Fourteen Thousand Dried Penguins

Patrick O’Brian

  • Last Voyages. Cavendish, Hudson, Ralegh: The Original Narratives edited by Philip Edwards
    Oxford, 268 pp, £25.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 19 812894 0
  • The Nagle Journal: A Diary for the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841 edited by John Dann
    Weidenfeld, 402 pp, £18.95, March 1989, ISBN 1 55584 223 2
  • Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742 by Georg Wilhelm Steller, edited by O.W. Frost, translated by Margritt Engel and O.W. Frost
    Stanford, 252 pp, $35.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 8047 1446 0

In his introduction to Last Voyages Professor Edwards almost apologises for voyages as a form of literature, partly because the New Criticism ignored them; yet he may be battering at an open door, for surely the great mass of readers, who do not give a damn for the New Criticism, have never ceased to agree that ‘these narratives ... are a special kind of writing with distinctive values of its own.’ And it is likely that they will welcome this scholarly presentation of three of the most interesting of their time. They are by definition tragic, but two at least illustrate the editor’s views on the interaction of literature, voyages and imperialism particularly well.

The first is related by Cavendish himself and by four men who sailed with him, Antony Knivet, a young gentleman volunteer; John Davis, the great navigator; J. Jane, a friend of Davis’s; and Thomas Lodge the poet. Thomas Cavendish was a man of considerable estate but varying fortunes, and like many of his contemporaries he took to the sea to improve them: they were at their charming height in 1588, when he returned to England in the Desire after a voyage round the world, her topmasts covered with cloth of gold, her sailors clothed in silk, her sails made of damask, and her holds filled with the loot of Chile, Peru, Mexico, many Spanish merchantmen and above all, the great Manila galleon. By 1591 he was poor again, and he set out to repeat the exploit, taking five ships instead of three, the Galleon Leicester with himself in command; the Roebuck under his cousin Cocke; the Desire under Davis, who came on the understanding that he should part company off California to see if he could find the western end of the North-West Passage; and two smaller vessels, the Dainty and the Black Pinnace.

No one can deny that Cavendish was a brave and enterprising man; but he does not seem to have been a very estimable one in other respects. He carried thumb-screws to make prisoners talk, and of his first voyage he says, ‘All the villages and towns that ever I landed in, I burnt and spoiled,’ while in this one he abandoned those of his men who were sick, leaving them to starve. And as a leader he inspired so little affection or respect that the success of his circumnavigation must surely be put down to an unbroken sequence of good luck; at all events he made a disastrous failure of the present expedition. It began badly, with a slow crossing to Brazil, and once there Cavendish lingered so long at Santos, a town he had taken and sacked, that they were far too late for any easy passage of the Straits of Magellan or indeed for any passage at all. For weeks they tried to pass through against foul winds and currents or lay at anchor perishing with cold – it was nearly mid-winter down there – and very short of food. Then against the advice of the experienced Davis, who said the snow would not last, Cavendish turned back, with the notion of reaching the Far East by way of the Cape, having refitted somewhere in South America. The ships separated in a blow off Patagonia, and although the Roebuck rejoined, Cavendish, having blundered from one disaster to another on the coast of Brazil, eventually found himself alone in mid-Atlantic with a more or less mutinous crew. His idea had been to scrap the Roebuck, now little more than a hulk, to water and refit at St Sebastian, and to make a last death-or-glory attempt at intercepting Portugese Indiamen at St Helena; the Roebuck sailed off by night, and the Galleon Leicester’s people silently altered course so that it was impossible to reach St Helena.

Cavendish, though ‘scant able to hold a pen’, poured out his furious bitterness in a letter to Sir Tristram Gorges: he knew that death was at hand and the letter contained his will, Gorges being the executor. A passionate great letter, ten thousand words long, eloquent, moving and sometimes brilliant, a monument of bad faith. Certainly the voyage had been a complete failure, but Cavendish was in no way to blame. From the very beginning he had been surrounded with traitors: ‘Davis his only intent was utterly to overthrow me, which he hath well performed,’ and ‘I, most unfortunate villain, was matched with the most abject minded company that was ever carried out of England by any man living.’

Some time after this he died and was buried at sea. The ship sailed on, carrying Thomas Lodge among other survivors, and happily for English letters she reached home.

The next witness is Antony Knivet, an amiable, confiding, naturally unlucky young man of no great consequence (he rated no more than a chest to sleep upon) who sailed in the Leicester, who endured appalling hardships with great fortitude, and who was much better qualified than the sheltered, well-clothed Cavendish to convey the misery of that unsuccessful passage of the Straits, the extreme cold in which he lost several toes and his feet turned black, while the goldsmith Harris blew his frostbitten nose with his fingers and found that he had tossed it into die fire; every day eight or nine men died.

