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.

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