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Things That Have Interested Me

The Voyage of Their Life

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
17 March 2007

An extraordinary document is coming up for sale at Bonhams in Knightsbridge on March 21: the logbook of the slave schooner Juverna. You can view it (and other items in the "Scientific and Marine" sale, including an incredibly early and rare astrolabe found in Canterbury) from tomorrow on. Don't be shy. There's no reason why they shouldn't be happy to show it to anyone with any sort of interest in seeing what this kind of document looks like. It's about 90 pages long, written in a standard pre-printed journal book, published by Smith's navigation shop, Pool Lane, Liverpool.

The newly built Juverna left Liverpool in July 1804, at the height of the Napoleonic war, bound for Calibar and the Cameroon River. There she took on a cargo of 110 male and female slaves, 108 of whom were taken to Surinam in December. Nineteen of them died on the way. At Princes Island they were allowed ashore to wash.

At Surinam, the catalogue informs us, they were quickly disposed of, after which the ship's doctor, who had been responsible for the supervision of the slaves, also deserted, along with a further nine seamen. This was a high proportion of the 16-man crew. The slaves were replaced with coffee and cotton, all marked with the monogram of the ship's owner, Henry Clarke.

The Juverna completed the third side of the triangle, leaving Surinam for Liverpool, in June 1805. It sailed in convoy with several other ships, in anticipation of problems with the French navy. Instead of this, the ship was stopped twice by British frigates, one of which, the Leander, impressed a crew member. One wonders how she managed, with so few men, to make it back to Liverpool. In the next year, the Juverna was captured by the French and disappears from the records. The year after that, of course, the slave trade was abolished.

The special interest of this kind of logbook is reflected in its estimated price (£2,000 to £3,000). It is expected that an American collector will buy it, and there are apparently several wealthy black collectors who specialise in memorabilia of this kind. The previous lot in the auction contains three logbooks, one of which records the Wuchang uprising in 1911 and comes with several photographs. That lot is expected to fetch between £750 and £900. So we now have a little insight into the world of logbook collecting.

It must, I think, be a potentially interesting world, since the keeping of logbooks goes back centuries. I have a reprint of two such journals, which I bought under a slight misapprehension, thinking they contained an account of a performance of Hamlet on board ship in 1607, off the coast of Sierra Leone. William Keeling, the captain, tells us that, becalmed, he "invited Captain Hawkins [from another ship] to a fish dinner, and had Hamlet acted aboard me; which I permit to keep my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep".

One point about this extraordinary record is that it is extremely early. The crew would have been using either the First Quarto of 1603 (the "Bad" quarto of which only two copies have survived) or the Second Quarto of 1605. It would be convenient to act an Elizabethan play upon a ship of the period since, as one scholar tells us, "A wooden stage is indistinguishable from a wooden deck, a trap door resembles a ship's hatch, a tiring house façade is remarkably similar to a forecastle, a theatre's 'cellerage' is structurally parallel to below-decks."

So Captain Keeling, sailing for India on behalf of the East India Company, had the forethought to pack at least one copy of Hamlet and another of Richard II, which his men also performed. And meanwhile the captain taught himself a little Arabic.

Unfortunately, my reprint of Keeling's journal turned out on arrival to record a later voyage in 1615-17, but it is full of human interest nevertheless. The East India Company had ordered, at some early date, that every captain, master, master's mate and purser should keep a journal, to be presented to the company at the end of the voyage. These journals vary according to who is writing them: included in my volume is a logbook of the same voyage by a master's mate, which consists mainly of navigational information. Keeling, by contrast, tells us what punishments he administered and why, what diseases people suffered from, who died and how.

Two centuries before the Juverna and its cargo of slaves, Keeling's ship was pioneering another kind of transportation, that of 19 criminals, picked up at Tilbury and destined for the colonies, in imitation of Portuguese practice. These were men, my edition tells me, who would otherwise have been executed. One can see that they created nothing but trouble.

Ten of them were landed at the Cape, where the Hottentots were treating the English in a friendly manner (their headman having just visited England). Of these, one was killed in a fight with the natives, others deserted to the Portuguese, and only three survivors were brought home. "These three deserted in the Downs, stole a purse, were captured and executed on their old sentence." The experiment of transportation was attempted again in 1616, but thereafter abandoned.

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