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In My Good Books

Inspirational Rogues

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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 Crusoe).

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 alone.

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.

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