The lives of the two brothers John and James Dunkin encompassed so many recurrent themes of eighteenth century picaresque and romantic fiction that they would not be out of place in a Cornish historical novel. They were orphans and apprentices, artisans with aspiration who became privateers, and ship and mine owners; and they experienced many vicissitudes of life and fortune. Their story includes shipwrecks and rescues, smuggling, legal disputes including with Boulton and Watt, one seemingly happy marriage, two love affairs and children outside marriage, murder, escaping the gallows, bankruptcy, and madness. John and James Dunkin part-owned a total of eleven trading ships, more than one in four of those registered at the port of Penzance in 1786-91.

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