copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
11 February 2006
No account of the growth of life-writing (the
subject of this column's scatter-gun approach) would be complete
without an investigation of the rogue biographies - lives of
highwaymen, murderers, pirates and other notorious characters.
The buccaneers flourished in the 17th century and it was not
long before their biographies or autobiographies appeared. Part
travel literature and part scientific report, these works were
an inspiration to other writers: to Robert Louis Stevenson of
course, but also to Coleridge (the Ancient Mariner being indebted
to George Shelvocke), and to Defoe pre-eminently (for Robinson
What has turned into a theme for fantasy began
in plain fact: anyone who sailed in international waters ran
the risk of being shipwrecked or otherwise abandoned in hostile
circumstances. Cortes, early in Bernal Diaz's Conquest of
New Spain (Penguin), comes upon a Spanish monk who has been
living eight years as a slave on the coast of Cozumel island,
off Yucatan. He looks exactly like an "Indian", wearing
nothing but a cloak and a loin-cloth. He is tattooed and has
had his ears and lower lip pierced. He speaks Spanish with difficulty.
Shame will prevent him from returning to Spain.
The recovery of Alexander Selkirk in 1709,
after four years and four months stranded at his own insistence
(he regretted it at the last moment) on the Cape Verde islands,
was the work of a privateering expedition under Captain Woodes
Rogers. He was found, like Crusoe, clothed in goat-skins and
looking "wilder than the first Owners of them". That
wild look persisted even on his return to London. Richard Steele
comments upon it that, if he had not heard his story he could
nonetheless have "discerned that he had been much separated
from Company, from his aspect and gesture; there was a strong
but cheerful Seriousness in his Look, and a certain Disregard
to the ordinary things about him, as if he had been sunk in
Thought". Selkirk "frequently bewailed his Return
to the World" and missed his solitude. (We would say, it
took him time to recover from his trauma.)
"Though I had frequently conversed with
him," writes Steele, "after a few months Absence he
met me in the Street, and though he spoke to me, I could not
recollect that I had seen him; familiar Converse in the Town
had taken off the Loneliness of his Aspect, and quite altered
the Air of his Face." This is very believable, and reminds
one of the ability of prisoners today, on their release, to
identify fellow ex-prisoners, from their manner and expression
Selkirk's account of his experience, his learning
of survival skills, his passing through dejection and melancholy,
through thoughts of suicide, followed by his reconciliation
to his condition and his positive enjoyment of the solitary
life, come across as a spiritual or psychological narrative,
comparable in both Steele's version and that of Woodes Rogers.
His initial reluctance to leave his island is well attested,
and can be partly explained by his being told that William Dampier
is an officer on board the ship that is rescuing him.
Dampier, born in East Coker, where his memorial
has been erected across the aisle from the grave of TS Eliot,
was a buccaneer and author. Buccaneer Explorer, William Dampier's
Voyages (ed. Gerald Norris, Boydell 2005) is a nicely printed
compilation from his books, originally a Folio Society edition.
It's not ideal for my purposes, simply because it is a compilation
rather than a plain reprint, but it gives you a good sample
of Dampier's prose, including his descriptions of the coconut
and the breadfruit which are, in their precision, exactly like
the sort of scientific information that the Royal Society was
systematically compiling at the time. The account of the way
toddy is tapped from the coconut palm in the East Indies, and
how the mature flesh of the coconut is scraped from the fruit
with a metal rasp, to make a kind of milk in which chicken is
cooked, could have been written yesterday. Everything said is
exceedingly familiar to anyone who has lived in the Far East.
Penguin Classics used to feature AO Exquemelin's
The Buccaneers of America, translated from the Dutch
by Alexis Brown and with an introduction by Jack Beeching (Dover),
from which I learn that the pirates "got the nickname 'buccaneer'
because of a method they learned from the surviving Carib Indians
for smoke-drying beef. The meat was hung in strips over a frame
of green sticks, and dried above a fire fed with animal bones
and hide trimmings. Both the wooden grating and the place where
the curing was done were called by the Carib name of boucan,
and their hunters engaged in this work became known as boucaniers."
Shelvocke, Exquemelin, Dampier, Defoe - these are some of the
basic authors for any pirate library.