A Privateer’s Voyage Round the World
By George Shelvocke. Abridged and edited by Vincent McInerney
Published by Seaforth Publishing
This is a rousing tale of the life of a privateer in 1719, Captain Shelvocke had that rare talent for bringing to life the adventures that made up this fascinating voyage. His descriptions of the places, animals and people he encountered on the voyage in the Speedwell are reminiscent of Captain William Dampier’s earlier journals. He encountered llamas and alpacas “their wool or soft hair is very fine but they smell very rank and have a slow majestic pace which hardly any violence can make them quicken..”. He noted the Chilean use of the lasso which was not only used to catch cattle but also in skirmishes with his crew. They “ensnared James Daniel a foremast man who was a good way into the water and whom they dragged out again, as he said, at the rate of 10 knots”.
Privateers were in effect licensed pirates provided with ‘letters of marque’ giving them authority from the Crown to capture ships and towns belonging to the nation with whom England was currently at war. Privateers had their own codes, and ships were operated in a somewhat more ‘democratic’ fashion than those operated by the Navy. As Captain Shelvocke was a Navy man he found this an uncomfortable situation and refers to numerous ‘mutinies’ against him when he was often in fear of his life. He could have learned a few lessons from Woodes Rogers who includes in his own journal details of endless meetings and documented agreements reached between officers and men regarding future actions and the division of spoils. Captain Shelvocke, like Dampier before him, was evidently no manager of men and provided – possibly for the benefit of the shareholders - detailed descriptions of his problems with his crew.
It was an extraordinary journey, the original plan of sailing in consort with another ship, the Success, failed soon after leaving port, when they lost contact in a storm. They didn’t re-establish contact until they reached the northwest coast of South America, whether deliberately (on either captain’s part) or not we don’t know. When they did meet again relations between the two captains were anything but friendly.
After rounding Cape Horn and calling at the island of Chiloe off the Chilean coast, the crew of the Speedwell captured a number of ships and attempted to plunder coastal towns. This first part of the journey ended in ship wreck on Juan Fernandez island (now renamed Robinson Crusoe island) when an anchor cable parted in bad weather. Captain Shelvocke organised the construction of another ship despite a recalcitrant carpenter who refused at first to work at all. The day was saved by the armourer who turned out to have extraordinary ability and willingness to improvise. After 5 months a small craft was completed and they were able to continue their voyage. They captured a large Spanish ship more suitable for their needs and then plundered further vessels before returning home via the Pacific laden with loot.
Captain Shelvocke’s voyage was immortalised in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as it includes a description of the shooting of a black albatross off Cape Horn. The ship had had a run of bad luck with weather and one of the seaman became convinced that the albatross following the boat was somehow bound up with this.
On his return the shareholders of the original ship had Captain Shelvocke arrested on charges of piracy but he was eventually acquitted, and died a wealthy man. This little book is a good read, hard to put down, and a great introduction to the life of a privateer.
Reviewed by Dee Holladay
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