It is Knivet rather than Cavendish who tells how the sick were set ashore at Port Famine and there left to die in the snow and the rain. He himself was so ill that twice he was brought on deck and would have been thrown overboard if he had not recovered enough strength to cry out. Yet in the kinder climate of St Sebastian he kept himself alive on crabs and the flesh of a dead whale, and when forty more were sent ashore he was able to join them. They provided wood and water for the ship, but being certain that Cavendish would never allow them aboard again they were not dismayed when they heard that the Portuguese had landed. They intended to surrender; but unhappily they were set upon in the night and nearly all were killed. Knivet, who spoke the language, was spared: he lived many years among the Portuguese and the Indians, some of whom, though man-eaters, were far more humane than his ship-mates.

Then we have Davis’s plain, direct and wholly convincing statement that he did not ‘run from Cavendish’. On the contrary, he spent months waiting for him at Port Desire in Patagonia (no rendezvous had been fixed, but this was the most likely place) before going back to the straits in the hope of meeting. This short piece, taken from the dedication of his treatise The Seaman’s Secrets, is confirmed and expanded by John Jane, a man of business who was with him and who seems reliable where dates and quantities are concerned, though less so when he interprets the divine will. He speaks of their shocking tribulations, the appalling weather in which the Black Pinnace sank with all hands, the extreme cold and then the extreme heat in the tropics in which their 14,000 dried penguins went bad, causing horrible disease. They all died but 16, and of these only five could work the ship; however, they brought her into Bere Haven in June 1593, and Davis lived on to be murdered by Japanese pirates some twelve years later.

After Jane comes a little passage from Lodge. Speaking of his A Margarite of America he says that he happened to find the tale in the Jesuits’ library at Santos, that it delighted him, and that he wrote this version of it in the Straits of Magellan. There may well be a great deal of poetic licence in these words, but surely there is none in what he has to say about Cavendish ‘whose memory if I repent not, I lament not’.

Cavendish may have thought his the most wretched ship’s company any man ever commanded, but the crew with which Hudson sailed in the Discovery in April 1610 was worse by far, and the voyage ended in a mutiny of the most atrocious sort. Yet Hudson’s story has less to do with Professor Edwards’s main theme of personal glory and imperialism and I shall not dwell upon it, particularly as the account is written by a puritanical fellow called Abacuck Prickett, the owners’ agent, who stayed with the mutineers and who was anxious to show himself as guiltless. Hudson was sent to look for the North-West Passage by way of an opening that Davis had noticed on the American side of the strait named after him. This did indeed lead north-west, but only into what is now called Hudson Bay, where the Discovery, provisioned for no more than six months, was frozen in. Hudson had already had trouble with the crew and he had tried to deal with it by deposing some and promoting others, but his measures did not answer and when the ice began to break up in the spring, and the ship was down almost to the last biscuit, a determined party of malcontents, led by Hudson’s offended favourite, put the captain, his supporters and the sick into a boat, cast it off and sailed away. Hudson and his friends were never heard of again. Some of the mutineers perished on the homeward voyage, which enabled the survivors to lay all the blame on the dead, and when after five years and more some were at last brought before a court, the jury acquitted them.

The law’s delays were even more remarkable where the last voyage of Ralegh was concerned. Every schoolboy knows how Ralegh won Queen Elizabeth’s favour, lost it by getting a maid of honour with child, regained it to some extent by harassing the Spaniards, and was ruined by the accession of James I, who kept him in the Tower under a suspended death-sentence for 13 years on a trumped-up charge; but some may not know that the alleged offence was treasonable complicity with Spain.

When the 13 years had passed, one of Ralegh’s many appeals to ministers or royal favourites succeeded. James was short of money: Ralegh offered to bring him gold from a mine he had seen in Guiana, some way up the Orinoco, and to do so without provoking the Spaniards. The King agreed, although the Spanish ambassador warned him of the presence of Spanish settlements and although James was trying to arrange a marriage between the Prince of Wales and the Infanta Maria. The extreme improbability of there being no conflict must have been clear to Ralegh, but perhaps he thought that a great deal of gold and an Indian rising that would make Guiana an English possession would compensate for a few Spaniards knocked on the head. At any rate it was all or nothing, a desperate throw.

