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(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XVI, published 1892)

Passage 256

“All the same,” continued Nares, “you went into the opium-smuggling with your head down; and a good deal of fussing I've listened to, that you hadn't more of it to smuggle. Now, maybe your partner's not quite fixed the same as you are; maybe he sees precious little difference between the one thing and the other.”

“You could not say truer: he sees none, I do believe,” cried I; “and though I see one, I could never tell you how.”

“We never can,” said the oracular Nares; “taste is all a matter of opinion. But the point is, how will your friend take it? You refuse a favour, and you take the high horse at the same time; you disappoint him, and you rap him over the knuckles. It won't do, Mr. Dodd; no friendship can stand that. You must be as good as your friend, or as bad as your friend, or start on a fresh deal without him.”

“I don't see it!” said I. “You don't know Jim!”

“Well, you will see,” said Nares. “And now, here's another point. This bit of money looks mighty big to Mr. Pinkerton; it may spell life or health to him; but among all your creditors, I don't see that it amounts to a hill of beans—I don't believe it'll pay their car-fares all round. And don't you think you'll ever get thanked. You were known to pay a long price for the chance of rummaging that wreck; you do the rummaging, you come home, and you hand over ten thousand—or twenty, if you like—a part of which you'll have to own up you made by smuggling; and, mind! you'll never get Billy Fowler to stick his name to a receipt. Now just glance at the transaction from the outside, and see what a clear case it makes. Your ten thousand is a sop; and people will only wonder you were so damned impudent as to offer such a small one! Whichever way you take it, Mr. Dodd, the bottom's out of your character; so there's one thing less to be considered.”

“I daresay you'll scarce believe me,” said I, “but I feel that a positive relief.”

“You must be made some way different from me, then,” returned Nares. “And, talking about me, I might just mention how I stand. You'll have no trouble from me—you've trouble enough of your own; and I'm friend enough, when a friend's in need, to shut my eyes and go right where he tells me. All the same, I'm rather queerly fixed. My owners'll have to rank with the rest on their charter-party. Here am I, their representative! and I have to look over the ship's side while the bankrupt walks his assets ashore in Mr. Speedy's hat-box. It's a thing I wouldn't do for James G. Blaine; but I'll do it for you, Mr. Dodd, and only sorry I can't do more.”

“Thank you, captain; my mind is made up,” said I. “I'll go straight, ruat cœlum! I never understood that old tag before to-night.”

“I hope it isn't my business that decides you?” asked the captain.

This is an excerpt from the chapter "In Which I Turn Smuggler, And The Captain Casuist". This detail in bold is somewhat petty, you could say a bagatelle, but I would like to understand it properly. I take 'rank with' to mean 'draw level with sth. /so'.. With the word 'charter-party' I have an issue, though: it could mean either a 'charter company/corporation' or a 'charter contract'. But my main issue is to contextualize this sentence within the whole story or chapter. What does this sentence 'My owners'll have to rank with the rest on their charter-party' refer to? I can't realize what the speaker wants to say with this sentence. Maybe there is a user in this forum who has read this book. Thank you very much for helping.

2 Answers 2

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Here's the situation with commercial shipping. You are a Norwegian timber merchant, with many planks of finest spruce to sell. You believe that you can make lots of money, if only you could deliver them to eager buyers in Manila. But you do not have a ship, and you do not have lots of money yet. You go to somebody who does have a ship, plus the ability to crew it, and make an agreement - a charterparty. They say they will carry the wood to its destination. You say that they will get paid. There are lots of other terms, some explicit and some customarily implied into the contract, about everybody's responsibilities, and bad things that might happen during the voyage.

Assuming that the journey completes and the wood is sold, everybody has money and is happy. If it does not sell then they will be sad. The shipowners and the crew they supplied will be very sad, because they have endured all sorts of nautical hardships, and you owe them money. Under the charterparty as usually structured, two of the consequences are:

  1. They have a "lien" on the cargo still in the vessel, which they can use to help enforce the debt. This is a legal right to keep hold of it until you pay, and eventually (subject to legal process) sell it themselves to recoup their losses.
  2. In the common situation where you owe money to lots of people, the shipowner's lien has a high priority. You have to try to pay them first, and then the other creditors.

