating an adventure novel that delves into the mindset of this famous adventurer and pirate.
The book begins with Henry Morgan in the 17th century, growing up as a boy in Wales. While there, he meets a former pirate who regales him with tales of adventure on the high seas so that his legacy can live on – he considers it a “greater horror to an old man then death––to be forgotten” (Steinbeck). This intrigues Morgan greatly, hanging on every word the pirate gives him, and soon after decides that he himself wants to become a pirate. Convincing his parents to help him take his chances as a pirate, they send him to the port city to look for work on ships. While there, he is deceived to the point where he is sent onto a merchant ship as a slave; there he learns how to work a ship, though his life is also arduous and difficult.
Later, he is sold to a Caribbean plantation owner, quickly becoming the head boy of the master, gaining his confidence and inheriting the plantation when the master dies. Despite this vast fortune that is laid before him, Henry decides to go back to becoming a pirate, hiring a crew and a ship to do so. In his adulthood, Henry is given a tremendous amount of respect, because he knows how to handle his men and when to be hard on them. Due to his excellent sense of leadership, he becomes a feared pirate as he starts to hunt Spaniards for the British royalty. However, as he continues to plunder, his appetite for violence grows more insatiable, and he settles on the difficult task of attacking Panama City. He does this not because of the fame, or the difficulty, but because of the presence of the Red Saint (La Santa Roja), a mysterious woman who seems perpetually out of reach for him – this is the conflict, related to the antagonist of the novel. Henry believes that he will lose his mind if he does not see her, and he attacks Panama.
Attacking Panama in the climax, he is ultimately successful, though it costs him a great deal of men and resources. Despite this, he does not achieve his ultimate goal, as La Santa Roja will not willingly be with him. This makes him even crazier, causing him to start to sabotage everything around him, including his own accomplishments. The themes of this book include obsession, imperialism and piracy, as Steinbeck shows the flaws inherent to such an obsessive, mercurial figure. Morgan’s own imperialism and thirst for destruction comes from a desire to make himself famous and well-known: “The builder of your Cathedral is forgotten even now, but I, who burned it, may be remembered for a hundred years or so. And that may mean something or other about mankind” (Steinbeck).
Cup of Gold is a quite entertaining read, a good early novel of Steinbeck’s – his use of language and imagery is a great way to show the strange and exciting life of this fascinating historical figure. This is a man who simply cannot stand to have something not be his, making his childish ambition his downfall: “He has come to be the great man he thought he wanted to be. If this is true, then he is not a man. He is still a little boy and wants the moon” (Steinbeck).
Steinbeck, John. Cup of Gold. McBride & Co., 1929. Print.