In the event it was nothing, and worse than nothing. Ralegh set about organising the expedition with great energy, and in June 1617 no less than 14 ships and a thousand men sailed from Plymouth: But the voyage began badly, with heavy weather and long delays in Irish ports, and its continuation was far worse: they crept across the Atlantic a little north of the line through calms, squalls, tropical rain and days so dark that sometimes they steered by candlelight; and they had a fever aboard that killed 43 in Ralegh’s Destiny alone, while it so weakened the leader himself that when at last they reached Guiana he had to be carried in a chair. He was obliged to stay in Trinidad with the larger ships and entrust the mission to his friend Lawrence Keymis, who had been to the gold-mine with him in 1595: Ralegh sent him up the Orinoco with five small ships and three hundred men. Keymis managed to bring the ships back safely, but he failed in everything else. There had been a battle with the Spaniards at San Thomé; Ralegh’s son had been killed; so had the Spanish governor; and the English had burnt the town. Keymis had not even tried to find the mine (it was behind the forested banks, and there were Spanish musketeers among the trees) and George Ralegh, a nephew in charge of the military side, had been unable to stir up a revolt among the Indians. Ralegh received the news with such grief, anger and bitterness and he reproached Keymis with such passionate resentment that the poor man killed himself. The expedition fell to pieces, some commanders going off privateering; Ralegh came back to England, where he found that under pressure from Gondomar the King had already issued a proclamation against him and where he was betrayed by his friend and kinsman ‘Sir Judas’ Stucley. In October 1618 he was beheaded on the same old monstrous charge.

The next book is also about the sea, but there all similarity ends: we are in a different world with a different culture and almost a different language. In 1840, when he was 79, Joseph Nagle wrote ‘a sketch of my life’, and by doing so earned himself a place 149 years later in any library that has an interest in Australian history, in life on the lower deck in the Royal Navy, and more generally in the seaman’s lot between 1780 and 1824.

Nagle was of Pennsylvania Dutch and English Quaker origin and as a boy he served briefly in the revolutionary army, being present at Brandywine and seeing Washington plain. Then, after a few weeks in the United States Navy, he joined a privateer, and after some complicated misadventures in the West Indies, where he was captured, he was entered willy-nilly on the books of His Majesty’s brig St Lucia. In 1782, the war being over, he was transferred to HMS Ardent, carried to Plymouth and there paid off. When his money was gone he joined the Navy again, spent some dull years in HMS Ganges, and in 1787 moved to the frigate Sirius, which had put into Portsmouth for men and repairs on her way to Botany Bay with the First Fleet. Nagle has much to say about New South Wales, where as one of his bargemen he accompanied the good-natured Governor Phillip on his explorations; the frigate Sirius, which had put into Portsmouth for men and repairs on her way to decks with their blowing) to fetch supplies for the unfortunate half-starved colony; and about his year on Norfolk Island, where a still more unfortunate colony had been established and where the frigate was wrecked. Nagle and the rest of her people were eventually taken off and sent home by way of Java in a hired Dutch vessel, arriving in 1792. A few months later he was pressed once more, but in 1794 deserted, getting safely aboard an Indiaman. The next year he was back in London, and there he married a lively handsome girl, only to be parted from her almost at once – the pressgang again. Soon he was in the Mediterranean aboard the Blanche, a crack frigate (though her discipline had suffered under a sodomitical captain) belonging to Nelson’s squadron. Then, after three cheerful years off the Portuguese coast hunting privateers in the fast 16-gun sloop Netley, Nagle finished the Revolutionary War in the Gorgon, a transport. He was paid off in 1802 and although he says he was offered the post of master in the Minotaur, 74 (one of his few statements I do not believe), he passed the rest of his life at sea in merchantmen.

He made an interesting voyage to Canton in a big Indiaman, but most of the vessels he shipped in were much smaller craft carrying cargoes along the American coast or across the Atlantic, routine trips, often cold, wet and dangerous, always calling for fine seamanship. But ill-health and eventually old age came upon him: in 1810 he had to leave his ship at Rio and go into the English hospital. He stayed in South America for the next ten years, sometimes working as a sailor, sometimes on shore; and then the USS Congress carried him back to the States. He followed the sea for a little longer, but by 1824 he could no longer stand the rigours of a sailor’s life and he retired, penniless, to Ohio, where some of his relations lived.

It was there that he wrote this sketch of his life, recently discovered by its editor, John Dann. It is a singular document, combining a neat and even elegant hand with a wholly uneducated, largely phonetic and utterly inconsistent spelling; and although Nagle had this clerkly writing he also had the almost total recall that often goes with total illiteracy. He may occasionally get a date wrong, but otherwise the events of sixty years are set down in exact order, often in very great detail; and his editor, speaking with all the authority of massive research, states that he is reliable in all important respects.

It is his time at sea that is of the greatest interest, particularly his twenty years in the Royal Navy; for although there is a wealth of material about the officers of that period we have very, very little from the lower deck, and most of the few available accounts are short, whereas Nagle’s is 100,000 words long.