A further social consequence is that the entire business depends on credit. If you do not pay your debts, then the owners will gossip about you over coffee and everyone will know you are a bad bet. This will sharply limit your ability to finance future voyages.

In this story, the operation is salvage rather than shipping, but the structure is the same. Dodd, the charterer, has leased a vessel in order to retrieve goods from a wreck. He is on board as "supercargo" (a person who is in charge of the cargo and related operations), whereas the master of the ship is working for the other party, the shipowner, carrying out duties as agreed in the contract. Sadly, the wreck does not have a lot of stuff on it, and other business calamities have taken place. So we are in the "everyone is sad" part of the decision tree.

At this point, the captain, as representative of the owners, ought to be trying to enforce their position under the charterparty, by claiming such goods as have been found, and trying to recoup their losses - in particular, in respect of Dodd, who is right there on board. Instead:

  • He is letting Dodd go, with the $10k of opium ("I have to look over the ship's side while the bankrupt walks his assets ashore").
  • He is giving up any effective hope of claiming priority for the debt ("my owners'll have to rank with the rest"), and cannot exercise a lien over the goods once they have been taken out of his control.
  • This is because the $10k is so small an amount ("a sop") that is not worthwhile pursuing in this context.
  • He also notes that Dodd's reputation, and therefore ability to access future credit, is low ("the bottom's out of your character").
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  • Great help! Thank you very much indeed :). I'm not able to decide which of the two answers is to be preferred, though. So I leave it to the voters or the moderators to decide. I'll look at this question in a month or so and then vote for the highest number of votes. Thanks again!
    – philphil
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 20:14
  • Plus letting him go with the opium means that he's not a bankrupt. He stands a better chance of earning a bit of money and having the means, eventually, to pay off his debts.
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 9:01
  • Plus plus, the 10k is opium, so it's not exactly a legitimate cargo anyway.
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 9:03
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The sentence you quote needs a bit of prefatory explanation to make its meaning clear. But in the process, I shall probably let drop major spoilers. Sadly ’Can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ applies here.

So, if you are apprehensive about spoilers STOP HERE! (But -of course- feel free to return after you have read the tale in full).


The ill-omened Flying Scud was abandoned and wrecked at Midway Atoll by its unscrupulous owners who conspired to commit an insurance fraud (In the process they murder a crew member). The conspiracy involved falsely loading it with silk bales (in fact dummy cloth not silk) and possible contraband opium.

The partnership of Loudon Dodd & Jim Pinkerton aims to make a profit from salvaging wrecked ships and bid to purchase this wreck particularly as they (deviously) hoped to profit from hoped for contraband opium from the Flying Scud.

Dodd & Pinkerton charter the company that employs Captain Nares & his ship Nora Creina & crew for its use to locate and salvage the Flying scud after winning bidding for it at auction. So, captain Nares shipping company and Dodds/Pinkerton have signed a shipping charter agreeing to delayed payment post salvage profits.

It has become apparent to Dodd in the chapter through Pinkertons letters that the Partnership is heavily in debt and therefore effectively bankrupt.Dodd has intimated this to Captain Nares who is supportive of Dodd despite the negative consequence to his Employers and his own position.

The captain states in relation to the conflict of interest (between Dodd and his employers):

“my owners will have to rank with the rest of the charter party”

By this he means that his company will need to queue up with the rest of the debtor’s making claims on Dodd & Pinkerton’s insolvent company without having priority for their claims for debts owed them over any of the other debtors.

He goes on to add that despite the conflict of interest he has chosen to side with Dodd and even would be content to watch as Dodd figuratively walks off the ship with a hatbox of contraband (opium) even if this diadvantages his employers chances of debt recovery.

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  • Great help! Thank you very much indeed :). I'm not able to decide which of the two answers is to be preferred, though. So I leave it to the voters or the moderators to decide. I'll look at this question in a month or so and then vote for the highest number of votes. Thanks again!
    – philphil
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 20:15

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