by A. Roger Ekirch
In London on St. Valentine’s Day in 1945, the aspiring young novelist Patrick O’Brian, today regarded as one of the great twentieth-century writers of historical fiction, received as a gift an early volume of the Gentleman’s Magazine. Published in 1744, it briefly recounted the sensational ordeal of an orphaned child named James Annesley. The presumptive heir to five aristocratic titles and sprawling estates in Ireland, England, and Wales, Annesley was kidnapped from Dublin in 1728 at the age of twelve and shipped by his Uncle Richard to America. Only after twelve more years, as an indentured servant in the backwoods of northern Delaware, did he successfully escape, ultimately returning to Dublin to bring his blood rival, now the earl of Anglesea, to justice in one of the epic legal struggles of the eighteenth century. “Wicked uncle, kidnapped heir, bastards, sudden death. Very gratifying,” O’Brian later recorded in his diary.
No saga of personal hardship and aristocratic skullduggery so captivated the British public in the eighteenth century as Annesley’s turbulent life. Following his return from America, it quickly became the “common conversation” of coffeehouses and sitting-rooms on both sides of the Irish Sea. With slight exaggeration, a London writer later reflected, “Starting from the low and ignominious state of a slave, he…at once engrossed the attention of the three kingdoms, more, I believe, than any private man ever did.”
This extraordinary tale inspired as many as five nineteenth-century novels. Set either in Ireland or Scotland, each revolved around the dramatic kidnapping of a young heir for the purpose not of extorting ransom but of usurping the lad’s patrimony. Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering (1815) was the first to adopt this formula, but far and away the most famous novel to draw from Annesley’s life was the classic boy’s adventure, Kidnapped (1886), by Robert Louis Stevenson, which recounted the abduction of young David Balfour by his greedy Uncle Ebenezer. Like Annesley, Balfour is consigned to servitude in the American colonies, though he manages to escape after his ship wrecks off the coast of western Scotland.