It is interesting, exceptionally interesting: but chiefly so from the point of view of the naval historian and sociologist. Nagle was no sea-going Cobbett, and generally speaking his tale is a flat sequence of events. Naturally enough, he is always the hero of his own anecdotes, but they do not often bring him to life. Though he was no doubt courageous and skilful in his calling, he does not seem to have been a particularly amiable or affectionate man, and perhaps in his old age in Ohio he was also something of a bore. This impression is strengthened by the intrusive editing of his book: not only do hosts of square brackets check the reading eye but the narrative is continually interrupted by pieces that give the historical context and often a summary of what is to come, thus both confusing the reader’s chronology and giving him a wearisome sense of repetition.

The book that follows is a model of how such things should be done. It starts with a self-contained introduction, then gives the whole text of Steller’s Journal of a Voyage with Bering, followed by intelligent notes and an impressive bibliography. Many people on hearing the name of Steller will cry ‘Steller’s eider!’ or ‘Swift’s girl-friend,’ but some may say ‘Steller’s sea-cow,’ and they are in the right of it, for during this voyage Steller discovered Rhytina stelleri (now also called Hydromalis gigas), a huge sea-going mammal unknown to the learned world and indeed to mankind in general.

Georg Wilhelm Steller was one of those many Germans who came to Russia from the time of Peter the Great onwards to help modernise the empire and explore its resources. He had studied theology, botany and medicine and in 1741 he was looking into the natural history of Kamchatka for the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Bering, a Dane in the Imperial service, was there at the same time, preparing for an eastward voyage to find just where America lay, and as he lacked a naturalist, a man capable of assaying metals, he offered Steller the post, together with that of ship’s physician.

After some hesitation Steller accepted, but almost at once he fell out with his shipmates. Many of the Tsar’s foreigners spoke indifferent Russian and nearly all, from the Orthodox point of view, were heretics; but even without these disadavantages it is unlikely that Steller would have been popular aboard. He was conscientious and hard-working and the factual aspects of his account are of great interest (the Journal is edited with all the care that devoted scholarship can give; and although the translation may seem wooden, unidiomatic and at times even incoherent, we are assured that this faithfully reflects the original, which seems only too probable). But he was also a self-important, humourless and malignant backbiter, much given to distributing blame in every direction – to reporting people to the authorities. The journal is written with a pen dipped in bile. To begin with, he was received as an ordinary person, which he never forgave, and he was not asked for advice in planning or pursuing the voyage. But being an impercipient as well as a rather stupid fellow, he offered it again and again, though at 32 he had never been to sea, whereas Bering, at 61, had been afloat most of his life – among other things, he had recently discovered the Bering Strait.

The expedition set out late, and having steered a course that led them well south of the then unknown Aleutians and the Alaskan Peninsula, they did not reach America until 20 July. Their chief landmark on the continent was Mount St Elias, but Bering did no more than water at Kayak Island (the Americans had prudently withdrawn), and allow Steller to do a little botanising: he set off for home next day. He was concerned about the ship’s provisions and the lateness of the season, and rightly so, for on the way back they met with execrable weather; their more northerly route entangled them among the islands, scurvy broke out, and although Steller did a certain amount with anti-scorbutics the men and their ship were in in a very bad way by 5 November, when they sighted a coast they hoped was Kamchatka.

It was in fact an unknown island, now called after Bering, and the ship having run ashore they spent the best part of a year on it. Bering and about thirty others died, but the island was inhabited by seals, ptarmigan, sea-otters, sea-cows and foxes, all perfectly unacquainted with men, and on these the survivors lived until they could build a new vessel out of the materials of the old. The seals and sea-otters soon grew shy, and were no longer to be found near the camp, but the confident foxes did not; they became a nuisance, and, says Steller, ‘the oftener we tortured them most cruelly before the eyes of others, letting them run off half-skinned, without eyes, without tails, and with feet half-roasted, the more malicious the others became.’

Malice was not a quality possessed by the sea-cow, however, the animal to which Steller owes his chief claim to immortality. It was something like an enormous, thick-skinned mermaid, and it had followed a line of evolution that left it admirably adapted for toothless grazing on the seaweed abundant round Bering Island, but slow, unwary, defenceless and edible. The men did not attack the herds of sea-cows until May 1742, but then, having learnt to harpoon them, they found that the adults tasted like beef and the young like veal, while their liquid fat resembled almond oil. Steller made a thorough, painstaking examination of the creature’s vast body, giving an irreplaceable description of its anatomy and stating among other things that it was 30 feet long (its cousin the manatee is a mere 13), 21 in girth and close on four tons in weight. He may not have been a very likeable man (Bering and the officers of course conspired against him), but for this alone he deserves the gratitude of naturalists, since he was not only the first but also the last man of science to see the animal in the flesh: thirty years later the sea-cow was extinct.